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Organizers ramp up efforts to get the black community to the polls 

A minority report as early voting begins

During the first week of September, I found James "Smuggie" Mitchell, a former Charlotte City Council member running to return to his seat, leading a "Dub C! You know!" chant in a packed Excelsior Club off Beatties Ford Road, just down the street from West Charlotte High School, Smuggie's alma mater.

click to enlarge At-large city council candidates (from left) James Mitchell, Vi Lyles and Mo Idlibby address voters at the Early Voting Kick Off Rally.
  • At-large city council candidates (from left) James Mitchell, Vi Lyles and Mo Idlibby address voters at the Early Voting Kick Off Rally.

Watching folks young and old chant along as tray after tray of fried fish and chicken was carried out, I may have easily been at a tailgate for the school's Sept. 4 football game against Harding. But the event was held a few days beforehand, to celebrate the beginning of early voting in Charlotte for an election that doesn't hold the glitz or mainstream attention of a presidential run, but has more important implications, some say.

Local community organizer Colette Forrest and well-known Charlotte civil rights attorney James Ferguson have held the Early Vote Kick-Off Rally at the historic Excelsior Club since 2012 to help get minorities more familiar with candidates and involved in the election process.

Forrest said the crowd at the event, which is held twice annually before the first day of early voting for primaries and then again for the general election, has grown each year. She said that's especially important during an "off year" like 2015, when not as many people are paying attention to the election.

"Whenever you don't have the president on the ballot, it's tough to get people out and to get them to care and pay attention," Forrest says. "But the irony is that the local elected officials handle our day-to-day lives; your sidewalks, the crime and safety in your neighborhoods, Health and Human Services, the library, CMS. So those are the elections that you can't miss."

This year's elections include races for Charlotte's Mayor, Charlotte City Council and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education.

Multiple city council candidates addressed the crowd on that Tuesday night, as well as David Howard and Michael Barnes, both candidates for mayor who led off the night's festivities before leaving to appear in a mayoral debate being held in south Charlotte.

So close to his alma mater, West Charlotte, and his childhood home on the West Boulevard corridor, Howard looked as comfortable as he has speaking to any crowd this campaign season. As he has throughout his campaign, Howard emphasized the importance of bringing jobs and mass transit to west and east Charlotte, helping it catch up economically with the southern and northern parts of the city.

Before addressing the crowd, Barnes spoke with Creative Loafing about the importance of community events like Tuesday's rally.

"One of the foundations of our nation — of our political system — is grassroots movements and grassroots involvement," Barnes said. "When you have people from the community who are willing to engage and willing to step up, it helps us to improve our political system."

In July, Portland State University released the results of a study it conducted on voter turnout for mayoral races in four urban areas including Charlotte. The study found Charlotte's primary mayoral election in 2013 turned out seven percent of registered voters, a low for the cities in the study group, which included Detroit; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Portland, Oregon.

A normal turnout percentage for big-city mayoral races is between 20 and 35 percent, according to the study. Charlotte's general mayoral election in 2013 turned out under 18 percent of registered voters.

A 2013 voter turnout map of Charlotte shows only precincts stretching between Myers Park and Ballantyne as turning out above 30 percent for the 2013 general election. Most of east and west Charlotte, where a large chunk of Charlotte's minorities reside, saw a turnout well below 20 percent.

In a blog post announcing the study's results, Phil Keisling, director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State, wrote, "When too few people are watching – much less participating – the odds increase that long-simmering problems can be avoided and ignored, until they break out into major urban catastrophes (e.g. Detroit, and more recently Baltimore). But when more citizens participate, across the age spectrum, a greater diversity of voices come to the fore, making it that much harder for elected officials to put short-term gains in front of the longer-term health of their communities."

While Charlotte hasn't experienced an urban catastrophe similar to the cities referenced by Keisler, the winner of 2013's low-turnout mayoral election, Patrick Cannon, resigned and later pled guilty to a corruption charge after accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from FBI agents and a Charlotte strip club owner.

Speaking on the phone from Portland, Kiesler told Creative Loafing that researchers were most alarmed not by the African-American turnout, which was higher than the white turnout in the primary but not the general election, but by the "abysmal" Latino turnout.

Kiesler's researchers found only 38 voters who identified as Latino, out of 7,000 registered, who turned out for the 2013 primary. He said those preliminary research numbers weren't included because it seemed too low to be true, and the group wanted to study it further.

Rafael Prieto, editor of Que Pasa-Mi Gente, Charlotte's Spanish-langage newspaper, said his numbers put the Hispanic turnout closer to 400 (the discrepancy most probably comes from many Hispanic voters registering their race as "Other"), and said the turnout was so low he felt "we just weren't a responsible community, because we didn't do the right thing."

Prieto said some in Charlotte's Hispanic community support Jennifer Roberts because they're aware of her international work and that she speaks Spanish, and pointed to community outreach from city council incumbents John Autry and LaWana Mayfield as something he'd like to see more of, but still doesn't feel optimistic Latinos will hit the polls during this year's election.

"I am on the streets every day talking to people and asking, 'Do you know you have an election this year?' They don't know or they're not aware of who is running. I know about David Howard's work founding the Immigration Integration Task Force, but I meet very few people who know him or know that he promoted that idea and started those meetings.

"The African-American community is more aware. You see all the signs in front of homes and businesses in west Charlotte, but you don't see any signs on Central Avenue," Prieto said, referring to a corridor that's home to one of Charlotte's largest Hispanic communities.

At the Kick-Off Rally on Sept. 2, Forrest said black voter turnout has been OK, but she is hoping for more growth. She said she has been "nagged" during her efforts to increase the voter turnout in minority communities by implications that Cannon's guilty plea will hurt the chances of African-American candidates in the upcoming mayoral race.

"Folks are counting out African-Americans, saying because of what unfortunately happened with our last mayor that we've had our turn and it's now time for somebody else to be mayor," Forrest, who has campaigned for Howard this year, said. "I just say hogwash, as long as African-Americans control the voting bloc that they do. In the Democratic primary, 68 percent of voters are African American and, out of that, 48 percent are African American women. So I dare anybody to say that we don't count and we don't matter in a municipal election, because we're the deciding factor."

Before candidates spoke to the crowd gathered around the Excelsior dance floor, former Charlotte NAACP president Rev. Kojo Nantambu led them in prayer and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of the black vote, referencing recent voter suppression laws and trials.

"Every time we don't vote, the people who do get voted in make new laws that make it hard for us for the next 10 to 20 years," Nantambu said. "It's a sin and a shame...but if you know God — I don't care if you're a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew or whatever — if you realize there is a higher power, you know that you have a responsibility toward that higher power to look out for those that can't help themselves. The one thing we can do in politics is get in a position that we can help everybody, and that's our responsibility."

Ferguson — who, it should be stated for full disclosure purposes, represented Cannon when he faced public corruption charges — said it "does my heart good to see" not only the attendance increase at the Kick-Off Rally every year, but the passion and enthusiasm increase among those in attendance.

"I can go back to the days when you didn't see black people at the polls," Ferguson said. "But now, as a result of many of the successes we've had over the years in electing candidates who are receptive and sensitive to our communities, more and more people are coming out to vote and more people are beginning to realize that our vote affects the quality of our lives."

Autry, running to keep his seat as representative of District 5, was in attendance at the rally and praised Forrest's grassroots efforts to bring people to the polls through early voting, which ends on Saturday, Sept. 12, and on primary election day, which is Sept. 15.

"As a community organizer myself, I understand that when you have something that historically does not have a great turnout, the more energy you can create around that opportunity the better off you are. Colette has so much energy and so much commitment to her community and to the democratic process." Autry said. "This effort reminds me, you know what Plato said, 'The penalty good people pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by people worse than themselves.'"

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