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.