BY JEANETTE LENOIR
For starters, don’t refer to him as Black or African American. Frederick Lee Nichols, a Republican running for the 119th Assembly District in NYS prefers the pronoun, American with African descent. “I’m the first American with so-called African people descent to run for the seat. I’ve never been to Africa so I never put another adjective in front of my own country,” he said during our sit down interview at Utica Roasting Co. on Genesee Street. He explains that his thinking evolved after spending some years overseas as an American Culture teacher. He says being referred to as an American is “good enough”.
His Views On Dual Identity
“Our country’s people are the only ones separating like this…I’m Irish American, I’m Italian American, I’m African American, but when I was overseas people would say to me; where are you from? America. Ok. The rest of it don’t matter because you’re an American. And I started changing. I won’t do it anymore. So, I say I’m an American with African, Irish and maybe some Hebrew descent”
And yet the irony is that Nichols being African American is exactly what makes his candidacy important. In the struggle for minority representation in governing, he breaks the mold and offers a pathway for many unhappy Democrats to consider the Republican Party. He’s the first black person to run for the 119th assembly seat. And like it or not, race in politics across America has always mattered. The split between members of the two parties isn’t just moving further apart on ideological and moral grounds, it’s creating an even deeper divide among different ethnic groups. The Republican Party is predominantly white and Democrats are largely people of color. Republicans are seen as hostile toward racial, social, immigration, economic equality and justice policies, whilst Democrats are seen as extreme on all those fronts that “threaten our democracy”. Nonetheless, the 119th Assembly seat being vacated by Anthony Brindisi (D) who’s challenging Claudia Tenney (R) for the 22nd Congressional seat, offers a rare opportunity for minorities to make some gains in governing, especially in this part of the country where communities of color continue to struggle socially and economically.
“I stopped the victimization attitude and I stopped the blame game, and I said that even though racism is prevalent in our society, bigotry, all of it; it’s there. What does that have to do with you getting a grade; nothing.” He adds, “The book is not racist. Algebra is not racist, writing is not racist, the library is not racist, the pen and pencil is not racist…the paper. So, what’s stopping you from getting your grade? It’s not racism, that’s you.”
He makes a point. However, the context has to include data showing the correlation between access and education; access that is largely given to whites. Minorities’ straggling behind their white peers is directly tied to racial and social inequalities in schools. Poverty plays a role too. It’s no coincidence, but rather by design, Nichols is the first black Republican to run for the 119th Assembly seat.
Nikole Hannah-Jones who covers race in the U.S. for NYT Magazine said during a talk with The Green Space at WNYC and WQXR on school segregation in NYC, “Segregation and integration at their core are about power and who gets access to it.” She says blacks in particular still have a hard time being “full citizens in their own country” and that matters when it comes to education and its outcome for minorities in America, particularly in small town America and uniquely pertaining to governing.
“The systems that and the actions that created this inequality took a lot of effort and a lot of time. And we want to undo them, you know, with no pain for anyone with a snap of the fingers. On my Twitter account, I say – I cover race from 1619. And 1619 is the year the first Africans were brought to what would become America as – to be enslaved. I say that so that we understand there is a very – before we were even a country, we had created this system that was going to put black people on the bottom and we created a caste system. And to undo that, we feel like no one has to give anything up or there’s not going to be any tension or it’s going to be easy, and it simply won’t. One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating the segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it. And that’s the problem,” Hannah-Jones said.
And because apathy is poverty’s cousin, those mostly impacted rarely participate in our democracy. Data shows only two-thirds of Americans vote in presidential elections. That number is even lower for state and local races. Nichols being the first person of color to run for this seat in 2018, is a stark reminder that change is overdo. Even though he has views that more liberal minded Americans might find distasteful and even off-putting, he’s the epitome of turning lemons into lemonade if you separate his rhetoric from his determination. Nonetheless, whether diversity of opinion matters as much as representation, will be determined when the people vote.
Why He’s Running As A Republican
Nicholas says the Democratic Party hasn’t lived up to the promises made to minorities in America since they shifted from being the more conservative party after the Civil War. “Most minority people in this country and in poor neighborhoods are democratic to the core. I was also as a young man because I only knew what people told me. Then when I started to educate myself and read books, I found the Democratic Party was totally contrary to what was to improve the lives of people that they say they care so much about. Their program, 90-percent of them, in the name of doing something good is just hurting the people they say they care so much about.”
With an intent look in his eyes, Nichols says he’s laser focused on changing business as usual on behalf of the people he grew up with; as a Republican. And he’s looking for a complete overhaul, starting with morality, education, land and business ownership in poor communities primarily made up of minorities. And he wants to change the lens that shows Republicans as bad for minorities. He says when it comes to understanding the history and process of politics in the region; people have to become more engaged. “I plan on, after being elected, is to always have town hall meetings; twice a month. Because people got to be able to voice what they want me to do.” He says as he explains how he plans to work for his constituents and encourage them to take a more active role in local politics.
The Lack Of Support From Local Black Leaders
Nichols says the local NAACP Chapter does not recognize him because he’s a Republican despite his good intentions. “They don’t recognize me for nothing; the NAACP. And I know who the chapter head is; he’s a very nice person. The other black organizations, they don’t recognize me. I came from the same community; I went through the same hardship and I overcame long before they knew I was a Republican. But now they see I’m a Republican, they don’t want to use me as an example for those kids.”
Nichols says him being Republican doesn’t make him naive about racism or immune to its impact. “Racism is there, I don’t deny it. I’ve been through it; I still go through it today. I went to Republican districts way out there in the woods. I knock on their door and they don’t want to talk because they think I’m a Democrat.” He says he wants to “burst the gap” between black Democrats and Republicans, “To say, hey I’m here, they supported me, I’m from your loins, I’m here now, how about we use me as an example that we can both look at each other’s platform and try and find a common solution. Because what would be one of the greatest things in this area is to have a minority—male or female—in a high position; that it can finally be, it can show that this area is trying to break some of their racial tensions in the area. Winning this position is not a small thing; it’s a big deal and I want to use this as a positive thing to say, you know what, I don’t agree with all Democratic policies but I’m willing to work with them on any policy that has proven results.”
The issues Nichols says he’ll tackle if he’s chosen to go to Albany to represent his constituents are to repeal NY Safe Act, increase support for Veterans, end corruption, reduce taxes, improve education and make more jobs available for young people. Nichols pledges to support pro-life policies although when he explains his position on abortion he sounds like a pro—choice candidate. Only time will tell if Nichols is the one to break the mold, but if history means anything, his chances of winning are slim to none. History also shows Democrats; especially minorities, have nothing else to lose by supporting this “American with African descent” Republican candidate, idiosyncratic as he may be, because voting the same way season after season hasn’t changed the persistent bad weather in poor neighborhoods here or across the country. Poverty levels are still high in the district and social inequalities still keep the area lagging behind in the times, keeping people segregated in their respective corners of society; blue vs. red, whites vs. people of color, and poor vs. rich.
The other Republican in the race is Dennis Bova, Jr. Democrats Christopher Salatino and Marianne Buttenschon are also running for AD-119th. The district includes the cities of Utica and Rome, and the towns of Floyd, Frankfort, Marcy and Whitestown. The election for the Assembly seat will take place November 6, 2018. Nichols must pull a win in the September Primary in order to appear on the November Ballot.