For some people, City Councilman Christopher Smitherman is Cincinnati’s wakeup call for change. Smitherman’s election to council in November proved not only that independent candidates can get elected, but that city residents wanted someone who is outspoken and didn’t pull his punches at City Hall.
Smitherman is the first African-American elected as an independent candidate. This is his second time serving on City Council, having been elected to a single term as a Charterite in 2003; he lost a reelection bid in 2005.
“I have been blessed and I am free,” Smitherman says. “I am not controlled by a major party. I don’t have a boss telling me how to cast my vote.”
Smitherman’s political beliefs stem from his family. “My father taught me to never hide my intelligence, which many of our elders did to survive,” he says.
Rabble rouser, militant, community activist, agitator and “crazy” are just a few words that have been used to describe the newly minted councilman.
Smitherman says he believes in greater fairness about how city services are allocated, distribution of wealth and creating a smaller government to help move Cincinnati forward.
Smitherman’s success as a candidate stems from his high-profile role leading the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter. Since he’s been the group’s president, Smitherman has placed seven initiatives on the ballot, four of which were successful. This is the first time in Cincinnati’s history that an African-American organization placed issues before the people for a vote.
“Cincinnati hates facing the damn truth.
That is the problem. I am not trying to sugar coat any problems that are facing our region,” Smitherman says.
But with change comes controversy — and controversy follows Smitherman.
Recently Smitherman came under scrutiny by the city’s Law Department when a citizen charged that he violated the national NAACP’s bylaws. Smitherman remains president of the Cincinnati chapter after he tendered his resignation to the executive committee, which refused to accept it. As such, he can continue to serve as the chapter’s president.
Smitherman dismisses the charge, alleging the naysayers didn’t know what they were talking about and probably have never been a member of the NAACP.
“This is a private organization,” he says. “We don’t receive any money from the federal, state or city governments and we don’t have our hands out asking for anything. Frankly, it’s none of their business.”
Nationally, there are several NAACP chapters whose presidents have held public office, Smitherman says. In Cincinnati, however, the president traditionally would resign to serve in public office.
“It’s a non-paid position. I’ve been president for the last five years and people can’t get their arms wrapped around authentic African-American leadership. … I am highly educated and financially independent and I feel like some solutions that will help our community — not programs, not social programs — we need economic empowerment,” he adds.
Smitherman, 44, lives in North Avondale with his wife and five children. He’s employed as a financial planner.
Some people have questioned Smitherman’s sanity because of the intensity he displays on his cable TV access show while discussing issues.
“Is he crazy?” is often a question asked about Smitherman, because people misperceive his passion, supporters say. Pundits can’t pinpoint his political allegiance, so no one knows for sure where he stands on an issue and that makes some people uncomfortable, they add.
Smitherman says he is an independent that has Democratic leanings on some issues but also adheres to the Republican virtues of being fiscally conservative and believing in smaller government.
Election results show that nearly 24,000 residents — a majority of them white — elected Smitherman to council at the same time that voters chose a Democratic majority with the largest number of African-Americans ever serving on council.
If you ask Smitherman to describe himself, he chooses attributes that have nothing to do with politics. He notes that he’s a family man who has been married for 21 years and is a small business owner.
“I think of the many public figures who give so much of their time and forget their own family,” he says. “I want to be known as the best dad in the entire world.”
Referring to other council members that have run for various political offices while serving at City Hall, Smitherman adds, “I love Cincinnati. That’s my passion. I have no desire to run for Congress. This is my job.” ©
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