Jeremy Blake/Facebook

Ohio’s First Gay, Black Mayoral Candidate Wants to Bring Queer Excellence to Small-Town America

“It takes people like Jeremy [Blake] to be able to show us what is possible."

Everyone in Newark, Ohio, has a Jeremy Blake story. That’s because just about everybody knows him.

After getting involved in local politics as a teenager, Blake has stayed busy. He served on the mayor’s council while he was in high school, became president of the Newark School Board at 25, and is currently in his second term on the Columbus exurb’s city council. If he didn’t have enough on his resume already, Blake has also worked for the Ohio Democratic Caucus and South Newark Civic Association.

Melinda Miller, who ran for the Ohio House of Representatives alongside Blake in 2018, said strolling around town with him is an experience.

“His family has been in Newark for generations,” she tells NewNowNext. “If you walk around Newark with Jeremy, he’s constantly giving hugs to people on the street. He attends community meetings and events whenever he can. Sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t know how you have enough hours in the day to do all that you do.’”

Sean Fennell, who also serves on the Newark City Council, said he actually met Blake for the first time at a book club.

“I remember thinking at the time: ‘This guy should be mayor,’” Fennell claims. “You can tell how much Jeremy cares about this community. He’s got a real passion for politics and a good head for it as well.”

Fennell’s prophecy may just come true. On Martin Luther King Day, Blake announced his candidacy for mayor of Newark in a video posted to YouTube. Quoting the famed civil rights leader, he said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

In conversation with NewNowNext, Blake said he hopes to continue his record of civic leadership by bringing accountability and transparency to the mayor’s office.

“Being a leader means being inclusive, being welcoming, and being transparent with all citizens,” he says. “When I take on roles as a public servant—either as a member of city council or hopefully as mayor of the city—I want to be open and welcoming to all people.”

Blake’s candidacy represents a major milestone for Newark. If elected, he would be the town’s first-ever black mayor. He would also be Newark’s first LGBTQ person to sit in the executive office.

In addition, Blake would be the first gay, black mayor in Ohio’s history—as well as its third LGBTQ person to hold the position.

His announcement shied away from highlighting the historic nature of his campaign, billing him as “the people’s mayor.” If his message puts populism before identity, Blake said it’s because local residents in Newark don’t know him as “the gay guy” or “the black man.” They recognize him for his contributions to the community.

“They know Jeremy Blake as a guy that grew up in this town and has been involved with public service for all of his life,” he claims. “That’s how people know me.”

Blake’s public recognition will be put to the test in November, when he’s likely to face off against third-term incumbent Jeff Hall. At the time of publication, Blake is the only Democrat who has declared. There’s perhaps a reason for the lack of primary challengers, and it isn’t just Blake’s formidable C.V.: Republicans have held the mayor’s office for 12 years.

While Newark is a purple town, solidly conservative Licking County went for Donald Trump by nearly 3o points in 2016. Blake lost last year’s bid for District 71 of the Ohio House by a similar margin.

Blake believes 2019 will be different, however. He says Newark is ready for change.

Jeremy Blake/Facebook

“People are really excited for something new,” he claims. “It’s not even about just changing faces in high places. We’re wanting to bring some new policy and make a real difference in people’s lives.”

A shake up at the top is long overdue. Last year, county commissioners refused Blake’s request to light up the Licking County Courthouse in rainbow colors to celebrate Newark’s first-ever Pride festival. Officials claimed it was against policy, despite making exceptions for John McCain’s funeral and Halloween.

According to Blake, the controversy felt like a “step backward” just two years after the Newark City Council unanimously approved an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance—one he introduced.

“I think that decision really hurt us,” he says. “We had so much momentum.”

But Blake believes the fallout from the decision “energized people” to support Newark’s LGBTQ Pride festival “even more.” Local businesses offered donations and sponsorships. An estimated 1,000 people turned out the day of the event to celebrate the city’s queer and trans communities.

“It rallied people together,” he claims. “The county commissioners’ decision did not reflect what a majority of people in this community want.”

Blake is hoping to tap into that energy in this year’s elections. Even with Nov. 5 a full nine months away, he is already putting together an ambitious get-out-the-vote effort. His campaign hopes to tap a volunteer corps of 25 neighborhood leaders to focus on outreach in each of the city’s precincts. A majority of positions have already been filled.

As someone who was inspired by Blake to run for office, Fennell shares the excitement. When he was in high school, there weren’t many out LGBTQ elected officials to look up to. He didn’t think politics had room for someone like him until he met Blake.

“I don’t know if I would have necessarily thought that I could run a successful campaign as an openly gay man if Jeremy hadn’t blazed the way,” he claims. “It takes people like Jeremy to be able to show us what is possible. His ability to organize and to set an example is something that has a very large effect on people.”

Fennell also predicted that—win or lose—Blake’s candidacy would have a tremendous impact on a new generation of LGBTQ people who might think they need to leave their hometown to be their most authentic selves.

“[LGBTQ people] can have an incredible, full life in small towns,” he claims. “As an openly gay black man in political life, he is a shining example of the type of life you can have. You don’t have to leave in order to make an impact and be accepted. Newark is that kind of place.”

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.