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May 16, 2017 10:31:48 AM
A Columbus councilman is standing by his decision to mail out campaign material that openly invokes race as an issue for this year's municipal elections.
Charlie Box, a Republican seeking his third term as Ward 3 councilman, confirmed to The Dispatch he mailed the letter last week to as many as 700 of his "supporters." It contains a photo of Box at the top of the page and the councilman's photo-copied signature at the bottom.
"On June 6, 2017, Columbus will have one of the most important elections it has held in many years," the first line of the letter reads. "We have a rare opportunity to maintain the current racial make up of the council at 4-2. We may even be able to move it to 3-3 for the first time in recent history. If we don't go vote, we could wind up with 6-0 on the council and I think that will be disastrous for the city. We MUST get our voters out to the polls on June 6."
The Dispatch obtained a screen shot of Box's letter from an anonymous source via text message Monday night.
Box and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin are the two whites serving on the council, and both are Republicans. Mark Ward, a former Columbus assistant fire chief who is running as a Republican challenger for the Ward 5 seat, is the only other white candidate running for council. There is a black candidate running in each ward, including Box's opponent, Democrat Charlotte Verdell, who he will face in the June 6 general election. That means, while Box's 6-0 breakdown does not explicitly reference race, it is not possible for whites to lock down all six spots.
Still, Box said he doesn't believe the letter is racist and repeatedly asserted he doesn't understand how anyone could find it offensive.
"Why is it wrong for a city councilman to talk about diversity?" Box said. "How many times have you seen that the council voted along racial lines. And we do.
"I don't see anything wrong with the letter, but maybe I'm way off base," he added. "... I've run a good campaign, and I stand by the letter. I'm not a racial person. I don't have a racial bone in my body."
Who are 'we'?
Box summarily dismissed the notion the "we" he calls upon in his letter refers to whites, insisting instead the campaign piece is geared specifically to Republicans. He admitted, however, most of those Republicans are white, adding "I'm a realist."
"I'd be happy for the racial makeup to stay at 4-2, and I say that (in the letter)," Box said. "But would it have been better for me to say Republican or Democrat? Because we (also) have an opportunity to keep it 4-2 Democrat or a 3-3 split (of Democrats and Republicans).
"I don't know why anyone would make a big deal of this," he added. "Not a single supporter of mine would be offended by this because they know me and they know my heart. There's nothing here for them to be offended by."
Verdell, who said she hadn't seen a copy of the letter before The Dispatch provided her the screen shot Monday night, said her candidacy was neither about race nor party.
"I believe in doing the right things for the right causes and because I have a heart for this great city," she said in a text message. "I don't see this as a political party race. I see an opportunity to serve all people in the best ways possible."
Gavin, Ward respond
Neither Gavin nor Ward criticized Box for his campaign tactic, but both said they had little concern for the council's racial makeup.
"To me, it's party makeup, and that's the way I look at it," said Gavin, who is also seeking his third term. "Some councilmen have more progressive viewpoints and others more conservative. I'm more conservative. It's never been a racial thing for me. As far as my campaign, I'm running on the positive things I've done for the city and the things I can do in the future."
Ward said he didn't feel comfortable commenting on whether Box's letter was offensive or a valid campaign tactic but added he "understands what he's saying in the letter."
"All I'm trying to do is get Mark Ward elected to the council," he said.
Gavin did defend Box as a "good man and a good councilman." Whether someone would find Box's letter offensive, he said, "goes to the individual."
"You know, some people find the Confederate flag offensive," he said. "Some don't."
Box accuses Turner
Box told The Dispatch he maintains a good working relationship with three of the black councilmen - specifically Ward 1's Gene Taylor, Ward 2's Joseph Mickens and Ward 5's Stephen Jones.
He said he doesn't work particularly well with Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner, and he believes Turner to be the one drumming up outrage over his letter.
"We've had a good term, with the exception of Marty Turner," Box said. "I think the criticism is coming from him, and I couldn't care less what Marty Turner thinks. All the rest of them, I've gotten along with fine. This (letter) was not a knock at them."
Turner said he hasn't seen Box's letter and was unaware it existed before Monday night. He also brushed aside Box's claim the two had a poor working relationship on the council.
"I'm not there to be friends with any of the councilmen," he said. "I'm there to represent the people of Ward 4."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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