Same as it never was: an ever-changing city council

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eric headshotby Eric Ginsburg

It’s hard to say whether it is ironic or intentional cooptation. But some of the language used by state Sen. Trudy Wade to justify city council redistricting originated decades before the staunch conservative came to power — it initially arose thanks to some of the city’s black leadership.

Before Wade, who previously served on Greensboro City Council, ever talked about additional districts and shrinking the number of at-large seats, a strong push for a similar outcome came from the opposite direction beginning in the late 1960s.

At the time, every member of city council was elected at large, a system that meant white people in the northwestern part of the city maintained control thanks to advantageous demographics. Though a few black people were elected to council under the at-large model, including civil rights leader Vance Chavis, grassroots activists and the city’s black leaders wanted districts as a way to better ensure representation.

George Simkins, a black civil rights pioneer, put forward the first of several proposals to modify the election process that went before voters. His idea: scrap at-large representation altogether, expanding the number of seats on council to create 12 districts and a mayor elected at large.

“On Dec. 14, 1968, the 12-1 plan was rejected by more than a two-to-one margin,” former journalist Howard Covington, Jr. wrote in his book Once Upon a City: Greensboro, North Carolina’s Second Century. “The first round was over, but the contest would continue for the next 14 years, with voters returning to the polls five more times.”

It wasn’t until almost exactly 14 years later, as Covington wrote, on Dec. 16, 1982, that the city council adopted an ordinance to create five city council districts, leaving three at-large positions as well as the mayor citywide. The decision wasn’t technically final until two months later, in early 1983, current City Attorney Tom Carruthers wrote in a memo a few months back.

Maybe the overlap in language is intentional, especially given the support Wade, who is white, pulled for the plan from former county commissioner Skip Alston. The former key player in black political life in Greensboro, Alston has long been involved in the Simkins PAC, a black political-action committee that takes its name from George Simkins. Wade’s plan, approved by the NC General Assembly last week, creates a council with eight districts and only the mayor elected at large — not a far cry from Simkins’ suggestion, but is there a gulf between Wade’s use of the language and her true intentions?

Even after the standing 5-3-1 structure was adopted in ’83, the district maps have been redrawn. That makes sense considering growing populations and annexations that create a need for balancing the size of the five areas, but some of the attempted changes have been far more calculated and politically motivated than housekeeping redistricting.

Before Wade’s kamikaze attack on council’s format as a state senator, she was part of a redistricting gaffe in April 2011, voting alongside none other than her current foe and the current Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who was mayor pro tem at the time.

Our editors, and likely our readers, remember the debacle, but here’s a piece of it as chronicled by our editorial team — which wrote for Yes Weekly at the time — when it all went down. After council hurriedly approved an unnecessary redistricting plan, the editorial said:

“None of the four members who voted for the plan — [Mary] Rakestraw, Mayor Bill Knight, Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade — offered any explanation after the vote, treating the matter as if it were no more controversial than approving a federal grant for street maintenance. Rakestraw’s subsequent claim that the plan appeared on her doorstep in the middle of the night has become the butt of many jokes.”

But Vaughan quickly turned around, saying that “initially she believed the now-discredited plan evolved from an earlier one initiated by [Zack] Matheny based on citizen input.” After she talked to Matheny — who this year resigned from council to lead Downtown Greensboro Inc.— Vaughan admitted her mistake, and Knight soon joined her, it said.

The editorial then proved somewhat prophetic, as it hypothesized that some of the progressive voters in District 4 offloaded in the redistricting by Rakestraw — an arch conservative who aligned with Wade and apparently had made friends with a stork —would come back to bite her. They did that very fall, by about 350 votes. That can’t have made Wade and her cohort too happy.

But the conclusion to the same article that is most worth revisiting amid the current iteration of partisan tinkering.

“Do us a favor,” it said. “Let the city’s excellent staff draw up a rational plan designed to serve the voters’ representational needs rather than to protect politicians’ high-performing voting blocs or coveted real estate such as the Greensboro Coliseum. Redistricting must be the people’s business.”

Nicole Crews is taking a hiatus from “All She Wrote” until the end of the month.

  • Thank you Eric, it’s about time some truth was told and history put in context.