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Forum Probes Political Machine

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Elected officials share experiences with those who are disenfranchised, disenchanted with system. By SHENA ABERCROMBIE que NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Washtenaw County Commissioner Christina Montague remembers the nervous feeling and the many questions she had when she decided to run for public office the first time.
Now, as a veteran of three terms, she has a wealth of information to share with other African-Americans interested in running for political office and with those who want insight into the way the political machine works.
That was her reason behind serving as a speaker at the “Political Call to Action Forum: Election 1996" Saturday at Washtenaw Community College.
"You have to take a chance and step out there," she told about 15 audience members. "I wanted to be able to advocate for some people who had been disenfranchised and discouraged with the political process."
The forum, jointly sponsored by the National Political Congress of Black Women, Ypsilanti Chapter of the NAACP and the Washtenaw County Chapter of the Million Man March Committee, also brought out state Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith, DSouth Lyon, and a few residents preparing to run in local elections.
“A lot of people don't realize how much power different offices hold. We need to be aware that there are many different ways to get involved,” said Shawn Mason-Spence, chairwoman of the National Political Congress for Black Women and facilitator of the forum.
“In this forum, we hope to serve some people who are running for office on different levels – and want to hear from the source about what is involved, where to start and who to talk with.”
The effort to seek a stronger involvement in the political arena through public office was encouraged, but the importance of simply getting out to vote was also included in forum discussion.
“As long as they don't vote, they allow a couple of things to happen: The conservatives control the issues, and there is no longer a source of checks and balances," Smith said. “We as politicians have a tremendous effect on your daily lives. If you are not working in politics, then politics is working on
The forum also attacked many misconceptions that African-American voters have about participating in the election process from both sides - voting and running for office.
Both Montague's election to her county commissioner seat and Smith's election to her first office as a member of the South Lyon Board of Education directly defied the myth that African-American candidates can only win races where the electorate is predominantly African-American.
"More than anything else, people are looking at the issues you represent," Smith said. “Because you have an African-American running or a woman running, it does not mean you're safe. We have to look at people on the issues. We have to be careful when we choose our candidates."
For Brenda McKinney, the forum was a chance to get her first taste of the campaign trail as she announced her intention to run for the Superior Township treasurer seat.
Simone Lightfoot, owner of the Consignment Gallery in Ypsilanti, said she is considering a run for a county commissioner seat.
Jerene Calhoun is undecided on whether she will enter the political ring as a candidate for county commissioner but noted that the forum was instrumental in helping her come to a decision.
"I needed this,” she said. "I figured this is more advantageous in making a final decision. But, I'm still contemplating."
Forum participants attempted to identify effective ways of reclaiming political power and attracting those who have given up on politics altogether.
"I find a lot of people who have registered to vote but don't vote," noted Dwain King, representative of the Million Man March Committee. “How do you motivate them?”
Statistics show that only 46 percent of registered voters went to the polls in the last state legislative election, according to Smith.
"The role of the African-Americans is very important,” said Smith. "We bring a voice to the political table and making of the law that is not usually heard. More and more, that voice is not only representing African-Americans, because we've become a society of class. People are seeing themselves locked into a category that we were in solely before.”
Because of the response to the forum, organizers have decided to meet again and possibly use the upcoming August primary election as a test of the effectiveness of the forum.
"It was very insightful, and we got a lot of information in a small area of time,” said Mason-Spence. "It was a good turnout for our first time.”