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Will Commissioner Cole help defeat another stereotype?

Jason Singer • Aug 8, 2010 at 8:51 PM

Local residents say Diedre Cole is many things: A lightning rod, articulate, charismatic, opinionated.

She's also historic.

Once she's sworn in, Cole may be the first person in state history to serve in an elected position while also living in public housing.

State officials can't say unequivocally if that's the case, but she's certainly the first elected official in a very long time who is living in public housing, said Doug Shelby, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Cleveland Office.

Shelby, who has worked 13 years at HUD and supervises the 35 most northern counties in Ohio, can't recall a single instance during his tenure where someone in public housing has served in an elected position.

"We don't have anybody who tracks those types of statistics," Shelby said. "But in my 13 years, this is certainly the first I've heard of it."

Cole will be sworn in this week, after current city commissioner Brett Fuqua resigns.

Fuqua took a new job at a community action agency in Columbus, which would interfere with his position as a commissioner.

Cole finished fourth in November's election, earning more votes than any other candidate who didn't win a seat.

Her ability to reach this position doesn't surprise Rob Fischer, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University.

The country's public housing system has a one-strike policy that, in many cases, requires people to work while receiving assistance.

"So in many ways, folks currently on public housing are living by common community standards," Fischer said.

Because many of those in public housing are scarcely discernible from people in private housing, Fischer expects to see more candidates like Cole.

"If you follow that rationale, the odds have certainly increased for folks in public housing to successfully be able to run for elected office," he said.

Cole fits into Fischer's more modern definition of public-housing occupants. They're people who often work, but whose income is low enough to qualify them for public assistance.

Cole owns Sandusky Bay Organics, which makes organic healthy and beauty products.

She also raises her grandson, which further qualifies her to receive public housing.

And she hasn't hid from her financial situation: She posted it on her campaign website during the fall election.

Even so, that hasn't stemmed the criticism from some Sandusky residents.

On the Register's website, several anonymous commenters recently said Cole is on public assistance because she's "lazy" and has an "entitlement mindset."

The public's vitriol toward people on public assistance doesn't surprise Fischer either.

Despite the fact that the 2007-2009 recession has forced more people to accept government assistance -- including people like Cole, who have jobs or even own businesses -- it often takes years to shake stereotypes from the American psyche.

"This is one of those things: The message is slow to get out," Fischer said. "In the last year and a half, many former middle-income families have had to swallow their pride and use public assistance. Over time, that changes the way people will view these programs."

Cole says her experience doesn't differ much from most people in private housing.

"I work and pay my rent just like everyone else," Cole said. "It's just instead of a regular landlord, my landlord is the government."

Examples abound where people who were once on public assistance ended up having a positive impact on their community.

In Cleveland, former mayor Carl Stokes grew up in public housing and won the mayorship as an adult. His brother, Louis, also grew up in public housing and became a U.S. Congressman.

Cole is just the latest example of that rise at the local level.

Unlike the Stokes brothers, however, Cole is still receiving public assistance while serving as an elected official.

As one city commissioner pointed out, Cole's new position could provide a voice to a segment of the city whose collective voice has been missing.

"It's just a function of people having an opportunity to have an education and given a chance to demonstrate what they can do," Shelby said. "People who live in assisted housing can achieve like anyone else. This is just one example."

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