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No Longer Taken For Granted

Black leaders say Scarborough's victory sent a message to white Democrats

You could call it payback for old wounds. Or you could call it a new day in the politics of race in Charlotte. But whatever you call it, say some of Charlotte's African-American political leaders, last Tuesday's election should serve as a warning to white Democrats. We are at the lowest end of the totem pole and we have to rethink some things, said Bob Davis, a veteran of Charlotte African-American politics and the second vice chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party.

Race had everything to do with Ella Scarborough's 64-30 percent victory over Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, who is white, said Davis. It's part of a new take-charge attitude born in the African-American community after Jim Richardson, who is black, ran in a joint campaign with two other white Democrats, and lost his seat while they placed first and second in the county commission at-large races in 2000.

That was another smack of reality for us, said Davis. You can't depend on others to do things for you. If you want something, you have to do it yourself.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus leader Eric Douglas echoes that sentiment. He says that like other black voters, he's tired of supporting the whole slate of Democratic candidates each year, while a significant percentage of white Democratic voters only vote for the white Democratic candidates, leaving black candidates like Richardson out in the cold. He's also tired, Doublas said, of all the money and grassroots support going to credible white Democratic candidates who run citywide while black candidates of the same caliber have to scrounge around for what's left over.

We have always pulled our end when it comes to getting the white Democrats' at-large [candidates] elected, said Douglas. What the party should learn from this is that when African-Americans run at-large, they need to give them the same type of support financially and in the grassroots.

Douglas said that the African-American community showed the importance and power of its voting bloc within the Democratic Party in this election when Burgess, an ideologically identical candidate with a better chance of beating Republican Pat McCrory in November, was defeated by Scarborough. Scarborough, who ran two years ago against McCrory, lost to him in a 61-39 percent race.

Douglas says that's at least in part because white Democrats voted for McCrory rather than Scarborough. This was not lost on the black voters who voted in last Tuesday's primary, said Davis.

It was not an anti-Susan Burgess vote, as much as it was pride in Ms. Scarborough, said Davis.

UNCC Political Science Professor Ted Arrington said that racial tug-of-war is nothing new in Charlotte's Democratic Party.

Blacks are angry now about the Jim Richardson situation, but this is a cyclical thing in Charlotte, said Arrington. In a previous cycle it was (Charlotte City Council member) Ron Leeper. Leeper came in fifth [in an at-large race] and a white Democrat named Cyndee Patterson came in fourth. They get mad about that and about the fact that white Democrats take them for granted, and they do.

Harmony between the county Democratic Party's black and white voters is critical for Democrats to win. Without significant support from both voting blocs, Democratic candidates can't win in Charlotte.

It's a symbiotic relationship, said Democratic strategist Tom Chumley. Would you rather be without your heart or your liver?

Black leaders agree that the true test of the Democratic Party's commitment to black voters will be whether Patrick Cannon, the longtime District 3 city council member who is running at-large, is elected.

He's qualified, said African-American County Commissioner Norman Mitchell. There is no doubt about it. If Patrick Cannon would lose this one, that could change the whole way minorities come out and vote. Why can't whites come out and support good black candidates? Blacks have always supported good white candidates. If Patrick would lose, I would be very hurt and disappointed with the Charlotte community.

County Democratic Party Chairman John Cotham says he's concerned about the fallout from Jim Richardson's loss last year.

Rightfully there should be a lot of disillusionment in the African-American community, said Cotham.

But Cotham also points out that in many predominantly white precincts, the vote was split close to 50/50 between Burgess and Scarborough, and Scarborough actually won a few.

Hopefully it symbolizes that people vote for candidates based on who they are regardless of race and ethnic background, said Cotham. The leadership of the Democratic Party is working to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table.

Chumley, who is white, says there was no racial voting in the Democratic Primary. Instead, several things came together to cost Burgess the win so many people thought was immanent. For starters, whites failed to come out and vote, particularly in South Charlotte.

In fact, most of the folks who voted in the September 25 primary were black since three of the four city council district primaries were held in majority black districts.

The fact that the Charlotte Observer endorsed Scarborough could have given her as much as a 10-point lead in this low-turnout race, said Chumley.

The Observer editorial board seems to hate Burgess worse than they do Don Reid, said Chumley. It's the worst type of McCarthyism I've seen.

On top of that, the black political caucus also endorsed Scarborough, which also helped.

So although it's not that surprising that the black candidate won in this case, what's surprising is that this particular black candidate won. Scarborough, the first African-American woman ever elected to the Charlotte City Council at-large, has not always been popular with local Democrats, or within the black community, since she stepped down from council in 1996.

Many black voters abandoned her in the 1998 Democratic US Senate primary, when D.G. Martin got 42 percent of the Democratic vote in Mecklenburg County and Scarborough, who ran a scattered and sometimes comical campaign, got 35 percent. Her 21-point loss to McCrory in 1999 also did little to inspire confidence.

Not many political pros in town, including African-American leaders, believe Scarborough can beat McCrory this time around, either. That means that if last Tuesday's vote was racial, the black community paid a high price to make a point. Their vote for Scarborough almost assured that McCrory, who has angered African-Americans (among others) over the past term, would have two more years in the mayor's office.

Arrington said Burgess' defeat gave McCrory the best of both possible worlds.

Pat McCrory used the fact that Susan Burgess was running as a vehicle to raise a bunch of money, said Arrington. As long as people thought Susan Burgess was the opponent, they gave a mess of money. She scared his supporters and then went away.

But just about everyone interviewed for this article -- Burgess did not return Creative Loafing's call as of deadline -- says that Burgess ran a tough campaign, but got caught in a situation that was out of her control. She'll be back, they say.

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