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A Conversation with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission’s Executive Director

G. Michael Payton is executive director of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which has been protecting Ohioans’ civil rights and battling discrimination since before passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. A former assistant attorney general, Payton discussed civil rights issues with Stefan Schmidt, an associate assistant attorney general in the office’s Civil Rights Section. Payton started his legal career in the AG’s Civil Rights Section in 1984 and moved over to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in 1997, becoming executive director in 2001.

Steve Schmidt: Can you give some examples of how the commission is helping Ohio families?
G. Michael Payton: Hatred and bigotry are learned behaviors. People are not born hating people. If it can be learned, it can also be unlearned. When we talk about intolerance, racism, and discrimination, sometimes we are really talking about ignorance. The best way to confront ignorance is with knowledge, and we go out into various communities and engage in education and outreach programs. I’ve been to a lot of schools in Ohio, sometimes with as many as 500 students at a time, where we talk about such things as bullying, tolerance, and anticipating and solving conflict. We reach thousands of students with our annual Dr. Martin Luther King program, which is a statewide contest in which young people submit art, essays, and multimedia projects that focus on the meaning of Dr. King’s philosophy in life. We also help Ohio families by enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. That’s a direct benefit to families. What it means is the right to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and to work at whatever you are qualified to do and to live wherever you want without being arbitrarily denied the privilege to do so. Talent is not monopolized by any sex, race, religion, or national origin. Making sure people don’t lose their employment rights for other than job performance-related reasons, in a sense, enhances the economy. I have often felt that discrimination is sometimes the antithesis of a free market.
Steve Schmidt: You’re saying discrimination is just bad business?
G. Michael Payton: I’d like to say that discrimination makes no cents, C-E-N-T-S. One of the things that we often don’t think about is the cost of discrimination. For example, how much lost wealth have black families sustained as a consequence of decades of not receiving the same fair and full opportunity to buy a home. A home is the single largest purchase most of us will ever make. Ownership of a home is also a principal way parents pay for the college educations for their kids. It is the most treasured asset that we have, and that right has been restricted. If you were deprived of the opportunity to buy a home, there’s no equity to cash in to help your family go to college. That loss of wealth not only harms families, but it also harms communities. 
Steve Schmidt: What sort of community outreach does the commission do?
G. Michael Payton: We have high expectations as it relates to community outreach. There probably hasn’t been a setting in which we haven’t appeared. It ranges from bar association seminars and chamber of commerce meetings to interacting with core community groups throughout our state, including schools. I’ve spoken at Ohio Highway Patrol graduation ceremonies and to soldiers in full dress. The range is very broad because there is not a group that we will not work with, there is not a group that we will not meet with to facilitate their understanding and compliance with civil rights laws or how to protect their civil rights if they feel they have been violated. One of the things we should appreciate is that civil rights just doesn’t involve black people or a single race or sex. Any citizen at some time in their life may need to avail themselves of the protections of the civil rights laws provided by our state, no matter if you are black or white, Jewish or Italian, male or female. These laws exist for the benefit of every single citizen.
Steve Schmidt: Do you conduct trainings for employers?
G. Michael Payton: Yes. Trainings are both reactive and proactive. Proactive would be where we offer EEO compliance workshops and seminars that suggest what an employer can do to reduce problems and avoid litigation. Reactive training focuses on fixing problems after they have arisen to make sure they don’t happen again and ultimately reduce the number of charges that are filed against them.
Steve Schmidt: Does the commission involve itself with mediation and conciliation efforts?
G. Michael Payton: The law places a premium on trying to resolve charges in lieu of further involvement by the government. The law says we must do that up front. It is an opportunity to sit down and work out what is needed in order to resolve that conflict. We encourage it, and frankly it is one of the more successful things we’ve done since I’ve been here. We successfully mediate somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the cases in which mediation is attempted. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s more about people getting together, both sides, to work out a solution to their differences on a voluntary and mutual basis. Anytime people can solve conflict in lieu of costly and time-consuming litigation, the better off we are.
Steve Schmidt: What areas do you see the commission moving into?
G. Michael Payton: Every year brings different challenges, and I think one day very soon the Civil Rights Act is going to be amended to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. I also think the commission will be dealing with cutting-edge issues like the use of credit scores and prior criminal convictions in employment decisions. Previously, the commission led the nation on issues like insurance redlining.
Steve Schmidt: What are some of the more memorable cases you have dealt with since becoming executive director?
G. Michael Payton: There have been a lot of cases across time, but one of the most memorable is the Zanesville water case. A cluster of black people living in a discrete area of the county were being denied drinking water across generations on the basis of their race. Our agency worked with the Attorney General of Ohio to make sure that the true promise of America was delivered to some very hardworking citizens, and we were successful in getting them running water like their white neighbors had. I was there to see the taps running and was able to see the smiling faces of the people who had been deprived of the water for so long. That will always stand out because of the nature of it and the depth of it and the number of years involved and the verdict, which was $10.8 million. It shows the utility of civil rights laws and why they are still needed and why sometimes effective enforcement is necessary despite living in a vastly improved world from the world when I was young. I proudly work in a profession where we are fighting to protect the rights of all of Ohio’s citizens.