By Karl Merritt
It is extremely rare in America that there can be a civil and informative discussion where focus on race, meaning allegations of racism, is confronted by a thoughtful presentation of facts. I recently had the astounding experience of watching such a conversation. On 7 June 2021, Mitch Colvin and Tony Chavonne discussed Vote Yes Fayetteville during the “Mayor’s Moment” on WIDU Radio. Colvin is currently mayor of Fayetteville and Chavonne is a former mayor of our city. Chavonne is a primary leader of Vote Yes Fayetteville. This is an effort to, through passage of a referendum, restructure Fayetteville City Council from nine single member districts to five single member districts and four at-large seats.
I contend that this conversation should be viewed by every Fayetteville resident and by people across this nation. For Fayetteville residents, it is a prime opportunity to get reliably informed regarding this restructuring endeavor. Further, for many people in Fayetteville and elsewhere, this can be a positive learning experience as to how we can, and must, put the emotions of race aside and be able to thoughtfully examine the facts of issues that are faced by our nation. This does not mean that we should never consider the possibility of racism; it means only doing so when reasoned examination of facts indicates the likelihood of racism.
Here is the call to action for anybody who has read to this point. Go to your Facebook and type the following into the search space: “The Mayor’s Moment with Mayor Mitch Colvin and Guest former Fayetteville, NC Mayor Tony Chavonne”. Under filters, click “videos”. That should take you to a listing of these shows; click on the one for June 7, 2021. Please, make time to watch this discussion soon and in full.
What follows is a sampling of what was covered during this informative conversation. The times indicate the point on the video timeline where each referenced exchange starts.
4:36—Chavonne gives background regarding Fayetteville’s progress over the years.
6:39—Colvin argues that the reason for Vote Yes Fayetteville is that Council is getting a bit too diverse “for many of the powers that be”. My assumption is that he is referring to the makeup being eight blacks, four of whom are women, and two whites. Race, meaning claims of racism, is put front and center from the outset.
8:05—Chavonne speaks to the question of “Why now?” He gives some history as to how the current structure came to be and explains that there were at-large seats in the past; also mentioning that nine of North Carolina’s 12 largest cities have some at-large seats. Further, he states that the current structure was never voted on by the citizens. Then Chavonne makes the case that this effort is about increased accountability of Council members. He addresses the advantages of at-large seats as related to the accountability consideration.
11:05—In speaking to this effort of not being about skin color, Chavonne goes back to 2006, when voters passed a referendum to change Council’s structure; there were four blacks serving, not a majority. I think the point being made is that whites were in the majority, but still saw reason to seek change. Consequently, the 2006 restructuring was not about race, but about process; the process component being the inability of Council to get traction on the big issues.
12:40—Colvin submits that the move to some at-large seats would employ unreasonable combining of current districts, involve gerrymandering, and reduce the representation provided to citizens. Chavonne responded by explaining: (1) the Council, not the Vote Yes Fayetteville organization, would be responsible for drawing new districts; (2) what constitutes gerrymandering and that this is what we have under the current arrangement; (3) under the proposed structure, each citizen would vote for six members of Council, instead of the current two, which would provide increased representation for each resident.
16:00—Colvin turns to the argument that running for at-large seats is far more expensive than in districts and this puts black candidates at a disadvantage. He refers to the poverty level for blacks being higher than for whites in Fayetteville, while also stating that financially advantaged whites have selected and supported black candidates who aligned with the donors’ interests. Chavonne responds by reminding Colvin (who is black) that he defeated a white incumbent mayor who raised twice as much as Colvin. Chavonne continues that response by mentioning other blacks who have won at-large seats. The flow here leads Chavonne to put storm water control forth as an example of a big picture issue that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to address with nine single-member districts.
24:06—Colvin asks why the conversation regarding restructuring was not taken to the community. Further, he asks why a few people who considered themselves the stakeholders made a decision that the structure needed to be changed. Chavonne’s primary response is that these individuals, combined, have some 50 years of service to Fayetteville in elective office and have a right to an opinion. He also addresses the charge that some are involved because they lost an election and this is a “spoiled grapes” response.
Note: I do not know what Colvin meant by “conversation to the community”. Chavonne was there on WIDU, a radio station with a sizeable black listening audience; there has been outreach to blacks who might help carry an accurate message regarding this effort; local newspapers are reporting on this matter; the organization has a website (https://www.voteyesfayetteville.com/) that does an excellent job of explaining the why and how of this effort.
35:16—The discussion turns to the events of 30 May 2020, when, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, there was a protest downtown that ended in looting and property damage, all without police intervention. I will not even attempt to summarize the exchange that took place at this point. Suffice it to say that it was here that Chavonne said, “…had we not experienced May 30th last year, I wouldn’t be here today.” He was clearly referring to being involved in Vote Yes Fayetteville.
41:53—Colvin starts comments that require attention to governments having to balance the needs of individual constituencies with those of the full-governed population. It is here that Chavonne addresses the “big issue argument” again and refers to Fayetteville’s Murchison Road corridor. Attentively listening to this exchange is critical to understanding the overall case being made by the former mayor. I hope these highlights convince you that, no matter where you live in America, you must watch this discussion. The total discussion is a little less than an hour. What I have written here will not appear in any publication; it will only go out via this e-newsletter and be posted on my website at http://www.karlmerritt.com/2021/06/25/colvin-and-chavonne-difficult-topic-civil-discussion/. The website version allows readers to post comments. If you think the information presented here, and the resulting commentary on the state of our nation, deserves attention, forward this e-newsletter to as many people as possible. For more on my position regarding the restructuring effort, read my opinion piece titled “Vote Yes Fayetteville: An Opportunity for Repentance” at http://www.karlmerritt.com/2021/05/27/vote-yes-fayetteville-an-opportunity-for-repentance/
If you doubt that this was a discussion where total focus on race, meaning allegations of racism, was confronted by a thoughtful presentation and examination of facts, listen to Mayor Colvin’s closing comments (time 52:21) while reflecting on what former mayor Tony Chavonne brought to the table.
My assessment is that Colvin characterizes Vote Yes Fayetteville as an effort to suppress, cause regression in, the political power and influence of black Fayetteville elected officials; and achieving a similar lessening of political power among Fayetteville’s black citizens. Colvin likens this effort to several events and actions where race/racism was, or has been alleged to be, the primary causal factor: Adverse treatment of black elected officials during the Reconstruction period (1863-1877); the Wilmington Massacre (1898); the Tulsa Massacre (1921); what is happening in Georgia, Texas, and other places across the South. (I contend the reference to what is happening in some states by way of election reform is pure opinion on the Mayor Colvin’s part and not supported by examination of facts.) He concludes with this statement: “Let’s stay woke; make sure that we stay informed and we know what it is we are up against here.”
You have a choice. I, Karl Merritt, recommend that you hear the facts of any situation, thoughtfully assess them, and then act. That not only applies to Vote Yes Fayetteville, but to every issue.