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A Mecklenburg dilemma 

Reflecting on what the sheriff's election wrought

The Nick Mackey debacle has left a lot of unanswered questions in many people's minds. Why did a candidate, whose financial and work histories generated so many detractors, attract such ardent supporters? What's behind the racial divisions exposed by the appointment of Sheriff Jim Pendergraph's replacement that led folks to see the election so differently, with accusations of racism hurled at people previously viewed as progressive on civil rights' issues?

On Saturday, a panel of local religious and political figures are gathering to grapple with such questions and, they hope, get answers.

"We don't want to see anything happen like this again," says Dwayne Collins, chairman of the Black Political Caucus.

The Charlotte Coalition of Peace and Justice discussion, starting 10 a.m. at the Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County on Trade Street, is one of several aftereffects of the controversial sheriff's race.

Panel organizer, Tom Bowers, a liberal Democrat activist and coalition founder, was so upset by the handling of Mackey's selection that he resigned as chair of his precinct. "While some of my friends feel that the scrutiny was excessive, and certainly it was unprecedented, I think the violations were excessive and unprecedented as well," Bowers says.

But he thinks the support for Mackey, "who has obviously campaigned among enough people to say, 'I would run that office differently,'" says a lot about race relations in Charlotte -- and that, he says, needs to be explored. "Why would so many people vote for Mackey? I don't think I've ever seen that question addressed."

City Councilwoman Susan Burgess, a panelist, believes such panels can foster understanding. "The [sheriff's election] process probably pointed out that we have some racial divisions that need to be addressed," she says.

But will the discussion will attract a cross-section of people and not just members of the same activist choir? Bowers says the group's events usually attract about 200 people -- a pretty good turnout, by Charlotte standards. And those events didn't promise discussion of the emotionally charged sheriff's selection.

Some of the five panelists say they want to discuss issues other than Mackey. Burgess, who heads a city council committee devoted to the topic, wants to discuss housing issues. Ross Overby, who's running for Congress in the 9th District, hopes to discuss immigration and education. "I really feel the country knows that the way we're dealing with our differences is wrong," Overby says.

Collins, who was deeply concerned by the sheriff's election, plans to discuss what he sees as voter disenfranchisement by Mecklenburg county commissioners. But he also wants to discuss mass transit -- particularly streetcars -- and economic development in west and east Charlotte.

The panel's participants are generally associated with liberal Democrats, but Bowers says he'd approached conservatives, including U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, County Commissioner Bill James and Mark Pellin, editor of The Rhinoceros Times. Bowers says James and Myrick didn't respond, while Pellin initially agreed but had a conflict. The coalition also sought Chipp Bailey or a representative from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office. "We wanted to have a balanced panel," Bowers says.

Nick Mackey is expected to be there and to be offered an opportunity to speak, Bowers says. County commission chairman Jennifer Roberts wasn't invited to be on the panel. "I regret that we had not invited Jennifer Roberts because I suspect that she is the focus of the backlash not honoring the Mackey [election]," Bowers says.

Begging the question

Below are a few of the coalition's questions. "We knew we wanted to give the panelists what was on our mind," Bowers says.

1) How can we claim justice when some minorities feel unfairly racially profiled and Latinos feel targeted for possible deportation as undocumented immigrants?

2) Why do the police approach undocumented immigrants different from the sheriff's department and which is best for the community?

3) Why is the white majority surprised when a black sheriff is properly elected by [a] state approved process?

4) Do the local news organizations accurately reflect strong public opinion sentiments of all community members?

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