Lima’s current mayor is retiring after thirty-two years. Sharetta Smith, his current chief of staff, says “it’s time for the next generation to lead.”
By Mark Oprea
Over the past thirty-two years, Lima, Ohio, has experienced a lifetime of change. A half-dozen Fortune 500 companies have left, along with other major employers, including cigar makers and defense contractors. More than ten thousand people have fled to the surrounding areas of Allen County, to Fort Wayne or Cincinnati for better jobs. New industry arrived to replace the old. Downtown went on life support, then got an economic boost as hospitals and art galleries arrived in the twenty-first century. Hundreds of homes have been refurbished, razed, renovated, leveled, and destroyed; others crumbled or sickened aging south side residents with lead poisoning. And for thirty-two years, it’s all happened under one single mayor.
David Berger, Lima’s seventy-four-year-old executive, has been in office since 1989. Now he’s retiring, and the race to shape the future of Lima is on amid statewide political tensions. At the forefront is Sharetta Smith, Berger’s chief of staff for the past three years. Smith will face three opponents—Elizabeth Hardesty, Joshua Hayes, and Autumn Swanson—in the May 4 primary elections, which will narrow the field to two candidates for a November run-off. She is running on a progressive platform—although “terms are divisive,” she says—mirroring a broader trend of progressives running for office in heavily red areas of the state. (Every office seat in Allen and the five surrounding counties, save Berger’s, has been strictly G.O.P. since 1967.)
But the core of Smith’s year-old campaign—clean, affordable housing for all—has significant implications for a Rust Belt city entrenched in decades of racial divide. After years of civic neglect, mostly in Black neighborhoods, Smith’s campaign is a project years in the making. One of her recent campaign videos, shot on the streets where she grew up, demonstrates her key messaging, which stresses quality of life for all Lima residents, including, in addition to clean, affordable housing, “safe streets, thriving neighborhoods,” and “a growing economy.”
A January report conducted by Harsany & Associates, a local housing assessment firm, confirmed the housing challenges faced by the city. Lima is twenty-five percent Black and sixty-four percent white. During the latter part of the twentieth century, white members of Lima’s population fled en masse to the booming suburbs of American Township and Fort Shawnee, leaving behind a faulty housing stock, eighty-three percent of which is owned by out-of-towners. (A new home hasn’t been built, the report said, since the Bush administration.) Among the diagnoses of lead poisoning and abusive landlords—one who once tore off a resident’s front door to speed up an eviction—the report revealed a particular demographic hit hardest by decades-long decline: single Black women renters living below the poverty line.
“Yeah, we gotta do something about that,” Smith told me, emphatically. “Something’s got to be done.”
Smith, who is Black, was born in Greenfield Heights, a subsidized housing project in South Lima. She grew up in a working-class, Rust Belt family; her grandparents arrived in Lima nearly eighty years ago to work in the steel industry, and her mother, Beverly Long, has worked on the assembly line at GM since 1976. Smith graduated as salutatorian at the majority-white Perry High School and went to law school at Ohio Northern University. But these achievements were accompanied by challenges on the personal side; she applied to law school in part because of firsthand experience with the legal system (her father spent six years in prison for narcotics possession), and by twenty-three she had three children and was living as a single mother in Section 8 housing.
By the time she turned twenty-five, Smith was working at a wholesale electrical company for $11 per hour and feeling stuck. In 2007, she relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee to work as a public defender for judge Robert Moon. She was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2009, then worked her way up the ladder to court magistrate in 2011. Then, in 2014, the website 24/7 Wall Street labeled Lima one of the “Ten Worst U.S. Cities for Black People.” “Over and over, I looked for opportunities to create a different kind of life for myself and my children. But I could not find that life in Lima,” Smith wrote in an op-ed in 2016. “The reality is that a significant part of the population feels like they are living in hell on Earth.”
In 2016, Smith looked homeward. Trumpism had shuffled clearly into national view, and Smith, excited by the idea of supporting Lima’s youth, was ready to return. She had a new vision of what Lima could be. “I was seeing so many African-Americans in places I’d never seen in Lima—Black police officers, Black judges,” she said. “And I wanted that for home.”
Back in Lima, Amy Odum, Berger’s longtime director of community development, was retiring, and Smith saw an opportunity. She phoned the mayor’s office: “Hi, I’m Sharetta Smith, and I’m a Lima native, and I see there’s a job opening up. I want to apply.” Berger admired Smith’s optimism; she was for progress, her voice cut through the static. He asked her to be his chief of staff, where she managed seven departments and the city’s $38 million operating budget. Later, when Berger announced his retirement to staff, he told Smith he hoped she would be his successor.
Smith was initially hesitant, but eventually she saw it as an important opportunity to make life better in Lima. “It has been my honor to serve the city for the past three and a half years under Mayor Berger,” Smith said from a sunlit podium on November 11, 2020, in Faurot Park. In her usual box braids, gold hoop earrings, and a gray-black suit, Smith spoke on inclusive politics and effectively announced that she would extend Berger’s progressive values further, emphasizing the need to include all of the city’s thirty-eight thousand people—specifically those in the hardest hit Census tracts on the south side.
“We need to be responsive and change with the times,” Smith said to a socially-distanced crowd of around a hundred people. “We need a city that works for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, ability or disability, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or ZIP code.” She smiled from the podium, then added: “I will ensure that all voices are heard and represented.”
In February, I met with Smith at a local cafe called The Meeting Place, which, she reminds me, was a part of the downtown renovation wave in 2017. Smith is short, with a gentle face, professional demeanor, and the voice of Southern hospitality—You’re fine, you’re fine, is a mantra. Lately, she’d been busy asking for donation dollars; her mother and sister, Shanelle, were enlisted to make calls to locals. (“I don’t have to explain who she is,” Long told me, “because everyone already knows her.”)
As a progressive, Smith’s platform echoes that of other Ohio Democrats like Emelia Sykes, who represents the 34th district in the Ohio House of Representatives, and Desiree Tims, who lost a 2020 election for the 10th district, which includes the city of Dayton. But she is cognizant that she’s still running, like Berger, as a blue dot in a red ocean. On my drive into Lima, I was greeted with a spattering of Trump flags and clusters of signs reading “ALL LIVES MATTER.” A recent poll on LimaNews.com showed sixty-two percent of readers supported the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “We’re red in population, in attitude, in politics,” Smith said. “This is [Rep.] Jim Jordan’s area. I’ll say that there’s a reason Trump came to Lima twice.” (Every Republican politician representing Allen County declined to be interviewed for this article.)
To many of the 102,000 residents of Allen County, progressivism could be a contentious word. One look at Rep. Jim Jordan’s legislative record over his fifteen years he’s been in office paints a polar opposite picture, and Republicans dominate state-level politics, which is maintained at least in part by an unconstitutional, heavily-gerrymandered congressional map, drawn by Republican legislators, to stymie progressive Democrats like Smith. The 2020 Presidential election only further complicates the terrain. Despite a high suburban turnout, Trump won Ohio by eight percentage points in 2020. It’s a standard example, Smith says, of the ongoing urban-rural disconnect in her home state. “We have people who represent us who don’t look like us, who don’t live with us, or drive down the same street as we do,” she told me.
Berger, meanwhile, is a political unicorn, a Democrat who has managed to stay in office here in Lima for more than three decades. To many, he became a sort of grandfatherly figure with Clinton-era progressive values (though he says he prefers the term “problem-solver” to “progressive”). Berger, who wears glass and presents himself in the posture of a Stoic, originally intended to become a priest, but switched course and, in the 1980s, made headway leading a local housing development nonprofit, where he helped three hundred Limans become homeowners.
Housing was a key issue for Berger’s campaign. He spent his first ten years urging residents of Lima and the surrounding suburbs to vote to make the area “one unified city.” “When I ran in 1989, part of my platform was the idea of creating [a] metropolitan government,” Berger said, referring to a transition that would unify Lima and its outlying—and wealthier—suburbs, like nearby Louisville, Lexington, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis. (This magazine has previously reported on how that process played out in Indianapolis.) The measure failed again and again.
The idea behind such a move was to retain a shared tax base as wealthier suburbs sucked money out of the city itself. Lima’s housing decline, he said, was exacerbated by this transfer of wealth away from urban areas. “It’s the same politics that have allowed center cities to fail while the outer edges have been growing,” Berger told me at a meeting table in his office. He blames the influence of powerplayers in the statehouse. “We needed legislatures to create an easy pathway. And we don’t have an easy pathway.”
Rather than wait, Berger focused his energy downtown. In the past ten years, he has encouraged development in the dozen or so block radius from his office. Walk anywhere up and down Main Street, and residents will quickly rattle off a laundry list of accomplishments like miniature accolades: On Elizabeth Street, new market-rate apartments going up; on Central, Rob and Nicole Nelson (friends of Berger) are renovating apartments with a brewery downstairs; Rhodes State College and Mercy Health St. Rita’s are renovating structures downtown. And the crown jewel, 43 Town Square, an old bank building abandoned in 2000, was renovated with a $500,000 investment. Berger considers this one of the most important components of his legacy. “Before COVID, we were doing the best economically in forty-five years,” he said. “And then that all fell away.”
Lots of people I spoke with had good things to say about Berger’s track record. Over in the Artspace, a newly redeveloped gallery on North Main St., Amy Odum, Berger’s former housing development specialist, argues that only Berger could’ve attracted the industry to keep Lima afloat—and kept Lima somewhat insulated from the trials of the 1980s in the first place. “When people say Dave hasn’t made progress, they really need to think about what Lima was like before him.” Odum’s friend Janet Reistenberg agreed. “Dave showed us ‘This is what Lima can be,’” but added that “He couldn’t do it himself. It’s a community thing.”
But others are more critical, pointing to repeated microaggressions, a singling-out of Black bars for liquor license regulation, and the overwhelming link between poverty and color on the south side. Michael Muhammed, a Vietnam veteran who ran against Berger in the nineties, said “I just think David could’ve done more in the housing sector, especially in the southern end of Lima.” Muhammed said his main reason for getting into politics was very similar to Smith’s: a concern for the well-being of communities not well served by existing policies. “Overall, to be honest with you? [Berger] didn’t do enough for the minorities.”
Housing is a key component of Smith’s campaign, too—specifically, addressing the disparities in Black and other marginalized communities and creating a more livable community across the board. Since last November, she’s expanded her housing focus further based on community feedback, from creating a anti-gun violence Safer Streets program to doubling down on simultaneously attracting investors downtown. JaMesha Williamson, a thirty-year-old attorney and Lima native who is mentored by Smith, lives on the south side of Lima, near Eighth and Central. She said she moved to the area after college to “prove that things are changing here.”
Williamson is excited by Smith’s campaign, but still wonders whether or not Lima is a city she can grow in. “How do we get Lima to a place where I want to raise a family?” she says. “Whether or not that’s going to happen is up in the air. I mean, I don’t know how much longer I can stay in a city where there’s not much happening.”
On April 5, Smith woke up to a slight panic. A headline in the Lima News read, “Lima mayoral candidate Smith plagued by lawsuits.” It detailed a financial ledger sheet of past ghosts, from $11,000 in debt (from chemotherapy), to repossession of a vehicle and an eviction judgment filed by the Allen Metropolitan Housing Authority. Smith told me she sees the article as a natural byproduct of tense local politics. “I knew making the decision to run for public office would be up for others to evaluate,” she said.
Smith is a frontrunner because of her ties to the current popular administration, but she’s not a lock to win the November special election. Partisanship also presents an obstacle. Just two months before the primary, Elizabeth Hardesty, a former geologist for the Shell corporation, joined the fray. Like Smith, Hardesty, who is white, is also promising “A Fresh Vision For Lima,” focused on downtown jobs and private outside investment. (Hardesty declined to be interviewed for this piece.) I asked Smith whether she thought, given the right-leaning politics of the region, people in Lima might vote for Hardesty just for her GOP ties. Smith, in true political form, pointed back to her experience helping to manage the city’s budget, along with 430 employees in five separate unions, and said she thinks her best shot is to focus on the Democratic call for “kitchen table politics”—bill-paying, pension-growing, child-raising issues.
Though Smith has worked for years to grasp the street-level concerns of her constituents, the campaigning process itself has occasionally created a type of imposter syndrome. “I still struggle with whether or not I belong in politics,” she admitted. “I still have days when I feel like, What the hell am I doing? But then I remember my ‘yes’ for doing this is realizing it’s time for the next generation to lead.”
2021 marks the end of a political era in Lima, and the May 4 primary election is the next step in charting the city’s future. Hardesty may very well grab GOP sympathy, and Smith could be seen as simply a continuation of Berger. But she ardently disagrees. “I’ll say this, that what was progressive when he first started is now considered moderate,” she told me. “I’m sure they’re going to attempt to tie me to Berger—‘The city needs change, don’t vote for her. But I’m not him; I’m Sharetta Smith.” ■
*Corrections: an earlier version of this story misstated the total investment in 43 Town Square, as well as JaMesha Williamson’s occupation and location. We regret the errors.
Mark Oprea is a journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. He’s written for Pacific Standard, OZY, Cleveland Magazine and Narratively, and reported from Mexico City in 2018. He’s also a 2020 Kiplinger Fellow at Ohio University.
Cover image of Sharetta Smith by Mark Oprea.
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