If the national office of the NAACP had any idea what Chris Smitherman is doing to their brand here in Cincinnati, they would’ve shown him the door years ago. The head of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP and one-term city council member, Smitherman has a long history of outlandish statements, paranoid conspiracy theories, shameless opportunism (witness Smitherman climbing into bed with right-wing tea party groups like COAST, and becoming a perpetual gadfly on race-baiting 700-WLW to further his own political ambitions), and generally being a militant activist against any idea or proposal that might actually improve job prospects and the quality of life for the people he claims to represent. This is the guy who led a successful referendum against a proposed regional waterworks district — a proposal that would have saved the city millions that could’ve otherwise been used for inner-city schools and public safety — on the grounds that it would provide a means for city leaders to pump syphilis into black communities via the drinking water supply. Seriously.
Smitherman’s latest cause du jour is yet another campaign to block construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar, after a similar campaign in 2009 was defeated by voters 56% to 44%. You’d think the NAACP would be in favor of improved public transportation options in the urban core. Indeed, the NAACP has been an outspoken proponent of mass transit in many other cities. The stated reasons for Smitherman’s opposition to the streetcar? Gentrification.
For the moment I’ll leave aside the tacit admission that the streetcar will indeed bring jobs and much-needed redevelopment to downtown and Over-the-Rhine, instead of being a costly “boondoggle” that nobody will use, as claimed by opponents. (The streetcar either won’t work at all or it will work too well. Take your pick.) But given that OTR still has over 500 vacant buildings and some parts of the neighborhood remain mired in poverty and violence, fears about gentrification seem a bit overstated. Smitherman’s real, unstated concern is that continued improvements in OTR will deprive him of the poverty-stricken ghetto from which he derives his political power base. Rather than working to ensure that the rising tide lifts all boats, he’d rather keep the his constituents stuck in the muck, because that’s how demagogues remain in power.
Enter Kevin Osborne of CityBeat Cincinnati, an alternative weekly newspaper. This past week Osborne published an op-ed that rightly eviscerates Smitherman & Co. for their deceptive effort to kill any hope of passenger rail in Cincinnati for the next decade:
It’s not a surprise that COAST — which is Libertarian to the extreme, dislikes government involvement in most sectors of society and hates mass transit — would try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes. One COAST leader, Anderson Township resident Chris Finney, is a crackerjack attorney who’s made a lucrative career from suing governments and promoting ultra-conservative legislation. Make no doubt, the wording in the proposed amendment isn’t a mistake; it’s there for a reason and COAST realizes its full impact.
The real question is why would Christopher Smitherman and Michelle Edwards of the local NAACP go along with such a far-reaching initiative?
Do they honestly think the predominantly African-American residents of poor, inner-city neighborhoods like Avondale and Evanston wouldn’t be well-served by having cheap transportation to job centers in Mason and Northern Kentucky? And just what do you think a gallon of gasoline will be selling for on Dec. 31, 2020?
Osborne’s piece apparently struck a nerve with Smitherman’s NAACP. Did they respond by submitting their own op-ed that articulates their opposition to the project? Of course not; that just wouldn’t be the Smitherman way. Smitherman’s volunteers found it much easier to simply gather all the print copies of CityBeat from sidewalk newsstands and dump them into the garbage. As luck would have it, a blogger for CincyVoices.com happened to be walking by at the moment:
When me and my girlfriend were walking home from the Downtown Dash 5k I saw a Chris Smitherman campaign worker collecting signatures. I thought “I hope she doesn’t expect us to sign anything.” Luckily she walked right past us, but it was her next action that offended me. She opened up the City Beat bin on 7th and Race and threw away every issue inside. For someone running for office to have their campaign workers go out and throw out issues of publications who disagree with him is pretty appalling. There are plenty of times I disagree with the Cincinnati Enquirer, but would never even think about going around town and tossing out bins of Enquirers.
This is only the latest in a long series of thuggish and deceptive antics that have been pulled by streetcar opponents over the years, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. If you witness anything along these lines, don’t confront the person engaging in such behavior, but document what you can via photos or videos, and get the word out. Contact the Hamilton County Board of Elections and Cincinnatians for Progress if you witness anything that might be illegal, and stay vigilant. The good news is, Smitherman is struggling to even gather enough petition signatures by the deadline to get his anti-rail measure on the November ballot, and even if it makes it onto the ballot, we’re confident that it will be defeated by voters in a similar manner as the failed Issue 9 initiative in 2009.