Cincinnati's First Black Mayor, Theodore M. Berry,
Led the Fight for Proportional Representation for Half a Century --Bill Collins
On November 4, voters in the City of Cincinnati will have a chance to reverse a past injustice by approving Issue 8. Issue 8 will restore proportional representation (PR) for Cincinnati City Council elections.
For several decades, the person who led the fight for PR in Cincinnati was Theodore M. (Ted) Berry, the city's first African-American mayor. Berry's public fight for proportional representation began during the 1947 municipal election when he was 42 years old.
During that election season, the Hamilton County Republican organization gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot to repeal PR, a voting system that had been used successfully to elect the Cincinnati City Council for the previous 20 years. Ted Berry ran for city council in 1947 as an independent candidate. The only other black candidate in 1947, incumbent Republican city councilman Jesse Locker, took a neutral position on the PR repeal attempt. During previous failed attempts to repeal PR in 1937 and 1939, the majority of black voters in Cincinnati had voted against PR.
In 1947, black representation was greater in Cincinnati than in Detroit. Once Ted Berry entered the debate, the Cincinnati black community began to coalesce around PR. In his 1947 campaign, Berry explained that while PR had allowed blacks in Cincinnati to win representation on the city council as far back as 1931, in Detroit (a city with a much larger black community) no African Americans had ever been elected to the Detroit City Council. Berry explained that this Detroit system – an at-large system which kept the Detroit City Council all-white at that time – was the same system that PR opponents in Cincinnati were proposing that year to replace PR.
In the book, PR Politics in Cincinnati, (New York University Press, 1958) the New York University political science professor Ralph Arthur Straetz reported that in 1947, Ted Berry supported proportional representation because it gave the black community the balance of power in city hall. "The politicians know this and want to destroy [our] bargaining power and control the Negro vote," Berry wrote. "We have only received recognition when it was forced from the political bosses. . . Without PR our jobs, businesses, unions, homes and community welfare would be controlled by political bosses. . . I [will] seek to prove that a minority group representative can be an instrument for the welfare of the community rather than a tool for partisan interests."
Although Ted Berry narrowly lost his bid for council in 1947, the attempt to repeal PR failed, and the black Republican councilman Jesse Locker was re-elected under the PR system. In that 1947 municipal election, PR received about half of the vote in the black community.
In 1949, two African Americans are elected to Cincinnati's nine-member council. Two years later in 1949, Locker was re-elected, and Berry won a seat on council as an endorsed candidate of the Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati. After that 1949 election, the Cincinnati black community – at that time only 15.5% of Cincinnati's population -- held 22% (two out of nine) seats on Cincinnati City Council. [Please note that today, when blacks comprise more than 40% of the population in the City of Cincinnati, the current "9X" at-large election system has produced a situation where again just 22% (two out of nine) of the seats on Cincinnati City Council are held by blacks.]
After winning his council seat in 1949, Berry served on Cincinnati City Council until 1957, when Republicans and some Democrats joined in yet another effort to repeal PR. During their 1957 campaign, the anti-PR forces warned voters that Berry might become mayor under PR. [In those days, the mayor was selected by a vote of the nine-member city council. If that had happened, Ted Berry would have become the first black mayor of any major city in the USA.]
In court testimony many years later (in 1993), Berry described the 1957 attack on PR. According to newspaper accounts published in 1993, Ted Berry testified, "I am persuaded in my own mind that the primary motivation to each effort to repeal PR, beginning in 1936, was motivated by the desire and intention to dilute the impact of a mobilized and organized black vote." After PR was repealed in 1957, no blacks were elected to Cincinnati City Council until 1963 and Berry lost re-election despite being the top vote-getter under PR. Berry moved to Washington, D.C. from 1965 to 1970 to take a position in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. Later, after returning to Cincinnati, Ted Berry served as the city's first black mayor from 1972 until 1975.
In 1986, Ted Berry and the Rainbow Coalition revive PR
In 1986, Berry helped to revive the discussion on PR in Cincinnati. That year he was invited by the Hamilton County Rainbow Coalition (a coalition that was organized nationally to support the 1984 Presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson) to debate the merits of PR and district elections.
After the debate, the local chapter of the Rainbow Coalition decided to lead a citizen's initiative campaign to return PR to Cincinnati. That effort brought PR elections to the ballot in November 1988, the first referendum on PR in the City of Cincinnati since 1957. The issue was approved in more than half of the city's wards, but a higher turnout in anti-PR voting wards defeated the measure citywide. Three years later, in 1991, PR supporters again brought the issue to the ballot. In that 1991 referendum, PR won about two-thirds of the vote in the black community and 45% of the vote citywide.
In 1992, Berry gave the keynote speech at the founding national conference of Citizens for Proportional Representation (now known as FairVote, at www.fairvote.org). In 1993, 88-year-old Ted Berry jumped back into the fray again, when he and other supporters of PR from Cincinnati's black community petitioned a U.S. District Court to intervene in a voting rights case against Cincinnati's 9X at-large council voting system (the same system that is used today to elect Cincinnati City Council).
In March 1995, Berry once again testified on behalf of PR before a Cincinnati charter commission hearing. At that hearing, Berry joined former Ohio governor John Gilligan, who had served with Ted Berry on the Cincinnati City Council during the 1950s. Together Berry and Gilligan made an impressive argument for the fundamental fairness of proportional representation.
This fall, Cincinnati voters will once again have a chance to return PR for city council elections by voting for Issue 8. Please vote for Issue 8 on the November 4 General Election ballot.
Bill Collins has lived in Cincinnati since 1988. He worked closely with Mayor Theodore M. Berry on behalf of Proportional Representation during the early 1990s.