Interview: Constance Gadell-Newton, Green Party Candidate for Ohio House District 18
Constance Gadell-Newton is the Green Party’s candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives District 18, which includes The Ohio State University’s campus, the Short North, and Downtown, among other areas. Gadell-Newton is running against the newly appointed Rep. Kristin Boggs, a Democrat; the Republican candidate has left the race. I met Gadell-Newton almost a decade ago at a punk house show. Throughout the years we’ve been acquainted, she’s been a ubiquitous presence at community meetings, protests, and at neighborhood projects like the bygone Clintonville Community Market or the Sporeprint Infoshop. Gadell-Newton is currently a criminal defense attorney at the law firm Fitrakis & Gadell-Newton.
James Payne: You’re the only Green Party candidate contesting an Ohio House of Representatives district in the 2016 election. How did you decide to run, and to run in the 18th District in particular?
Constance Gadell-Newton: I decided to run for a local office and I chose this position because I thought it was a winnable race. I have lived in this district for a very long time. It’s a small enough district that I can bike to every part of it, and I probably have.
JP: The 18th District is curious in that it contains The Ohio State University’s Campus, Victorian Village, the Short North, Downtown, German Village, Franklinton, and Bexley, but not, for instance, Upper Arlington, Cleveland Avenue, the Hilltop, or Linden. How does a district get drawn in this manner, and what do you think the intent of its organization is?
CGN: I think they were carving out a Democratic district, throwing the party a bone so to speak. I have heard that it’s the wealthiest district in Ohio. If you look at it, it’s very gerrymandered. They have concentrated all the Democrats there so there will be more Republican districts overall.
Did you hear that there was a police shooting this week? This time the victim was a child named Tyre King. He was a 13 year-old boy, and this happened in my district, about three blocks from my house, a block from my office. The boy was alleged to have a BB gun, which many of our kids do. I don’t really think we know the facts. Some are claiming he “pointed” the BB gun “at” the officer, but I do not think we know this is true.
JP: What would Constance Gadell-Newton say, as an Ohio House Representative for the area, about the police shooting of 13 year-old Tyre King? What policies would you advocate for to curtail police shootings of black people in Ohio?
CGN: As far as policy, I would say that the violence has got to stop and that has to start somewhere. Many are blaming this child or his parents – people blame individuals to excuse this kind of police behavior. But the government is responsible for setting policy, including police training and protocol, and therein lies the real problem.
As a matter of policy, I want officers to be trained in non-violent de-escalation tactics, non-violent communication, and hostage negotiation with the goal to prevent the loss of life. I also want officers to receive treatment for PTSD; if officers are too fearful and jumpy to act appropriately in tense situations, then they need to be taken off the force or give up their guns.
JP: What would non-violent de-escalation tactics have entailed in the situation of the police shooting of Tyre King?
CGN: I think police need to slow down and talk more. Just because someone has a gun does not mean they are going to use it to shoot an officer. Guns are legal in Ohio; Ohio is an open-carry state.
Consider the shooting of Tamir Rice: police rolled up quickly and shot the young man before they properly assessed the situation. They should have approached Tamir more slowly. Police need to consider that children have much less maturity and cannot be treated the same as adults.
There is a lot of security work that can be done without having guns at all. Consider how nurses and medical staff deal with the mentally ill. If a mentally ill person is suicidal and has a knife, nurses and staff have to deal with that person; they are sometimes even assaulted on the job, but they do not shoot their patients. However, when police come to the scene, they often shoot a mentally ill person that the family has called for the police to help them with.
JP: Prior to her appointment to the House District 18 seat, your opponent, Rep. Kristin Boggs, was an Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Crime Victims office under the Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine. Neither the police officers who murdered 12 year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, nor the Beavercreek officer who killed John Crawford in a Wal-Mart for holding a toy BB gun were indicted for their crimes. Given her former position in the AG’s office – Ohio’s ultimate legal authority – does Rep. Boggs bear responsibility for the state’s failure to indict in these cases?
CGN: I think she probably worked on compensation for victims of crime applications. When someone is a victim of crime, sometimes the state will pay for their medical bills. I am not sure what compensation the families could receive if the victim was found to be at fault and the police officer was exonerated. Probably nothing. It is classic victim-blaming and covering up for government actors who kill American citizens. [JP: The City of Cleveland paid Tamir Rice’s family six million dollars to settle a federal lawsuit; the state’s case, however, ended when a grand jury failed to indict after the state prosecutor chose not to make a recommendation to the jury – a choice DeWine agreed with.]
I do not know if Boggs has made any statement about the King killing, which occurred in her district.
JP: Rep. Boggs is from Ashtabula, Ohio, and was educated at Kent State and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. You’re from the Columbus area and attended Bishop-Watterson High School and The Ohio State University before receiving your J.D. at Penn State. Should voters of the 18th District take this difference into account? Would the fact that Rep. Boggs hails from Ashtabula have an effect on her ability to represent the 18th District?
CGN: I have heard from others who have met her that she does not seem to relate well to the public. The fact of the matter is she was appointed to that position because her daddy was a politician and she has a name that has already been used in Ohio politics. [JP: Rep. Boggs’s father, Bob Boggs, was Senate Minority Leader and Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Rep. Boggs’s uncle, Ross Boggs Jr. was House Minority Leader.] Although she lives here now, she is not from this district, or even from Columbus.
I have spent numerous years in the district living, working, and going to school. I went to OSU and then did community work in Weinland Park for several years. I have always worked with the people on the level of the neighborhoods and the streets.
I think there is a big problem with people coming from outside of the city to work here. Police officers are often from outside of the county. They choose to segregate themselves in white suburbs and then come to my community to work and to police black people and city people. They are coming in with a lot of fear and little understanding of how our communities work.
I already represent the people of my district in court everyday. I see the impact that government policies and government intervention has on people’s everyday lives.
JP: You’re a partner with Columbus State Community College Professor and Green Party candidate for Franklin County Prosecutor Bob Fitrakis in the law firm Fitrakis and Gadell-Newton. What type of cases does your firm usually take on?
CGN: I represent people in Municipal Court (misdemeanors and traffic cases), Common Pleas (adult felonies), and Juvenile Court (child abuse and neglect; juvenile misdemeanors and felonies).
I fight for people’s rights to be free from government intrusion in their daily lives and I fight to uphold the people’s rights under the constitution. I see the government penalizing people and raising revenue with traffic tickets. Court is a cattle call every morning, with the people of Columbus, mainly the poor and people of color, being herded in. It seems like the government is taking poor people’s kids away from them left and right.
JP: What do you think the causes of the over-criminalization of the poor and people of color are? What type of bill, as an Ohio Representative, would you introduce to ameliorate that dynamic?
CGN: I would like to address Ohio’s heroin epidemic. I believe that drug addiction needs to be treated as a serious health condition. People need better healthcare and the government needs to stop criminalizing their health conditions.
JP: Would your approach take the form of expanded access to Narcan, or would it also include needle exchange programs and decriminalization?
CGN: I have clients who are desperate to get drug treatment and resources are not available. I would like to have more resources for drug rehabilitation. Needle exchange programs – yes.
The heroin epidemic was caused in part by pharmaceutical companies inappropriately pushing drugs on the public through doctors. Many current addicts began their addiction when a doctor prescribed them inappropriate pain medications and then the government closed pain clinics instead of providing treatment to patients to wean them off the meds.
Doctors need to help people wean off their meds. This can be a long and painful process. Some patients may actually need access to meds because they are too far along in their addiction. However, I believe it can be a manageable health condition if they have access to appropriate care. Unfortunately, many have had to turn to street drugs because their medication was not properly reduced.
JP: The Republican majority in the Ohio House of Representatives is an overwhelming 65 to 34, and the Ohio Senate is an equally lopsided 23 to 10. What can a Green Party representative expect to get done in such a political environment? How could you be a more effective legislator than a Democratic representative?
CGN: As an attorney, I often work in an adversarial environment. I work with people from both parties already. I believe I can be effective on committees and bring fresh ideas to the discussion, some of which might appeal to my colleagues regardless of their political party. It may help that I am not beholden to the Democratic establishment or to corporate interests. I am truly independent and I can think for myself without giving in to the party lockstep. Unfortunately, Democrats have not done a good job representing us. They have not stood up for women’s civil rights, civil liberties, or for people of color.
I would be interested in introducing legislation developed by activist groups on marijuana and drug reform, as well as changes in the child support law.
JP: What was your stance on last year’s marijuana monopoly ballot issue (Issue 3)?
CGN: It was not ideal. I do not think that it was appropriate for a constitutional amendment. It was a change that should be done through legislation. There are existing agencies that should regulate marijuana. The Ohio Department of Agriculture would be the appropriate regulator of hemp and medical marijuana. The Ohio Department of Commerce should regulate recreational marijuana in a similar manner as it does for beer.
Folks should be allowed to grow their own, and coffee shops or similar establishments should be able to get licenses to sell.
JP: Your race has been a bit odd. Whitney Smith, who began the race as the Republican nominee for the 18th District, has switched campaigns midstream to run for Franklin County Commissioner on a corruption and dog-centric platform. What do you make of this reversal and how does it change the dynamic of your race?
CGN: Wow! Yes, it was a very interesting turn of events. I have met Whitney, and I actually really liked her. She worked on Represent Columbus to try to open up City Council. It was interesting to see a Republican coming together with progressives to open up City Council in our one party city – the Democratic establishment here is corrupt, and they are not properly representing the people.
I did see Whitney Smith protest at the courthouse the other day about the dog shelter. I know that in the wake of the Tyre King tragedy in my neighborhood, that many people are upset that people were rallying around dogs – that they seemed to care more about dogs than black children. On the other hand, I was kind of glad to see all these white women advocating for animals rather than, say, restricting abortion rights. Advocate for dogs all you want – there are many issues. I would rather see their energy tied to this than to taking away my reproductive healthcare.
JP: How is Columbus’s Democratic establishment corrupt?
CGN: Most City Council members and Democratic Central Committee members are placed in their position by appointment because they have “paid their dues” in some way. Most are not elected to represent the people. Kristin Boggs was not elected, she was placed in a $60K a year job without being elected by the people.
This system of nepotism is more about maintaining the power structure than it is about allowing people to choose their leadership. It’s more about maintaining political power than it is about doing a good job in government.
JP: On your website www.constanceforohio.com you call appointments “undemocratic.” Should the House Democrats have left former Representative and current City Councilman Michael Stinziano’s seat open until the election?
CGN: Appointed seats give an unfair advantage to the “incumbent” who is running. With my involvement in the Green Party, I hope to give voters more choices. Now they have a real choice between two candidates of the left.
JP: With Republican Whitney Smith out of the race, progressives in the 18th District are presented with a no-spoiler choice between a Democrat and a Green. On the Presidential ballot, however, that isn’t the case. Many people vote a straight ballot – how are you balancing your personal support for Dr. Jill Stein with an appeal to Democratic voters in the 18th District to crossover down ballot for your candidacy in the local election?
CGN: The Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson will also be on the ballot in Ohio, though he will be listed as an independent. In the mainstream race, most voters do not like their party’s candidate for President, whether that is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. We actually like our candidate Jill Stein. Also, if you are more conservative, Gary Johnson is a strong candidate, and so he balances out the contest and will prevent a spoiler effect this year. I would encourage people to vote for the candidate of their choice if they really want political change. People need to know about the candidates beyond Hillary and Trump. I believe that we can accomplish something, whether it is change in the electoral system, or influencing the dialogue on important issues.
Right now Greens are advocating a system of “approval voting” where you vote for as many of the candidates as you approve of. This seems like it could promote better representation of people’s true political desires. So, for instance, you could vote for both Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein if you liked them, and whomever got the most votes would be the winner.
JP: All of the Ohio Green Party candidates in this election – there are four – are white, and you’re the only woman. You’re on the Ohio Green Party Central Committee – is candidate recruitment for your party a problem, especially in terms of finding candidates representative of the diverse population of Ohio?
<>CGN: Yes, it’s not easy to find good candidates, but part of the reason I am running in this race is because I hope that by running a good campaign, more people will see what is possible in terms of gaining support for progressive and alternative candidates. Lots and lots of energy is put into issue campaigns; some of them need thousands of signatures to even get their issue on the ballot. However, it took much less energy – only 25 valid signatures, which I gathered myself – to get me on the ballot as a candidate for State Representative. This is half of the requirement for the minor parties and much less than if I was running as an independent. So I am putting myself out there to encourage more people to run in 2018 as Greens. Also, currently, we have at least two elected African Americans on our Central Committee and a policy of gender equity in the leadership of the party. My district includes two important and predominantly black neighborhoods – Olde Towne East and Weinland Park – both neighborhoods where I live or have lived. I am very concerned with issues that impact my neighbors and I have been encouraging minorities to consider getting active with the Green Party because of the opportunity to run as candidates in the future.