Williams, Washington make history

As Black History Month unfolds, Covington’s elected Board
 finds itself more diverse than ever
(EDITOR’S NOTE: To be African-American and elected to City office in Northern Kentucky is rare. To be African-American and serve alongside a colleague who also happens to be African-American might be unprecedented. Yet as Black History Month kicks off this week, two of the four City Commissioners in Covington are Black – and they were the highest voter-getters in the November election.)
COVINGTON, Ky. – Ron Washington remembers as a 6th grader at Covington’s Third District Elementary looking at pictures of American presidents – 39 men, all of them with white skin – and thinking: “I have nothing in common with these people because none of them look like me.”
No kid in Covington should ever feel disenfranchised like that, whether they’re looking at a history book OR watching their local elected leaders, Washington vows today, a pledge he says helps inspire and define his political career.
Michelle Williams has her own presidential-related memory: Sitting in her school’s cafeteria in Washington DC as a young girl when Jimmy Carter came to read to her and her classmates.
Years later, she remembers none of the president’s words -- only staring at him and wondering why she and her classmates were made to sit on the floor.
But, looking back, she wonders whether a seed of political involvement was planted that day, a seed that sprouted years later and miles away when, as a volunteer and advocate in Covington’s Eastside neighborhood, she heard friends express their frustration with the lack of responsiveness from City Hall. “We’re never going to get anything done, we just can’t win,” they said.
Replied Williams: “If it takes one of us getting in there, we’re going to ‘win.’ We’re just going to have to make change from within.”
Today, Washington and Williams, both of whom are African-American, hold elected office in Covington, joining Mayor Joe Meyer and fellow Commissioners Tim Downing and Shannon Smith on the five-member Covington Board of Commissioners.
This is Washington’s first two-year term and Williams’ fourth.
Like their colleagues, both Commissioners say they are committed to representing all of Covington, not just specific populations -- but the historical nature of their election as it relates to race cannot be ignored:
  • Washington (first) and Williams (second) received the highest vote totals in the November election. (By virtue of receiving the most votes, Washington was appointed mayor pro tem of the City, a position Williams held with the previous Commission.)
  • They join Jim Simpson and Pamela Mullins as the only Commissioners in Covington’s history who are African-American.
  • As best any one can find, it’s the first time in Northern Kentucky history that two elected officials who are Black have served on a City Commission or Council at the same time.
  • And their election again brings attention to the rarity of winning elected office in Northern Kentucky if you’re African-American. Not counting school boards, we can find only one other such official today … only one state legislator in history (Arnold Simpson, also from Covington) … and zero officials ever elected to county office in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties.
Covington’s top elected official said those facts are why onlookers definitely should draw meaning from the City’s current representation.
“It’s who we are these days,” Covington Mayor Joe Meyer said. “Covington is Northern Kentucky’s largest and most diverse city, and especially in the last few years we’ve worked to be even more inclusive and welcoming to all people, no matter what their skin color, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or religion. It’s part of our core value. The election of Ron and Michelle was no accident. Covington voters wanted them in office.”
Both Washington and Williams said having Black leadership in a city where 20 percent of residents aren’t white is important for both symbolic and substantive reasons.
“If you’re a young kid who’s Black, you have evidence right in front of you that it’s possible to hold elected office,” Washington said. “Too often the only officeholders of color they see are on TV. And if you live out in the community, and you have a problem or concern and you come here to City Hall (or anywhere) and see nobody who looks like you, how confident do you feel that your grievances will be heard properly?”
Williams said she herself feels that isolation or aloneness when she finds herself the only woman of color on certain regional boards on which she serves as the City of Covington’s representative. “It’s so uncomfortable to go in there (to those meetings),” she said. “But they all know me.”
That “aloneness” is one of the things she hopes to change, not for her own benefit but for the entire region.
How does such a goal play out on a practical level?
Here’s an example: Like other Cities around the region, the Covington Board of Commissioners recently received a slate of board members to confirm for a regional authority to which it belongs as a member City. Williams said she appreciated the expertise of those members and their willingness to serve, but she was put off by the fact that none of the proposed members were women, or of color.
So she objected, and her colleagues on the Commission agreed.
It was too late to propose new members for this cycle (given simultaneous votes by other Cities around the region). But Covington’s confirmation of the slate was delayed until it could be paired with a resolution encouraging regional boards to follow Covington’s lead in promoting diversity and inclusiveness in the recruiting of their board members “to reflect the actual profile of the population of Northern Kentucky.”
That resolution passed 5-0.
While it largely escaped public notice, Williams said, the moment was important in that Covington’s leaders stood up and made clear to the region that effective representation requires a board that represents all strands of the community.
“A lot of people say they want diversity, but I don’t think they always know what that is,” she said.
The issue found receptive ears on the Covington Commission because it’s in line with two similar votes last year that occurred even before Washington’s election.
  • At Williams’ suggestion, Covington in October became the first city in Kentucky to adopt The CROWN Act and its protection from discrimination related to hair texture and hairstyles commonly associated with a particular race or national origin. That vote was 5-0 and put Covington on the leading edge of this issue nationwide.
  • And at Smith’s suggestion, Covington in March 2020 became the first Kentucky city to ban the dangerous practice of “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ youth. That vote was also 5-0.
On the night of the CROWN Act vote, Downing suggested that the expanded protections would continue to place Covington on the vanguard of inclusivity. “We have a unique ability to recognize that the differences that make up our city is one of our strengths,” Downing said. “This will continue to attract people to (Covington).”
Economic Development Director Tom West shared that national experts have concluded that Covington’s growing reputation for diversity made it easier to attract talent, jobs, and investment.
Officials spent much of 2019 working with Atlanta-based Garner Economics on a citywide development strategy that included examining Covington’s reputation among site selectors. That report specifically saluted Covington’s history as “a pathfinder and leader of human rights policies” and concluded that its reputation for being “welcoming” was a positive factor that helped Covington attract creative talent from out of town.
But both Williams and Washington said more work needs to be done.
“The City is rolling. It’s on fire,” Washington said. “But still we have to shine the light in places where we can improve diversity. Whether it’s economic development or code enforcement, it’s important that we’re reflective of the community.”
He said one of his focuses would be to accelerate the progress the City has made in its own hiring across its departments when it comes to diversity. As an active volunteer in Covington schools, he also wants to help improve collaboration between the City and the school system, which has substantially more “minority” students than surrounding school systems.
As she has done throughout her previous three terms, Williams said she will focus on making sure that all Covington neighborhoods, businesses, and populations get equal treatment and have equal opportunity to receive grants, incentives, and other help.
Sometimes that requires a helping hand.
For example, a year ago, the City changed its application for its Small Business Program to give “bonus points” for businesses owned by minorities, women, and military veterans. “It was a staff idea to support diversity for entrepreneurs who might have been disadvantaged in the past,” West said.
Another example involves the City’s search for companies to take on three large tasks at the 23-acre IRS development site: demolish the sprawling facility there, take care of environmental challenges on the property, and design new street and utility infrastructure that will encourage private development. In its recently issued RFQs (requests for qualifications) for the three tasks, the City noted that it was awarding “points” for diversity among companies and their subcontractors, City Manager David Johnston said.
Policies like that are indicative of what Williams and Washington said is sometimes necessary.
“I don’t think, for example, that Blacks and other minorities are intentionally excluded from anything,” Washington said. “But I do think that sometimes it takes a little extra effort and focus to make sure that they are included.”
To call attention to such issues, and to try to broaden the discussion to the regional level, two years ago Covington partnered with three other cities in Kenton County – Independence, Erlanger, and Elsmere – to hold a joint celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. It’s an event that traditionally had been held in Covington only.
It was a small thing – but it could lead to larger and more lasting change.
Although the pandemic caused this year’s MLK Jr. Day event to be smaller and held virtually, the four cities say they will get together later this year to begin forming a strategy that puts tangible goals into action.
Covington’s Commissioners are poised to help shepherd those efforts.
“It’s going to take time, change takes time,” Williams said. “But now we’re at the table.”
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