Fearless politician refuses to ‘sit down and shut up’

When state Rep. Bernadine Kennedy Kent was 5 years old, she traveled to her mother's home state of Louisiana. During the visit, she went to a store owned by her uncle.

“My mother and I were in the store, and I was standing next to a white male, and he put his cigarette out on my shoulder,” Kennedy Kent said. “I'm getting ready to say something, and my mother immediately grabbed me, put her hand over my mouth and dragged me out of the store.”

Back home in East Chicago, Indiana, Kennedy Kent never forgot the incident. The older she got, the more determined she became to fight injustice. She couldn't keep quiet.

Kennedy Kent's Mississippi-born father couldn't read or write, and her mother never made it past eighth grade, but they taught their kids that nothing was out of reach. “My father used to always say, ‘Title don't mean nothin' to me. If they can't make it rain, they're just like you and me,'” Kennedy Kent said. “That made so much sense to me.”

Thanks to a high school counselor who saw potential in her, Kennedy Kent worked at an attorney's office during her senior year, then went on to get an English degree at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. After a brief stint in Wheeling, West Virginia, Kennedy Kent got a job as an English teacher and track coach at Grove City High School. Teaching jobs later took her to Maryland, New Jersey and then back to Ohio to teach at Columbus City Schools.

But teaching kids at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Facility may have had the greatest impact on her. The troubled boys she met stood in stark contrast to her own son, Anthony Kent (now a 34-year-old professional basketball player). “I know what can happen when you get that nurturing and the things you need — where you can go in your life. And I feel like every child is entitled to that,” she said.

Toward the end of her tenure with Columbus City Schools, which culminated in an assistant principal position at West High School that ended acrimoniously in 2000, Kennedy Kent began to fight against a mandatory night-school program for students. She and her husband, James Whitaker, founded Parent Advocates for Students in School (PASS) in 2001, and soon turned their attention to a school tutoring program funded through No Child Left Behind.

“I realized there's this gap between black and white students in regards to math and reading, and I couldn't understand: If we have this No Child Left Behind money that's supposed to give them free tutoring, why isn't this helping?” Kennedy Kent said. She went online, found numbers for various tutoring companies and made hundreds of calls.

Something was fishy. Many of the phone numbers didn't work, and some of the companies seemed to only exist on paper. It took several years of badgering, but eventually State Auditor Dave Yost investigated the issue and confirmed the fraud. In a three-year period in Columbus, taxpayers were cheated out of $800,000.

After losing the Columbus School Board election in 2015, Kennedy Kent decided on a whim to run for the Ohio House of Representatives' 25th District. She won handily in 2016, and after winning the primary in May, she's up for re-election this fall.

In March of last year, Kennedy Kent introduced House Bill 137, which would list law enforcement officers as mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect. It passed unanimously in the House. The bill stems from her experience advocating for kids who have been victims of rape and sexual assault. In 2013 she became aware of children who were in an abusive situation, yet she said her reports to police went unanswered. Years later, Kennedy Kent is still pursuing justice for those children and others. (In a taped 2014 deposition, CPD's Mark Gardner admitted to sending Kennedy Kent's emails to his junk folder; in July Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein said he would bring in a special prosecutor to look into the matter.)

Kennedy Kent is fearless, and she can rub people the wrong way. Columbus Police added her to a list of serial complainers. Previously, she was banned from School Board meetings. And recently, after a dust-up with the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus over her use of the OLBC's letterhead and electronic signatures, she was voted out of the Ohio House Democratic Caucus.

Though no one today is physically putting a hand over Kennedy Kent's mouth like that painful day in Louisiana, some people would probably like to. “I had a lawmaker say to me, ‘Why don't you just stick to writing bills? Why are you doing all this? Why can't you give it up?'” said Kennedy Kent. “Here it is 2018, and they want me to sit down and shut up.”

But she can't.

“I feel like this is something I've been called to do,” she said of her advocacy for children. “I'm not going to stop saying it, ever.”