- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - In the wake of police shootings and a deadly church attack, Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman has assembled a panel of black community leaders - including past supporters of the Democratic president - to advise his closely watched re-election campaign on urban issues, his campaign planned to announce Thursday.

The decision to actively involve black voices in his campaign comes as early polling shows Portman neck-and-neck or lagging behind likely Democratic challenger Ted Strickland, a former Ohio governor. Democrats view Portman as among next year’s most vulnerable Republicans and both sides have already ramped up with political teams, fundraising and advertising.

The council’s steering committee will include former Ohio Lt. Gov. Jennette Bradley; Bishops Timothy Clarke of Columbus and Marva Mitchell of Dayton; Revs. Damon Lynch Jr. of Cincinnati and Michael Noble of Newark; and Columbus attorney Larry James, a past fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s campaigns. The roles of the steering committee and 42-member panel will be policy advice, fundraising and outreach.

“I’m proud to have this group of distinguished community leaders by my side as we work to promote policies that grow good-paying jobs and continue to make progress on reducing recidivism, improving opportunity and giving everyone a shot at the American dream,” Portman said in a statement.

Strickland campaign spokesman Dennis Willard said the Democrat surrounded himself with African-American cabinet advisers as governor and routinely confers with black advisers as a candidate.

“Ted is honored to have an African-American campaign manager as well as a vast network of friends and confidants like Congresswomen Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty who advise him every day,” Willard said in email.

Yet, with formation of his leadership council, Portman is clearly tapping into a community that has traditionally tacked heavily toward Democrats. A number of the black leaders involved in the leadership council were, and are, active supporters of Obama.

“I like Rob because of what Rob does, I like President Obama because of what he does, and I like people who do the job irrespective of party,” Lynch, a highly respected pastor in Cincinnati and a member of the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, said in a statement.

James was a prolific fundraiser for Obama, soliciting contributions in his home and assembling sums from multiple contributors in a process called “bundling.”

Democrats take issue with Portman’s opposition to background check legislation pushed after the mass shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, and his failure to immediately support a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act. Portman says a congressional review is necessary before modernizing the law.

“It’s very convenient that Senator Portman has African-Americans advising him now that he is fighting to protect his own job, but it would have been much better if he had been listening to the African-American community the last five years he’s been in office,” said Democrat Nina Turner, a former state senator and secretary of state candidate from Cleveland who is black.

Portman says he made strides in preventing prescription drug abuse and the flow of drugs through the state as a senator. He also co-authored the Second Chance Act with late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Cleveland, which helped reduce Ohio’s recidivism rate by 10 percent. He’s currently working to reauthorize the legislation.

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Correspondent Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.


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