News: We Hardly Knew Ye

Christopher Smitherman says gays let him down, city council blind to racism

Dec 28, 2005 at 2:06 pm
The Year In Review

Former Cincinnati City Councilman Christopher Smitherman says his only real regret is not being confrontational enough.

Acknowledging the seeming absurdity of that statement, a relaxed Smitherman smiles broadly in the colorful Walnut Hills office where he and a partner run a financial planning business. He's returned to working there full time since the Nov. 8 election cost the controversial first-term councilman his City Hall office.

Smitherman drew fire early in his term for dressing down Police Chief Thomas Streicher in council chambers. After that, he seemed to grow more embattled. Though the city's policing practices were his frequent target, he also spoke often about racism, economic exclusion and political and social disenfranchisement throughout the city.

But unlike some politicians, Smitherman hardly ever hauled God into chambers — until his final address as a councilman, when he spoke openly about his faith and said there were many times that "God beat me up bad" for what he'd said that day in council.

"There were times when I left chambers that I didn't say what was in my heart," Smitherman says. "I didn't say it the way I should have said it, meaning I played politics. You think I'm delivering it hard, and I'm really not.

God had asked me to deliver it much harder."

'Damn Cincinnati'
He believes his reputation for being confrontational has more to do with his skin than his tactics.

"Black men standing up about anything is a confrontation in America," Smitherman says. "White men on the floor of council can use any language they want to use as they're talking to anybody."

He singles out Councilman John Cranley's outbursts and the folksy rhetoric of former Councilman Pat DeWine, now a Hamilton County Commissioner, who had called city workers "silly" and "stupid."

Double standards apply to some people, according to Smitherman. Assertive women, for example, aren't considered intelligent or good businesspersons.

"They're viewed as bitches," he says. "African-American men are the same way. I can't be intelligent. There's no way."

A high-profile constituent once advised Smitherman to hide his intelligence on the floor of council to make white people feel more comfortable, he says.

He often speaks about an "institutional racism" that's sometimes unconscious and sometimes blatant. During his two years on council he caught a lot of flak for that and alienated many of the white voters who in 2003 had elected him to office on his first try.

Smitherman thinks it was simply easier to blame him for bringing the subject up than to deal with the issue itself.

"I went down there and told the truth about what I saw," he says.

Smitherman also believes he lost because African Americans and other disenfranchised people for whom he advocated didn't go to the polls, and those who did go don't know how to vote.

"They believe you have to vote for nine people for city council," he said. "Other people clearly know. Why do we keep two Republican seats on the floor of council if there aren't people out there who are just voting for two people?"

He says his message got lost, especially when it was filtered through the media. Here his wrath turns, as it often does, toward conservative talk-radio station WLW (700 AM) and The Cincinnati Enquirer. He's still angry at the reaming he got from them when two of his four young sons testified to city council in support of his unsuccessful motion to ban police use of Tasers on children younger than 11.

Smitherman says he never pushed his sons to testify. They're Montessori students who overheard him talking to his wife, Pamela, and asked to speak before council as they'd often seen others do.

"Damn Cincinnati for getting in my business, of trying to even question how that evolved in my house," he says. "I refuse to let this broad community communicate to me that my children can't come down and engage the political process. That's the arrogance. That's the racism."

As he did throughout his council term, Smitherman continues to pick up trash once a month in various neighborhoods. He calls it a "ministry" that allows him to find out what's going on in the street, particularly with young men on the corners. He recalls one very early morning when he wondered what he was doing spearing garbage and thought, "Nobody gives a damn. These people don't care."

"Listen to me: 'These people don't care,' " he says. "This was the devil in my head trying to get me off track. You see, when you go out and do God's work, you just do God's work. You don't look for fame, you don't look for accolades. You just do God's work."

Smitherman calls himself a "recovering Catholic" who 15 years ago decided he didn't need an intermediary to have a relationship with God. He and his family are now members of Gaines United Methodist Church.

He says it was God who called him to charter buses to New Orleans to bring back 17 people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, a move criticized by many, including CityBeat, as disorganized and self-serving. He makes it clear he has no use for any critics other than God. But he doesn't think he's infallible.

"I'm not perfect," he says. "I drink beer. I cuss. I don't come off — and I never want to come off — as this Boy Scout, because I am not. I drink from the well of sin like everybody else does."

He says his spiritual morality is why he couldn't vote to require panhandlers to register and why he supported the successful repeal of anti-gay Article 12.

'Something sick'
That leads him to the biggest disappointment of his re-election campaign: the failure of the gay white community to return the favor. Smitherman says he traded a lot of political capital to support the repeal of Article 12, an unpopular issue with his African-American base.

But he hasn't seen the gay community support Roger Owensby Sr.'s campaign to get justice for his son, an unarmed man who died in police custody in 2000. Nor did they lend meaningful support to his re-election campaign, Smitherman says.

"When the repeal of Article 12 happened (they said) 'We need to be on the Buzz (WDBZ, 1230 AM), we need to be on WCIN, we need to be on 1320, we need to be at every church everywhere,' so we know that you know where the churches are, we know that you know where the radio stations are," Smitherman says. "But when one of their biggest advocates is up for re-election and then they're reading The Enquirer — that maligned their community, that doesn't support them — and then you believe what you read in The Enquirer about me, there's something sick about you."

He says the gay community must address racism within its ranks, which contributes to a rift with the African-American community.

"They, meaning the gay community, take no responsibility for that disconnection," Smitherman says. "They just say, 'The black community is homophobic,' not 'We're just adding to the broken relationship by taking and not giving.' "

He concedes that racism can flow both — many — ways.

"If we look at it from our own individual perspectives, I think that we can drown in this craziness," he says. "If we look at it in the broad picture, which I have to stop and do like everybody else, and I ask myself, 'Are the opportunities equal, broadly?' And the answer is no."

He often draws his points back to council's financial decisions and racism in the form of perpetuated economic disparities.

"My focus on council was money," he says. "And I see 97 to 100 percent of this money going to the white community. And then on the same side of that, I hear white men saying, 'We want to lock everybody up. We want to build more jails. We want to get rid of Section 8 housing. Why are those people moving into my neighborhood? Why are they so poor?' "

But when financial deals come through council, African Americans don't get a proportionate share, he says.

"When I say council supports institutional racism, that's how they do it," Smitherman says. "They're not interested, because their friends are the ones making the contributions to the elected officials."

Even city employees are subject to this systemic racism, Smitherman says. He says that, during his council stint, about three dozen African-American workers from every city department, with the exception of the parks department, came to him seeking an advocate or at least an ear sympathetic to their inequitable treatment.

For now Smitherman's next political step is financing the setup of a political action committee that will "make no bones" about advocating for the interests of African-American people on the local, state and national level. The first focus will be Ohio's 2006 gubernatorial race.

But he doesn't yet know if he'll run again for office.

"I wouldn't rule it out," he says.

Smitherman admits he didn't always hit his marks as a councilman. But he refuses to take full credit for the bad rap he got.

"What I'll tell you is that my mistakes on council, as I make mistakes here in my practice, were illuminated much greater than my colleagues' were illuminated," he says. "I refuse to be defined by that illumination." ©