Patty Burns was sworn into office Thursday as Hillsboro’s new city treasurer, and many of her family and friends were on hand to applaud her, as were family members and friends of new council members Brandon Leeth and Mary Stanforth, along with Judge David McKenna, who swore-in the new city officials after he was sworn-in by Judge Rocky Coss.
Yes, there was a lot of swearing going on Thursday.
It was the Democrats’ turn to have the oath of office administered, after newly-elected and re-elected Republican city officials had done the same in previous days.
Dinah Phillips, the chair of the Highland County Democratic Party, took obvious pride in the proceedings at the municipal courtroom, having fielded an almost full slate of good candidates from her party for Hillsboro city offices in the November election. Only Lee Koogler, the Republican incumbent president of council, got a free pass among city offices in this election.
Dinah noted that along with electing Patty, Brandon and Mary to city offices, another candidate, Jason Burns, lost by just four votes in his council race against incumbent Republican Claudia Klein.
But most of the attention Thursday was focused on Patty. At first, a number of longtime observers were saying that Patty was the first African-American woman elected to city office in Hillsboro, and that’s what we reported for a couple of hours online. Then Dick Donley, the outgoing Republican council member, sent me a text that said, “What about Peggy McClellan?”
Indeed, Peggy, who passed away in 2015, had been elected as a ward council member in the 1980s, as Betty Bishop, the former mayor, and Dianne Fawley, a former council member who was a contemporary of Peggy’s, noted when I spoke to them later.
Still, Patty is apparently the first African-American woman to be elected by all the voters in Hillsboro city-wide, not just in one ward, and it’s a milestone well worth noting.
After she was sworn-in, Patty, who has a smile that lights up a room and a disposition to back it up, told me she had not really set out to make history, but merely to step up to serve her community, meaning the entire Hillsboro community. As she said before the election, “Whatever needs to be done for the betterment of the community is pretty much where my heart is.”
But so notable was Patty’s oath of office that Channel 12 from Cincinnati came in Thursday to cover it, and while its initial report also misstated a fact or two about African-American election history here, Patty was well deserving of the broader regional recognition.
As I joked with Patty on Thursday, her three-vote victory came against Amy Robinson, who happens to be my niece. But I am thrilled for Patty, and happy for the message her election sends about our town.
In columns I get to write elsewhere, I often defend regions like ours that heavily voted for Donald Trump against charges that Trump’s support was only from a bunch of ignorant, uneducated racists. An African-American Democrat elected in the heart of “Trump Country” was also the angle that drew Channel 12 here to cover Patty’s swearing-in.
In fact, while Patty may be the first African-American woman to win city-wide in Hillsboro, and Peggy McClellan was elected years ago as a ward council member, several African-American men have been elected to council through the years, including Allen Raney, Clarence Thurman and Lewis Williams, although that may not be a complete list.
Patty Burns’ election does not mean that Hillsboro is suddenly without prejudice or even elements of racism. But what I think it does signal is that our community is no more, or less, racist than anywhere else.
Patty, who serves her church as an associate pastor, is known as a good person, a smart person, and an individual of good character with a loving disposition. For most white voters, even those who voted for her opponent, Patty’s race was not a factor. Her reputation as a good and decent human being who would do a good job in the office of treasurer was what mattered.
That is as it should be, except to the degree that just as Barack Obama’s election as president provided concrete evidence and inspiration for millions of African-American children that such an accomplishment is possible today, Patty’s election sends the unmistakable message that success in local government and politics is achievable for anyone.
In fact, there’s nothing particularly contradictory about a town that would support the white Republican Donald Trump for president and the black Democrat Patty Burns for Hillsboro city treasurer. Most voters here consider each office and each candidate on their own merits, regardless of race and — when it comes to local politics — often regardless of party.
That truth may not fit the stereotypes about places like Hillsboro, but it reflects a much happier reality.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.