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A Conversation with the Attorney General

As the launch of the Civil Rights Reporter approached, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine discussed civil rights issues in a conversation with Marilyn Tobocman, a principal assistant attorney general in the office’s Civil Rights Section. Attorney General DeWine has been involved in civil rights issues throughout his career, primarily during his years in Congress. Tobocman, a civil rights attorney for three decades, has been with the Attorney General’s Office for 19 years and was in private practice for 11 years.

Marilyn Tobocman: Can you talk about the educational role our office plays in civil rights law?
Mike DeWine: Our Civil Rights Section is proactive, and of course, our goal is to have no problems. The way we do that — or at least the way we try to lessen the problems — is to be proactive and educate people. As I tell a lot of different groups, we are here to be of assistance to you. Whether you have a small business or any other enterprise, we want to come brief you on all the things you need to be aware of and watch out for.
Marilyn Tobocman: Have you had opportunities to do that in past positions?
Mike DeWine: Throughout my career, I’ve dealt with civil rights issues primarily from a legislative point of view. In addition to voting on all the major civil rights legislation during my 20 years in Congress, I served on a working group that Bob Dole put together when he was Majority Leader of the Senate and Bill Clinton was President. There was a big push to totally do away with affirmative action, and we came back and recommended keeping it. We wanted to see whatever problems existed fixed, but we were in favor of the public policies of this country that reach out to be inclusive, which is really all affirmative action is. I’m very proud of having played a major role in preserving policies that try to compensate for and include people who would have been excluded from the pool — whether it’s hiring or going to school or whatever it is. I’m also very proud of having taken the lead in advocating for including family status as a protected class under the fair housing law when I was on the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee. As a father of eight children, I was somewhat informed and obviously concerned about someone being denied housing because they have a bunch of kids.
Marilyn Tobocman: Can you talk about your expectations of the office’s Civil Rights Section?
Mike DeWine: Well, you know, I think it’s pretty easy to describe. It is to do justice and rectify problems and to serve, therefore, as a deterrent. The law is a teacher, and by writing legislation and passing laws, we set that as a standard. And so although we are not writing laws, we are enforcing them. The publicity from a case serves as an example. I think our Civil Rights Section, accomplishes what it accomplishes by example.  We — or the Civil Rights Commission or anybody else — can never catch all forms of discrimination. But we follow the law, we do justice, we set examples, we deter, we prevent, we inform, and we educate.
Marilyn Tobocman: How does your office protect Ohio families from a civil rights perspective?  
Mike DeWine: We should constantly be looking for ways to teach more, to inform more. It’s not enough for us to sit back and wait until stuff comes to us (not that we do that). We’ve got to be proactive. So I’ve challenged our staff to come to me with ideas about how — in the case of the Civil Rights Section, for instance — we can seek justice, prevent discrimination, do the right thing. How can we better inform? How can we reach the average person out there? And so it’s a work in progress. We are not where we need to be, but I think we are doing a good job. There’s always room to go higher and do better.
Marilyn Tobocman: Can you talk about efforts within the Attorney General’s Office with regard to diversity within the staff?
Mike DeWine: I am very conscious of diversity in the office. For instance, I’m proud of our record in reaching out and making sure that people with disabilities are included in the pool of people we are looking at for jobs in this office. I worked in this area quite a bit when I was in Congress, and one of the more shocking figures is the high percentage of unemployment among people with disabilities. There is just no reason for that. Likewise, we want to be very inclusive of minorities and women. If you look around at who’s had top positions with me in the U.S. Senate and who has top positions with me now in the Attorney General’s Office, we have a very significant number of women. This does not mean we are patting ourselves on the back and think we are where we need to be with diversity. We are making some progress, but we are not nearly where we want to be.
Marilyn Tobocman: As a father and grandfather, how do you convey these ideals to your children and grandchildren?
Mike DeWine: Well, in every area, it’s not what you tell kids, it’s what you do. They observe you. I was fortunate to grow up in a fascinating community, Yellow Springs, Ohio. When I was growing up, Yellow Springs was a very diverse community, much more diverse actually than it is today. The African-American population was probably 30 percent, and many families had been there for 50, 60, 70, 100 years. There was a continuity, which I think was just kind of a neat thing. My grandfather was in the seed business, an entrepreneur. He had a story about one of his partners, a guy by the name of Edwards, who was African-American. And they were partners: They owned some piece of equipment — I can’t remember exactly what it was — and they would rent this piece of equipment out. They bought it together, they worked together. It was a partnership. No one thought anything about it, and that was in the 1930s. But at the same time, in many communities, including Yellow Springs, the movie theater was segregated. There were restaurants that African-Americans could not go into, even in this so-called progressive town of Yellow Springs. One controversy that hit the national news, as it should have, was in the early ’60s. A guy had a barber shop, and he wouldn’t cut African-Americans’ hair. It went on and on, and there was picketing and all the things you would expect to happen. Finally, he left town. So, I think growing up in a very diverse community was very beneficial. It shaped how I look at a lot of things.