Adherents of conventional political wisdom say that Youngstown mayoral candidate DeMaine Kitchen is a goner if an investigation finds that he sexually harassed a female city employee.
But, this year’s race for mayor is anything but conventional. It is being contested against the backdrop of a racial divide that gets wider by the day.
The black community has found several issues to rally around, including the sexual harassment allegations made by Lyndsey Hughes, who is white, against Kitchen, who is black.
Hughes is the director of downtown events, while Kitchen was the chief of staff and secretary for Mayor Charles Sammarone.
It is also politically relevant that Hughes is involved in the campaign of John A. McNally IV, former Mahoning County commissioner and ex-Youngstown law director. McNally is white.
Thus, while white voters in the city can be expected to rise up in indignation if the investigation confirms Hughes’ allegations, the reaction from black voters will be to accuse McNally of playing dirty politics.
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As for the sexual harassment, if confirmed, blacks will have a different perspective — related to the history of harassment suffered by many of them in various settings.
A white woman complaining about a black man will remind the older generation of a time in this country, especially in the South, where there was always danger lurking in race relations. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman is still fresh in the minds of many.
But it isn’t just Hughes’ complaint against Kitchen that is causing the racial divide in Youngstown to widen.
The recent decision by Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras to remove three blacks from the executive committee because they’re supporting Kitchen and not McNally, the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 5 general election, has the community up in arms as well.
Finally, there’s the issue of Kitchen’s nonpayment of taxes. Rather than criticize him, black voters are empathizing with him, given the economic challenges many of them face as a result of the national economic recession.
Again, McNally is being blamed for the press finding out about the former chief of staff’s tax problems.
In retaliation, McNally is being hounded over his criminal indictment while serving as county commissioner.
He, along with other officeholders and a prominent businessman, were charged by the state of conspiring to undermine the relocation of the Job and Family Services agency from the McGuffey Mall, owned by the Cafaro Co., to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place, the former South Side Medical Center.
Trial was set to begin when the state dropped the charges because the FBI would not share the 2,000 hours of audio and video surveillance of at least one of the defendants in the state case, Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president of the Cafaro Co.
The charges can be refiled.
McNally, like Kitchen, denies he did anything wrong.
Given that these two candidates are leading the pack of six, the question that confronts the voters today is simply this: What now?
From a purely political standpoint, the racial divide will be evident in the voting patterns.
Mayor Sammarone, who took over the reins of the city in August 2011 when Jay Williams joined the Obama administration, says that given the population of the city, McNally cannot win the mayor’s race without black votes.
On the other hand, there are other blacks on the ballot, which could diminish Kitchen’s support.
Sammarone’s decision not to seek a full term and, instead, run for city council president, the seat he held prior to becoming mayor, has turned the mayoral contest into a no-holds-barred affair.
The next 22 days promise to be even more politically tense, with the personal foibles of McNally and Kitchen overshadowing their positions on issues relating to the governance of the city.
It may well be that the campaign that rakes the most muck will come out ahead.
A long-time observer of area politics suggests the personal attacks have awakened the electorate, which is a good thing given the poor turnout in the May Democratic primary.