Ken Blackwell could be Ohio's first black governor -- if only blacks could stand him.

Blacks Against Blackwell
Blackwell seemingly lost interest in courting black voters.
Blackwell seemingly lost interest in courting black voters.
Nothing about Lang Dunbar seems radical. A 70-year-old man in bifocals and a floppy hat, he possesses a genial smile and a Wal-Mart greeter's enthusiasm.

But you wouldn't know it from the reactions of passersby as he hands out fliers near the entrance of the Cleveland zoo.

An aging hippie with an earring and New Balance sneakers looks at the pamphlet and smiles conspiratorially. "This, I like."

A gray-haired woman in Jackie O sunglasses takes one look and says, "Oh my!"

A stroller-pushing man makes a face like he's sucking a lemon. "Y'know what? You can have this back," he says.

On this tranquil day of good cheer, Dunbar's literature is like a live hand grenade. As a member of Blacks Against Blackwell, he's dedicated himself to a singular message: Ken Blackwell is our color, but not our kind.

"We're ostracized by the Democratic Party, and we know why: 'cause we bring it raw," says Dunbar, grinning beatifically. "We're saying what people can't say and don't dare say."

Indeed, the media flack for Democrat Ted Strickland, Blackwell's gubernatorial opponent, can't bring himself to utter even the name of the controversial group.

"This campaign that you're talking about is not part of the Strickland for Governor campaign, and there's no affiliation or coordination, certainly," says spokesman Keith Dailey, using the cautious tones of a hostage negotiator. "Ted has said in the past that he would certainly not condone the use of race in this campaign for governor."

But race became an issue the moment Blackwell earned the Republican nomination, giving him a chance to become the first black governor in Ohio history -- and only the second anywhere in the United States.

Here was the rare Republican candidate capable of eroding the Democrats' most loyal constituency. Blacks typically make up about 7 to 8 percent of Ohio voters -- enough to swing victory in a state viewed as more purple than reliably red or blue.

At the time, Blackwell claimed he could garner 40 percent of the black vote -- though this may have been wishful thinking. Although he had won 40 percent of the black votes in his hometown of Cincinnati during his 2002 reelection as Secretary of State, he notched only about 24 percent of the black vote statewide.

Still, it was a haul, compared to the mid-teens white Republicans usually get.

"He told black people, 'Abandon the Democratic Party, and come over and vote for me because I'm black,'" says Stanley Tolliver, a local radio host and civil rights attorney. "That's an insult. As far as I'm concerned, he's colored passing for Negro. He ain't black. And you can quote me on that."

As proof that Blackwell's a sellout, the group points to his history as a campus radical. While a student at Xavier University, Blackwell was an afro-sporting, dashiki-wearing activist. But his views moderated over time, until eventually he switched from Democrat to Republican.

Along the way, Blackwell raked in a reported $10-$15 million from a timely investment in a black radio chain. The Secretary of State's refusal to release his tax returns -- the first time an Ohio candidate for governor has balked in 24 years -- only fuels suspicions about his windfall.

"All of a sudden, he went from Ken Blackwell the militant to Ken Blackwell the multimillionaire," says group treasurer Larry Rush, who owns a janitorial supply company.

If Blackwell was in danger of being viewed as bourgeois, he didn't help matters when he came out against affirmative action, carrying water for the Bush administration during an appearance on Larry King Live.

"I personally think Strickland is blacker than Blackwell," Rush says. "He has melanin in his skin, but his thought pattern is not black."

Then came the controversial 2004 presidential election. Blackwell, who moonlighted as co-chair of the Committee to Re-Elect George Bush in Ohio, was widely viewed as having taken a kitchen-sink approach to suppressing the black vote -- everything from regulating the card stock of voter registrations to allowing partisan challengers at polls.

"His rulings and decisions have had a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other low-income people," says Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Cleveland), who went so far as to protest the certification of Ohio's vote in 2004.

Despite his trunkload of baggage, at first Blackwell tried to court black voters. In March, he met with more than 70 black pastors at Antioch Baptist Church. At the time, Reverend Marvin McMickle challenged Strickland: "Tell me why I shouldn't vote for Ken Blackwell."

But Blackwell didn't follow through on his promise to reach out to the inner city, and McMickle is now preaching from a different page.

"I don't know how you expect to win a statewide election if you ignore Cuyahoga County, which I think he has done," McMickle says of Blackwell. "I think he blew it. I think this could have been a very competitive election."

Indeed, recent polls show Blackwell trailing Strickland by double digits. Increasingly, a whiff of desperation surrounds his campaign. Last week, he stooped to accusing Strickland of supporting the North American Man-Boy Love Association. And there were fears that Blackwell might use his position as Secretary of State to disqualify Strickland from the ballot.

Blackwell's camp did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, but Blackwell has been outspoken on the issue of race.

"It would be a mistake for anybody to vote for me just because of the color of my skin," he has said repeatedly.

On this, if nothing else, he and his critics agree.

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