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Olumba leaves Dems, goes independent

Rep. John Olumba

Rep. John Olumba

By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — “There’s Democrat, there’s Republican and there’s us,” says State Rep. John Olumba, I-Detroit. A week after breaking from the Democratic party and declaring himself an Independent, Rep. Olumba, serving his second term in office, rejects the criticisms that he’s now been marginalized.

“I’ve benefitted from my move more than anything,” Olumba told the Michigan Citizen. “My (one) vote counts for what I cast it as. I can now go negotiate on behalf of my constituency for (what they say they want) and not have to go through the party that does not have their best interest at heart.”

On Feb. 19, Olumba introduced a resolution to create a separate caucus from the Michigan Democratic Caucus called the Independent Urban Democracy Caucus, which he says would focus on “democracy, urban concerns and the issues of African American citizens across the state.”

“The system recognizes us as a third party already,” Olumba said. “As African Americans and Detroiters, if we continue to go blindly behind the Democratic party, we’ll never have anything.”

He criticized the state Democratic party and his former caucus for being slow to inactive on taking up issues that directly impact African American and poor communities across the state, particularly Detroit.

“We had so many opportunities to fight on things that we didn’t,” Olumba told the Michigan Citizen. He says members of the Democratic caucus voted against appropriating funds to Detroit in the previous session that could have alleviated its financial emergency status by freeing funds State Treasurer Andy Dillon openly admitted in news reports that the state owed to the city of Detroit

He added Detroit is disenfranchised by the party, which looks to the mostly African American populace for support, yet does not support them.

“There’s been no money spent by the party in Detroit,” he said, African Americans also have very little leadership presence on what he considers the most powerful legislative committees — appropriations and tax policy.

“Why is tax policy more important? Because Detroit is more heavily taxed than other cities,” said Olumba. “Detroit delivers more tax revenue than any.”

Detroit Democrats admitted to problems with leadership in the previous session but say that under the new leadership of House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, there is no issue with minority leadership presence.

“I think Greimel has been fair,” Rep. Thomas Stallworth, D-Detroit, told the Michigan Citizen. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m minority chair of the Energy and Technology Committee (and) Rashida Tlaib is minority chair of Appropriations.”

Stallworth, chairman of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, says African Americans have key spots but placement has a lot to do with the number of minorities in the caucus, 13, and the number of committees, 23.

Olumba did support the current Democratic caucus leadership, which includes Greimel and Floor Leader Rudy Hobbs, D-Southfield. Olumba has, as of press time, retained his committee assignments. He is vice chair of the Oversight Committee and a member of the Insurance committee.

“This idea that somehow our caucus is not fighting for the issues that are important to Detroiters is simply not true,” Greimel said. “Our caucus has always been committed to fighting for social justice … and standing up for middle class and working folks.”

Greimel says the caucus is dedicated to supporting issues and will continue to support policies, regardless of who’s introducing them.

While some of his colleagues say they respect Olumba’s decision, all believe he’s put himself at a disadvantage as the sole Independent. Some raised concerns he’s betrayed his constituency by switching parties midstream.

“Rep. Olumba feels strongly and made a strong statement about why he’s doing this. I might not agree with his strategy but I respect him for it. I respect anyone who stands up for what he believes,” says Rep. Rosemary Robinson. “The reality is, if he were an Independent (in the previous session) with a majority Republican house, what difference would it have made? Now that he’s diminished the Democratic membership, what difference does it make?”

Rep. Harvey Santana says he’s extremely disappointed in Olumba’s decision to split from the party.

“The change he wants to make cannot be made outside the party. It has to be made within,” he said.

Olumba has since been removed from the House Dems Web site and stripped of all Democratic caucus’ resources. Although he has retained his office and staff.

“The next step is to figure out what happens now,” said Ari Adler, press secretary for Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger. “It’s new territory.”

According to Adler, there’s nothing in the House rules that addresses how to proceed if a representative changes parties during a session.

“It’s different than if he ran as an Independent,” he said. “We’re in unchartered territory.”

Adler says Bolger is currently reviewing committee assignments, budgets, seating assignments, etc., and getting feedback from Greimel on how to move forward as caucus resources had been budgeted for the session.

An e-mail from Greimel’s office indicated that “each office within a caucus receives a budget from the Speaker of the House. For minority offices the entire allotment is roughly $81,500, which pays for staff salaries, office expenses, postage, etc. So, if (Olumba’s) office receives a cut, it will be from the speaker, not because of Leader Greimel .”

The equal protection clause of the state’s Constitution, according to Olumba, makes provisions for all lawmakers to receive full resources to represent their constituency, adding that those who voted for him support his move.

Political consultant Adolph Mongo applauds Olumba’s decision.

“I like what he did,” Mongo said. “‘Bout time somebody sent a message that plantation politics gotta stop.”

For several years, Detroit has been ignored when it comes to spending money on elections and getting leadership positions in the party, according to Mongo, who has often been critical of the state Democratic party.

“We never got a fair shake (but got) the leftovers … from state nominations to positions in leadership,” he said. “How can you spend a billion dollars on an election and not spend money in Detroit? Because Black folks are going to come out and vote the party line.”

Mongo says he wishes more elected officials had the guts to do what Olumba did.

“You don’t have to agree with him but you gotta respect him,” he said. .”I like what the young brother is doing. He’s sending a message.”

That message, Mongo says, is: African Americans need to have an equal seat at the table and to be put in positions of leadership when it comes to nominating representatives to state office.

“It’s smart politics,” Mongo says. “As a sole person … he has leverage. With Republicans in control, sometimes you need a two-thirds majority vote. … One vote does make a difference on a lot of key issues. Those who criticize him, sit back, and privately have no power, no leverage. We gotta stop being sheep led to the slaughter.”

Contact Zenobia Jeffries at zjeffries@michigancitizen.com

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