Saturday, February 27

Out Black Lives Matter Organizer Vies for Zanesville City Council Seat in Historic Run

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In Zanesville, 19-year-old Kyle Johnson recently launched his campaign to become the City Council’s newest at-large member. If elected, the Black Lives Matter organizer would not only become the first openly gay councilmember in Zanesville’s history, he would also be the youngest person and only person of color with a vote on City Council.

Johnson says it was that very lack of representation in local government – dominated by Republicans from the north of the city – that helped him decide to run.

“When I’m elected, I am going to make sure my community in the south has a voice on City Council and an influence on the decisions made at townhall, so everybody’s needs in our city are reflected in policy, not just people from north Zanesville.”

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Kyle Johnson about his historic candidacy, and why we need more teens and people of color in public office.

Kyle Johnson

What drew you to politics?
I spent the last five years working for a nonprofit community center serving at-risk youth as a tutor, a mentor, an after-school counselor. Then, last year, I volunteered for Alaine Swope, who was running to represent my district in the Statehouse. She attended one of the annual events at the community center that I organized, and I was asked to join her campaign as a ground organizer. She was a very progressive candidate, running to represent all of the 97th district, which I found inspiring. Our current representatives are not very active in the community, hardly at all, and she was trying to change that.

What’s missing on Zanesville City Council that you would bring to the table?
Community-oriented leadership. When you’re in a leadership position, you find your role may change or evolve, and you have to adapt to it. For instance, at the community center, I was a tutor, but became a mentor to many kids, because that’s what they needed. I adjusted to the situation I was given. Right now, we are in a pandemic, and none of our at-large city councilmembers are stepping up to be more community-oriented. If you’re not talking to your constituents, if most of the people you represent don’t even know who you are, how are you making policies aligned with their needs?

What are your top policy priorities?
I live on the south end of town – which is known to have more drugs, crime, homelessness – and so addressing the needs of my community will be a priority, since we often go overlooked by City Council. The current at-large councilmembers are all Republican and from the north side. Their solution for everything is overpolicing! I’m looking to bring more investment and projects to the south end of Zanesville to help improve homeownership and reduce crime and poverty.

It’s well-documented that a lack of diversity in local government can have far-reaching effects.
In Zanesville, there are different city councilmembers for each ward, and then there are three at-large seats, which represent the whole city of Zanesville and whose vote counts for slightly more than ward councilmembers. My past ward member [Connie Norman], who was the only Black councilmember for more than thirty years, stepped down in 2019, and now there is no Black representation on Council.

African Americans make up just a fraction of elected officials across the nation, so it’s not only important to get me elected as a young Democrat, but also to provide representation for minorities in our community. Under my campaign, we are planning to expand the electorate by registering as many people as possible to vote, especially young people. This will be key to getting more leaders in local office who embody and represent the people – not only for my campaign, but future ones too.

How has your candidacy has been received by the community so far?
Very well! I outreached to a lot of people through my organizing last year. In June of last year, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, I organized a demonstration in Zanesville, where about 600 people came out on a day’s notice to march in solidarity with George Floyd. Then a few weeks after that I organized a Pride March, which drew a few hundred people. So my identity was no secret by the time I announced my candidacy – the local paper identified me as a Black, gay teen running for office – and the response has been very positive.

If elected, you’d be the first out member elected to Zanesville City Council at-large. You’d also be the youngest member and the only person of color. What would this mean to you?
I think my background and range of experiences have equipped me with the knowledge to handle the issues facing our community, especially its most vulnerable members. If elected, I will strengthen my relationships with the many local organizations I currently work with to continue helping people secure affordable housing and homeownership.

Our current councilmembers are not very involved with many of the local nonprofits serving our unhoused population and other at-risk communities, so I think my perspective will be valuable. Decisions made by city council – everything from city worker salaries, to tax policies, to zoning – trickle down and indirectly impact everything else. If you don’t have someone in tune with the local residents and these at-risk groups I work with, we aren’t going to get good results. 🔥

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Peter Kusnic

Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, OH.

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