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What really happened on Election Day? 

Forget what you read: Most African Americans backed the school bonds

It was like the game of Telephone. Exactly when rumor and innuendo became truth is hard to pinpoint, but sometime before midnight on election day, shocked politicians started talking about how voters in both suburban and urban areas had rejected the school bonds.

The story went this way: Frustrated white suburban voters resoundingly rejected the bonds, which failed 57 percent to 43 percent. It was said to be a message to the school system that voters were tired of the way school-bond money has been spent in the past. The reason the bonds had failed in African-American -- or "urban" -- precincts was because black voters were protesting the continued inequality and large number of suburban projects in the $427 million bonds package.

That night and into the next day, politicians told reporters that the voters' mandate regarding the the bonds would be hard to interpret, since black and white voters were clearly sending very different messages.

The problem is, it didn't happen that way. While it's correct that suburban voters overwhelmingly rejected the bonds, voters in heavily African-American precincts voted overwhelmingly for them.

A Creative Loafing analysis of the 23 county precincts with 70 percent or higher African-American voter registration showed that school bonds passed in all but two precincts, most of the time by larger margins than they passed elsewhere.

Verifying what really happened in a given election takes hours, which can make election-night reporting particularly treacherous for anyone with a deadline before midnight. There's simply no time for reporters to fact-check what politicians tell them. A week after the election, grassroots strategists such as Democrat Tom Chumley are still analyzing what happened precinct by precinct.

"Black voters in the past typically voted heavily [in favor] of the bonds," said Chumley. "I'm not surprised by that."

On election night, comments by Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Parks Helms, a Democrat, initially seemed to drive the assumption that the black community had rejected the bonds. Helms repeatedly told reporters about an "urban-suburban divide."

Because "urban" and "suburban" are typically racial code words, Helms's comments and those by other politicians may have inadvertently created the perception of a racial divide between the white and black communities.

When CL shared the the results of its analysis with Helms on Sunday, November 13, he stressed that the divide he had referred to on election night wasn't necessarily racial.

"I think there are racial components to the divide, but I don't think that is the compelling force that makes it happen," Helms said. "At one time, that might have been it, but we've come far enough away [now]."

The black community benefited heavily from the last couple of bond packages, which renovated and rebuilt deteriorating urban schools. That blacks largely backed this package, which also would have built schools in the suburbs, was a sign that African Americans are concerned about education in the community at large, not just in the urban schools.

Ironically, the reason the package was rejected by so many white voters was lingering resentment over where earlier money had gone. They wanted all of the money to go to the suburbs. So, oddly enough, it appears black voters may have supported the bonds for the same reason suburbanites rejected them. Everybody is concerned about overcrowded schools.

Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell, who is African American, thinks the near-unanimous support for the bonds by Mecklenburg's black leadership influenced black voters. He also cited a recent high-profile lunchtime brawl at North Mecklenburg High School. But why would black voters care about what happened at an overcrowded suburban school?

"The incident was fresh in their minds and a lot of those kids come from the African American community," said Mitchell.

While suburban schools like North Meck have been long tagged as "white schools," each year they're becoming increasingly diverse, a factor that seems to have been almost completely left out of the racially charged school-building debate. North Meck's student population is now almost 30 percent African American. In precincts in the University area and suburban parts of north and south Mecklenburg, blacks now make up a quarter to a third of the population.

For African American power brokers, the recent election seemed to settle a long-running battle between two rival political factions in the black community. One faction likes to play ball with the uptown crowd and often supports big initiatives like the school bonds. The second group, which coalesced to support losing school-board candidate Dwayne Collins, favored a no-vote on the bonds in part because of the suburban school funding. That group tends to be more vocal about what it sees as civil rights issues, and it tried to turn the bond vote into a racial issue that would propel Collins into office.

This group controls the executive committee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, which puts out an endorsement slate for African American voters each election season. After the committee voted to recommend a no-vote on the school bonds, the caucus as a whole overturned the recommendation and backed the bonds anyway, a move that further demonstrates the political power shift in Charlotte's African American community.

"That faction, they took a loss all the way around," said Mitchell.

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