Brian Garry is a candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives. (Photo by Paul Davis)
A candidate against the system
By Corey Gibson
There were not enough seats Nov. 5 at Om Eco Café. Brian Garry was having a kick-off party for his campaign for the District 31 seat in the Ohio House of Representatives. In front of a diverse audience of university professors, social activists, friends, family and the occasional café customer greeted by the slew of supporters, Garry stood at the microphone, a brick wall and an eclectic bookcase as his background, thanking everyone for their support.
Garry, a University of Cincinnati graduate, is owner of Clifton-based construction company Green City Construction.
“Is it true you punch horses?” someone in the crowded room yelled, referencing Garry’s 2003 arrest, and acquittal, on a charge of assaulting a police officer’s horse. The room erupted in laughter as Garry stood in front of everyone, a bit uneasy about his speech being interrupted so early, only to mumble, “A little bit.”
A social activist in his younger years, Garry followed in the footsteps of the man he calls his mentor, the late Rev. Maurice McCrackin, protesting the death penalty and social inequality. He grew up in the hallways of Cincinnati City Hall, where his mother, Patricia Garry, was a legislative aide to City Councilman Charles P. Taft. Garry’s political activist upbringing showed as he stood before his audience at Om Eco Café. He garnered cheers. He had his speech mostly memorized. He added emphasis and spoke clearly and knew what the crowd wanted to hear. He’s a likable person. He posed for photos and shook everyone’s hand. He received the backing of a prominent local business and of City Councilmember Chris Seelbach, who also gave a speech touting Garry’s vision for the future of Ohio.
‘Magnify the voice’
Yet, it all felt too small for a person running for a seat in the state legislature. It all felt too homegrown, too close to be something that could possibly steer the future of the state. But maybe that’s what Garry wants. Something out of the ordinary. A type of politics that doesn’t exist. A type of politics where everyone really has a say, no matter color or social status.
But is that even possible?
On paper, Garry looks like the picture-perfect Democratic candidate for a seat in the Ohio House. He’s been active within the Democratic Party for the past 25 years. He’s volunteered his time on projects ranging from toxic waste to the repeal of Article XII – a charter amendment that forbade the city from passing any ordinance protecting homosexuals from discrimination – to stopping city budget cuts in arts and social-services funding.
Term-limited lawmaker Denise Driehaus is vacating the District 31 seat, a district that includes neighborhoods such as Amberley Village, Oakley, Norwood, Clifton and areas of Saint Bernard.
Garry ran for a seat on Cincinnati City Council in 2003 and in 2007, when the Hamilton County Democratic Party endorsed him.
He is quick to point out one of the losses was narrow.
“In a final analysis, I was equal with Wendell Young and Greg Harris, both of whom went on to serve on city council,” Garry says. “I decided not to run after that because of my son and my fatherly duties.”
So why continue seeking a career in politics?
“I’m an idealist. I want to leave the world a better place than when I got to it,” Garry says. “This is an opportunity for me to apply and magnify the voice for social justice for those who are, in many ways, shut out of our system.”
Garry says this year he is focusing on fundraising more than he has in the past. He knows grassroots campaigning can be a struggle when he goes up against other politicians who have backers funding their campaign, which is why one of his main issues is keeping big money out of politics.
“We feel that money has an influence over politics that it shouldn’t,” Garry says. “Similar to that, we feel party politics should stay out of the primaries. Any endorsements should wait and let the fair elections process to take place.”
Even Garry’s primary opponent for the seat, Dr. Paul Sohi, believes in waiting to endorse a candidate. Above an article on Sohi’s website calling for the Democratic Party to wait to endorse a candidate, pictures continually flash, all featuring Sohi with prominent political figures such as Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil, former State Sen. Eric Kearney and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
Caleb Faux, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said the party typically does not endorse candidates in a contested primary.
Although Garry knows he needs funds, he also believes keeping his feet on the ground is his best bet for garnering votes.
“We believe we have a message that resounds with young people,” he says. “A lot of our energies will go to energizing that young, spirited, talented age group of voters.”
Garry says another group of voters he is going to heavily rely on is African Americans. His field manager, Kevin Farmer, says Garry “has the heart and the issues when it comes to the urban ghettos.”
“Certain people not of color do not understand the situation of people who are of color,” Farmer says. “Being poor white is different than being poor black. And Brian has an understanding on both ends, and at the end of the day he has the love for doing the right thing for everyone. He has the solutions to get it done.”
The main issues Garry is running on are income equality, reducing child poverty, police brutality and fracking. It’s those issues, Garry says, that made him want to bypass another run for city council and move up to the state legislature.
“Some of the issues we think of as incredibly important – education and incarceration, that can be affected at the state level and can’t really be affected through our local legislation,” he says. “City council really has no direct effect on education.”
Garry says he wants to give a voice to the people on the street, who, he says, care more now than ever about social and economic justice.
“I think he cares about the people,” says Garry’s campaign manager, Celeste Treec. “He connects with the people on a grassroots level. He has a heart for the people and shows this with his actions by getting involved and learning the concerns of the people. He’s willing to educate people on social-justice issues to help everyone become more politically involved.”
During his speech at Om Eco Café, Garry reminded the audience he was there for them, that he was in politics for them, but that he needed their support if he was going to “make noise in the state legislature.”
“Our city is beginning to reflect our nation of haves and have-nots, where so many have so little and so few have so much,” Garry said.
City Councilmember Chris Seelbach endorsed Garry, saying, “Not only has he shared our values since day one, he hasn’t needed to evolve like other politicians. He shares our progressive values and he is a fighter, the son of a great feminist in Cincinnati. He cares about women’s issues and has been a straight ally to the gay community here long before it was popular. Brian isn’t afraid to make some noise when the other side is not doing their job. We need someone that will stand up and fight for us and call the people out when they’re not fighting for our values, and that is why we need to send Brian Garry to the state legislature.”
“We believe in social justice,” Garry said. “We believe we can change the world. We are engaging in the same grassroots community-based politics as we always have. We keep our head in the clouds, with our ideals and our principles, but we keep our feet planted firmly on the ground because that’s where the people we want to represent are.”