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More Than Just Race

Election stats point to array of factors in Rembert's loss

Last week's election will probably go down in local history as the one where angry white suburban parents threw out black school board members who didn't jump fast enough to fix overcrowded suburban schools. That's unfortunate, because that's not exactly what happened.

Not that that matters. The community is already reacting to what they believe to have happened by polarizing along racial lines over the future of the school system. African-American leaders are screaming foul and vowing revenge while white suburban groups are declaring victory and a voter mandate for what they want -- more suburban schools to relieve overcrowding. Before the community continues its slide to polarization, a closer examination of the numbers from election day would be wise. Our own analysis shows a much more complex picture that has as much to do with sloppy campaigning as it does whether money should be spent in largely black inner city schools or largely white suburban ones.

The story, as it's been told, centers on the ouster of African-American Mecklenburg Board of Education Chairperson Wilhelmenia Rembert, who came in fourth in the school board race behind three white people. That's largely been blamed on white suburban voters, who voted for her in much lower numbers than they voted for newcomers Kaye McGarry, Joe White and Kit Cramer. A look at the precinct numbers shows that black voters can also share the blame for Rembert's defeat.

Rembert should have easily picked up the extra 400 votes she needed to win in the African-American community. In the 15 precincts where African-Americans make up over 80 percent of registered voters, Rembert got 1,071 votes less than Patrick Cannon, a popular African-American City Council member who won re-election. Had black voters who supported Cannon also voted for Rembert, she not only would not have lost, she'd have come in second in the at-large race for three school board seats. Even City Council candidate Susan Burgess, who is white, got more votes or the same number Rembert did in nearly half of the 15 precincts in question.

The picture gets even starker when you look at the seven precincts where 94 to 98 percent of registered voters are black. Had black voters there supported Rembert to the degree they supported Cannon, she'd have picked up another 458 votes, enough to win.

"One of the reasons that Rembert lost is because she didn't have a campaign that was worth a damn," said UNCC Political Science Professor Ted Arrington. Arrington says it was almost as if the Democrats and black leaders were working so hard to make sure Cannon placed well in the at-large Charlotte City Council race that they didn't emphasize as clearly to black and Democratic voters that it was also important for them to support Rembert and African-American district school board member George Dunlap, who also lost in the at-large school board race. Cannon came in far ahead of Rembert -- in many cases by 50 votes or more -- in all but three of the city precincts in which the two ran.

While suburban white Republican voters took much of the credit for Rembert's loss, affluent white Democrats who live in the posh neighborhoods that ring the center city also dropped her like last year's fashion. Rembert trailed Joe White, a white Democrat City Council member who ran for school board, in all of the affluent white Democrat precincts that rim the center city. She also trailed Cannon by 576 votes in the five affluent, largely Democrat inner city precincts CL analyzed.

Oddly enough, both African-American County Commissioner Norman Mitchell and Rhonda Lennon, leader of Families United for North Mecklenburg Education (FUME), agree on what white Democrats were saying.

"Someone said to me the other day that people are liberal until their kids are involved," said Lennon. "We can say let's have this, let's have that until it's your kid that's put into that kind of situation. Then all of a sudden they're like wait a minute, that's a bad idea."

But was it a resounding mandate for more schools in largely white areas and against "capping," a practice recently discussed by the school board that would force suburban children into inner city schools that are partially empty?

Surprisingly, Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education member Larry Gauvreau, a conservative and the leading proponent of more neighborhood schools, isn't so sure. Gauvreau thinks that lower voter turnout in the black community had more to do with who won and who lost than any sort of mandate sent by suburban parents. If the suburbanites were really mad, he says, they'd have shown up in much higher numbers like they did in 1999. But turnout was low in the northern suburbs, he says.

Lennon, who led the campaign to put candidates sympathetic to suburban parents on the school board, agrees that turnout was low in some parts of the suburbs, but says the vote was more unified for the three candidates FUME endorsed. Translation: Rembert got even fewer votes than she normally would have in the burbs, which contributed to her loss.

Lennon said that news stories about the school system potentially diverting suburban children from overflowing schools to underused inner city ones motivated voters as well.

"Threats of capping and diverting our students to overflow facilities that are down toward the center city, that makes people fearful," said Lennon. "If that were to come to pass, people are afraid that that would keep them from building new schools."

Lennon said there were economic fears as well.

"We have a lot of people in this area that are middle-income, middle-management type people, the exact type that are losing their jobs," said Lennon. "A lot of people are having to make sacrifices and relocate. There was a big fear of what will this do to property values and what will this do to the ability to just resell your home? How long will houses sit on the market if there is no stability in your neighborhood because you're in that capped area?"

Mitchell, an African-American County Commissioner who attended segregated schools in Mecklenburg County almost three decades ago, says that the bottom line is that diversity does not matter to voters as much as it used to.

"It will be a slow, progressive move toward a segregated school system," said Mitchell, who remembers when the high school he attended used cast-off books and equipment from Myers Park High School. With the makeup of the new school board, he believes it could happen here again. And once again, he says, some white Democrats have abandoned some liberal or black Democrats.

Racial voting patterns in largely black precincts also showed some white candidates getting the shaft there as well. Longtime Democrat Joe White lagged far behind Rembert and Dunlap in highly black voting areas. Democrat Susan Burgess, a white woman who ran for the Charlotte City Council at-large, also trailed far behind Cannon. But in the five largely white, largely affluent inner city boxes CL analyzed, the opposite happened. In a shocking twist on politics as usual, Cannon, the black candidate, came in considerably ahead of Burgess in all of these white precincts.

In the New South, it seems it's still impossible to have an election where the race card wasn't played in some way. It's how it plays out, and what exactly it meant, that is no longer so simple or clear-cut.

Contact Tara Servatius at