PW special report – The battle for Alamance part 2: The modern day struggle for political representation
Decades after the enactment of civil rights laws, people of color remain largely excluded from the county’s political power structure
To go to Alamance County is to step back in time, to the days of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
More than a half-century later, law enforcement officers pepper-sprayed and arrested anti-racist protesters. Latinx people fear they will be targeted by police. And everyone deciding what’s fair is white.
Alamance County voters have not elected a Black candidate to the county board of commissioners since 1980. The way Alamance County structures its elections is part of the reason, Black residents and Democrats say. Black voters cannot elect a candidate of their choice when all five county commissioners are chosen in at-large elections.
In an at-large system, commissioner candidates can live anywhere in Alamance and they run countywide. This system can dilute the representation of non-white residents, who often live in concentrated areas of the county.
“There is a desperate need for a ward or district system in the county and some of the cities,” said Barrett Brown, president of the Alamance NAACP. “As long as everyone is running at-large, the majority community has the numbers to whip us every time.”
A federal lawsuit in the 1990s claimed that Alamance County’s at-large elections violated the Voting Rights Act because the system effectively blocked from office the candidates whom Black voters preferred. The lawsuit failed, but some people in Alamance are again talking about changing how the county elects its leaders.
Election results in 2020 showed that in most precincts there was no political mix of winning candidates. Either all three Republican candidates or all three Democrats were the top vote-getters. The results indicate possible racially polarized voting.
Board Chairman John Paisley Jr. did not return phone messages left at his law office or government phone number, and did not respond to an email. Commission Vice-Chairman Steve Carter and Commissioner Bill Lashley Jr. did not respond to messages left at their government phone numbers or to emails.
The governing boards of Alamance County towns Graham, Burlington, Mebane and Elon are also all white.
According to the most recent U.S. Census data, about 22% of Alamance residents are Black, nearly 72% are white, and about 13% are Latinx. (In 2020, Rep. Ricky Hurtado, the first Latino Democrat to serve in the state House, won election from a district in the county’s northeast corner. He unseated a white incumbent Stephen Ross by fewer than 400 votes.)
Lack of representation impacts people of color
People of color who talk to county commissioners about racism and discrimination say they feel dismissed. “People have been arrested at meetings trying to speak,” said Dreama Caldwell, an Alamance resident who ran for county commissioner last year. “The community has tried in so many ways to lift their voices of concern,” said Caldwell, who is Black. But commissioners “demonstrate that when those issues come up, they’re not going to listen.”
The lack of Black and Latinx representation on elected boards in Alamance County has other real-life consequences.
Alamance made national news last year when law enforcement officers shot pepper spray at marchers — including children — who had knelt before the Confederate statue in front of the county courthouse in Graham to honor George Floyd. A Graham Police spokesman said they were blocking the road. Some of the Graham demonstrators were arrested.
Floyd was an unarmed Black man who died last May when a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck.
Graham and Alamance officials had tried to squelch protests through ordinances and policies. In turn, civil rights law firms sued those officials last year to invalidate an ordinance that required a permit for two or more people to protest and to lift the prohibition on demonstrations on courthouse grounds that the Sheriff’s Office imposed.
Protesters won a temporary restraining order, and Graham repealed its ordinance.
After Floyd’s death, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office prohibited demonstrators from gathering on courthouse grounds, according to court documents. Protesters were arrested or threatened with arrest. Two pro-monument protesters were arrested for simple assault and disorderly conduct on June 2, two people were arrested for fighting later that month, and another was arrested for carrying a weapon at a protest, according to court documents.
But a federal judge in August blocked the Sheriff’s Office from its total prohibition on demonstrations on courthouse grounds.
The Confederate monument outside the courthouse grounds and Alamance Sheriff Terry Johnson’s treatment of Latinx people and anti-statue protesters have been flashpoints in the county for years. Protests over the Confederate statue regularly bring out anti-racists who want it removed and Neo-Confederates who want to ensure it stays outside the courthouse. Most county commissioners have consistently opposed moving the statue and dismiss the concerns of speakers with differing views.
In a speech during his last commission meeting in December 2018, then–commissioner Bob Byrd, the last Democrat to serve on the board, said the statue should be moved or have context added “to reflect the true history.”
Byrd held the minority view.
“It’s a history of our area,” former Commissioner Bill Lashley, Sr., said about the statue at the same meeting. “If it offends anybody, you need to look the other way.”
Bill Lashley, Sr., died last year, shortly before he was to retire. Bill Lashley, Jr., was elected to the board weeks before his father’s death.
In 2017, after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., then-Alamance County Commissioner Tim Sutton said during a board meeting that he was a charter member of the Sons of the Confederacy and warned the county not to bow to “political correctness.”
In his remarks, Sutton referred to his great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, and his family’s farm that has passed down through generations: “Some guys on the farm, you can call them slaves if you want to, but I would just call them workers,” Sutton said,
Latinx residents of Alamance County also face discrimination.
In 2004, Johnson said he would send deputies to the homes of Latinos who were newly registered voters because he suspected they had registered with fraudulent documents. Johnson said later he didn’t have enough time or people and dropped the plan.
In 2018, an Alamance businessman, through an interpreter, told commissioners that he had been robbed repeatedly but was afraid to report it for fear that all law enforcement would care about was his legal status.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued the county and Sheriff Johnson in 2012 alleging discriminatory policing against Latinos, particularly regarding traffic stops. A federal judge dismissed the suit. The US DOJ dropped its appeal and settled. The settlement agreement required the Sheriff’s Office to adopt a bias-free policing policy that included collecting and analyzing data on traffic stops. The agreement required all Sheriff’s Office employees to be trained in the bias-free policy. The settlement agreement expires this year.
Yet the DOJ probe and settlement did not stop Sheriff Johnson from disparaging Latinos. In 2019, as Johnson talked with commissioners about housing immigrants under contracts with the U.S. Marshal and ICE, he blamed Alamance overdose deaths on narcotics crossing the border. (Residents have protested these agreements between Johnson’s office and federal agencies.)
“The people that we’re trying to hold here are criminal illegal immigrants that is actually raping our citizens in many, many ways,” Johnson told commissioners.
Johnson did not agree to repeated requests for an interview and did not respond to written questions about his role in county politics or his announcement in 2004 about going to the homes of newly-registered Latino voters.
[UPDATE: Several hours after this story was published, Michelle Mills, the Director of Communications, Engagement, and Diversity for the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office emailed the author to say “I apologize for the delay in responding. At this time, we don’t have a comment.”]
Conservative political dominance
Alamance has an all-Republican county commissioner board, but it wasn’t always that way.
Former county commissioner Bob Byrd, who is white, was one of the Democrats who lost the 2020 six-way election for three seats. He was trying to return to the board after losing a reelection campaign in 2018. That year, Republicans were the top two vote-getters in commissioner races, and the two Democratic candidates were at the bottom.
Gary Williamson, founder of Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC NC, spoke at the board meeting after the 2018 election. ACTBAC NC has organized rallies in support of Confederate statues and a few years ago, started raising money to help raise Confederate flags on private property along Interstate 40.
At the November 2018 commissioner meeting, Williamson told commissioners to do what the majority wanted, or they could be voted out.
“We just had an election and we unelected some and elected more,” he said. “The majority of the people did that, and we lay respect to you guys to give back to us on what we voted for.”
Williamson said if the sheriff wanted more jail cells, he should get them.
“All the way across the board, there are neighboring counties that are letting lawlessness, and I can say a few other words, that you know, we just don’t feel like in Alamance County fit our ways of life,” he said.
“We want to stand up and stand by the way that we were raised and the way that we have learned to live in this county our whole lives.”
Commissioners and law enforcement agencies should understand “we are the majority,” Williamson said, and voters can replace officials who don’t do what the majority wants. “If we feel like that’s not correct, they’ll be some open seats.”
Sheriff Johnson plays an outsized role in Alamance politics. He ran unopposed in 2018 and wasn’t on the ballot last year. But his campaign committee paid for a full-page newspaper advertisement that included pictures of the Democratic candidates labeled “Marches,” “Defending Voter Fraud,” and “Celebrating Lawlessness,” with the headline “These are not the people we need as county commissioners.”
The bottom of the page had portraits of the three Republican candidates and said, “Vote for law and order. Vote Republican.”
Dreama Caldwell called the law-and-order appeal “a dog whistle.”
“I’ve been trying to find someone who will come to Alamance and help us,” she said. “We’re drowning here.”
Bob Byrd said he was so angry about the ad that he hand-delivered a letter to Johnson’s office calling the ad “hateful, shameful, disingenuous, and misleading.” The photo of Byrd used in the ad was of him at an annual MLK march. The Sheriff needs the trust of everyone in the county, Byrd said, calling the ad an example of systemic racism.
Democratic former state Sen. Tony Foriest said the Alamance County election results reflect a backlash against people of color, and mirror national attitudes, particularly those expressed by former President Donald Trump.
“A lot of people have felt this way,” said Foriest, who is Black. “Now they feel emboldened to live it out in terms of their action. In my opinion, they’re showing it in the way that they vote, in particular.”
Trying to get voting by district has “been tossed around for years,” he said.
Different groups in Alamance are talking about how to change to district voting, and they’re consulting lawyers.
Ernestine Lewis, one of the plaintiffs who brought the federal lawsuit in the 1990s said she knows of four or five groups in Alamance that are talking about trying to end all at-large commissioner elections. She hopes that they end up working together.
“You don’t know who’s going to file first,” she said. “Whoever files first, I hope that the others sign on.”
Changing an at-large system of elections to a district system can be done by referendum, by state law, or through a successful lawsuit.
Allison Riggs, interim executive director at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the organization is working with Alamance residents on some early steps. Any move to challenge at-large elections in Alamance would have to wait until census data is available, she said.
“Nothing that was true in the ’90s can be taken as true now,” Riggs said.
Riggs wouldn’t speculate on what strategy would be best for Alamance residents, but she wouldn’t rule out trying for a referendum.
“I think it’s important to ask for those referenda, to ask for direct democracy and not cut off those avenues because there is a predetermination that they are politically impossible,” she said.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is most often used to challenge voter dilution in at-large elections.
Courts consider whether a majority-minority district can be drawn and whether the minority group is “politically cohesive.” Courts also look to see if there is racially–polarized voting – whether the majority voting as a bloc defeats the preferred candidates of minority voters.
As the Riggs’ organization travels the region talking about redistricting, it is urging people to connect election outcomes to decisions officials make about public spending and priorities.
“There’s a lot going wrong in Alamance right now,” Riggs said.
Lawsuits can take years to resolve, but not always.
Black voters in Jones County sued to change its at-large voting elections in 2017. The county and the voters settled the suit in 2018 and agreed to elect county commissioners by district and to add two seats, increasing the board from five to seven members.
Foriest said he was not involved in any of the recent talks, but that district elections would be the only way to get changes in the county. However, the white majority doesn’t want to shake up the status quo, he said. “It’s working too well for them.”
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