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Trouble in Benton Harbor?

By Ashahed M. Muhammad -Assistant Editor- | Last updated: May 6, 2014 - 11:41:38 PM

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A court ruling postpones elections amid questions about voter signatures and fears of high level political intimidation

Commissioner Marcus Muhammad, left, talks with James Cornelius.
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. ( - The Benton Harbor mayoral recall election did not take place on May 6 as scheduled. Berrien County Judge John E. Dewane granted a preliminary injunction halting the vote.

The election has Benton Harbor Commissioner Marcus Muhammad challenging current Mayor James Hightower. It was halted after signatures needed to demand a recall, just under 400 were needed, and an outspoken local activist and recall supporter who collected signatures were arrested and charged with voter fraud. Fewer than 40 signatures were challenged.

In a written ruling issued May 1, Judge Dewane determined there was not enough time to sort out the facts prior to the scheduled recall election and granted a request from Berrien County Clerk Sharon J. Tyler to stop the election. It was also Ms. Tyler who approved the signatures and allowed the recall to originally go forward. The judge decided it was in the “best interests” of  Benton Harbor voters  and Berrien County’s elected officials to keep the vote from happening.

Despite the talk of procedure, signature verifications and eligibility questions, some worry the hold-up isn’t about voters but about who will rule the small majority Black town and challenge the awesome power of giants like the Whirlpool Corp., which is based in Benton Harbor. There have been debates about whether corporations have too much power and too many benefits while giving Benton Harbor’s Black residents little. Meanwhile just across a bridge, literally, sits St. Joseph, a majority White city thriving locality.

A judge’s ruling and questions

Sharon Tyler, Berrien County Clerk
“The election is scheduled in five days. I cannot hold a trial to determine the facts before the election. Therefore, Clerk Tyler has requested a preliminary injunction to preserve the status quo pending a determination of the facts. Granting a preliminary injunction is within my sound discretion,” Judge Dewane wrote. “While the alleged altered dates on sheet 38 escaped Clerk Tyler’s detection on initial cursory examination, they now appear to be in some instances obvious.”

Clerk Tyler certified 402 signatures on Feb. 11, exceeding the 393 signatures required to force a recall election. On Feb. 21, at the initial request of incumbent Mayor Hightower, the Berrien County Sherriff’s Department began contacting Benton Harbor residents who signed the recall petitions.

His challenge of signatures was a classic political move to see if an opponent can be defeated before the election based on violations of the political process.

Several attempts to contact Clerk Tyler were redirected to Donna Howard, corporate counsel for Berrien County who did not respond to voicemail messages left by The Final Call. A May 1 statement released from the County Clerk’s office said, “Seeking the stay and further examination of the recall petitions in the City of Benton Harbor has been a very difficult, but necessary, decision for Clerk Tyler.”

Many run-down houses like this have been boarded up for years, said city residents.
Rev. Edward Pinkney, 65, leads the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO) and is an outspoken area activist highly critical of Whirlpool as a corporate interloper he believes exploits the poor. He believes legal hurdles are being erected late time to prevent a recall vote and keep  Mr. Muhammad from becoming mayor.

“They want to postpone it indefinitely they figure that their man (Mr. Hightower) doesn’t have a chance. They have even lost faith in their own man,” said Rev. Pinkney. “We had enough signatures, the city clerk verified, the county clerk certified it. So there’s a problem. If the county clerk certified then she should be held accountable that’s how I look at it,” he added.

Rev. Pinkney has been charged with five counts of election forgery, each a felony carrying up to five years in prison, and six misdemeanor charges connected with allegedly allowing people to  sign more than once.

James Cornelius, listed as the sponsor of the move to recall Mayor Hightower, also faces two misdemeanor charges. Mr. Cornelius is a proud member of BANCO, the organization run by Mr. Pinkney. This is nothing but political harassment, said the 59-year-old. He told The Final Call that Berrien County Sheriffs have questioned him multiple times and he is not afraid of the consequences of being an activist. He does not believe he did anything wrong—even if someone did in fact accidently sign a petition multiple times.

“I’m going to still be out here being a champion for the people, and that’s my job in the community. Everybody’s job should be that, but they’re putting fear in them so they are scared to even do anything. I ain’t scared! I’m a soldier,” said Mr. Cornelius. “The very people trying to work for Mr. Muhammad as far as the election—they are targeting us.”

Shortly after the ruling on May 1, Mr. Muhammad expressed respect for the court decision, but plans to continue to campaign.

“Despite the prevailing circumstances, I’m encouraged and eventually the people will have their day,” said the hometown hero who led Benton Harbor High School’s basketball team to success as a player and coach and hopes to lead his struggling town to progress, as well.

The Benton Harbor home of current Mayor James Hightower.

Mayor Hightower said he is glad some time is being taken to “sort things out.” He said his inspection of petitions found 190 violations and he wondered why the Benton Harbor City Clerk and the Berrien County Clerk certified the signatures.

“In my opinion, they never should have been certified in the first place,” said the incumbent mayor. “To have an election based upon possible fraudulent circumstances would be a travesty for the residents of the city. We have to ensure the integrity of our elections.”

But even he admits, “There’s a disconnect between the state board of elections and the legislators. You can’t give me a list of rules to go by to challenge these petitions and then there’s another set of rules that the clerk goes by to certify them. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Voter intimidation?

Although there may be questions regarding some of the signatures, it has not come from residents. In fact, some residents felt intimidated by Berrien County Sheriffs who questioned them about signatures.

Helen Jones, who has lived in Benton Harbor for over ten years, said she felt “scared and intimidated” when sheriffs came to her apartment asking her about her signature and “shoving a recorder in my face.”

Evelyn Canaga had the same experience when officials came to question her about her signature.

“I did not like it at all,” said Ms. Canaga. “I got so scared when they approached me,” she added. She said she talked to her neighbor who was also uncomfortable by the presence of the sheriffs mentioning that she might not ever sign anything again.

Boarded up houses like this one are located throughout Benton Harbor.

Residents of the small town were looking forward to the May 6 vote to have their voices heard and their feelings known.

Many Benton Harbor residents expressed support for Muhammad over the man currently in office.

Joseph Outlaw is 40-years-old and has lived in Benton Harbor all his life. Mr. Outlaw believes the political establishment fears those who want to actually improve conditions. The future depends on making change, not just having rallies and talking about making change, he said. Mr. Outlaw cited  that as the reason he supports Mr. Muhammad for mayor.

“He can bring change—they don’t want to change the conversation around this place. They want to keep having something to argue and fight about. He’s fixing to get rid of that arguing and fighting and that’s what they don’t want. They want us to stay at this standstill. He can bring opportunity, he can bring movement,” said Mr. Outlaw. “Right now we are not moving and that’s what they’re scared of. They’re scared of real change.”

John Howard, 40, has lived in Benton Harbor for the last two decades. He was the director of the Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor until April 18. He was asked to resign after being photographed at a campaign rally for Mr. Muhammad. Numerous associates of Mr. Howard who knew of his work called him an asset to the  community as mentor for youth. He’s unable to go into details about his resignation because of an agreement with the Boys and Girls Club. However he did say leaving the position “was not my choice.”

“In our community we are at a turning point,” said Mr. Howard. “We live in a community that publicly wants some people to stay neutral, and I have never been a neutral person.”

Political opponents targeted?

Mr. Muhammad recently walked throughout the community to smiles and waves, stopped to speak with residents and visited Mr. Pinkney who is under house arrest pending a court appearance.

Rev. Edward Pinkney
“Reverend Pinkney has already been persecuted as a political prisoner,” said Mr. Muhammad. “All politics are local and given that he is a strong freedom fighter on a local level, the political attack and persecution is beginning right there. As I have said, he is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but as I see it, the charges are frivolous and trumped up.”

Members of the Nation of Islam from Benton Harbor and Grand Rapids, Mich., as well as community residents, showed support for the outspoken activist. Rev. Pinkney said change and a new direction is needed. The current mayor only cares about himself and his personal needs, he added.

Mayor Hightower’s goals are more aligned with corporate interests than the needs and desires of those in the community, he continued.

“I think where Hightower is leading us is towards failure for the residents of Benton Harbor, not for Whirlpool Corporation, not for Lakeland Hospital—because those are the people he supports—I’m thinking about the residents, the people that’s on the ground, the people that live here, the people that are unemployed, those are my concerns,” said Rev. Pinkney.

Benton Harbor can’t stand more time under the current mayor, he said.

“We can’t wait. Black people always wait. We wait so long for everything and we never get it. Next year I might be gone I might be deceased, anything could happen. I think the time is now,” said Rev. Pinkney. “I think we need a change and I think Marcus Muhammad is the man to be in there as mayor.”

The Whirlpool Technology Center, one of the many properties used by the company in the area.
Rev. Pinkney denies knowingly allowing people to sign a recall petition more than once. If it happened, it was an administrative or clerical error and not done with intent to deceive, he added.

“If you sign twice the signature becomes null and void, so that would have been defeating my whole purpose of being out there,” the activist said.

Joseph Taylor, the Benton Harbor Area School Board treasurer, was one of those who also met with Rev. Pinkney and supports Mr. Muhammad for mayor. He describes the state of affairs in Benton Harbor as “chaotic.”

“The future of Benton Harbor is gentrification, which is going on all across America,” said Mr. Taylor.

Emergency financial managers have been placed in control of several cities in Michigan, including Benton Harbor, Detroit and Flint, and the voters have been disenfranchised, said Mr. Taylor. All of the cities have large or majority Black populations. What is happening now with the corporate takeover of Benton Harbor has been years in the making, he said. Those corporate interests have taken precedence over the needs of the people, he added.

Mr. Muhammad believes the political attack against Rev. Pinkney and others supporters is aimed at stopping a political awakening taking place in Benton Harbor largely due to his mayoral campaign.

“The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency said every time there is an assassination there is a cover story, and the cover story only covers or camouflages the real story,” said Mr. Muhammad. “The real story in this case was to stop the election because in all of the polls and in all the predictions, they had Marcus Muhammad becoming the next mayor of a city that just had nearly $600 million in corporate and private dollars invested. Big money and big business would have a hard time at the bargaining table with an administration that is not favorable to their desires,” he said.