Tuesday, October 19

Newark, Ohio’s First Out City Council Member Vies for Third Term

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Jeremy Blake became Newark, Ohio’s first out city councilmember in 2014, when he was first elected to represent the city’s second ward. “Newark is my hometown; I’ve lived here all my life. So, people know me first as Jeremy versus being Black or gay, and I think that helped when I decided to run for office,” he says.

Now vying for a third term while serving as the council’s Democratic Minority Leader and the Chair of the Rules Committee, Blake says a lot has changed in Newark since he first took office in the pre-Obergefell v. Hodges era. In 2016, the predominantly conservative council was one of the first in the state to enact an LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination ordinance, and in 2017 – one year before the city held its first-ever pride parade – Newark elected its second out council member, Sean Fennell.

“Any opportunity for people to look up and see there are members of the LGBTQ+ community, even in my small town, is a good thing.”

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Jeremy Blake about his path to local politics, working with his Republican colleagues, and what he hopes to accomplish in his third term.

How did you get involved in local politics?
In high school, I wasn’t necessarily the type to get into sports. Honor society, student council, debate team, participating in the mayor’s youth council and doing racial justice work – these were my extracurricular activities, and what initially put the fire in my belly to want to serve in an elected role. After I graduated high school, I ran for city council for the first time and lost by just 50 votes. Then I got elected to the school board. I just always wanted to give back to people. I can’t solve everything, but if people call and need help I want to do whatever I can.

What accomplishments make you most proud from the past eight years?
One of the focuses I’ve been really passionate about has been dealing with drugs, alcohol, and mental health concerns. This disease – addiction – exists not only in Newark, but across the state, and we are trying to find ways to get people into proper avenues of care and fighting the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction.

As it relates to LGBTQ+ issues, Newark was one of the first cities in the state to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance locally; as you know, we have many cities now with similar ordinances, but at that time, we were one of the first to protect sexual orientation and gender identity within employment, housing, and public accommodations.

What challenges do you anticipate in your next term?
Part of the work I want to do is look at our police. As a gay Black man in Newark, Ohio, I understand the need for racial justice within our police department and to develop a stronger relationship between the police and our community. One way we can do that is by looking at ways professional social workers can handle certain situations that are currently handled by police, but don’t relate to law enforcement, like addiction and mental health issues.

Do you anticipate opposition from your majority-Republican colleagues?
When people talk about city government, they’re talking about wanting good neighborhoods, clean water, streets that are paved. With those issues as well as matters of policing, we all need to come from a place of good will, starting by recognizing there are issues, then finding the shared values that exist amongst us and building upon that. I believe there is more that binds us than divides us. I can talk to someone in a MAGA hat and still find something in common. That relationship-building is critical, especially for me as a Democrat in a red area versus if I were in Columbus or one of the bluer cities. We’re going to have disagreements, so let’s find out what we have in the middle and go from there.

How has being out and running for office in Newark changed from your first campaign to now?
Newark is my hometown; I’ve lived here all my life. So, people know me first as Jeremy versus being Black or gay, and I think that helped when I decided to run for office. Since my election, actually, Newark elected its second gay council member – Sean Fennell [in 2017]. Newark and Cincinnati were the first two cities in Ohio to have two gay council members; there are several more now, but we are proud to be one of the first. 🔥

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

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