Less than four weeks after the Guilford County Democratic Party elected new leadership, an acrimonious battle has erupted over the appointment of a new representative to fill a vacancy with the recent resignation of Commissioner Ray Trapp.
A party meeting last week devolved into shouting matches with a successful motion to delay a vote to approve the only candidate to Trapp’s seat. Three days later, the newly elected county chairman of the party resigned. With the delay, Black Lives Matter and Queer People of Color Collective organizer April Parker has stepped forward to challenge veteran politician Skip Alston, who is favored by Trapp and the three Democrats who currently serve on the board.
[pullquote]A special meeting of the Guilford County Democratic Party will be held at party headquarters, located at 2300 W. Meadowview Road, Suite 110 in Greensboro, at Wednesday at 6 p.m. to appoint a Democrat to fill the District 8 seat on Guilford County Commission.[/pullquote]Factions lining up behind the two candidates are leveling mutual charges of manipulating the process, and a second meeting on Wednesday to select Trapp’s replacement from between Alston and Parker — or potentially another eligible Democrat — promises to be fraught with disagreement.
While both candidates are black, with equally matched reputations for outspoken advocacy and polarizing leadership styles, Alston is a seasoned insider, having served on the county commission for 20 years between 1992 and 2012, including five turns as chairman, while Parker is making her first bid for elected office based on a record of community organizing around issues of police brutality, intersectionality, and trans and LGBTQ rights. Alston is known as a skilled budget negotiator, but has also caused controversy as a one-time plaintiff in a Republican-initiated effort to restructure Greensboro City Council.
The strife between the two candidates’ respective backers reflects not only a generational divide, but also racial tension within the party largely stemming from organizational challenges that have resulted in white party officials holding outsized influence over the appointment process.
Party rules dictate that only members of the county executive committee who live in District 8 — which runs down the east side of Church Street from the northeast corner of the city and then curves around the south side of a rail line through downtown and westward to Guilford College Road — may vote in the special election. The county executive committee is comprised of the chair and vice chair of each organized precinct, county-level officers, members of the state executive committee from Guilford, and Democratic elected officials. The votes of each precinct are weighted by the number of people who voted for the Democratic candidate in the last governor’s race.
Party leaders acknowledge that only six out of 20 precincts in District 8 were organized by the deadline ahead of the April 8 county convention.
“That means that less than a third of the people in the district really have a voice,” said Heidi Fleshman, the party’s newly elected Greensboro vice chair. “That’s why there is so much concern that everyone’s voice isn’t recognized.”
Bess Lewis, the party’s executive director, provided Triad City Beat with a list of 19 members of the county executive committee who will be eligible to participate in the appointment vote on Wednesday. The list is split roughly down the middle between black and white electors, along with two electors who were identified as biracial and another whose name didn’t come up in a search of voter records. In contrast, 67.8 percent of voters in the heavily Democratic district are African American.
The skew in Precinct G69, which includes Bennett College and the Southside neighborhood, is especially lopsided. Three of four electors from the precinct are white in a precinct where 76.3 percent of registered voters are black. The three white electors in G69 — Equality NC Executive Director and former state lawmaker Chris Sgro; Ryan Butler, in-house counsel for Replacements Limited; and Anne Evangelista, a lawyer who recently graduated from Elon Law School — share a house on Gorrell Street in Southside, while Deena Hayes-Greene, a black member of the Guilford County School Board, lives on the other side of Murrow Boulevard.
Sgro’s role in making a second motion to delay the vote on April 18 to allow competition for the appointment has prompted Alston to charge that Sgro and Butler — who are married — are “trying to tear the party apart.
“We as Democrats in Guilford County should be together and not divided,” Alston said. “We should not have whites in a predominantly African-American district dictate the leadership that we would have in the African-American community. That’s dividing us when we should be uniting against the enemy, who at this point are Republicans.”
Sgro rejected Alston’s contention that he made the motion to delay the vote because he wanted to appoint an “openly gay person,” that is Parker, to the county commission.
“The majority of the people in the room made it clear they wanted to make sure there was an opportunity for anyone else who might want to step up to do so,” he said.
“It would be great if Skip could have said, ‘I applaud any other person who is willing to step up, including people of color and queer people, and I think I’m the best candidate,’” Sgro added.
BJ Gerald-Covington, who recently retired as Greensboro vice chair to launch an unsuccessful bid for county chair, said that the G69 precinct was organized in violation of the North Carolina Democratic Party Plan of Organization. Gerald-Covington said she dropped in on the organizational meeting for G69 at Sgro and Butler’s home as part of her duties as Greensboro vice chair to thank people for their participation, but said the meeting ran afoul of party rules by not being held in a location that was handicapped accessible, by not giving proper notice of the meeting to registered Democrats in the precinct and by electing officers, namely Butler and Evangelista, who live at the same address.
Butler, who organized the precinct, declined to comment for this story. Sgro, who holds a vote in the appointment process by virtue of serving on the party’s state executive committee, said he’s not aware of anyone having an issue with handicapped access to the meeting, and he said he wasn’t involved in the notification process.
The plan of organization doesn’t specify who is responsible for notifying people about precinct meetings, stating only that “the time and place of all meetings of the North Carolina Democratic Party at all levels shall be publicized fully and in such a manner as to assure timely notices to all interested people.”
As for the location, the plan states that precinct meetings are typically held at polling places, and that the only circumstance that it’s acceptable to hold a meeting at a location other than a public facility is when the county chair certifies that no public facility is available in the precinct. In any case, the location must be “accessible and open to all registered Democrats residing in the precinct.”
Gerald-Covington said she also questions the propriety of Butler and Evangelista holding positions as precinct officers while sharing the same address.
The plan of organization likely leaves some room for argument on that count: It holds that “no officers of the precinct committee shall be from the same immediate family residing in the same household.”
Consistent with the party’s values, the plan of organization emphasizes diversity at all levels of party organization: “The composition of the precinct should resemble the makeup of the registered Democrats in the precinct as to gender, age, race, ethnic background and, where practical, geography.”
Sgro said it seems too convenient that questions about the organization of the G69 precinct only arose when the appointment to the county commission became an issue.
“Organizing a precinct at a local level is a thankless job,” he said. “Ryan waited to see if anyone else was going to step up, and no one did. The county chair asked him to organize the precinct, and he stepped up.”
While he said he didn’t have Parker in mind when he made the motion to delay the vote, Sgro said he’s supporting her now.
“I watched April have as many conversations as she can,” Sgro said. “She’s said, ‘This is who I am. Here’s my email and my phone number. Please, I would like to have a conversation with you.’ She’s a mother, a librarian and someone who’s unquestionably committed to the community.”
Parker, has posted a statement attributed to Greensboro City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower on her Facebook page reading, “Good fit, better choice. April will fight for the issues in and for our community. As a county commissioner, she will use her strong voice to continue advocating for our community.”
George Scheer, the founder and director of the Elsewhere artist collaborative, added his endorsement on Facebook over the weekend.
“Friends, I hear you saying, ‘April is hard to work with, doesn’t play nice, and is disruptive!’” he wrote. “She’ll tell you she’s never eaten anyone yet! And let me tell you, as someone who has been bowled over by her vision and demands time and again, I can attest that her radical power is born of love and care. April’s righteousness does not discriminate except in support of those with the least voice. So it takes courage and humility to get back up and shake her hand. Every time I have, I discover in myself a level of growth, insight, voice and understanding that I did not have before.”
Meanwhile, as the 19 electors choose between Parker and Alston, questions about precinct organization are likely to hover over the process. Gerald-Covington said Pam Stubbs, the new interim county chair, has told her she wants to revisit the issue after the District 8 election and potentially reorganize those precincts that are out of compliance.
“We know that this precinct [G69] is in violation; they should not have a voice at the table,” Gerald-Covington said. “I don’t know what she’s going to do about that.”
Nonsense, Sgro said.
“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t go forward,” he said. “That’s not a question on the table. There’s a 10-day period to challenge those things. Nobody brought it up then or during the county convention.”
If the rules are up for debate, one thing is probably pretty certain.
“It’s gonna be ugly,” Gerald-Covington said.
CLARIFICATION: Sharon Hightower, who could not be reached prior to the publication of this story, has since said that she did not endorse Parker, and asked her to take the statement of support off her Facebook page.