Via Alex Triantafilou's blog, we learn that the HamCo Republican Party is recommending a "no" vote on Issue 8, which would amend the City Charter to force voting by proportional representation in City Council elections. The official statement from the local GOP:
The Hamilton County Republican Party has historically stood against proportional representation as a method of electing members of city council. The most important factors identified by the Republican Party in opposing this measure is the confusion in how the system operates and the cost associated with implementation. After vigorous debate and discussion, our Party is urging a vote of "NO" on Issue 8.
(Emphasis mine.) Why on earth would the GOP highlight its "historical" position on PR? Whoever drafted this statement for the GOP should either resign his or her post or be asked to step aside. It's one of two things: it's either historically unaware at best, or extraordinarily insensitive at worst.
Before I explain why, let me make sure I'm not misunderstood. In November, people of various political stripes will take various positions on PR. That's why you see rather odd bedfellows like the NAACP, COAST, and the Cincinnati Business Journal supporting the measure. Some people will decide it's a great idea. Others will decide it's not. Neither decision makes a person or group inherently bad or good, inherently racist or not, or inherently democratic or undemocratic. People of good conscience can surely disagree over Issue 8. In fact, while I'm currently leaning towards believing PR is a good idea, I may vote against Issue 8 for an entirely different reason.
Having said that, the history of opposition to PR in this city is not pretty. According to the most complete account I've seen of the 1957 repeal, the motives for the repeal effort were downright racist. Here's how a paper posted on Mt. Holyoke's website describes the situtation:
In Cincinnati, race was the dominant theme in the successful 1957 repeal effort. The single transferable vote had allowed African Americans to be elected for the first time, with two blacks being elected to the city council in the 1950s. The nation was also seeing the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement and racial tensions were running high. PR opponents shrewdly decided to make race an explicit factor in their repeal campaign. They warned whites that PR was helping to increase black power in the city and asked them whether they wanted a "Negro mayor." Their appeal to white anxieties succeeded, with whites supporting repeal by a two to one margin.
Let me be perfectly clear: I do not believe that today's HamCo GOP is motivated by racism in encouraging a rejection of PR. But why would the GOP embrace a history of which it should not be proud?
Neither of the two major parties in this nation has a terrific record regarding racism. While the Democratic Party now trumpets civil rights, this hasn't always been the case. Take the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Dems typically will be willing to talk about the shameful acts that occurred outside the convention that year. What we don't talk about, however, is the shame visited upon our party inside the convention. Just forty years ago, Democratic delegates from Georgia left the convention in protest because the DNC seated a racially integrated delegation from Mississippi. That happened within the lifespan of the majority of Americans. Have we--as a party and a nation--come a long way since then? Absolutely. But need we always be mindful of this terrible part of our history? Absolutely.
I'm not suggesting that anyone should vote against Republicans or Republican positions on the basis of things that happened 50 years ago. I am concerned, though, when party leaders--be they Republican, Democratic, or of any other stripe--make statements that demonstrate a lack of awareness of our roots, both as parties and as a nation. The historical opposition to PR is not something for anyone in this City of be proud of or to embrace, and I hope the local GOP will amend its position to make its current motives for rejecting PR clear.