News analysis

Commission candidate questions Christian Bennett’s reasons for abstaining from racism vote

‘Abstaining is not leading,’ wrote John Kennedy, a Democratic challenger for the county commission seat

Ben Wolford
Sep 23, 2020 · 5 min read

Last week, the Democratic candidate for Portage County Commissioner, John Kennedy, published an article on his website arguing that his opponent may have abstained from a vote to declare racism a public health crisis for reasons other than the one she gave.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so I think it’s probably easiest to present this chronologically.

Back in July, we interviewed Commissioner Sabrina Christian Bennett about systemic racism as part of a series of conversations with public officials in Portage County following the death of George Floyd. We asked if she would consider declaring racism a public health crisis, as the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County had done.

“That would be something I would be interested in considering, most definitely,” she replied.

So then earlier this month, the Board of Commissioners did just that. You can follow that link to read the declaration and understand the various aspects of it. But it basically recites several racial health inequalities, such as lower life expectancy and infant mortality, and traces these to social disadvantages born by racism. It lays out broad steps forward.

But Christian Bennett did not participate in the vote, which passed 2–0, saying during the meeting that county commissioners are not granted authority to make such a declaration. This is true, but they aren’t prohibited from doing so, either.

At the time, I called Christian Bennett to clarify her position, and she told me, “It’s virtually worthless. You can pass resolutions all you want, but it has no power.” And then she said she had to go.

In Kennedy’s article, titled “Abstaining is not leading,” he suggested Christian Bennett may have had other reasons for abstaining.

“She may not believe that systemic racism is a problem worthy of being addressed in our county,” he wrote.

He cited her interview with The Portager in which she said, “In my mind, we don’t have a huge race problem. Racism goes on, no matter if it’s Black and white or white and Black, racism goes on every day.”

“In other words,” he wrote, “we don’t have a big race problem — yet it happens every day — and somehow we’ve achieved some sort of ‘both sides’ equivalency between Blacks and whites when it comes to being racist.”

We asked Christian Bennett about Kennedy’s column, and she sent us a written statement confirming that she did abstain for reasons beyond those she previously stated, calling the declaration a “political stunt.”

Here’s what she said:

Talking is not leading. I stand by my vote to abstain from the political stunt at our last Commissioner’s meeting. Read the entire Ohio Revised Code from start to finish — County Commissioners are not given the authority to declare a public health crisis for any reason. I voted to abstain from the political, nonbinding declaration at our last County Commissioner’s meeting because I respect the role of our Ohio Department of Health and Portage County General Health District. So many people are second guessing our Health Departments and doctors, and I won’t join my opponent in doing so just to garner votes.

I was also deeply troubled that my colleagues chose to draft this “declaration” and called for a vote without giving me or our community any meaningful chance for input. In the near final version, which was included in the official agenda for our Commissioner’s meeting, there was a very troubling “Whereas” clause, which was removed last minute because of its offensive and racially insensitive nature. I was horrified to read that my colleagues proposed the statement that “Black pregnant women in Portage County are 26% more likely to be overweight prior to pregnancy than a white pregnant woman.” I take issue with this “statistic,” and it calls into question the accuracy and good faith of the entire declaration. I could never vote in favor of such a statement. It should have never been proposed, and I am truly saddened that such a racially insensitive statement was included in a public record of the Commission as part of our formal agenda.

Actions speak louder than words, and talk is cheap. Portage County residents are speaking to us loud and clear. They are tired of hearing their local politicians talk and talk and talk about important issues for year after year without doing anything. I am committed to act within the scope of my authority as your Portage County Commissioner to make our home the best place to live, work, raise a family and retire in Ohio regardless of the color of our skin. My daughter is engaged to an African American, and I am passionate about building a community of equality and acceptance for my future grandchildren. This is not a political issue for me, this is a family issue, and I am 100 percent committed to promoting diversity and equality wherever I can make a difference.

There’s a lot to unpack from this statement, staring with the paradoxical “vote to abstain,” and I’m sure some people on social media will try. I’ll only deal with a few key points:

I don’t know the context of the proposed and retracted recital about racial weight disparities, and I didn’t have time to follow up with Clyde about this. I don’t know if it’s fair to call this statistic “racially insensitive,” given that body weight is a valid subject of public health research, though I hope someone will gently correct me if I’m mistaken.

I did, however, ask Christian Bennett to clarify her suggestion that she was not properly consulted about the resolution and to identify her alternative policy proposals to address some of the inequalities identified in the resolution. I’ll update this post if she replies.

Earlier yesterday, Clyde sent us this statement regarding Christian Bennett’s abstention:

“The prosecutor (our legal counsel) reviewed the resolution and did not see a problem with it. Additionally, we are the seventh county in Ohio to pass a similar resolution.”

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