by Jordan Green
At the very time when North Carolina cities are experiencing a modest renaissance and more people are moving to the Triad from out of state, our urban areas are entering a period in the political wilderness.
The state Senate district that launched the political career of Kay Hagan was wiped off the map by Republican-controlled redistricting. The white moderates and progressives that were part of Hagan’s constituency were shoved into a majority-minority district designed to bleed Democrats out of adjacent districts. Thus, in Democratic-leaning Guilford County, the winner of the May 6 primary will be the sole representative of urban Greensboro and High Point in the state Senate.
Despite the new political reality and constituent reapportionment, the bitter rivalry between incumbent Gladys Robinson and challenger Skip Alston is rooted in divisions within Greensboro’s black political class that long predate redistricting.
Skip Alston, a legendary and polarizing political figure in Greensboro who cofounded the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and recently concluded a 20-year run on the Guilford County Commission as chairman, has had his eye on this state Senate seat since the late 1980s.
Alston told me during an interview at his real estate office on East Market Street that he was 28 years old when he approached Dr. George Simkins, the Rev. Prince Graves and Herman Gist. Alston recalled that the political council of elders bluntly turned him down because they wanted the more seasoned Bill Martin to have the seat.
“They told me: ‘We will let you know when it’s your time,’” Alston said. “That was the African-American leadership of that time.”
Alston said he heeded his elders’ counsel, and instead developed his leadership skills in the Greensboro NAACP and on the county commission. Meanwhile, Katie Dorsett, a former county commissioner and Greensboro City Council member, succeeded Martin in the state Senate. Dorsett bucked the Simkins PAC — of which Alston is a now voting member — by easing Robinson into the seat in 2010, on the eve of the Republican takeover. In an electoral sleight of hand, Dorsett filed for reelection, thus warding off serious contenders, and then withdrew within an hour of the filing deadline so that Robinson could file in her place.
“Katie Dorsett is one of my sheroes,” Alston said. “When she was senator, I said, ‘I dare not run against a woman I respect so dearly.’ What she did with Robinson — that little switcheroo — that really hurt me.”
Alston is aggressive in his criticism of Robinson, and Robinson is giving as good as she gets. Alston says he wouldn’t be running if Robinson was doing a good job, and points to an effectiveness ranking by the NC Center for Public Policy that places his opponent second to last.
“We’re the third largest county in North Carolina,” Alston said. “She’s ranked one of the least effective members of the Senate. It’s my responsibility, it’s my duty to run.”
Robinson countered in a phone interview from Georgia over the weekend, where she was taking care of her ailing mother: “I call ‘effectiveness’ representing your constituents. That’s why we’re elected. My constituents are those who need Medicaid expansion, those women who need to have a voice in their healthcare decisions, those who need access to higher education and job training and unemployment benefits when they lose jobs. They are pleased with my representation. I would not vote with Republicans against the people I serve.”
She added that the citizens of District 28 “are more concerned that I represent them and their interests than getting a piece of legislation across that has no impact on them or has a negative impact.”
Alston is fond of saying he wants to go to Raleigh “to be a player, not a spectator.”
He cited his experience on the county commission, where he worked with his Republican counterparts to pass annual budgets. One of his former colleagues on the county commission was Republican Trudy Wade, who now represents state Senate District 27. He said he would also be comfortable talking to Sen. Phil Berger, the Senate President Pro Tem and a lawmaker from Eden who represents part of Guilford County.
“I have to find a way to work with the majority,” Alston said. “The [district] lines are what they are. I have to find a way to work with Berger and Wade. Robinson doesn’t even get along with Wade; they don’t talk to each other. They don’t need me to get anything done. I need them to do something for my constituents.”
Robinson was quick to turn the tables in response to Alston’s charge that she bears at least partial responsibility as a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services for a massive backlog of food-stamp benefits in Guilford County that jeopardized federal funding. She charged that “Skip is ignorant of the process,” and brought up his leadership of the state NAACP, which ended in 2005 with the election of the Rev. William Barber, who is now leading the Moral Monday movement.
“He almost destroyed the NAACP,” Robinson charged, “and that’s why Rev. Barber is the leader of the NAACP now. He’s lacking the ability to work with people.”