Maybe Christopher Smitherman, the Cincinnati NAACP’s president, is cagier than most people think.
Smitherman spent much of late March defending his selection of an anti-gay rights activist as the legal advisor to the NAACP’s local chapter against a barrage of criticism and national publicity. The appointment came at about the same time as the national NAACP announced it supported the repeal of Proposition 8, which prohibits same sex-marriage in California.
Smitherman appointed Christopher Finney as the local chapter’s “chair of legal redress.” Finney wrote Article 12, a charter amendment passed by Cincinnati voters in 1993 that prohibited city officials from passing any laws that protected gays and lesbians from discrimination or hate crimes. It was repealed in 2004.
Some local bloggers and activists believe Smitherman is using the dispute to “shame” members of the LGBT community into attending a City Hall protest organized by the NAACP and surreptitiously bolster its turnout. The protest, scheduled for Wednesday, is aimed at getting more city contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses.
During his impassioned defense of Finney, Smitherman blamed Cincinnati’s LGBT community for not doing enough to support the city’s African-American community and the causes it advocates, even though the LGBT community allegedly seeks help from blacks. Also, Smitherman said he would rely on Finney to help with the push to overhaul the city’s set-aside program for municipal contracts in an effort to steer more to minority-owned businesses.
The two positions staked out by Smitherman are somewhat strange.
First, as several critics have noted recently, the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter did not take a stance on the repeal of Article 12 in 2004. Many other prominent organizations and officials did, including the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, several top CEOs and the Archbishop of Cincinnati. But the NAACP didn’t, so Smitherman’s claim that repeal supporters depended on African-Americans and “owe” them something in return, in political quid pro quo, rings hollow.
Secondly, as local blogger Nate Livingston Jr. noted, a written statement from Finney's law firm — dating to the 1990s — outlines its opposition to affirmative action, quotas, set-asides and racial preferences. The letter was written by David Langdon, who was an attorney with Finney's firm at the time. Although Langdon is no longer in business with Finney, they still work together on special projects, including COAST/NAACP ballot initiatives, and on matters related to Article 12.
Langdon’s letter stated that set-aside programs were unconstitutional.
“Affirmative action policies — whether quotas, set-asides or preferences — by their very nature, breed racial intolerance," Langdon wrote. "As a society, our conduct and behavior, and, to an extent, our attitudes and prejudices, our (sic) driven by our laws. You see, laws that create preferences based on race or gender alone inevitably result in governmental discrimination. In order to prefer one, government must discriminate against another. And with every instance of discrimination, there is the potential for literally generations of racial intolerance, prejudice and hatred.”
How Finney reconciles his law firm’s conservative legal philosophy with his NAACP work is unclear. Also unclear is why Smitherman trusts Finney to operate in the NAACP’s best interests on this issue.
Since CityBeat last covered the Finney controversy, both Equality Ohio and Equality Cincinnati have issued statements about the appointment.
“We at Equality Cincinnati were disappointed at the recent news regarding the retention by the local NAACP chapter of Chris Finney as legal counsel. We hope this does not signal a change in what we can expect from the NAACP in the future,” stated George Ellis, the local group’s president. “As the leader of an LGBT organization, I take my duty to the entire LGBT community quite seriously. And I take seriously the dual nature of many of their identities. Many of our members are women and LGBT, or persons of color and LGBT, or persons of various faiths and LGBT. Equality Cincinnati must be mindful of these dual or multiple group identities in order to best represent our community.”
Some local gay residents criticize Equality Cincinnati for the tepidness of its response. Also, they noted the statewide group issued a statement on the controversy almost a week earlier than the local group.
Equality Ohio’s statement read, in part, “It is very odd that an organization with civil rights at its core would appoint a person who has demonstrated opposition to equal protection for all people. While homophobia has an adverse affect on LGBT people in general, it has an even more serious impact on LGBT African-Americans, exacerbating existing issues of under-employment, HIV/AIDS, and access to appropriate healthcare.
“We hope that in the 17 years since he wrote the charter amendment effectively exiling LGBT people of all colors from full citizenship and protections in Cincinnati, Mr. Finney has learned not just the value of LGBT people but that of all people and families in Cincinnati.”
“The protest called by Smitherman out of anger and rage is supposedly to protest the city of Cincinnati’s flawed (contracting program) which the city itself is well aware and in the process of fixing,” Kohler wrote. “Mr. Smitherman is well aware of this fact but still calls a protest to do nothing more to show his power.
“Do not enable Christopher Smitherman and show up for this protest! Show your support for minority and small businesses instead by calling or writing City Hall and the mayor’s office and telling them of your support instead. But DO NOT feed Smitherman’s power trip or bend to his will. He has insulted and belittled us. To support HIM at this moment would be not only hypocritical but also paint our community as weak and apathetic.”
We have a photographer scheduled to shoot the protest, and it will be interesting to see what the turnout is like.