Council viewpoints differ on impact of district elections on minority voters

AT ODDS: Asheville City Council member Vijay Kapoor, left, clashed with Council members Sheneika Smith, center and Keith Young, right, over whether state-imposed district elections for Council would help or hurt African American voters in Asheville during a Sept. 24 meeting. Photos provided by Kapoor, Smith; photo of Young by Virginia Daffron

While the question of how state-imposed district elections for Asheville City Council would affect minority groups, particularly African American voters, has been discussed since before Senate Bill 813 came into effect in June 2018, the issue blew wide open during Council’s Sept. 24 meeting. After public hearings on amending the city’s charter to overturn the districts and reinstate primary elections, Council members exchanged strong words about minority representation.

“I’ve been here my whole life and I do have the ability to speak for people who look like me,” said Council member Keith Young, addressing colleague Vijay Kapoor. “So if you haven’t heard from anybody that looks like me, you just ain’t talking to them — and they don’t want to talk to you.”

Young was responding to Kapoor’s suggestion that officials reach out to black community members regarding their opinions on districts. As an Indian American elected official, Kapoor said he “wouldn’t pretend to speak” for all Indian Americans. Kapoor also asked that the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion weigh in on whether the state-drawn districts actually created a racial gerrymander.

“We didn’t engage the African American community on as important an issue as this and we still have the opportunity to do so,” said Kapoor, who supports a system that would maintain Council districts elections while adding two at-large seats and setting term limits for members. “I realize we have two members of Council who are African American, but I don’t think that should stop us from trying to engage the community.” 

Kapoor’s assertions set off angry retorts by those two black Council members, Young and Sheneika Smith. Young called his comments “complete political puffery,” while Smith said the remarks almost “made a mockery of” recent black political progress. The present Council is the first on which two African American members have served simultaneously in three decades. 

“I don’t really want to respond to what I call foolery, but my heart is beating so bad right now,” Smith said.
“They [the African American community] already spoke and they don’t want a different system. They want the at-large system that has produced consecutively two African American voter candidates that they favor, period.”

Smith and Young, along with Council member Brian Haynes, who is white, claimed that race was a factor behind the district elections law in a June 6 Citizen Times op-ed. “By diluting the collective force of the black vote, this effectively influences the entire election. By reducing the concentrated number of black voters to a single district and spreading the rest throughout the city, that particular group loses influence. They are no longer allowed to vote for every candidate,” the officials wrote. 

Advocates for the city returning to an at-large election system have echoed that claim, saying that the law amounts to racial discrimination.

“We can’t pretend that districts are not about lessening opportunities for black and brown folks to serve as elected officials,” said black community organizer Nicole Townsend during a July 2 special session on the issue. “The same representatives who are fighting for districting across North Carolina also had their hand in the pot when it comes to the voter ID laws, which we know are racist.”

In contrast, former City Council and mayoral candidate Jonathan Wainscott, who is white, has supported the state’s move toward district elections in Asheville, saying that the districts would help black voters. “The new system spreads representation all over town,” he told Council members at the Sept. 25 meeting. “It wasn’t difficult to figure out how this affected the African American vote. It’s still not difficult to figure that out: It strengthens the African American vote.”

While the public hearings on whether to amend the city’s charter did not require action from Council members, Mayor Esther Manheimer said that votes are expected during their next scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at City Hall.

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9 thoughts on “Council viewpoints differ on impact of district elections on minority voters

  1. Mike R.

    Asheville needs to get with the times and have a mix of at=large and district representation. I’m sure Raleigh would have been amenable to adding 2 more at large candidates to the proposed 5 districts and 1 at large. Research showed that virtually every large city in North Carolina uses this model. This would have resulted in 5 districts reps and 4 at large (includes the mayor).

    Councilmember Kapoor was the only one looking for compromise and a path forward. The opposing side was split between the 2 african american councilmembers who like the the current set up because it has given them an oversized voice and the “fighters” who feel an obligation to push back on Raleigh. Councilmember Wisler likely was neutral.

    This whole thing will muck next year’s elections up big time. And it will be for naught as Raleigh will win in the end. A compromise like Councilmember Kapoor proposed was the most pragmatic approach and would have freed up precious energy and time for critical issues.

    Finally, the rallying cry for the opposers has been the “referendum” in which city voters decided to stay with the current at large system by about 70%. I guarantee that if the “leaders” at the time had wanted to propose a viable compromise and show the voters that Asheville is an outlier in government structure, the referendum would have come out much differently.

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    Their goal is to keep status quo to insure that no republican can ever get onto council. Continued ‘at large’ elections produce lazy ass non responsive city council members, and they do NOT want to be accountable to YOU the taxpayer at all. This is a bunch of total NON leaders…not a true leadership skill among them, a pathetic bunch of ELITISTS !!!

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    Real data shows that at large elections oppress minorities more than district elections. Why do they refuse to acknowledge that fact?

  4. Enlightened Enigma

    what we need is a righteous black Republican to run for city council! there is a handful of those around here…

    • indy499

      Dear enlightened:

      It’s called math. Your real data assertion is just simply wrong.

      Try to divide 2 (African-american) council members by 7 (total). Use your calculator. Compare answer to the % of Asheville population that is African-American (I’ll spot you that piece–it’s a bit under 12%)

      Why do you not only refuse to acknowledge basic math but assert that others deny the truth.

      • Enlightened Enigma

        what point are you trying to make? yes, about 10-11% and has nothing to do with district elections.

  5. jonathan wainscott

    Not sure how Keith Young knows who I have spoken to.
    Anyway, compare the historic representation of African -Americans on Council, not just the current sitting body relative to population. Then remember all those times you’ve heard a right-wing nut job deny climate change because of a snow event in March. “Hey. Look! It’s snowing…in Spring! So much for global warming”.
    I received an “A” in the last two courses I took in college. That means I graduated as a straight-A student.

    Thank you for supporting the power of the Majority Ms. Smith. Decades of effort by thousands of activists must be wrong. The NAACP Legal Defense fund is wrong for trying to abolish at-large elections. You are right. And Thank you Keith Young for your effort to unseat the weak voice of Alma Adams in 2018. Surely Trump is still in office because she hasn’t been working hard enough.

  6. Curious

    If the point of city-wide elections, instead of dividing into districts, is to have all council members represent all citizens, why do Council members Smith and Young appear to see their job as representing only African-American citizens?

    • Lulz

      LOL we have a winner. LOL and just wait til the left wing nut jobs split it up even further into genders, sexual preferences, self identification, etc. By the time they’re finished, we’ll end up with 100 council members. After all if one is on there to represent just blacks well who represents the others who FEEL they have no voice?

      LOL these people will vote their districts interests based on racial outcomes. And what’s even funnier is that the others will go along with it as to prevent being labeled racist.

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