Article navigation: Orange | Chatham | Referendum divides black community

Orange County citizens will decide whether to combine district voting with their current at-large system and add two commissioners to the board. If the measure passes, the effect will be largely symbolic. Rural constituents will gain additional representation without really denting the established power–and population–base of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

In Chatham County, the stakes are higher. Constituents will determine whether to dismantle countywide voting in favor of district voting, a method that has historically excluded African Americans. If voters approve the referendum, the shift in the balance of power could be dramatic. Rural constituents, a dwindling pool of people who are trying to reclaim their authority, would siphon power and representation from the new majority living in the east and northeast parts of the county.

All the chatter about equal representation obscures the real battle over growth and land use. In both Orange and Chatham, rural, largely conservative voters–Democrats and Republicans–feel beleaguered because outsiders are moving in and electing officials whose cautious approach to growth collides with their desire to control their land.

So, rural voters say, lines must be drawn, voting methods must be changed. Yet, it’s questionable whether these changes will protect democracy or merely defend their shrinking political turf.

Rural seats–but are they big enough?

John’s Grill, where biscuits, gizzards and liver are staples on the menu, sits near the crook of N.C. 86 and Split Rail Lane, three miles north of Hillsborough, 14 miles from Chapel Hill, and light years away from the progressive climes of southern Orange County. Doug Penland sits at one of the diner’s two tables, sips a cup of coffee and muses on what he sees as county officials’ lack of interest in rural concerns. “They only represent Chapel Hill,” says Penland, who lives in Cedar Grove Township in northern Orange. “We have to take what they give us.”

This fall, for the first time in more than a half-century, Orange County citizens can choose to change how they elect their county commissioners. After more than a decade of rumblings about rural under-representation and several public hearings earlier this year, Orange County Commissioners bowed to pressure from non-urban constituents and approved, 3-2, a new plan that, if passed by voters, could give rural residents more political leverage.

Yet, few people like the proposal. Some residents from sparsely populated areas contend it doesn’t go far enough to achieve one-person, one-vote. Critics, primarily from the south, argue the at-large system is equitable to rural residents and carving up the county kowtows to country conservatives upset because they can’t muster a political majority. And at least one commissioner who supported the proposal says it defuses legislative attempts at foisting districting on the county while only marginally appeasing country constituents.

“It won’t improve anything,” explains Steve Halkiotis, a five-term commissioner who voted for the proposal and is retiring this year. Halkiotis, formerly of Carrboro, and Commissioner Chairman Barry Jacobs both live in Hillsborough, the county seat of 5,400 souls in central Orange. “It will knock down perceptions that city folks are running everything. For some folks, we’re not one of them, and that’s the tragedy of the whole thing.”

Since 1953, when the board expanded from three to five seats, Orange County citizens have elected their commissioners at large, meaning the electorate votes for all the candidates, countywide. In the district system, voters choose a candidate running in the district in which both the voters and the candidate reside.

The new proposal melds the two methods and adds an unusual twist.

District 1 would cover Chapel Hill and Carrboro; in the primary, only the residents of District 1 would vote for candidates to fill the three seats from their district. However, in the general election, all voters countywide could cast their ballots for the district winners.

District 2 would encompass the rest of the county; district residents would vote for candidates to fill two seats from their district in the primary. Likewise in the general election, all voters countywide could cast their ballots for the district winners.

Two at-large seats would be elected by voters from the entire county, in the primary and general election.

The number of commissioners would increase from five to seven.

“Part of the thrust is that Chapel Hill and Carrboro and their sensibilities supposedly rule Orange County government,” says Jacobs, who helped craft the proposal and is seeking his third term. (Jacobs also is a sports columnist for the Independent.) He opposed an earlier plan that would have allotted four commissioners from Chapel Hill-Carrboro and three from the remainder of the county. “To memorialize a permanent majority isn’t the way to go, nor was elections by district. This is the best way to promote unity in the overriding sense of bringing people together.”

It is hazy whether democracy is at risk in Orange County burgs or if inequality is merely a matter of perception and math. Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents outnumber the rest of the county 2-1, which is reflected in voter turnout. According to county board of elections voting records and maps, in the 2006 primary, 58 percent of the votes cast for all races came from Chapel Hill and Carrboro precincts, which lie in proposed District 1; 41 percent were from the rest of the county, proposed District 2. (The remainder were absentee and provisional ballots, which weren’t listed by precinct.) The current board is composed of roughly the same proportion of urban to rural dwellers: two of the five current commissioners live in Hillsborough.

Yet, rural residents might have a point. Since 1986, when Halkiotis and John Hartwell defeated Ben Lloyd of Efland and Norman Walker of Caldwell, a commissioner from north of Hillsborough hasn’t been elected. Of the seven commissioner candidates who ran in the 2006 primary, one, Betty Tom Phelps Davidson, lives in rural Orange, in Rougemont; she came in fifth in the race for three seats.

Bob Strayhorn, a farmer, former planning board member and appointee to the District Election Education Commission, favors district voting–more districts than this plan contains–and contends at-large voting hasn’t adequately addressed rural constituents’ needs.

“The influence of the rural community has been diminishing,” he says. “We’re no more important than those in Chapel Hill, but we have no say-so whatsoever. If you want to be on the commission, you go to the Chapel Hill area and find out what their burning desires are. That’s where the population is and the majority of the representation should be. But if you had districts, people would have to go to the districts they representin the primariesand find out what their burning desires are.”

(Ironically, for decades, many Orange residents, including those in rural areas, didn’t care about the burning desires of UNC students who, until 1977, could not vote in county elections.)

Jacobs fears pure district voting could lead to a divisiveness because commissioners could be more concerned with the needs of their districts than those of the county as a whole. “My concern is that the further you go making people feel dependent on a subgroup of the county, it fractionalizes the body politic,” he says.

Although its population is small, politically, Hillsborough’s recent progressive bend is viewed as being more aligned with Chapel Hill and Carrboro, even with two Republican members of the town board. “Certainly Hillsborough is part of rural Orange county,” Strayhorn says, “but it has different needs and desires than strictly rural areas that don’t have sewer and water.”

That argument helped persuade Jacobs that residents of such hamlets as Schley, Cedar Grove and Little River could benefit from additional opportunities to elect one of their own. “In Little River, your orientation is different than that of Hillsborough, and it’s a long haul from Cedar Grove to Chapel Hill,” Jacobs explains. “In that sense, it did resonate with me.”

However, county commissioners also heard the hoofbeats of state Rep. Bill Faison of District 50, which includes most of Orange and all of Caswell counties. Faison, who is considering a run for governor, says he promised rural Orange residents that he would fight for district representation, even at the General Assembly. Once elected, he sponsored a House bill that would have called for an Orange County district plan. Faison had the votes to push the bill out of committee, but House Majority Leader Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill, who represents parts of Orange and Chatham, helped block it in favor of a locally controlled plan.

Afterward, Faison says he went to the House leadership and told them, “We want you to even the score and get a commitment to help get this accomplished.”

Faison says several legislators met with Orange commissioners, and those who had opposed district voting changed their minds. After several public hearings, commissioners drew up a proposal.

“We were either going to do it on our own terms or have it crammed down our throats by Bill Faison,” Halkiotis says. “You have to pick and choose your battles, and you can’t fight him.”

Faison blames county commissioners for what he characterizes as 14 years of stonewalling petitions, studies and recommendations for a district-voting plan. Only after rural Orange residents sought his influence did he draft the bill, which called for four commissioners from Chapel Hill/Carrboro, one from Hillsborough/Efland, one from rural Orange and one at-large. The new proposal, Faison says, “is better than nothing, but not as good as it could be.”

Former county commissioner Bill Ray (1964-72) has watched from the sidelines as rural presence on the board disappeared. The current commissioners, he says, haven’t addressed economic development, roads and other infrastructure issues important to northern Orange. As for the proposal, “It’s not the very best thing we’re hoping for, but it’s better than what we had.”

Yet, former commissioner Margaret Brown, who lives on the southern fringes of Carrboro, says rural gripes are obscuring the real agenda: to wedge in a commissioner who would lobby for “rural concerns”code for rewriting zoning regulations to allow farmers to develop their land into large subdivisions or big-box stores and spending tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure to run sewer and water lines to the countryside to accommodate sprawl.

Faison agrees that rural constituents’ are concerned about controlling their land. “People who live on quarter-acre lots and put money in stocks and bonds will have a different view than those living on larger tracts of land and invest in real estate. There seems to be the perception that land planning in Orange County is based on intense use in Chapel Hill, while trying to keep the more rural part of the county for the cycling and viewing pleasure of Chapel Hill. And the people in those rural areas see their land and crops as a source of revenue and wealth building. They aren’t a bucolic postcard.”

While districts are regularly gerrymandered to create political havens, historically, U.S. voting law requires only that districts be drawn so ethnic or racial minorities, not political viewpoints, have a reasonable opportunity to be elected. In Orange County, Brown argues, “They’re trying to create a district for a political point of view.”

Halkiotis agrees. “Their political philosophies aren’t represented. This is majority rule, and they can’t stand it.”

Mark Marcoplos can’t stand it, either. A candidate for county commissioner in 1992, Marcoplos ran as an independent, although he has been a member of the Orange County Green Party. He calls the proposal “tepid and mediocre,” protecting Democratic turf. “I’m not a rural conservative and oppose many of their issues, but district voting is healthier for political debate,” he says. “A strict district plan would ensure someone from rural areas would get elected. They’re not going to wag the dog, but they will bring issues to the table that aren’t otherwise represented.”

Insider politics and outsider interests

Ironies–and politics–surround the redistricting proposal in Chatham County.

Supporters of changing from countywide to district voting, led by a citizens’ group called the Association to Defend Chatham’s Heritage, say it’s a way to protect the county’s quiet, rural traditions from newcomers flooding fast-growing subdivisions in eastern and northeast Chatham near RTP, Durham, Wake and Orange counties. Yet development interests funded the campaigns of some of those behind the proposal.

And some key opponents of the proposal are recent arrivals who live in the subdivisions those developers built, many of whom are supporters of the Chatham Coalition, which spearheaded the defeat of three pro-growth commissioners in the May primary. They say they’re the ones trying to protect Chatham residents’ best interests.

One thing is certain: Behind the proposal is Bunkey Morgan, the county commission chairman who’s backed by development interests and was among those who lost in the primary to a slow-growth reformer. Opponents of district voting see the proposal as yet another coup attempt by Morgan and his allies to wrestle control of the county from progressive, controlled-growth Democrats and put it back in the hands of developers.

Voters will choose one of two systems: the current method of countywide voting, in which candidates must live in their respective districts, but all county residents can vote for all the seats; or district voting, in which residents would vote for only the candidate from their district, a system that clearly favors a Morgan revival in 2008.

The new district maps also appear to be political payback for Morgan’s primary election defeat. Within weeks of losing to Tom Vanderbeck, Morgan began fiddling with the map. A redistricting committee composed of a mediator, two Democrats and two Republicans (including Martie Hipple, a heritage defender) was charged with redrawing the lines. In just three hours, the committee drew districts that clearly favor Morgan and penalize progressives. (However, Morgan’s dream map might be short-lived. By law, if district voting fails,the reform-dominated slate of county commissioners who take office in December can vote to reconfigure the boundaries.)

The new map reconfigures district lines and particularly affects Districts 1, 3 and 4. Under one complicated scenario, the new map could tip the balance toward development-friendly forces in 2008. That year, Morgan could run again in District 4, but Patrick Barnes couldn’t run for re-election in District 1. If Barnes wants to seek a second term, he would have to sit out for two years after his first term expires, then run in 2010 facing political ally George Lucier, who would have been moved from District 3 to District 1.

“This is an attempt by people who lost the election essentially to change the rules to get back in power,” says Jeffrey Starkweather of the Chatham Coalition, which supports at-large voting.

Mary Nettles, a former Chatham County Democratic party chairwoman and a member of Morgan’s slate who lost to Lucier in the primary, disputes Starkweather’s contention that this was a last-ditch effort by Morgan to regain power. She says district voting has always been on the back burner and was brought to the Democratic Party’s resolution committee several years ago.

Nettles is a vehement opponent of the Chatham Coalition and purchased a quarter-page ad in the Chatham Record decrying its membership. She wouldn’t speculate on whether Morgan orchestrated the redistricting plan.

“This group wants to take over the total government and dictate to us about property issues,” Nettles says. “We are defending our land and people coming in from the outside.”

The proposed district boundaries are based on the 2000 census, and critics point out they reflect outdated population figures. Census numbers show that in 2000, 49,000 people lived in Chatham County; five years later, that number is estimated to have increased by 18 percent, to 58,000. Much of that growth has been in northeast Chatham County, where four in 10 voters reside.

If district voting is approved, by the time it would go into effect in 2008, at the current rate of population growth–which is likely to continue because of large housing developments that already have been approved–those numbers would be obsolete.

However, voter turnout in western precincts is comparable to that in the east. In the 2006 primary, turnout in the east was 38 percent compared to 34 percent in the west.

Martie Hipple of the Association to Defend Chatham’s Heritage says Chatham is essentially two counties within one border. “By and large, the population in the east has no clue about rural life or the needs of that population,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Independent. “However, because of the huge population imbalance in the eastern side of the county, most elections are determined by that side. This has caused many people in the western part of the county to become discouraged and to drop out of the political system.”

Yet, as long as the eastern precincts have the most people, they will likely always dominate. At least with countywide voting, Starkweather argues, all county residents could vote for five candidates rather than only one. With two-thirds of the population in eastern Chatham, in district voting, the west could wind up with just one representative.

Ed Williams, a Wilmington native, has lived in northeastern Chatham County for 23 years. He favors district voting as a way to inspire rural voters to go to the polls. “In those parts of the southwest and far west, people are becoming more apathetic. If we had districts, they would get more involved. Give them the encouragement to go out and vote.”

Chris Hinkle, who moved to Pittsboro from Texas about six months ago, is among the newcomers who favor planned growth rather than the sprawl that is beginning to carpet east Chatham. He supports countywide voting.

“The problems are regional and cannot be solved in silos,” he says, adding he has been welcomed as a newcomer to the area. “That’s anti-community. I’d rather see the county commissioners be accountable to the whole county and not one interest group.”

District voting proponents contend that by electing someone from their area, that representative will keep constituents’ interests in mind. “The reason I want district voting is I think that we’re being controlled by certain areas of the county,” says Barbara McCoy, a Chatham County native and heritage defender who lives near Three Rivers in rural Chatham. “We need to get back to where citizens have local control in their own districts without other people voting on our choice.”

Referendum divides black community

It has taken decades, but in 1978, an African American finally won a seat on the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. Until the mid-’70s, Chatham elected its county commissioners by district, effectively shutting out the black vote, which was, and still is, geographically dispersed. Yet, since Chatham implemented countywide voting,candidates must live in their respective districts but are voted on by everyone in the county.African Americans have been elected eight times to the county commission; Carl Thompson won in ’78, served three terms, then won the primary this year. He faces no opposition in the fall.

Proponents of countywide voting credit this system for enfranchising blacks and point out that all African Americans elected to the commission have garnered their largest number of votes from largely white northeast Chatham, as well as from blacks throughout the county.

Last March, Thompson publicly criticized the county Board of Elections about other allegedly discriminatory shenanigans against northeastern and black voters: precinct consolidations that could cause long lines at the polls, shuttered polling places and confusing voting machines.

“Too many people have shed their blood and died for the right to vote in this country,” Thompson said earlier this year. “These measures create the perception of being politically motivated to the advantage of the incumbents.”

However, not all African Americans believe that district voting will prevent blacks from being elected. Mary Nettles, an African American, ran for District 3 commissioner in the May primary against George Lucier. She lost, largely because the Chatham Coalition and other progressives rallied around Lucier, based not on race but because Nettles was part of Bunkey Morgan’s slate and received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Raleigh developers interested in building subdivisions in east and northeast Chatham. Lucier is running unopposed in the general election.

Nettles says the current demographics of Chatham County are different than those of 30 years ago. “We were segregated then,” she says, adding that she believes Thompson lost his district because of his association with the Chatham Coalition. “Whites will vote for us.”

Chatham County may no longer be strictly segregated, but African Americans make up no more than 17 percent of the population, according to Census estimates, and there still are distinctly white and black neighborhoods. In no district do they have sufficient numbers, not even one-third of the population, to present a large voting bloc.

The largest concentration of African Americans is in Siler City, where they comprise 28 percent of the county’s black vote. However, under the proposed district voting referendum, Siler City would be split between Districts 4 and 5, thus allowing Morgan to stage a future comeback in District 4 while diluting the black vote.

Delcenia Turner, an African American, says she’s troubled by the implications of district voting. She says she called the U.S. Department of Justice Voting Rights Division to request a federal election observer; she expects to hear from Justice Department officials later this week.

“History speaks for itself,” she says. “If you know that you’re going to disenfranchise a segment of your community who you interact with and your kids go to school with, is it worth it to do that?”

Lisa Sorg