CINCINNATI -- Dwight Tillery used his popularity in the black community to help John Cranley win election as Cincinnati’s mayor in 2013.
That won’t happen this year.
Tillery, a former Cincinnati mayor who is president of the Center For Closing The Health Gap, said he will not support Cranley’s bid for re-election, and he openly criticized him for what he said amounts to ignoring the needs of the black community.
“I am personally very deeply disappointed in John,” said Tillery, who was co-chairman of Cranley’s 2013 campaign. “He has let the black community down, and he has let me down.”
Tillery described Cranley’s dramatic expansion of city contracts awarded to minority businesses as “window dressing” while bigger problems such as poverty, lack of affordable housing and wage disparity persist.
Cranley and other leaders quickly defended the mayor's record, saying he has increased city minority contracting by tenfold -- from $4 million to $45 million -- since he took office.
"Anybody who is suggesting that there hasn’t been a huge shift at City Hall around inclusion is either doing one of two things: It’s either they themselves don’t know what’s happening or, two, they have a political agenda,” Cincinnati City Councilman Christopher Smitherman said.
The political grudge match, this early in the campaign season, shows just how crucial the black vote is to the mayoral race.
“The African-American community makes up roughly 50 percent of the voters in the city of Cincinnati now … They will be critical to the mayor’s race,” said Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke.
By all accounts, turnout among black voters is expected to be higher this year.
The reason, in part, is because two black candidates are running against Cranley for mayor -- City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson and former University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees Chairman Rob Richardson Jr. Both are Democrats.
A May primary will be held in the mayoral race and the top two vote-getters will proceed to the November general election, when voters will also choose City Council members.
Turnout could be boosted if what Tillery says is correct: that many black voters are unhappy and frustrated with the direction of the city and will vote.
“I’m telling you now they will turn out in record numbers, you can trust that,” Tillery said. “There is this sense, almost in every aspect of a black person living in the city, a sense of being at the bottom when comes to employment, when it comes to housing, when it comes to education, when it comes to economic opportunity and on and on and on.”
Higher turnout in 2017
One of the worst turnouts in the history of Cincinnati politics came in 2013, when there were no black candidates on the ballot for mayor. Just over 59,000 registered city voters -- or 29 percent -- cast their ballots when Cranley beat Roxanne Qualls.
In 2005, when Mark Mallory defeated fellow Democrat David Pepper to become mayor, and when he ran for re-election in 2009, voter turnout was much higher at 35 and 33 percent, respectively.
“I don’t like to stereotype that just having an African-American on the ballot will mobilize the African-American base,” said Kevin Tighe, founder of Stratis Campaigns. “But I think all three candidates are all gearing up to motivate the African-American base. The question will be, 'Who is most successful in energizing them and getting them to turn out?'”
Cranley’s work on issues important to black voters -- bringing big development projects to Avondale, Bond Hill and Madisonville, boosting funding for agencies such as the African-American Chamber, and the creation of his Hand Up Initiative to end joblessness, will no doubt win him some votes at the polls.
Under Cranley, funding for Tillery’s own organization, Closing the Health Gap, went from $250,000 in 2014 to $1 million in 2017.
The big question is, how many black votes will he win?
“I would be concerned for John if I believed he would not get any of the African-American vote. I do not believe that,” Burke said. “But when somebody as well known as Dwight is running around saying ‘We’re not getting anything,’ there are people who are going to listen to that and believe it, even though it is not accurate.”
Spurring voter turnout
Voter turnout is a top priority for Tillery.
He formed Black Agenda Cincinnati in June 2016 with other leaders such as NAACP President Rob Richardson Sr. to identify and promote the needs of the black community.
Black Agenda will likely form a political action committee and endorse a mayoral candidate. The group will host two mayoral town hall meetings, and focus on voter education and participation, he said.
“We’ve got to vote," Tillery said. "And we’ve got to also know what it is that we want from our elected officials, no matter what color they are. We cannot let politicians, black or white, come into our community … show up in a church, a black church, and get a ‘selfie’ and then think that we should vote for them. That’s ridiculous.”
Tillery also said that many in the black community are upset about how former Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell was fired in 2015, believing it was racially motivated and that Cranley was behind it.
This is something Cranley adamantly denies, and that City Manager Harry Black fired Blackwell for poor performance.
“The city manager did the right thing for the safety of the city,” Cranley said. “None of us play politics with the safety of the city.”
For his part, Cranley said he is confident about his record and isn’t worried that Tillery’s criticisms will cost him black voters.
“At a big-picture level he’s entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” Cranley said. “Since I took office we have increased minority contracting by tenfold. We have reduced child poverty by five percent. We have tripled funding for human services … We created the first ever Office of Economic Inclusion. That is not just talk, that is action.”
Yet the other two mayoral candidates -- Simpson and Richardson -- reiterated some of Tillery’s points about lack of attention to the needs of black communities.
“I do think there’s a sense of frustration in terms of there’s growth happening and some feel they’re not a part of that growth,” Richardson said.
He wants to see high-speed Internet access in poor neighborhoods and more public-private partnerships to expand innovation and add more middle class jobs.
“I’m pro-development but we have to do so in a way that allows working people who live in the area but may not be upper-middle class to have an opportunity to participate in that,” Richardson said. “Because right now there hasn’t been consistent policy that says they can.”
“The job growth we’ve seen in the last three years has been headquarter work … these are $100,000-a-year jobs. We have not seen an iota of movement on middle-class jobs,” Simpson said. “The strategy going forward has to be to attract and recruit jobs into this city that everyday people can be trained to do.”
Her ideas include partnerships with universities for job training and to aggressively seek grant money and federal dollars to boost city spending on job growth and poverty.
“When you’ve still got 40 percent unemployment in Avondale -- that number has not moved -- you’ve got a problem,” Simpson said. “When your biggest African-American neighborhood still has 40 percent unemployment, something is not right.”
Another big question in this mayoral race is whether black voters will vote similarly as a large bloc, or if their votes will be fractured between three candidates.
“African-Americans are as diverse in their perspectives as the white community. There is no president of the black community,” Smitherman said. “So Dwight Tillery has an opinion, and yes he has a following of people who listen to him. I could argue that I have a similar constituency and so does John.”
Tillery insists that black voters will not vote for black candidates such as Richardson and Simpson simply because of their race.
“This is not about voting for somebody just because they’re black,” Tillery said. “I think that’s pretty insulting to the black community.”
But Smitherman isn’t so sure.
“I feel like sometimes African-Americans get consumed with what somebody looks like, particularly if they’re African-American, and they don’t turn back and look at what public policy they’re actually pushing,” Smitherman said.
“I agree that there are some … issues, structurally, that we still need to work on,” Smitherman said. “But to act as if John Cranley, this white male Democrat who is the mayor of the city of Cincinnati, has not been working his butt off to turn around a battleship that Mark Mallory for eight years was absent on … is absolutely unfair to John."