Merlene Davis: Bardstown has elected a black mayor; when will Lexington?

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 7, 2010 

Former Councilman Robert Jefferson called to let me know William Sheckles had won his bid to become the first African-American mayor of Bardstown.

The significance of that, he said, is that Sheckles, living in a small Kentucky town, won a citywide election without first being appointed to the position.

That is a feat that hasn't happened in much bigger Lexington.

"No African-American has ever been elected in a countywide race" here, Jefferson said, without first being appointed to the position and then winning it during the next election cycle.

Why is that? Why can't Lexington do what smaller cities have been doing for some time now?

Sheckles won't be the only African-American mayor in Kentucky. Currently, Perryville; Elsmere and Ghent in Northern Kentucky; Mortons Gap and Murray in Western Kentucky; and West Buechel in Jefferson County all have black mayors, said Eleanor Barbour of the Kentucky League of Cities. Ronnie Hampton was mayor of Lynch in Eastern Kentucky before resigning in September.

In January, Kentucky will have five black mayors. The mayors of Murray and Elsmere chose not to run again, instead seeking and winning seats on their city councils.

Sheckles will join William Mumphrey of Ghent, Frank Stafford of Mortons Gap, Anne Sleet of Perryville, and Sharon Fowler of West Beuchel.

Granted that number is still quite small considering how many towns there are in Kentucky. But those cities have done what Lexington hasn't so far.

What's wrong with us?

I asked Sheckles what brought about his victory.

"The citizens of this town knew who the best man was for the job," he said. "I've been involved in a lot of civic activities and business dealings with the people around here. It was just the natural order of things."

Sheckles served on the Bardstown city council for 12 years and has sold cars to residents for 25; he served them meals at his restaurant for several years before closing it in 2009.

Sheckles said he knows Bardstown, he's had experience on the council and he's been involved with the people. That's why both black and white people voted for him.

Bardstown's population, according to the 2000 Census, is a little more than 15 percent black. Lexington's is nearly 14 percent black.

So the difference between getting elected in Bardstown and in Lexington could be a candidate's involvement with all the people, Sheckles said. "You have to become involved," he said. "That's the whole key."

Jefferson agrees. Name recognition and familiarity are very important. That's why blacks who have been appointed to a seat generally win election to that seat later.

But, he said, there's another element necessary in Lexington: money. When running at-large in Lexington or for any citywide office, "it takes a substantial amount of money," he said. "And that has to come from the white community. You don't get financial support from blacks. At least, you don't get enough to be competitive."

Money buys exposure through TV and newspaper ads sufficient enough to level the field in name recognition, he said.

Fortunately, Sheckles didn't need as much money. He said his opponent outspent him 4-to-1. But that amount of money could not override 25 years of being active in the community.

"Bill is very congenial," said Jefferson, who has known Sheckles for years through their involvement with the Kentucky Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials at the Kentucky League of Cities. Sheckles is president of the caucus.

"He has a good relationship with the people and with the elected officials," Jefferson said.

That coalition is missing in Lexington, he said.

"Throughout the years, white candidates will come to the (black community and political leadership) seeking their support," Jefferson said. "But we never get the support of those politicians. When we ask for it, they say they've given the support to someone else. They always have a reason why they can't give you support."

Without that support, without the weight of their organizations, blacks haven't won countywide races.

But times are changing. Jefferson said he sees promise in newly elected Chris Ford, who won the District 1 council race in Lexington. Maybe he will be the one to break the curse.

Former city councilman "Mike Wilson and I used to have a discussion when we were on the council," Jefferson said. "Mike said he was going to be mayor. I said I'll never see that in my lifetime.

"But I said the same thing about the president," Jefferson said, referring to President Barack Obama. "Now, I'm not so sure anymore."

If there ever comes a time when blacks and whites work together to get behind a black candidate and support him or her financially and with support in other ways, Lexington will finally elect an African-American who wasn't first appointed to a seat, he said.

I think that day is coming.

But we have to be willing to get involved with the entire community, as Sheckles has, and we have to be willing to be a servant to all the people.

Sheckles said there is no "hood" in Bardstown. Blacks and whites live together, work together, talk to one another.

We're not there yet in Lexington. But when that happens, the rest will fall in place.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or

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