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Lawmakers reject racism charge, but NAACP denounces ward plan as discriminatory

Lawmakers reject racism charge, but NAACP denounces ward plan as discriminatory

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Minorities would in the numerical majority in only two of five wards on the Winston-Salem City Council, if a bill filed last week by two local representatives in the General Assembly becomes law.

Blacks and other minorities now make up a majority in four of the city’s existing eight wards.

The Winston-Salem chapter of the NAACP and the Winston-Salem Urban League added fresh denunciations of the bill on Tuesday, on top of objections already voiced by several members of the city council. The NAACP and the Urban League called the ward-adjustment plan “racially discriminatory” and vowed to fight it.

In a statement released about noon on Tuesday, the Rev. Alvin Carlisle, the president of the local NAACP, called the bill a product of an “extremist-controlled legislature” that seeks to “garner unearned power by circumventing the will of African-American communities.”

Republican N.C. Reps. Donny Lambeth and Debra Conrad rejected claims that they are acting in a racist manner or targeting individual council members with their plans to redraw and reduce the number of city wards.

“I had no goal to do anything more than to bring the city of Winston-Salem’s elections in line with other large cities in North Carolina,” Lambeth said. “I did not look at any profile numbers. I would also be surprised if the makeup of the council changed much at all.”

The bill filed by the two lawmakers, who are both city residents, reduces the number of city wards from eight to five, creates three at-large seats on the city council, and gives the mayor the right to vote on all council decisions. It also reduces terms from four to two years.

The council had requested none of those changes.

According to the 2010 Census, the city’s population was 47 percent non-Hispanic white.

Four of the city’s existing eight wards have non-Hispanic white majorities. The other four wards have minorities in the majority.

The bill put forward by Lambeth and Conrad proposes five wards: Three with a majority of non-Hispanic white residents, and two where minorities are in the majority.

Conrad and Lambeth say the change would put the city more in line with the state’s other largest cities, all of which have at-large members.

Lambeth said the proposed new ward lines were drawn by a non-partisan legislative staff, who were given no instructions other than to create five wards.

Some members of the city council harshly criticized the plan last week for putting three of the city’s four black council members into one of the new wards the bill would create.

Council members D.D. Adams of North Ward, Vivian Burke of Northeast Ward, and Annette Scippio of East Ward would all become residents of a new Ward 2. All three are Democrats.

Southeast Ward Council Member James Taylor, also a Democrat, would be the only black council member not placed in a ward with another sitting member of the council.

Two white council Democrats, John Larson and Jeff MacIntosh, would be alone in their new wards, but Council Member Dan Besse, the other white Democrat, would be placed in the same district as Council Member Robert Clark, the other white member of the council and its sole Republican.

Besse ran a close challenge to Lambeth in the 2018 legislative election, and was quick to call the new ward map one that is “motivated by raw partisan power politics.”

The NAACP and the Urban League said Tuesday that by having the mayor cast a vote, the city council would effectively have four at-large members.

James Perry, the president and chief executive of the Urban League, said he is already hearing from state and national leaders who are talking about a boycott of the city.

The two groups said a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidated as illegal the practice of replacing district seats with at-large or multi-member districts in a manner that “invidiously discriminates” against minorities.

Lambeth said his effort to change Winston-Salem’s ward and election structure came about after the city requested special legislation to change the method for filling council vacancies. That prompted an examination of how Winston-Salem compares with other cities, he said.

“I particularly looked at Greensboro and talked to several people about how their elections (work),” Lambeth said. “By providing some at-large districts, more of the council will be focused on what is best for the city, not just their district.”

Greensboro’s council, like the kind proposed for Winston-Salem, has five members elected by district and three elected at large. The Greensboro council does serve four-year terms, however.

Conrad said she doesn’t know if having at-large members on the city council will change the board’s direction, but added that if it does make the council more conservative “that is fine.”

“I’m watching my city taxes go up, and they have bond referendums for routine maintenance that should be done on a yearly basis,” she said.

“They could be more efficient.”

Conrad said it shouldn’t be too expensive for any of the council members put into the same ward to win an office by running at large.

“All of them can run and get re-elected,” Conrad said.

“One could decide to run in the district, and the others could run at large and wouldn’t have to run against each other at all.”

Although the ward plan was still fresh news, it didn’t get mentioned in Monday night’s meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council. There was word that the council might go into closed session to consider legal action, but that didn’t happen.

Adams, one of the strongest critics of the Lambeth-Conrad bill, said after Monday’s meeting that she sees “difficult negotiations” with the two lawmakers ahead.

“What boggles my mind is how they didn’t talk to us” before filing the bill, Adams said.

In his newsletter to constituents, Besse called it “completely undemocratic to put forward legislation of such a sweeping nature impacting the public’s rights to select their own representatives, with no input from the public or consultation with local elected leaders.”

“Taken as a whole, the changes would likely reduce the number of minority representatives for a city in which our population is nearly half members of a racial or ethnic minority group,” Besse said.

“By enormously raising the cost of running for, winning, and serving in city elected office in Winston-Salem, the bill would also all but eliminate the chance for people of modest financial means to serve in these offices.”

Besse said creating two-year terms also increases the cost of running, but Conrad said she and many other elected officials have to run every two years, also.

“I am not a racist at all,” Conrad said. “No one could point to anything I have ever done. I was not raised that way.”

Conrad did say that the change “might stimulate a larger number of people to run” in the city.

“We have a hard time recruiting Republicans to run because (they say) why bother,” Conrad said. “If it does stimulate more people to run, that is not a bad thing.”

According to the 2010 Census, the non-Hispanic white majority in four wards ranged from 51 percent (South Ward) to 84 percent (West Ward). Those wards are represented by white council members.

Blacks were a majority in two wards, East (at 58 percent)and Northeast (at just over 50 percent), and were barely shy of a majority in North Ward at 49 percent.

Blacks made up 39 percent of Southeast Ward residents, but that ward still had minorities in the majority; only 28 percent of the residents in Southeast Ward were non-Hispanic whites in 2010. The East, Northeast, North and Southeast wards are represented by black council members.

Under the new ward system that the Lambeth-Conrad bill would create, the city would have three wards with non-Hispanic white majorities, according to the 2010 Census numbers. The percentage of white residents would range from 54 percent to 72 percent in those wards.

Only one of the new wards, Ward 2 in northeastern Winston-Salem, would have a black majority outright, at 64 percent.

Ward 3 would be 38 percent black, but would have a non-Hispanic white population in the minority, at 36 percent.

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said the city has worked hard to heal racial wounds, and that the proposed bill would be a setback:

“This act would continue to divide us as a community,” he said.

wyoung@wsjournal.com 336-727-7369 @wyoungWSJ

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