The 11th Congressional District is endangered as a fount of Black power

A hollowed out central city, the state’s slow population growth, and an altered political culture are diminishing the black community’s grasp on a former political stronghold.


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Republished with permission from The Real Deal.

The Cleveland Browns were synonymous with excellence almost from the very moment they burst onto the pro football scene in 1946. From the beginning the team was exceptional, so routinely dominant as to play for a league championship ten consecutive years.

In eastside neighborhoods like Glenville, where future NFL Hall of Famers like Marion Motley and Bill Willis lived unpretentiously alongside their neighbors in the city’s ghettos, the Browns were beloved, a source of pride. The team became such a part of the town’s fabric that even when they sank into competitive irrelevance — their lakefront  home relabeled as the Factory of Sadness, it was inconceivable to think of our town without them.

Then one day they were gone, leaving only the team colors and faded scrapbooks featuring such team legends as Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, and Paul Warfield. [On the west side of town, the revered names were undoubtedly Lou Groza, Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli and Dub Jones.] Under team owner Art Modell, they made bad decisions, suffered financial reversals, mortgaged the future on bad short term bets, and proved themselves thoroughly inept at making the organizational and management changes required for success in the constantly evolving world of the NFL.

While the city got a new team three years later, the new Browns are only now  escaping the shadows of institutional incompetence that have dogged their rebirth.

Don’t look now, but a deft redrawing of political boundaries by Ohio’s rightwing General Assembly could mean that a Congressional District that once seemed institutionalized as the bedrock of black Cleveland politics could vanish after a half-century run as swiftly as those Browns did 25 years ago.

Dismal turnout by black Cleveland voters in recent elections will make it harder for a black candidate, especially one without the benefit of incumbency, to win either a primary or a general election campaign for the seat. 

Cleveland’s black community — the place that gave the country its first elected big-city black mayor; the home base of a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus; the birthplace of the Twenty-First District Caucus, once so powerful as to show urban Democratic political machines that there was a drastic price to pay for disrespecting the black community — could lose its grip on a Congressional seat?

Yes.

Consider the following:

• When the District was drawn in 1968 to comply with Constitutional principles, the vast majority of Cuyahoga County’s black residents were crammed into a handful of neighborhoods: Central, Hough, Glenville, Fairfax, Mt. Pleasant, and Lee-Harvard. All of the first ring suburbs that today have significant black populations and are part of the Congressional District — Euclid, Maple Heights, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Bedford Heights, Richmond Heights, South Euclid, Garfield Heights, to name a few — were hostile to integration; collectively, they had less than five percent of the county’s black residents.

This concentrated black voting power was what the Ohio General Assembly kept a lid on through racial gerrymandering, until federal litigation and legislation — Baker v. Carr, the “one man, one vote” case decided in 1962; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — helped lay the groundwork whereby an impressive cadre of local black attorneys and some staunch white allies, finally secured citizenship rights supposedly guaranteed one hundred years earlier by the Civil War Amendments. 

• Today, most county municipalities are at least nominally integrated, as are most of Cleveland’s west side wards. Black outmigration from the central city has seen substantial numbers of black families move across county lines, establishing homes in communities as varied as Streetsboro, Macedonia, Willowick, and Hudson.

The decennial redistricting that follows the Census every ten years is impacted by these migration patterns. Indeed, the current “Cleveland” district represented by Marcia Fudge snakes a narrow path down to north Akron to pick up several neighborhoods of black residents to pack into the 11th District. That was a Faustian bargain struck at George Forbes’ house with then-Speaker of the Ohio House William Batchelder that benefitted both Republicans and the black Democratic establishment.

In several of her relatively rare public appearances in the district over the past few years, Fudge has referenced the dwindling margins of her majority minority district, pegging the percentage of black voters in the district somewhere around 50.5%. (We always found such hyper-parsing of her constituency curious: it made us wonder how it influenced her constituent relationship management, how she viewed her ability to win the support of nonblack constituents, etc.)

• In recent decades, Ohio has ranked among the nation’s ten worst states when it comes to Congressional district gerrymandering. In May of last year, voters overwhelmingly passed Issue 1, a compromise measure designed to limit the grossest excesses of gerrymandering. It is unclear how that will play out in the upcoming line drawing. The estimable Dr. Larry Brisker, the Tri-C professor whose analytical skills informed redistricting negotiations in ways that looked out for the black community’s political interests, has gone on to higher reward. Who is capable of assuming that role? 

• The willingness of the black state legislators to play footsie with their GOP legislative overseers a decade ago and create a second district more or less tailor-made for a black candidate — Joyce Beatty’s Third District seat in Franklin County —  could affect the State’s need to maintain the protected status of the venerable 11th. Ohio’s 11-12% black population may warrant one majority minority district out of its soon-to-be 15 seat allocation; Beatty’s district may lessen the obligation of legislators to preserve a second such district. 

Are Ohio’s black and Democratic legislators willing to lay it on the line to preserve the 11th District? The answer is not a clear yes, even before considering that House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, a rising star, is likely maneuvering to support drawing a district that could be conducive to her own healthy ambition for a Congressional seat.

• And most significantly, dismal turnout by black Cleveland voters in recent elections will make it harder for a black candidate, especially one without the benefit of incumbency, to win either a primary or a general election campaign for the seat. Some informed estimates suggest that Cleveland’s 52% Census response rate means its city council will be reduced by at least six, and perhaps eight, wards. This will translate into fewer black elected officials than the already too aloof ones who populate public office now. This is not a recipe for enhanced civic engagement.

A few days ago, cleveland.com published a piece by retired political writer Brent Larkin that purported to list a half dozen likely aspirants to succeed Fudge. We saw it as a disservice to the black community. Too many of the names are retreads from an era of black politicians who never grasped the idea of elected officials as public servants.

Over the past few weeks, we have had numerous chats with community members regarding the District’s future, and sought suggestions of people who, blessed with a future outlook, could help guide the district into a new era of politics while echoing the best of our past. We will share those names  in the final installment of this series. But next, Part III will invite reflection on what qualities we would like to see in our next Congressperson? What should be the job description? 

Meanwhile, we invite you to share your thoughts on these questions, and to suggest names of potential candidates, whether they have previously run for public office or not. If you wish to share your suggestions in the comments, please use your real name. If you prefer to remain anonymous, email me directly at [email protected]. [It won’t be helpful to have Bill Neverwas anonymously float the name of Bill Neverwas.]

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