There are a couple things we know about the purpose behind state Sen. Trudy Wade’s bill to redistrict Greensboro City Council.
Roy Carroll, the developer responsible for CenterPointe and Bellemeade Village, along with legions of shopping centers, subdivisions and apartment complexes, is for it. He wrote last week in the Rhino Times, the newspaper he owns that acts as a mouthpiece for his business interests, that he likes the plan because it gives the mayor veto power, reduces the size of city government and geographically disperses representation.
He also told News & Record Editorial Editor Allen Johnson that he wants to see “some larger-business managers and owners” serve on city council. The smaller size — seven voting council members, with a mayor able to vote to break the rare tie and able to veto decisions — would make the job more appealing. Carroll told Johnson that business people have told him in the past: “Well, you’ve got nine people up there. I would rather be part of a smaller group of decision makers because in my company we have a management team of four or five people.”
Councils in small Southern cities — like Greensboro and Winston-Salem — were typically run by tight networks of businessmen in the 1950s. They operated with quiet efficiency and consensus, making decisions that typically promoted the interests of big business while avoiding clamorous public debate. Back then they were all elected at large. Since the mid-1980s, Greensboro has had a hybrid system that gives each voter the ability to vote for five out of nine members: the mayor, three at large members and a district representative.
The proposed structure would move Greensboro to a pure district system. While African Americans, including the Rev. Nelson Johnson and Carolina Peacemaker Editor Afrique Kilimanjaro have vocally denounced the plan, it’s an ironic twist that the city’s African-American leadership initially sought a pure representative system to maximize black voting power. Kilimanjaro noted in a recent article that African Americans have developed a potent political alliance with white progressives in Greensboro over the years. This local plan resembles the GOP’s 2011 legislative redistricting effort, which increased black representation, but diluted black political power by driving a wedge between black lawmakers and progressive white allies.
Among the few black leaders to embrace the plan is Skip Alston, a former state NAACP president and real-estate broker who extols the concept of “silver rights.” Incidentally, Alston was soundly whipped by Gladys Robinson in the Democratic primary for state Senate District 28 — a contest in which Alston charged that Robinson was ineffective because she couldn’t work with Republican lawmakers like Wade.
Who really wants this plan? Dozens of people filed before the Guilford County legislative delegation in council chambers at the Melvin Municipal Building last week to reject Wade’s bill, with only four people, including one who doesn’t even live in the city, speaking in favor of it. After the meeting, Wade said “a lot of people who don’t want their names known” are in favor of the plan, adding that they want to remain anonymous “because they fear reprisals and having their names in blogs.” (Do people still blog?)
I asked Wade why she thought it was appropriate for her to sponsor legislation to redistrict Greensboro City Council when only about 20 percent of the city lies in her Senate district. She replied, “I’ll listen to anybody who brings something forward as a constituent.”
Carroll incidentally lives in heavily Democratic District 28 — represented by Robinson — covering 57.7 percent of the city. Such is the plight of being a lonely, rich guy attempting to build an empire in the center city that Carroll must go to a neighboring district in the gerrymandered system created by the anti-urban GOP to get representation.
Robert Corriher nailed it when he predicted at the forum that Wade is unlikely to listen to Greensboro residents, and then turned to address his remarks to the audience in council chambers. Wade’s redistricting effort falls in line with an initiative by the American Legislative Exchange Council — the “dating service” between corporations and conservative politicians more commonly known as ALEC — to turn its attention to municipal government, he said.
“What they’re gonna do is have a fire sale on services that are provided in Greensboro,” Corriher said. “And that’s what she’s here to do.”
While there’s no evidence of linkages between Wade and ALEC or its local offshoot the American City County Exchange, the idea is not as farfetched as it sounds.
Though individuals associated with Kotis Properties — company president Marty Kotis opposes the redistricting plan — and beverage wholesaler RH Barringer contributed $16,060 and $7,000 respectively to Wade’s last campaign, the company with the largest aggregate contribution is DH Griffin, at $19,700. (Carroll contributed a total of $5,300.)
DH Griffin was an investor in a company that was in line to win a contract to operate the White Street Landfill in northeast Greensboro in 2011, before citizens voted in a new city council that withdrew the wildly unpopular plan proposed by Wade and others to reopen the landfill. (Landon Johnson, a spokesman for DH Griffin Companies, said that to his knowledge no one from the company has reached out to Wade to request changes to the city’s election system.)
Consider that when people only have the opportunity to vote for one representative and a mayor, they tend to be less politically engaged. They’re more likely to focus on parochial issues like trash pickup and police coverage than big-picture decisions like Roy Carroll closing a downtown street to build a gated community in the heart of the city. And when fewer people vote, money goes further to buy elections.
Roy Carroll can at least hope.