Guest Column: Why The Auditor's Race Matters

Down in Athens County, not far from the Ohio River and West Virginia border, lies the site of an old, abandoned mine.

If you know where to look, eventually you’ll find it, marked solemnly by a tall historical marker. A ghostly brick smokestack stretches from the Appalachian woods, reaching several stories into the sky.

87 years ago, 82 men were killed when an explosion in that very mine triggered its collapse. The Millfield Mine Disaster, as its known, remains the worst mining disaster in Ohio history.

Two months prior to that catastrophic event in Athens County, my father Socrates J. Space was born to a family of Greek immigrants in another Appalachian community just south of Canton.

Soc grew up in Dover, Ohio during the Great Depression -- in the poorest part of one of Ohio’s poorest towns. He shined shoes as a kid, then worked in the steel mills and fought with the Marine Corps in Korea before attending Ohio State on the G.I. Bill.

Soc and I practiced law together in Dover for 20 years, until I was elected to Congress in 2006. His long tenure in Democratic politics inspired me to get active in the first place.

My father earned the success he’s enjoyed in life. He learned English as a young child after speaking only Greek at home.

He volunteered to fight in a war a world away, spending the winter of 1952 on the Korean Peninsula. He completed undergraduate and law degrees, succeeding where no one else in our family had before.

Such a story should be possible for everyone born in the United States, and for all who come here. But it’s not.

Government, the institution designed to be responsive to the people, has no business suppressing the potential of its citizens. But it has.

And race has been perhaps the best predictor of individual success and prosperity, or lack thereof, throughout American history.

If my father was a black man, things probably would have turned out differently for him and for our family

The turning point in our history, the single event that helped us escape generational poverty, was Soc’s college education, made possible by the G.I. Bill. Yet these benefits were specifically withheld from black veterans.

Far too few Americans acknowledge the extent to which systematic discrimination by our government has denied people of color the opportunity to reach the security and happiness that my father achieved.

It’s time we had an honest conversation about the state of politics in this country.

About the corrupting influence that money has on public policy.

About how partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression -- which target people of color - -- destroy our faith in the political process, and in the power of the vote.

And perhaps most importantly, about the gaps in wealth and wellness that still persist between races.

Last August, when I officially announced my campaign, I held kickoff events in four carefully-chosen places. The first two, Martins Ferry and Zanesville, are poor Appalachian towns in Eastern Ohio, where a generational reliance on natural resource extraction has stunted the development of a resilient regional economy.

The third was East Columbus, in a predominantly black neighborhood where beginning in the 1930s, “redlining” prevented residents from securing loans to buy homes and develop the area. That legacy of systematic discrimination persists today.

Our final stop was in Lima, a working-class manufacturing city in Northwestern Ohio that has been upended by globalization.

The histories and cultural demographics of these places are vastly different, but they have all been hurt by political decisions made without their input and interests in mind.

By striking at the heart of the deep-rooted flaws that exist in our political process, we can end the political injustices that have prevented our system from working for all Ohioans.

The Auditor of State is Ohio’s top taxpayer watchdog, with the broad authority to review all spending of taxpayer dollars. The dynamic potential of this office has barely been touched.

Through what are known as “Performance Audits,” the Auditor can review entire state agencies and departments to make wholesale recommendations for more effective and fair government.

For instance, an audit of the Department of Medicaid can create recommendations for an aggressive and proactive plan to deal with the opioid epidemic, worse in Ohio than anywhere else in the United States. The State of Ohio spends hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with this crisis every year, however, no comprehensive action plan has been produced.

Another example: a recent audit of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections avoided asking any tough questions of Ohio’s criminal justice system, and instead merely reviewed the efficiency of the Department’s vehicles.

At a time of sweeping reforms to criminal justice nationwide, and with such a regressive Attorney General leading the U.S. Department of Justice, Ohio should focus on finding progressive ways to do the right thing and save taxpayers money.

When my administration reviews the Department of Corrections, we’ll be much more aggressive and dynamic in tackling fundamental questions of racial disparities.

The Auditor is also a member of the Redistricting Commission, which will soon redraw Ohio’s legislative districts. I will use my role on that Commission to end partisan gerrymandering in Ohio, once and for all.

My father has taught me so much about politics and life. He insisted on the importance of social justice in its many forms: access to a decent education, access to health care, racial justice, gender justice, environmental justice, and more.

But unless and until we achieve political justice -- and ensure the preservation of the most basic principles of our democratic society -- progress across the realm of social justice will not be as effective or sustainable.

Let the memories of the miners killed in Millfield in 1930, and the perseverance of those pushing for change in the streets today, serve as our inspiration.

The fight for political justice is daunting. But it is, without question, a worthy one.

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