Cleveland Pastor To Obama: ‘You Can Not’ Take Black Vote For Granted
Ohio faith leader fights voter suppression in state with scandalous election past
The last decade hasn’t been a ball of sunshine for elections in the state of Ohio, and Aaron Phillips knows it.
As pastor of Sure House Baptist Church in Cleveland and a leading faith-based voice in the fight against voter suppression tactics, Phillips has tough words for Democrats and for the team assembled to run President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
“Democrats – what they continue to do is take the African-American vote for granted,” Phillips said in an interview with Loop21.
“We continue to tell them, ‘You can not do that,’” Phillips said. “Black folks aren’t just voting for the Democrats anymore. Matter of fact, you’ll get them not to vote at all. That’s what (Obama) should be concerned about.”
It’s not that Republicans, who are largely behind the spur of voter suppression laws around the country, believe that African Americans will vote for them in any significant numbers, Phillips added. Some on the right seek to make it harder for blacks to vote for anyone at all.
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On Monday, Phillips joined Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), along with several Ohio faith leaders, to speak out about a state law (HR 149) that shaves the number of early voting day in half and eliminates voting on the last Sunday before Election Day.
In 2008, that was precisely the voting methods that helped Obama to carry Cuyahoga County, which contains Cleveland. More than half of the city’s population is African American.
“We took busloads and vanloads of people on Sunday afternoons after church, to go down to the board of elections and vote,” Phillips said. “We would stand in long lines to vote early. We would make it a church event.”
Ohio Republicans have argued for restrictions to early voting, Phillips says, because they were concerned with the low turnout in the 2010-midterm elections. Conservatives say it’s in the state’s economic interest to cut early voting days in half. But Phillips argues that Democrats should never have allowed laws to creep up in states around the nation, which stand to have a disproportionate effect on African Americans, the poor and those in transition.
“This is not (a state) economic issue at all,” Phillips said. “The Democrats did a horrible job of mobilizing our community to go out to vote (in 2010). We tried to talk to them about this. They just thought that because we have a black president…(that) if President Obama would just come out to Ohio…that that would get the people to come out and vote.”
Without the efforts by black churches, Obama may not have carried the state of Ohio in 2008, Phillips believes.
A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows a near tie in swings states (like Ohio) between Obama and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, both campaigns are well aware of the stakes.
Last Friday, the Obama campaign met with Ohio’s black church leaders to talk strategy for the African American vote. (Phillips was unable to attend, as he drove to his daughter’s graduation from a master’s program in Michigan.) The following day, the president was in Ohio to hold his first large campaign rally at Ohio State University.
“After a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee for president (Romney) who has promised to rubber-stamp (their) agenda if he gets the chance,” Obama told a crowd of nearly 14,000 supporters at the rally.
“Ohio, I tell you what: We cannot give him that chance. Not now. Not with so much at stake. This is not just another election. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and we’ve been through too much to turn back now,” Obama said.
In a press release, the Romney campaign fired back by characterizing Obama’s presidency as one with a record of “broken promises.”
“From skyrocketing gas prices to increasing insurance premiums, President Obama’s economic policies have failed Ohio families and demonstrated that this President does not have what it takes to get our economy moving again,” read the statement from Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman.
Still reserving his harshest criticism for the Democrats, Phillips isn’t convinced the Obama campaign takes seriously what’s at stake for the African American voting bloc this time around.
“This is May; they should have been here talking to us in January,” Phillips said of the Obama campaign. “They’ve got to do more. We’ve got to get the boots on the ground. I don’t understand why they’re lagging and why they continue to act like that’s not needed.”
If the writing’s not on the wall, it’s definitely reflected in the polls, Phillips acknowledged.
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“This election is not in the bag,” Phillips said. “Now that Romney is the clear nominee, it’s dead even.”
Dead even is not a preferred scenario in a state with a recent electoral history like Ohio’s. In 2004, President George W. Bush carried the state of Ohio by fewer than 120,000 votes. Although slightly conflicting, several accounts contend that many of the state’s African American voters endured long lines on that rainy Election Day. Many did not vote, or were discouraged because there weren’t enough voting machines. This was largely untrue in more conservative, whiter districts.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the presidential election. Bush was handed the victory, after ballot recounting issues in Florida, where his brother was governor, caused controversy over a significant swath of black voting ballots that were deemed “spoiled.” That election was decided by 537 votes.
Phillips finds laughable any argument that voter ID and suppressive tactics are needed to stem fraud. While he’s not opposed to voters needing to identify themselves when they register, he’s as liberal as they come on elections.
[ALSO READ: Ex-Felon Brings Voting Fight To Congress]
“I’m a believer that if you’re out of prison, you should be able to vote,” Phillip said. “Even if you are in jail, awaiting trial, you should be able to vote. And I believe you should be able to register the day of. What’s the big deal? You show who you are. You show where you live. You register to vote and then go vote.”
Faith leaders in Ohio want state lawmakers to restore the early voting days and weekend voting. Phillips says America has no business promoting democracy elsewhere, when the country has anti-democratic issues of its own.
“How have we let democracy spread across the world, in places like Egypt and that kind of thing, where we’re seeing people rise up…and want to be a part of a real democratic process…how can we want to encourage that across the world, but we don’t want to do that here in America?” Phillips asked.
“That doesn’t go together, to me.”
Contact Loop21 staff writer Aaron Morrison at 347-855-3140 or email@example.com.