An African American lawmaker — a Democrat — is charging the Ohio Democratic Party and chairman Chris Redfern with racism and defamation in a lawsuit filed this week, telling reporters there is a “plantation mentality” in the party that treats black lawmakers as a monolithic voting bloc.
Last week, Chris Redfern, head of the Ohio Democratic Party, resigned in disgrace after presiding over sweeping losses of every statewide office, a record-breaking majority of Republicans elected to the Ohio legislature, and the utter collapse of the Democrats’ candidate for governor. Redfern also lost his own seat in the Ohio House on Tuesday. As it turns out, all of that may have only been the tip of the iceberg of the Ohio Democratic Party’s problems. The Dispatch reported on Monday:
State Rep. John E. Barnes, a Cleveland Democrat, has filed a defamation lawsuit against the Ohio Democratic Party and its chairman, Chris Redfern, alleging white lawmakers get better treatment and he was punished for raising the issue of racism in the party.
Barnes said he faced discrimination and retaliation from his own party when he refused to join the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus in the Ohio House. Barnes said he feared it would harm his reputation to “associate with an organization whose moral compass he found to be troubling.” The lawsuit mentions members of the caucus who have been convicted of felony and misdemeanor offenses in the last three years. According to the complaint, Barnes “saw little value to himself or to his district” in joining OLBC and “wanted to be treated as an individual rather than as a member of a presumed monolithic block of votes based upon his skin color.”
Barnes alleges in the lawsuit that his his failure to join the OLBC and his cooperation with Gov. Kasich on issues like Medicaid expansion angered Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern and key leaders of the Democratic caucus in the House. As a result, he says he was passed over for committee leadership positions in retaliation. He claims the party also punished him by endorsing his opponent, Jill Miller Zimon, in the May primary and made false statements about him during the campaign. The party distributed pro-Zimon campaign fliers claiming Barnes voted with Kasich more than 75% of the time, cut funding for schools, blocked Medicaid for the poor and disenfranchised voters. In a press conference on Monday, Barnes said he has fought his entire career for programs like Medicaid and was offended by the accusation, which he believes harmed his reputation in his community. Barnes beat Zimon in the primary and went on to win re-election last week.
“I’m proud to be a 94% voting Democrat in a historic district,” Barnes said in the press conference, seated next to his lawyer. “As a lifelong Democrat I’m extremely disappointed for the outright lies that Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, circulated in the 12th House district during the primary election.”
Barnes, who previously served in the Ohio House from 1999-2002, said that while he understands the process of politics, “playing politics does not mean allowing anybody to purposely obfuscate the one man, one vote system by requiring membership in an organization which, in this particular case, I decided not to be a member.”
In the complaint, Barnes alleges that state Rep. Sandra Williams demanded that Rep. Armond Budish contribute $200,000 to the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus in exchange for the group’s support of his election as minority House leader.
Dennis Willard, Budish’s campaign spokesman, denied the charges, saying, “This is an absurd claim on top of a more absurd civil lawsuit.”
The lawsuit further alleges that after Budish was elected House Democratic leader in 2010, Barnes was told by Democratic leadership that he would not be permitted to communicate with Budish about committee assignments “as white Democratic legislators are permitted to do.” Instead, he was told he would have to communicate only through the leader of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Barnes told reporters, “This behavior on particular members … African American members … African American members have to go through another door and the white members go through another door and they expect you to stay in a box of despair.” He said, “They expect you to stay in a box where your voice is minimized in the process. Enough is enough.”
“There are people who would probably turn over in their graves if they knew about the treatment and the efforts to create a plantation-style management of black public officials in the state of Ohio,” said Barnes. “I understand what the focus is, that you want to have people together so you can manage them like they’re on a plantation. That’s just unacceptable. It’s insulting to my intelligence. It’s insulting to the people who honor me with the opportunity of serving a community and serving in the Ohio House of Representatives.”
“You can’t have a process where you tell people, ‘You’re black, you go over here.’ It’s almost telling me I have to go in the back door of a restaurant. I’d use some other terms but they won’t let me,” Barnes said, glancing at his attorney.
“I don’t have time for petty party politics,” Barnes said in Monday’s press conference. He said he waited until this week to file the lawsuit so it wouldn’t hurt his party in the election. “I don’t have time to sit around and focus on ignominious peace — peace for the sake of peace — when I have people in my district who are unemployed, hungry, don’t have an opportunity — and we stand and argue about nothing and get nothing done. I will work with whomever’s in office pursuant to the Ohio Constitution, Article II,” he said.
“Now, I’m a Democrat. Make no mistake about it. But at the same time, I believe that part of being a Democrat is the freedom to place a color on the quilt that reflects your thinking, because that makes up the body of what this process is about,” said Barnes.
Referring to the OLBC’s “plantation mentality,” he said, “I don’t know why these people think that compromise is dishonorable. I don’t believe that compromise in a democracy is dishonorable.”
Barnes is seeking $50,000 in damages in the defamation lawsuit filed Monday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. Prior to this year, most election-related false-statement complaints were heard by the Ohio Elections Commission, but the commission isn’t enforcing complaints about false political speech while the law is being challenged in federal court.