If a legislative district has a majority of African-American residents, must it be represented by an African-American?
That is a sticky question that has been roiling in the Hamilton County Democratic Party recently, as the Democrats try to hold on to the 32nd Ohio House District held by Dale Mallory who term-limited out and is running for the Ohio Senate.
Last Monday, over 100 members of the Hamilton County Democratic Executive Committee met and, in an overwhelming voice vote, endorsed Christie Bryant, a lawyer from Northside and an African-American as their candidate for the district.
Among the candidates passed over was Bentley Davis of Camp Washington, a party activist and worker in a variety of social justice causes. Davis is white.
Davis and her supporters are unhappy with the decision, believing that Davis can represent the interest of all 120,000 residents of the 32nd Ohio House District, black and white; and that the seat does not necessarily have to be a “black seat.”
Davis said she intends to file petitions by the Wednesday deadline and take on Bryant in the May Democratic primary.
“I have been planning on this a long time,’’ said Davis, who is state director of the Alliance for Retired Americans. “I talked to leaders in the African-American community about whether this would be a problem for them. ‘It is the color of your heart and not the color of your skin that matters,’ is what I was told.”
Bryant, a member of the Cincinnati City Planning Commission who was president of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, said “race never crossed my mind when I made the decision to run. It was not a consideration.”
She was chosen by the party, she said, “on the strength of my resume and my involvement in the community.”
So, if Davis follows through and files, there will be a black and a white Democrat squaring off in the 32nd District in the May primary.
First, though, a primer on the 32nd District:
It is a the district that stretches from downtown to Mt. Healthy, taking in Queensgate, West End, Mt. Auburn, Mt. Airy, Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton, Mt. Adams, College Hill and North College Hill, among other areas.
It is, in reapportionment terms, what is called a “majority minority” district – one that includes a majority of African-Americans and/or Hispanics within its border. Nearly 52 percent of the residents of the 32nd, in fact, are African-Americans.
Republicans in the state legislature re-drew the 32nd District after the 2010 Census and added suburban communities such as North College Hill and Mt. Healthy.
But it is the essentially the same district that, since the 1966 election, been represented by the late William Mallory Sr., his son, Mark Mallory; Catherine Barrett, and another son of the late House majority leader, Dale Mallory.
So, for nearly five decades, the bulk of the 32nd Ohio House District has been represented by an African-American Democrat.
And not only is the 32nd a “majority minority” district, it is an overwhelming one. Winning the Democrat primary in this district is tantamount to election in the fall. The Democratic primary is, for all practical purposes, the general election.
There is another motivation for Democrats to want to have an African-American representing the 32nd District; and that has to do with the racial make-up of the Ohio General Assembly in Columbus.
State Rep. Alicia Reece of Bond Hill is president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, made up of African-American members of the Ohio House and Senate..
She was also the co-chair, along with State Rep. Denise Driehaus of Clifton, of the Hamilton County Democratic Party’s legislative screening committee, which interviewed five potential candidates for Mallory’s seat a few weeks ago.
Four of the five were African-Americans. The screening committee recommended Bryant, and the party’s full executive committee went along.
Before the screening interviews, Reece told WVXU that the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus is eager to make sure the seat remains in the hands of a black Democrat.
“There are only 17 members of the caucus in a legislature with 132 members,’’ Reece said. “We can’t afford to lose any seats. In fact, we’d like to increase our numbers. It is important that we be a strong voice in Columbus for issues important to the African-American community.”
Bryant fills the bill, according to Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke, who led the charge for the executive committee to endorse Bryant.
“But we did not choose her because she is black, but because she was clearly the most qualified candidate,’’ Burke said.
Still, at the meeting last Monday and in voluminous e-mails to Democrats since then, some Democrats in the party have questioned the need to get involved – to just let whichever candidates file battle it out in the primary.
Davis said that is why she plans to file as a candidate.
“It’s a healthy thing for democracy for voters to have a choice,’’ Davis said. “(Bryant) will have the fund-raising advantage and the backing of the party. What is my likelihood of my winning there? I don’t know. But I plan to try.”
Bryant, for her part, says she does not want race to be the determining factor.
She said she understands Reece’s concern about keeping up the numbers of the black caucus in Columbus.
“It’s an important issue to have strong caucuses in the legislature for both blacks and for women,’’ Bryant said. “I want to be part of both. But I am not running simply because I am black or a woman. I am doing this because I believe I can represent the interests of 120,000 people in the 32nd District.”