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Betrayed Again 

Darrel Williams and the white Democrat problem

Charlotte's white liberal elite may talk a good game when it comes to tolerance, but what many of them do in the voting booth is another matter entirely. Of course, the same thing could be said of the county's black liberal elite. But by the time Mecklenburg County's white liberal media elite got done spinning the story of African-American Democrat County Commissioner Darrel Williams' demise in the at-large county commission race last week, the story had been completely whitewashed in an effort to keep the party together.

But what's really going on here is much bigger than the election returns of last week, and it speaks volumes about the state of race relations in the Democratic Party, and likely everywhere else. Over the last several elections, it appears that a significant percentage of white Democrats have been snubbing qualified, seasoned African-American candidates at the polls, and black voters have subsequently been playing payback. At least three political careers have been derailed in the process.

To understand what's going on, you first have to understand the fragile symbiotic relationship between black and white Democrats. For Democratic candidates of the Caucasian persuasion in North Carolina, where one in three Democratic voters are black, 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 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 put a lot of time and money into making sure that black voters went to the polls. In exchange for turning out the vote, African-American candidates were supposed to get enough votes in white Democrat precincts to get elected.

District 2 County Commissioner Norman Mitchell, an African-American leader who has always pushed other black voters to vote a straight Democratic ticket, says he's catching flak everywhere he goes from black voters who feel they've been burned. Since the election, he says he's had a lot of explaining to do.

"I'm getting phone calls and emails," he said. "We thought by supporting everyone we would get that support also."

This delicate system of vote swapping among black and white Democrats has long been based upon a single axiom thought to be as irrefutable as the law of gravity: the Republican Party is the party of racism and the Democratic Party is the party of tolerance. Based on that, the question for over 90 percent of African-American voters at election time hasn't been which candidate they'll vote for, but which Democrat candidate they'll vote for.

Up until a few years ago, the system worked fine. An analysis by Creative Loafing 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 highly qualified black running mates. In past elections, the difference was always made up in black precincts, where African-American candidates come in slightly ahead of white Democrats, and by the fact that Republican turnout hasn't exactly been overwhelming and overall Democrat turnout has been pretty healthy. If Democratic number crunchers noticed that there was a white fall-off when it came to African-American candidates, it wasn't discussed publicly.

That all changed in 2000, when County Commissioner Jim Richardson, a popular retired state legislator, and an African-American, came in fourth in the at-large county commission race for three open seats. Richardson had been part of a three-member Democratic team that included Becky Carney and Parks Helms. All three were incumbents. Carney and Helms won, but Richardson came in a full 14,940 votes behind Helms and just 646 votes behind Republican Tom Cox, who won the third seat.

In the wake of Richardson's 2000 loss, Republican County Commissioner Bill James sent an email analysis to about half the county of the voting patterns in white Democrat precincts, including those in the Elizabeth and Dilworth neighborhoods, which are traditionally heavily Democratic/predominantly white areas. With only two exceptions, Richardson came in 30 to 90 votes behind Helms and Carney in every precinct. While James' intentions were purely partisan, the truth of the situation couldn't be ignored. In liberal County Commission District 4, where two-thirds of voters are registered Democrat or Unaffiliated, Richardson came in 986 votes behind Helms and 1,469 votes behind Carney. Had white Democrats in District 4 voted for him the way they voted for the other two Democrats, Richardson would have won the seat.

James, who never misses an opportunity to poke a Democrat in the eye, describes the voting pattern of white upper middle class liberals in the Dilworth and Elizabeth neighborhoods in inflammatory terms.

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