Larry Frazier says Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley treated him differently from other employees before firing him — all because he's black.
Cranley says Frazier's work wasn't as good as that of other employees, almost all of whom have degrees.
In March, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC) found probable cause to believe Cranley racially discriminated against Frazier. Now the case goes to the Ohio Attorney General's Office for what Cranley says will be the first fair hearing.
The OCRC recommended Cranley settle the case by paying Frazier $47,000, a year's salary plus interest.
"I got treated differently," Frazier says. "That's what this whole thing is about."
But Cranley refuses to compromise.
"Since I'm completely innocent, I'll take this to the Supreme Court if I have to," he says.
'A very loyal individual'
Frazier, now 52, worked as a full-time aide for two years for Todd Portune, then a member of city council, until late 2000.
They had met through their work in the Democratic Party. Frazier offered a valuable grassroots perspective on issues and had very good organizational skills, Portune says.
"Larry did everything I asked him to," he says.
Frazier "didn't have the responsibility some others may have had" but had roles that others didn't, Portune says.
"Todd made ways to learn and ... gave me a chance," Frazier says. "It didn't have anything to do with race. It was just a relaxed atmosphere. It was educational."
When Portune was elected a Hamilton County Commissioner in 2000, Frazier wanted to stay in City Hall. He figured county government wasn't the most hospitable place for a black man who often wore colorful suits.
"I felt as if I could stand on my own (at City Hall)," he says.
Democrats on city council appointed Cranley to fill Portune's seat, even though Portune recommended someone else. When they began working together in late 2000, Frazier sensed that Cranley didn't completely trust him.
Everyone tried to smooth out that bump, according to Karen Ball, who worked for Portune in City Hall and now works for him at the county commission.
So did Cranley trust Frazier?
"I don't know how to answer that," Cranley says, adding that he isn't sure the question is relevant.
For some reason, Frazier didn't fit in very well on Cranley's staff. Portune was more forgiving of Frazier's grammatical miscues and sometimes blunt manner.
"I didn't hire him to be an English professor," Portune says. "I hired him for other reasons. Larry would do anything for me. He was a very loyal individual."
The Harvard-educated Cranley clearly values formal education and courtesy. Frazier has no college degree and says he prefers truth-telling to unquestioning politeness.
"Experience counts for degrees, doesn't it?" he says.
Cranley says Frazier was sometimes rude on the phone.
"What's that mean?" Frazier says. "You don't tell the truth?"
Frazier says he trained Cranley and his staff on the city's computers and familiarized them with City Hall. For a couple of weeks he was alone in the office because aide Elliot Ruther unexpectedly left for personal reasons.
Although Frazier used the period to boost his credentials, Cranley says Frazier was overwhelmed and asked for help.
Four of the five members of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found probable cause in Frazier's complaint. One abstained.
Cranley's excuses for firing Frazier in December 2001 were inconsistent and Ruther's rehiring nine days later was curious, according to the OCRC.
Ruther, who is white, is a longtime friend and his most important staffer, Cranley says. He worked on Cranley's 2000 congressional race and directed his 2001 council race.
"So obviously I was going to bring (Ruther) back after the campaign," Cranley says. "The plain and simple fact is that (Frazier) just wasn't as qualified or as effective as the other members of my staff."
Cranley also hired Tim McCormick, who is white and had no council experience, three months before firing Frazier. McCormick left after a year.
Cranley, who has hired black aides both before and after Frazier, says he doesn't understand how the OCRC could find probable cause. He cited both his budget and Frazier's qualifications as reasons for firing him.
Frazier says McCormick did the same work he did, but McCormick got the job because he was a roommate of Brendan Cull, Mayor Charlie Luken's chief of staff.
"It's a buddy system," Frazier says. "They're making sure they're taken care of."
But Cranley says McCormick was simply more qualified.
Kate Schroeder, a former Cranley aide, says Frazier's work wasn't as good as that of other staffers. But she understands why he felt disconnected from the rest of the staff, who often socialized and had drinks together.
Frazier has a question: If he weren't qualified, why did Cranley ask City Councilman David Crowley to hire him? Cranley says he felt badly about firing Frazier and wanted to help; Frazier had had a mild stroke in late 2001.
But Frazier's question begs another: If he were qualified, why didn't Crowley hire him permanently? Frazier says he lost because he didn't socialize with council aides.
Crowley says Frazier was helpful in setting up his office during his first two months on council, but he wouldn't have given Frazier any more responsibility than "things just to get us going."
During the 2001-2002 fiscal year, the OCRC received 5,000 complaints. Of the cases that received a hearing, the OCRC found 271 had probable cause.
Now Frazier's case heads to the Ohio Attorney General's Office. If that office finds it has merit, it goes back to the OCRC for a final recommendation. Cranley is confident this is where the case swings his way.
"The OCRC are not lawyers and the case has never been before lawyers," he says.
If he loses again, Cranley can appeal in the state courts.
Frazier says he'd settle the case for $30,000 — about $17,000 less than the OCRC recommended.
"That was my final offer," he says. ©