Sen. Portman heard from ‘dozens’ of black leaders. Here’s what they said.

By: - June 9, 2020 12:40 am

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Note: This story has been updated to include information provided by the senator’s office. 

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman recently participated in a conference call with “dozens” of black leaders discussing how COVID-19 and racial injustice has impacted their communities.

What those leaders discussed and who was involved in the call was not initially disclosed. 

Portman’s office declined Monday to identify any individual or organization the senator spoke with. After the original publication of this story on Tuesday morning, a spokesperson has since provided the names of several conference call participants.

The Capital Journal has spoken with one of them, former Ohio Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney, who provided more details about the call.

Ohio’s elected officials, from city councils to the halls of Congress, are facing pressure to take action to address issues of systemic racism and police misconduct. 

The Cincinnati Republican has spoken on the Senate floor about the need for finding “solutions that promote strong families and communities that treat each other with respect and dignity” and hosted a conference call with black leaders on June 3:  

The call was first organized last month with the purpose of discussing the coronavirus. Plans changed following the May 25 death of George Floyd during an encounter with police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death has since sparked widespread protests across the United States and in numerous Ohio cities. 

This led Portman to discuss both the virus and race relations during the June 3 call.

In the days following the call, Portman’s office only broadly stated it involved black leaders representing the business sector, civic organizations and the clergy. Portman said those concerns and ideas would help inform his legislative work in Washington, D.C.

The Capital Journal sought to learn more about those concerns and who shared them. Portman’s office declined to give specifics until after this story was originally published under the headline, “Sen. Portman heard from ‘dozens’ of black leaders. His office won’t name one.”

Among those on the call was Eric Kearney, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Kearney, a Democrat, formerly served as a state senator from 2005-2014 and was once his party’s leader in that body.

Kearney said he was invited to participate in the call as part of an ongoing, positive relationship his organization has with both Ohio Sens. Portman and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat. 

“To me, (Portman) appeared to be very open to a frank discussion,” Kearney told OCJ on Tuesday morning, “which was refreshing.”

Kearney said he asked Portman directly to be a strong advocate for small businesses in the U.S. Senate. He said the senator responded positively toward that sentiment. Some of the other questions posed, Kearney recalled, involved how Portman would respond to the recent protests and about entrepreneurs accessing Paycheck Protection Program funding.

Kearney complimented Portman for hosting the call (“he didn’t have to do it”) and said it was important as a member of the Senate’s Majority Party for him to hear the perspectives of those back in his home state.

“Somehow or another,” Kearney said, “our concerns, the concerns of the black business community, need to be brought to the attention to the (U.S.) Secretary of the Treasury as well as the President of the United States and those people who are in power. So I was very thankful to get an opportunity to speak to somebody that has their ear.”

It does not appear any other elected official was invited to discuss how public policy can address these concerns. Those not invited include U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus; Columbus City Council President Shannon G. Hardin; and state Reps. Emilia Sykes and Tavia Galonski, both Akron Democrats, who are members of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. Sykes is the Ohio House Minority Leader, while Galonski serves as the caucus secretary.

Other groups which confirmed they weren’t invited to OCJ include the NAACP chapters in Cincinnati and Dayton; the African American Leadership Council of Toledo; and the Central Ohio African American Chamber of Commerce, which represents Columbus, Franklin County and the surrounding area. 

Spokesperson Emmalee Kalmbach has also noted a separate call held June 5. Portman reportedly spoke with Surgeon General Jerome Adams and black clergy members of United Pastors in Mission, based in Northeast Ohio. The topics of discussion were not provided. 

The Capital Journal was also pointed toward the senator’s support for two pieces of legislation meant to address racial disparities.

The first calls for creating a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, which would study Americans’ experiences within a variety of subjects, such as education, criminal justice and health. This bill was introduced in July 2019, with Portman and other Republicans recently joining as co-sponsors. No other legislative action has been taken on the bill since it was introduced.  

Another bill, sponsored by Portman in May 2019, calls for collecting information from Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program for the purpose of determining racial disparities in society. No action has been taken on the bill since it was introduced. 

Here is the full statement from Portman’s website about the conference call:

“When we scheduled this call with African American leaders representing clergy, business groups and CEOs, and civic organization [sic] from all corners of our state a couple weeks ago, our plan was the focus on how the COVID-19 health care and economic crisis is disproportionately impacting communities of color. Ohioans lived in a different world when we scheduled this call. It was a world where George Floyd was still alive. It was a world where our cities didn’t have curfews. It was a world where our National Guard was being deployed to help inside of hospitals instead of outside on the streets. But it was a world where the underlying racial injustice – where the pain and frustration we are seeing play out across Ohio and our nation still existed. Today, it was important for me to hear directly from these African-American leaders, to learn, and to discuss how to work together to address these long-standing injustices going forward and cultivate hope for a better world.    

“In addition, we discussed several issues related to the COVID-19 crisis, including our work to increase testing statewide to address the fact that communities of color are getting hit the hardest by coronavirus and how some African American small business owners have had challenges accessing the Paycheck Protection Program. I appreciated the robust discussion and input and will share the concerns and insights the African-American leaders brought up on today’s call with my colleagues as we continue to work to help individuals, families, and our communities stay afloat during these uncertain times.”

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.