Both sides of the district voting debate aired their differences in a “debate” March 19 at the Harvest Community Christian Church.
Attorney Wayne Kendall told the crowd that district voting is necessary because history has shown that black candidates have been thwarted by their white counterparts in races for seats on the county commission and the county board of education.
The contrary opinion, aired by Fayette County Local Issues Tea Party member Bob Ross, is that black candidates have failed to win election in Fayette County due to poor campaigning or facing a more qualified opponent, not because of their skin color.
In fact, Ross offered his expertise to black citizens who may consider running for office, as Ross said he feels there are plenty of black residents who are capable of winning an at-large election in Fayette County. Ross noted that he helped Ed Johnson, a black resident of Fayetteville, win election to the Fayetteville City Council last year.
By contrast, Kendall — who is himself black and has served as a lawyer for the Fayette chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — said that black residents in Fayette County have endured discrimination through the “employment practices” of both the county commission and board of education.
“Statistically in Fayette County, the board of commissioners only has about 17 percent of its employees that are minorities of all types. Only 4 percent are managers,” Kendall said. “So there’s discrimination right there in the board itself.”
Steering back to the issue of whether a black candidate can or cannot be elected under at-large voting in Fayette County, Ross said the concept of district voting “sends the wrong message to every black man and woman in Fayette County.”
“It tells them: ‘You don’t have the right stuff. You can’t compete on the varsity level across the county. We’re gonna create a JV team, up in the north, where maybe you’ll have a better chance.’ … I don’t buy it. My white neighbor, me, my wife and a number of my friends are insulted by that kind of position.”
Ross also noted that in the past 10 years, few black candidates have chosen to run for seats on the board of education and the county commission.
Of the 27 seats that have come up for election in that time, black candidates have only run for five of those seats.
“If you don’t step up to the plate, you’re not going to get a hit,” Ross said.
Although Kendall and Ross were arguing in the court of public opinion, there is a pending federal lawsuit filed by the Fayette County branch of the NAACP along with several Fayette citizens that seeks to force the county to adopt district voting for all five seats on both the county board of education and the county commission.
Under the current at-large voting system, all Fayette County voters get to weigh in on all five posts on the board of education and county commission. Under the district voting proposal, voters would be limited to selecting just one of the five members on each board: the one who is seeking the post corresponding to the geographic district the voter lives in.
If a district voting scheme were to be adopted, it would also limit voters to initiate a recall petition (or vote on a proposed recall of an elected official) only for the elected official who represents his or her district. Under the current at-large voting scheme, citizens may file a recall petition and vote to recall any of the five members of the board of education and the county commission.
In the lawsuit, the NAACP argues that the initiation of district voting, along with a specially-drawn district map to create a majority-minority district, would almost guarantee the selection of one black candidate to the county commission and board of education.
The lawsuit has been contested by the Fayette County Commission, which has argued that the proposed district map submitted by the NAACP does not meet case law which requires the newly created majority-minority district to have 50 percent of its voting-age population to be black residents.
Kendall in his presentation drew attention to the 2006 special election for Post 1 on the county commission which featured four black candidates running against local businessman Robert Horgan, who is white. Kendall noted that two of the black candidates ran as Republicans including Emory Wilkerson, an attorney who was at the time an active Republican and vice chair of the local Republican party.
Horgan won with 51.7 percent of the vote, Kendall said, adding later that if all four of the black candidates’ votes were added together, Horgan still would have won.
Ross argued that had black voters turned out in higher numbers, they would have been able to defeat Horgan easily.
Not so, countered Kendall, who called Horgan “a political novice” compared to the other black candidates in the race.
“They (the black candidates) all lost, a political novice won, and we all know what at-large voting did for him (Horgan): it got him elected, simply and solely because he was a white person and the only white person running,” Kendall said. “He was unqualified.”
Kendall then made a veiled reference to Horgan’s arrest in May 2009 on a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana and a tag violation.
“That’s the result of what at-large voting gets us: not more qualified,” Kendall said.
Kendall noted that former Chief Magistrate Judge Charles R. Floyd, a black attorney, was re-elected twice to his countywide post without opposition. But Kendall noted that his predecessor left office amid accusations that he improperly inquired about the race of suspects using a derogatory term.
Ross pointed to the 2010 race for a seat on the board of education between Sam Tolbert, a white Republican and Laura Burgess, who was a black Democrat.
“Candidate Burgess didn’t understand the issues,” Ross said. “She didn’t prepare for them and she didn’t get her message out. That’s why she wasn’t elected.”
Ross also noted that the voice of black residents at county commission and school board meetings has largely been absent in recent months. He encouraged black residents to attend more meetings and make their opinions and solutions known.
Kendall also displayed a map that showed how all of the jurisdictions surrounding Fayette County have already adopted district voting, a practice he said “is only justified if you want to exclude people from office.”
Ross said he thinks a district voting scheme would breed infighting among the members of the board of education and the county commission instead of promoting decisions being made for the best of the county as a whole.
“I think it segregates rather than unifies our Fayette County community,” Ross said. “We can do better, and we must do better.”