There are not many benefits to living in the state of Ohio. The weather is completely unpredictable, athletes are always leaving and then doing well in other places, and the horrible Rust Belt economy has put state morale at an all time low. In fact, things are so economically depressed in the Northeast Ohio Cleveland region that a YouTube cottage industry has sprung up with videos like “Parma State of Mind” and “Cleveland: We’re Not Detroit” where residents try to outdo each other with just how miserable the region has become.
The one benefit, however, to living in the state is that Ohio is the petri dish for political battles in the United States. When the Reverend Al Sharpton spoke at an annual conference recently for African American elected officials there was no other place in America where you could better see the battle lines that will be drawn in next year’s election.
The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus was having their first annual state dinner, a time for various elected officials in the state to meet, connect and discuss various issues facing African Americans and minority legislators in the state. Think of it like the Congressional Black Caucus convention – but with fewer celebrities and no members of Congress over 55 trying to do the electric slide at the Essence after-party.
There were many critical issues put forth for discussion at the conference: the fact that Ohio only has one Democrat (who also happens to be African American and a woman) on the state supreme court, and that despite having Black mayors in Cleveland, Cinncinnatti and Columbus the state has never elected an African American to statewide office. But all of these issues were in the background as the keynote speaker, the good Reverend Sharpton, took to the stage. With a room full of eager and excited elected officials and staffers, Sharpton proceeded to open up the harshest can of whoop ass you have ever seen and dumped it on the crowd. He chastised them, critiqued them and scolded them for 45 straight minutes
And in the end he got a standing ovation.
Allow me to put this in proper context. Sharpton has no connection to the state of Ohio. He is nationally known – but not prestigious. He has no real standing other than a new and somewhat controversial national television show. Yet, Sharpton stood on stage and made the case that Ohio is ground zero for the political battles between the right and left in America. He noted that Governor John Kasich’s attempts to roll back collective bargaining rights, change voting laws to restrict early voting and refusal to fund infrastructure improvements are all attempts by the national right to test the resolve of progressives. And thus far, Sharpton found the efforts of the state’s black legislators lacking.
“Ya’ll are in the state of [Arnold] Pinkney and [Carl] Stokes and to see Kasich talk to you any which way. But he can because ya’ll have no self respect, no self-esteem!” Sharpton chastised Black Ohio leadership for rolling over in the face of opposition and failing to represent not just African Americans but the poor and disenfranchised. In particular, Sharpton criticized Black politicians for resting on their laurels during the 2010 mid-term elections which allowed John Kasich to squeak out a 1% win over incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland while eliminating Democrats from state-wide office.
“Most of ya’ll were still dancing from Obama’s inauguration party when the GOP swept into office last year. And now that they’re rolling back everything we’ve accomplished over the last 30 years you wanna blame Obama.”
With every jab, every incisive critique Sharpton got louder and louder applause from the audience. It was almost a cathartic moment in church where the pastor accuses everyone in the building of being worthless whoremongers and you beg him to give YOU more hell for your sins.
What struck me about Sharpton’s speech and the reaction to it is how much this contrasted with the news cycle after Barack Obama’s speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. President Obama simply asks African American members of congress to stop whining and get to work on passing legislation and they act offended.
Have these folks never been to church on Sunday? Or is something else going on?
What Sharpton showed, in a much smaller forum and much less fanfare, is that the Black community in America is ready for a good fighting song and kick in the butt. They want and need a fire-breathing, bible-quoting, mic-dropping president tell them he’s kicking down the door and waving the .44 with House Speaker John Boehner saying ‘Bama don’t hit me no more.’
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, however, are a bit less receptive to this. They’ve transcended the common masses, and are insulted to get the same type of speeches and exhortations that have motivated the Black audiences for generations. They want President Obama to pat them on the back and bring them a fresh cup of coffee; not throw it in their lap and say it’s time to get moving.
There is no question that President Obama’s disappointed many with his compromises and seemingly inept negotiating skills. However, his ability to galvanize the Black community is also hampered by the thin-skinned ego-tripping of a small minority Black politicians who would rather run to the press and complain than take a little in-house criticism that might reveal their own failings at the local level. Sharpton gave a fantastic speech, and it was harsher and more effective than what Obama gave at the CBC, and it was well received by local officials and leaders in Ohio.
My guess is that if Obama has any chance of re-activating the Black community he might have to circumvent his own colleagues in Congress and speak directly to the people. They are way too soft for the message he must deliver, but here in fly-over country people are ready to hear it.