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Dems' racial divide redux

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Take a drive through the Democratic precincts of the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood off Central Avenue, I mean the white Democratic precincts, and there's only one conclusion you can draw by looking at the political yard signs. Jennifer Roberts, a white Democrat running for the county commission at-large, sure must be popular. Her signs are all over the place.

You can't say the same for Wilhelmenia Rembert, a black Democrat who is also running at-large. Her yard signs are much harder to find in Plaza-Midwood. So far, I've counted only two.

Across town, where the black Democrats who run the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus hold their meetings, Roberts isn't as popular. It's not personal. It's just that she's white.

Although Roberts and the African-American members of the caucus probably agree on every major issue in this race, she didn't get their endorsement. Without it, she'll have a much harder time winning one of the three at-large commission seats. In fact, losing that endorsement may make it impossible for her to win, given that half the Democratic voters in this county are black and she needs their votes to win.

It's the latest chapter in the local spitting contest between black and white Democrats, the one in which the black Democrats finally faced reality: their party is still racially divided.

To understand what's going on, you first have to understand the fragile symbiotic relationship between black and white Democrats here. For white Democratic candidates in this county, African-American votes are like oxygen. Without them, their political careers die a quick death at the polls. So for years, black voters have been encouraged by both the party's white and black leadership to play for the team and vote for all the Democrats on the ballot, rather than reserving their votes for African-American candidates. Then during each election, the party puts a lot of time and money into making sure that black voters get to the polls. In exchange for turning out the vote, African-American candidates are supposed to get enough votes in white Democrat precincts to get elected.

But in white neighborhoods, Democratic voters have been letting highly qualified black candidates down in recent years. An analysis by Creative Loafing two years ago of past election voting patterns in heavily white Democratic precincts showed that 20 and 30 percent of white voters have been voting for white Democratic candidates but failing to pull the lever for their at least equally qualified black running mates. In recent years, the phenomenon has cost two well-known black Democrats their seats while their white counterparts slid into office. Democrats Darrel Williams and Jim Richardson both lost their races for at-large seats on the county commission. In both cases, all three of the candidates who won seats were white. Then, as if to add insult to injury, Rembert lost her at-large race for school board last year. She was chairperson of the school board at the time.

Every time I write about this, white Democratic Party leaders write us long letters about how it just isn't so. There's no racial divide. Their explanation is always that my numbers are wrong.

But the members of the black caucus must think otherwise. This time, the caucus endorsed only two of the three Democrat candidates running for county commission at-large -- Rembert and Parks Helms, the white Democrat with the best chance of winning. The theory is that a Republican will probably win one of the three at-large seats. That leaves two seats for Democrats. If the caucus endorsed Roberts too, she might come in third because she'll get more white votes, leaving Rembert in fourth. So Roberts had to be removed from the equation, even if that could end up helping white Republicans win.

Last week, caucus chair Danielle Bess Obiorah told the Charlotte Observer that "if you endorse all three, you're splitting your vote." Though most readers probably missed the significance of that, it was a racially charged statement.

What she meant was, "you're splitting your vote for the black candidate."

You can only watch so many black candidates lose before you face reality. There's still a big racial divide in the country's most diverse party. (Republicans don't have this problem because they don't depend on the black vote -- a good thing, too, since only 4,800 black voters in Mecklenburg County are Republicans, while 103,000 are Democrats.)

"Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," Democrat Norman Mitchell, who is black, told CL in 2002 after Williams lost. "It seems that we've been taken for granted for so long. We'll be analyzing the numbers for some time. Anyone who says it (race) didn't matter isn't being truthful with themselves."

Not all African-American voters follow the caucus endorsements, of course, but many do. And unless there's a huge overall Democratic turnout that pulls the straight party lever for the Democrats and elects all three candidates at-large, Jennifer Roberts could be the next Democrat whose career is derailed by a black/white divide that no one in the party wants to talk about.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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