This City Is Making African American Councilmembers Run Against Each Other

CREDIT: ALICE OLLSTEIN
CREDIT: ALICE OLLSTEIN

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA — When Yvonne Johnson was growing up in Greensboro, she couldn’t eat at many local restaurants because she is black. She attended segregated schools, and remembers drinking from water fountain labeled “colored.” Though the city had a large African-American population when she was a child, there was just one person of color in local elected office.

The civil rights movement that kicked into high gear while she was a student at the all-black, all-women Bennett College in the 1960s swept away many of those barriers, and decades after marching in the streets with her fellow students she became the first African American in the city’s history to win an at-large seat. Now, twenty years later, Johnson is the Mayor Pro Tem, but she says the city is facing a modern-day enemy of racial justice: gerrymandering.

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This month, residents are suing to block a bill passed through the Republican-controlled state legislature in Raleigh that changes Greensboro’s voting maps — scrapping the three at-large seats, consolidating districts so that the city’s four African-American council members have to run against one another, and taking away the voting power of the city’s mayor. The bill also bars Greensboro from holding a referendum to change its voting laws and maps in the future, making it the only city in the state without control over its elections. In their complaint filed in a local district court, Greensboro voters called the move “a scheme that destroys the rights of the City of Greensboro and its citizens to govern themselves locally.”

Republican State Sen. Trudy Wade, a former member of the Greensboro City Council, wrote the bill and shepherded it through the statehouse. She called the lawsuit “baseless” and assured critics that “the new plan will better serve the people of Greensboro by expanding representation.” When angry residents packed into hearings to protest her bill, she responded: “This is how democracy works. State government has been involved in local government for years.”

But Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Democrat in the State Assembly whose district includes Greensboro, told ThinkProgress he sees the move as hypocritical. “It’s a prime example of government overreach,” he said. “Yet these are the same people who talk about the federal government being too intrusive into state’s rights and go on about how local government should have the power because they know best.”

Brockman, who took office this January, says he saw lawmakers use an unfair process to force the bill through. “We voted on the bill three times. The first time, it was completely crushed and defeated. The second time it was still narrowly defeated and we still won, even though some switched sides. Then they decided to change the rules.”

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Following the second “no” vote, the House held a closed-door caucus meeting, and minutes after emerging, called for another vote. Several Republicans switched sides, and the bill narrowly passed.

Brockman credits gerrymandering on the state level for allowing gerrymandering on the local level to proceed.

“The lawmakers who pushed this bill aren’t worried about making Greensboro people mad, because they have these safe districts where people will keep electing them because they’ve drawn lines that favor them,” he said. “Republicans are drawing maps that benefit them by packing black voters into fewer districts, and they don’t feel accountability because of that gerrymandering.”

North Carolina’s voting maps, drawn by Republicans after the 2010 census, have been repeatedly challenged in court for creating twisting, winding districts (see below) that separate voters by race and political affiliation.

CREDIT: North Carolina General Assembly
CREDIT: North Carolina General Assembly

North Carolina is the perfect example of a “purple” swing state almost exactly divided in half between Democrats and Republicans. In 2008, President Barack Obama carried the state with 49.7 percent of the vote; in 2012 Mitt Romney won it with 50.39 percent. In 2014, Thom Tillis (R-NC) won a U.S. Senate seat by less than 2 points. But this split is not reflected in the state legislature, where Republicans currently dominate both chambers.

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“Nobody can say that’s the electorate of North Carolina,” Brockman said. “So you have African-American voters right now who may have representation but don’t have any power. It’s purposeful and it’s wrong. It’s the reason North Carolina has taken such a conservative turn.”

Without gerrymandering themselves into safe, mostly white seats, says Brockman, state lawmakers would never have been able to pass the controversial voting overhaul that the state is currently defending in court. If the state had fairer voting maps, he said, lawmakers would also have been unable to block the expansion of Medicaid, pass tax breaks for millionaires, impose a “ridiculous” 72-hour waiting period for abortions, and dilute the voting power of African Americans in cities like Greensboro.

“The people of Greensboro want the leaders that they elected,” he said. “The fact that all the minority members of the City Council are now forced to go up against each other has really upset the minority community. But Greensboro has a long history of civil rights leaders. If people think they’re just going to let it happen, they’re sadly mistaken. They’ve been fighting for years, and I think this has re-woken the beast.”

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

On July 13, just half an hour down the road from Greensboro, thousands of people from across North Carolina and the U.S. converged on Winston-Salem while a federal judge heard a lawsuit against the state for intentionally suppressing voters of color. As she marched with the crowd throughout the city streets, longtime Greensboro resident Wendy Nelson wore a shirt with the name of her city above a cartoon of a snake and the “Don’t Tread On Me” slogan most commonly associated with the Tea Party.

“If we wanted changes [to our voting maps], it should have been something we the people decided, not someone in Raleigh,” she told ThinkProgress. “Now they’re forcing us, basically sticking it to us.”

Nelson’s friend and fellow League of Women Voters member Lynn McCoy added that she felt she was losing her voice in local politics. “I used to have five people who had to listen to me, as a voter, and now I have one — because they got rid of all the at-large council members and the mayor now doesn’t have a vote,” she said. “They just want to solidify Republican control.”

Marching alongside them was Peggy Ferebee from Summerfield, North Carolina, which sits just north of Greensboro.

“I’m just as upset as they are, because what can be done to Greensboro can be done to every city in the state, and it’s such a corruption of the democratic process that it should offend everybody,” she said. “This kind of chicanery really turns people off from the political process, because they see it’s rigged.”

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Right now, Greensboro’s City Council has four African-American members. Should courts allow the redistricting changes to go through, Yvonne Johnson would have to run against her fellow incumbent Jamal Fox. She says though it pains her, she would rather retire than do so.

“I don’t want to run against the young man in my district. He’s a good public servant, and it’s important for young people to see all kinds of people representing this city.”

Johnson is urging people across the U.S. to pay attention to what happens with Greensboro’s voting maps and elected officials of color, “because they’re going to be next, and next, and next, and next.”

The Court will begin hearing the case on July 23.

Update:

A federal judge slapped a permanent injunction on the redistricting plan this week, ruling that Greensboro voters “would suffer irreparable harm should the 2015 election go forward under the new law.” A final trial will decide the fate of the law before the following election in 2017.