I can explain Christopher Smitherman.
Explaining a black man—an articulate, intelligent, aggressive, and yes, angry black man like the president of the Cincinnati chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—could be construed as a defensive waste of time. After all, the 44th president of these United States is black. Isn’t that enough to satiate black America? Enough already, crybabies.
But hold it. Not when the Tea Party’s fringe element spits “nigger” at Rep. John Lewis—a civil rights icon—for supporting health care legislation. Seems black maleness is still up for discussion.
The complexities and racism roiling within a black man’s identity is an expansive history lesson extending back to William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the brilliant turn-of-the-century intellectual and scholar, and an architect, in 1909, of the NAACP. Du Bois’s seminal, semi-autobiographical 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk is a treatise on and explanation of the black male. Du Bois arguably gave America its first extended gaze at a cosmopolitan, educated, handsome, and sometimes threatening black man. A post–Civil War Barack Hussein Obama, as it were.
Which brings us to Smitherman: He listed “president” as a life goal in his biographical statement to the League of Women Voters when he ran for Cincinnati City Council in 2003, back when Obama was still a funny-named state legislator from Illinois.
Love or loathe Smitherman, he’s always got his eyes on the prize. It’s part of who he is.
His parents are Dr. Herbert and Barbara Smitherman, Ebony-elegant people who came of age during blacks’ transition from colored to Negro; part of a generation of college-graduated “firsts”—first to live in white enclaves, to be named to civil service posts, to excel in academia. Herbert Sr. was the first black PhD hired by Procter & Gamble; a chemist, he holds several patents there. Barbara has a master’s degree in education and worked for 30 years as an administrator throughout Cincinnati Public Schools. The accomplished Smithermans expected their six children—Herbert Jr., 50; James, 49; Albert, 48; Joe, 45; Christopher, 43; and Mae Angela, 42—to follow suit. To live The American Dream.
Today the Smithermans live that dream mostly in close proximity. Christopher’s 101-year-old grandmother, Mozelle Flowers, and brother James live with Herbert Sr. and Barbara in North Avondale; Christopher, a financial planner, his wife, Pamela, and their five children live two houses away; Mae Angela, a high-ranking Ford Motor executive, bought the house in between, though she lives in Detroit. Albert lives on the other side of Christopher. Joe does kitchen and bathroom remodeling around the city. And Herbert Jr. is a Detroit physician who appeared on Obama’s short list for Surgeon General.
When Smitherman landed the seventh seat on City Council in the 2003 election, his platform was racial healing and fiscal responsibility. He was an underdog who emerged from nowhere; a maverick before John McCain and Sarah Palin turned the word into a punch line. But the very assets that catapulted him onto council—hubris, fearlessness, and the bothersome persistence of a sweat bee—were the same things that ultimately did him in, sealing his reelection fate two years later: In 2005, Smitherman placed 11th, two notches below the top nine. In between, Smitherman set his sights on the NAACP chapter presidency, eventually wrestling it from then-president Edith Thrower in a tense, back-and-forth election that he only won after forcing a clandestine re-count. “It wasn’t as much a struggle with Edith as it was with the business community,” he says.
Not long after taking control of the NAACP, Smitherman sent out a press release headlined “MLK Day Should Be A Time For Introspection,” which addressed what detractors have thought and whispered about him for years. “Cincinnati still believes that I need to get in my place because they see me as black,” he wrote. “The status quo wants me at the table, but they do not want to hear me speak.”
It is a sentiment he reiterated to me during one of two sit-downs. But it seems Smitherman has spoken. Loudly and repeatedly. In city council chambers, in ballot initiatives forged in cahoots with surprising political “allies,” in protests against the Cincinnati Public School Board, in TV and radio rants. Though sometimes blurred by the bluster, he is actually waking the sleeping slave that is—or was—the Cincinnati NAACP and turning it back toward Du Bois’s century-old edict of reckonable action toward white oppression, as well as political and economic advocacy for blacks in need. However Christopher Smitherman is perceived, he has brought it—the attention, the occasional approbation, the frequent exasperation, all of it—on himself. But that’s only part of the explanation.
Explanation No. 1: Christopher Smitherman is an action figure best experienced live.
Between his career at Smitherman Daley Financial Group, raising five kids with his wife, steering America’s second-oldest NAACP chapter, and holding forth on his weekly radio show, it’s a wonder Smitherman has energy to strategize and oversee the machinations of a pre-dawn protest.
But he does. And one day this past winter, he illustrated how it’s done. Rolling up his sleeves to take on Cincinnati Public Schools for the district’s attempts to “inflate the numbers and mislead the community” about the awarding of jobs and contracts for CPS’s massive $700 million facility renovation, he starts by recruiting more than 30 NAACP members for an upcoming protest operation. During the call-in portion of the January 16, 2010, broadcast of Smitherman on the Mic, his radio show on 1230 AM WDBZ, he announces, cryptically: “Those that wanna be part of history call [the chapter’s office]. We’re gonna be locked shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity. We’re not gonna share the details here, but come [MLK Day] we’ll be in solidarity.”
Smitherman’s inviting tone then turns cold with a warning. “If we get a leak and I figure out who leaked the information to the other side, I’m gonna publicly thrash you,” he hisses. “Do not leak our information to the majority…if you leak this you will regret it. I promise you.”
I’m in. I leave my number at the NAACP offices, hoping to snag an invite to the event. Smitherman himself makes the late-night call. He registers surprise when he realizes it’s me, the same Kathy Y. Wilson he knows is writing this very story about him. Then he gives me the location of the protest: Parham Elementary School in Evanston, a building undergoing renovation. On Martin Luther King Junior Day 2010, I head into the pre-dawn cold to witness another chapter in Cincinnati’s postmodern Civil Rights movement unfold.
At stake: A more substantial portion of the facilities overhaul specifically for black—not merely minority—contractors and work crews. In January, CPS admitted it had committed “a clerical error” in reporting that $84 million had been awarded to minority (mostly Hispanic and Indian) contractors. The error: an $8.9 million contract to a white-owned company incorrectly counted among CPS’s running tally of minority contractors. More tellingly, less than 2 percent (roughly $14 million) of the massive $700 million building/renovation budget was going to blacks.
“You can’t say that’s a clerical error—it’s just false!” Smitherman said to his radio audience when the mistake came to light. “I want all of you who called in and said, ‘I’m not seeing any minority contractors’—I want all you to know”—he paused for dramatic effect—“you’re not crazy. You. Are. Not. Crazy.”
Back to the scene: With economic disparity as their ammo (that clerical error!), protestors convene at Unity Missionary Baptist Church on Fairfield Avenue in Evanston, right next to Parham Elementary, to sing hymns, pray, distribute signs, and plan who will stand nearest the protest site and what to do if Cincinnati police show up to arrest anyone. “When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun, Oh, Looord, haaaave mercy on me,” we sing in unison.
Smitherman, head thrown back and fists thrust in the air, leads the song from the pulpit. (The 1985 School for Creative & Performing Arts grad has a beautiful voice, it must be said.) Heavily layered against the cold, the short, boyish Smitherman looks like he has raided his father’s closet; even with a hoodie, a sweater, and an overcoat he appears slight. But that only disguises the fight within. “There’s only two people in this room who—if they need to arrest somebody—can get arrested. That’s me and Dock Foster,” he says, referring to the Rev. Dock Foster, the dark, stout, white-haired pastor of Unity, president of the Baptist Minister’s Conference, NAACP lieutenant, and a loyal, outspoken Smitherman supporter. It was Foster who reported the Kentucky and Indiana license plates of the all-white Parham work crew to the NAACP.
The choice of MLK Day for protest is more than symbolic: Not only should there be greater black inclusion in work crews, but those crews should not be working on this sacrosanct holiday. “How do they [reconcile] that their schools are shut down, their teachers are off, their students are off, but their construction goes on?” Smitherman says to the crowd, his voice rising. “We’re gonna stand at those gates today and greet those Kentucky and Indiana construction workers! We can tell the world what [CPS] is doing with its billion-dollar project.”
Outside the church, the construction site is quiet. Yet news trucks from channels 5, 9, and 12 are here, throwing their camera lights on the darkness. I make my way in the crowd to James Clingman, marketing consultant, founder of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, and NAACP economic development chairman. It was Clingman who went to the CPS offices, asked to see the construction rolls, and scrutinized the district’s computerized records over the shoulder of the manager of supplier diversity.
“It was all right there,” Clingman tells me. Then he drills down to why the discrepancy has so enraged a contingency of the NAACP. “White folks can count their money in the CPS contracts but black folks can’t because we’re called ‘minorities’ along with two or three other groups of people,” he says. “We have come to the point where the city of Cincinnati will see that we’re dead serious about things and we won’t be backed up. If anybody wants to go to work, sorry. Not today.”
At 5:10 a.m. a police car rolls past; soon another cruiser is idling quietly across the street. Shortly before 6 a.m., former City Councilman Sam Malone, who came to show his support, says that CPS got wind of Smitherman’s plan and “put word out to workers to shut the job sites down. So workers might not be showing up today.” At 6 a.m. Smitherman makes an official press statement. Word comes back from Hughes Center, North Avondale Montessori, and the future School for Creative & Performing Arts that workers have arrived. At 6:30 a.m. a decision is made: The protestors will go and investigate the other sites. I leave, knowing Smitherman has many more ways to flog CPS.
Smitherman majored in drama at SCPA, and his education has served him well. He is nothing if not theatrical.
This past spring, I sat down with a DVD of Financially Speaking, the show Smitherman has guest hosted on public access television for the last six months. In an undated episode entitled “Economic Apartheid, Pt. 2,” Smitherman lets rip a detailed breakdown of Cincinnati Public Schools’ construction expenditures and its crippling effects on the black community, gratuitously throwing in a high-pitched impersonation of school board president Eileen Cooper Reed, herself an NAACP member. He sits alone before a dry-erase board on which he compulsively scribbles numbers. He details the nature of CPS’s misreported monies, then explains how the lack of contracts and jobs for black firms and workers trickles down to the school system’s black families. Of CPS’s 34,000 enrolled students, Smitherman says, 70 percent are black, 60 percent live below the poverty line, and 4,000 are homeless. CPS missed opportunities during its five-year plan to spend $700 million building schools “right in the heart of black neighborhoods.”
Smitherman’s presentation is a dash of rant, a sprinkle of farce, and a fistful of economics as he drives home his point. “They had an opportunity to lift these babies out of poverty by taking care of the parents, by taking care of the family. They think that…we should be happy getting two percent when the white community is getting 98 percent. And then the white community is left with this perception [that] African-American contractors don’t exist,” he says, waggling his left hand like he’s waving off a foul odor, “that we don’t have the capacity. And that’s a lie. Let me show you how the hustle works.”
He turns to the board and begins dissecting his version of a trifecta of corruption: low bids, shop bids, and change orders. It’s a lot to take in, but basically Smitherman’s Theory of CPS’s Bidding Chicanery unfolds like so:
First, he asserts that CPS never posted bids on its website, so the public never knew who bid or even who won bids. Next, CPS “shopped bids” by contacting presumably white contractors to tell them the bids of other, presumably black or minority contractors, allegedly advising white contractors how to bid to win contracts. “This is not just about the African-American community getting work,” he rails. “This is high-level corruption…outrageous and illegal.”
Lastly, Smitherman alleges that white contractors submit low-ball bids, then raise prices after winning a contract—otherwise known as a “change order” which, he claims, the CPS board typically approves. “They never asked one question on change orders. As the change orders are being submitted, it is ballooning”—he pauses for effect, slowly forming an invisible sphere with his right hand—“our overall cost of the project.” Then, blinking wildly, he stares into the camera. “The buck stops with the seven members of the CPS school board.”
Eileen Cooper Reed is a five-year veteran of the CPS board, serving her second consecutive term as president. She is remarkably poised even in the eye of this ongoing maelstrom. Currently, five of the board’s seven members are black, a fact Smitherman has used to hold them to a higher standard of accountability during the black contractor fracas.
“I have a responsibility to serve the entire community,” Reed says over a late-April lunch conversation. When the original master plan was adopted in 2002, it included significant minority inclusion goals—20 to 25 percent in workforce development and 20 percent in contracting for women and minorities.
Reed answers direct questions without hesitation and does not appear fatigued by how many times she’s had to explain the district’s “clerical error.” She says that in May 2009, Pamela Mullins, the head of District Supplier Diversity, made a presentation to the board. “Minority inclusion had dropped and we were appalled,” Reed says. “We told the administration to get all the stakeholders in the construction industry together and to report back to us so we can get this cleared up. The real issue for me is, how do you improve the numbers you have, inflated or not?”
After I tell her of Smitherman’s televised dissection of the low bid/shop bid/change order process, I ask if CPS’s present system is flawed.
“There’s no question the system was flawed for minority inclusion,” she says, but she insists that CPS’s Supplier Diversity department is trying to right itself. “We all understand there’s not a level playing field. The construction industry is a particularly difficult industry, so that compounds the ability to figure out how to make this work. And frankly, I don’t care who gets the credit. I just want it to get done.”
I cannot leave Reed without getting her response to the emotional haranguing and blatant blaming—the melodrama—that’s been ongoing at board meetings.
“I agree with them on the need to have minority—African-American—inclusion,” Reed said. “After one meeting one sista came up to me and said, ‘This ain’t personal, sista, it’s business.’ And that really helped me. I said, ‘OK, now we can get back to business and making sure we’re doing what we need to do.’”
During his “Economic Apartheid” broadcast, Smitherman outlined the NAACP’s three demands of CPS. First, the observation of MLK Day through 2015 by construction companies working in the district; second, CPS should come up with a strategic plan to increase its black contractors; and finally, they want to see specific plans for the multi-million dollar building budget. When the school board met on May 10, Smitherman was there, hammering home the message.
“I’m here to reiterate our concerns that African-Americans aren’t working on construction sites,” he said, his voice low and steady. “No strategic plans, no audit, no monitoring software—there are still no African-Americans on these sites, and yet you want us to be quiet,” he continued, his voice rising. “You all are engaging in public policy that looks like the 1920s and the 1930s!” He was shouting now, voice fully stoked. “What do we need to do to get you to understand we need a strategic plan tonight? What you have is 98 percent white men feeding off this construction budget like welfare”—explosive applause—“and you ask us why we are shooting one another in the street? It’s because We. Don’t. Have. Jobs.” The crowd erupted in whoops and sustained clapping.
It felt like a far-fetched correlation. Could the CPS contractor oversight really have repercussions deep enough to make a black man so desperate for construction work that he’d shoot another black man dead? It’s a tricky trickle-down.
Despite the rhetoric and bombast, the two factions reached a kind of détente. At the May meeting the board unanimously approved a “community benefits agreement” that had been drafted in the fall, which set employment edicts for construction companies erecting new buildings: 40 percent of site workers should reside within the district; 40 percent should be residents of Greater Cincinnati outside the district; and 20 percent of labor and trade should be comprised of minorities and women.
Since that meeting, all has been quiet on the NAACP/CPS front. But the CPS board was not the first and probably will not be the last Goliath Smitherman puts squarely in his slingshot sites.
Playing David is, after all, his specialty.
Explanation No. 2: An intelligent, confident, and outspoken black man is often considered a “smart-mouthed little punk.”
Smitherman entered council in the 2003 election with the will to change some of Cincinnati’s ills; he says he understood how politics worked and was not idealistic about how to get things done. He honestly thought he could help remove the pall hanging over race relations in the city if we first did some serious reconciliatory work.
“I don’t think I had this misconception that I was gonna change the world,” Smitherman told me when we met in the Peebles Corner office of his advising firm, “but I thought people were more ethical and more moral than I found them to be when I entered City Council.” Because of those assumptions, it’s easy to see why, in hindsight, Smitherman would think his original campaign platform could be enacted.
“The first thing out of his mouth was ‘racial reconciliation,’” says then–Charter Committee President Michael Goldman of his initial meeting with the would-be candidate. “Two thousand two and 2003 were very tense after the riots, racial unrest, and the death of Timothy Thomas, and Christopher Smitherman was all for racial reconciliation.” Marion Spencer, former NAACP president and a former city councilmember, was among those who suggested Smitherman to Goldman, even as then–council members and Democrats David Pepper and John Cranley were trying to lure him to their party. “He was very articulate, very well spoken, [and] he had already put together the beginning of a campaign [team],” Goldman recalls. Another plus: Smitherman was in favor of overturning Article XII, the 1993 charter amendment prohibiting city officials from passing laws including sexual orientation as a protected class. “To have an African-American male in favor of defeating it was big,” he says.
Goldman, who acted as Smitherman’s senior campaign advisor, characterizes his win in 2003 as “probably the most exciting campaign I’ve ever been on.” And when Smitherman lost his reelection bid in 2005?
“It was mixed emotions,” Goldman says.
To understand how someone could start his city council career with such promise only to squash it so quickly, you have to go back to that dark post-riot period, when Charlie Luken was the “strong” mayor and many citizens were hoping, earnestly, that a new, diverse crew of council members signaled the dawn of a less fractured era.
Let’s go to the clips: Headlines in The Cincinnati Enquirer trumpeted Smitherman’s win as giving Charterites “new oomph,” and heralded him as “blunt, bold, and ambitious.” But in short order, Smitherman alienated his colleagues, confused his party, and pissed off certain factions in the city while his black supporters praised him, defended his outspokenness, and lamented the double standard inherent in a black politician fighting for the fair treatment of black people.
During a December 2003 meeting with Police Chief Thomas Streicher, Smitherman, annoyed by what he perceived as stonewalling when updates on high-profile cases were not forthcoming, blasted Streicher, telling him he wouldn’t tolerate “insubordination.” But what really got tongues wagging was when Smitherman told Streicher who was boss.
As Smitherman recalls the confrontation, he says he was nervous. It was a tense scene: present in council chambers was the family of Nathaniel Jones, a black man who’d died in police custody in a White Castle parking lot the night before Smitherman’s swearing-in ceremony.
“To see them emotionally torn apart was devastating to me,” Smitherman says. “I watched the operation—from the chief, to the mayor, to Mike Allen—go into defensive mode and dehumanize this man. I was clearly concerned about having just been elected and now inheriting the worst-case scenario—an in-custody death. And the African-American community looking at me and looking at council, saying, ‘Are you gonna carry this burden? Are you going to be a different kind of elected official?’ I felt all of that in the room.
“I tapped my little red button and the mayor looked over. I’m sure he’s thinking, we’ve got a freshman council member that’s gonna ask some questions. And I said: ‘Let me be clear: Chief Streicher, you don’t control this city. I’m your boss and I’m not going to tolerate insubordination from you and I have some questions that I need you to answer.’ That was my first day on council.”
By uttering those words, Goldman says, Smitherman exhibited a fundamental lack of understanding of the City Charter. “We are a council management form of government,” Goldman points out. “The [city] manager is the CEO of our city.”
Smitherman says black citizens immediately felt “representation” by his line of questioning. But it came at great cost to him. “I burnt political capital to ask those questions,” he says, “[but] people felt like they had been heard.”
By mid-January 2004, Smitherman was drowning then–City Manager Valerie Lemmie’s office in requests: autopsy reports on Jones; police-custody deaths during Streicher’s tenure; lawsuit settlement figures for the previous decade. But it was his demand for, of all things, a list of high schools attended by police academy grads that put him square in the city’s racial ring. Many—including then–Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, an Elder grad and former cop—thought Smitherman was drawing a direct correlation between cops who’d graduated from certain west side high schools and the department’s inability to successfully train those officers in how to police poor, black neighborhoods. (He wasn’t completely off the mark. Of the top three high schools, Elder graduated 76 officers; Western Hills 69; and Oak Hills 46.)
“Whether he meant it or not,” says John Cranley, who was on council at the time, “he gave the impression that he thought the police was the enemy. That was a huge disconnect for him and the electorate.”
And not just the electorate. Allen called Smitherman a “smart-mouthed little punk” on Bill Cunningham’s afternoon gabfest on WLW radio for the graduation list request and his “disrespect” of Streicher. “In hindsight, it was very silly,” says Allen, now a defense attorney.
“It hurts to say now,” he adds, pausing. “I called Christopher Smitherman a ‘smart-mouthed little punk’ and it was stupid for an elected official to call another elected official. I regret saying it. To Christopher Smitherman’s credit, he never responded.”
But Smitherman didn’t stop pushing, demanding—among other things—an audit of police overtime records to ferret out possible abuse and overpayment. “I think he has the potential to be a crusader, but he’s been more of an agitator,” says Cranley. As he sees it, Smitherman came onto council with the wrong perceptions of how it had been handling the city’s racial problems. In early 2001, council had passed an anti-racial profiling ordinance; by that summer, it had narrowly voted to proceed with the Collaborative Agreement that would eventually transform the city’s policing policies. “When he first got on, he gave a vibe that we didn’t care about the issues that came up in 2001 and that we hadn’t done anything about it,” he adds. “There was nothing in his background that would lead me to believe he was going to be this Stokely Carmichael. [But] he had a very divisive base and became very divisive very quickly.”
However, Cranley also experienced firsthand how Smitherman’s approach was viewed in the black community. “I was at Redfish [Seafood Grill] and in the men’s room was what I took to be a dishwasher,” Cranley says. “He was probably 18 or 19, and he recognized me and he said, ‘That Smitherman is the greatest thing to happen to this city.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Holy Cow!’”
By the next election, the damage to his political aspirations and public persona was done. According to an Enquirer analysis, in 2005 Smitherman lost the central and east side precincts—Mt. Lookout, Hyde Park, Mt. Washington, Clifton, and Mt. Adams/Walnut Hills—that had helped put him in office in 2003. “Some precincts in North Avondale—his own neighborhood and a Charterite stronghold—also turned on him,” the article stated.
Too bad voters aren’t ones for nuance. “Christopher was right on the issues he was looking at but the disappointment, the frustration, was in the way he was communicating it,” says Goldman, who adds that he tried talking to Smitherman back then, but “he was self-defeating. Politics is compromise. Not only did he not make friends on council, but he didn’t make friends with voters and they didn’t reward him.”
But Smitherman has found another way to impact other issues decided on by voters: ballot initiatives. And he’s done so under the auspices of the NAACP and with one eyebrow-raising political bedfellow. In March 2009, Smitherman appointed Christopher Finney, a white conservative Hyde Park attorney and the cofounder of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), to NAACP’s “chair of legal redress.” Smitherman sees it as a way to hook ballot issues affecting black neighborhoods to COAST’s anti-tax wagon—a move he calls “a more sophisticated arena of economics and politics…to move beyond identity politics.”
Together, the groups have so far co-sponsored and co-authored five initiatives. They’ve won battles to defeat the county jail tax, to stop red-light cameras, and to allow voters to ratify the sale of Greater Cincinnati Water Works; but they lost a bid to institute proportional representation on city council and failed to pass Issue 9, the anti-street car/passenger rail initiative. Like Smitherman, Finney wears his “outsider” status as a badge and shares his frustration over “getting new ideas heard.”
“They’ll attack you, and when I say ‘they,’ I mean the corporate community, the media, the nonprofit community,” Finney says. “It’s easy for them to turn us into caricatures, to further marginalize us.” Finney calls Smitherman “a transcendent man” and marvels at his ability to sidestep assumptions of race and class to form “common sense” answers. “When Chris and I come together he keeps telling me, ‘The African-American community is very conservative,’” Finney says. “What Christopher Smitherman has done is he’s said let’s put some of these ideas in action. He’s challenging conservatives to do the same—to come at these issues with common sense. Everybody would be better off being more open to power.”
Many members of the city’s chattering class (Democrats, Republicans, and Charterites alike) scratch their heads—or just rip their hair out—over the Smitherman-Finney axis, but Smitherman is unflinching when it comes to flexing whatever power—perceived or actual—he has accumulated. Proof: He’s working with the NAACP on another ballot initiative for November that, if passed, will give voters the power to recall the mayor.
“The purpose of this is…we don’t have a provision to terminate the mayor,” Smitherman tells me. He insists it’s about good government, not about mucking up the works and keeping his name in the paper. He insists that it’s not targeted at Mark Mallory. But observers could be forgiven for coming to that conclusion, given that last year the NAACP cast a “no confidence” vote against the mayor.
I failed to get an interview with Mallory on the topic of Smitherman. “I don’t think the mayor wants to be quoted,” Jason Barron, the mayor’s media contact, told me. Any discussion of Smitherman was, Barron said, “a controversy waiting to happen.”
I spoke with another mayoral staffer, expressing Smitherman’s assertion that the initiative to give the city a mayoral recall option wasn’t a personal jab at Mallory. “Then why do it while he’s in office?” the staffer asked. “You know how that’s going to look? C’mon, now.”
How it looks to a lot of people is that Smitherman is laying the groundwork to one day (soon) present himself as a viable black candidate once again, perhaps to run for mayor or county commissioner.
“I wouldn’t run for county commissioner,” Smitherman says without hesitation. “If I were to run for anything, it would be for city council, it would be for mayor of the city of Cincinnati. I love Cincinnati.”
Explanation No. 3: Christopher Smitherman is a demigod to some blacks for the same reasons he annoys some whites.
“I think there’s a misperception about Christopher,” says Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge and NAACP lifetime member Tyrone Yates, who Smitherman once listed as a hero. “Christopher is a very mainstream American and he is an advocate and a voice for racial equality and racial reconciliation. He believes not only in minority participation, but minority participation on equal terms, which is the contract of our country.”
Yates thinks what people overlook in criticizing Smitherman is his drive, determination, and quest for social justice. “Christopher is remarkably focused,” he says. “He certainly has made a powerful impact on the city. As president of the NAACP, he wants the organization to be treated with regard and respect. I think that really is the key to Christopher.” Then, a Smitherman-like warning. “Those organizations who want to marginalize Christopher Smitherman or the NAACP—particularly on issues of equality and justice—will find it a hard row to hoe.”
Al “Bug” Williams, a barber, NAACP member, and self-described “guy Friday” to Smitherman, sees him as a voice for disenfranchised people. “Most of the politicians I’ve met have been very phony and haven’t kept their word,” Williams says. Smitherman, on the other hand, “opened up the door to truth and was real with constituents. Some people may not like it. It’s like putting the light on roaches. When he stepped on council, he was the light and they all ran.”
Williams sees him as a fundamentally different kind of black leader. “He’s comfortable being around regular guys,” he says. “Plus, he isn’t afraid to express himself in politics, which is rare for a black man. Plus, he is a successful businessman. I wondered: Why does he even have to bother with us?”
Apparently, it’s Smitherman’s pleasure.
He’s found his footing with the NAACP—boosting membership from 500 to roughly 3,000, surpassing Akron and Cleveland. He’s helped erase the chapter’s debt, hosted three successful Freedom Fund Dinners, the group’s only fund-raiser, and increased attendance from 500 to 1,100. He has helped collect more than 100,000 signatures for those ballot initiatives and he’s proud the NAACP put its imprimatur on them.
Then, there’s that convention. Smitherman redeemed himself—that is, if you’re one of those who thought he’d fallen—with the 99th Annual NAACP Convention in the summer of 2008, which he worked tirelessly to bring to the city. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, then campaigning for president, both spoke. And local media took particular note when Smitherman, once the pebble in the Cincinnati Police Department’s collective shoe, led a standing ovation before the convention’s sold-out audience to thank the groups who’d made the event a success. He knew he couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of the police. Smitherman the agitator, at least for a few hot August days in 2008, was gone.
“That was a huge turning point for Smitherman,” says Cranley. “It did a lot of good for him when he was publicly gracious to the police.”
Then Cranley crystallizes what’s kept Smitherman an outlier. “He’s done a great job in the last three or four years being against things,” Cranley says. “In the long run he’s gotta find out how to build a beautiful city as opposed to tear down what he doesn’t like. In the long run, he has to rehabilitate himself with the white community. He can’t have the polarizing effect he had when he was on council.”
Smitherman, of course, doesn’t see himself as a human bulldozer. He’s reflective, and knows full well that the public persona he’s displayed has quite often been confrontational, unconventional, even punitive.
“I hope it doesn’t come out at the end of my life—as I look at leaving my mark on the tree—that my directness ends up being a weakness,” he says, sometimes stammering to find the words. “So I attempt to be thoughtful but be honest as I see this game.”
Photograph by Jonathan Willis