Merlene Davis: Minority representation on council at risk

Sometimes it just doesn't pay to be old and still have a good memory.

For instance, I remember when the charter was being written for the new Lexington and Fayette County merged government.

Back then, folks were working to assure residents of the city and county that their interests still would be served and equally represented in the newly formed governing body of 12 districts and 15 council members.

William E. Lyons, then a University of Kentucky political science professor who was very involved in the merger process, wrote a book about it.

In that book, The Politics of City-County Merger: The Lexington-Fayette County Experience, Lyons noted that particular pains were taken to encourage diversity on the council.

"There would be three inner-city districts, two of them predominantly black and a third about 40 percent black," he wrote, referring to the Districts 1, 2, and 3.

The 12 district format "offered a virtual guarantee that at least two and possibly three of the 12 district seats on the 15-member council would go to black candidates," Lyons wrote.

And that is how former Vice Mayor Ann Ross, who was on the charter commission, remembers it, too.

But now, nearly 40 years later, with equal housing opportunities that allow all of us regardless of race, creed, or color to live where we want and with district boundaries changing with the population growth, that "virtual guarantee" no longer exists.

District 3 hasn't had a black representative in years, and District 2 has been represented by Tom Blues, who is white, since the 2006 election. This year's upcoming election has a white man, Marty Clifford, and a black man, Chris Ford, vying for the District 1 seat.

So the possibility exists that none of the three inner city districts carved out during the merger will have minority representation.

If Clifford wins and George Brown Jr., a candidate for an at-large seat and former District 1 representative, loses, George Myers of District 8 will be the council's only person of color.

Ross doesn't think that is what the charter intended. Neither do I.

"There was an effort to design the boundaries so there would be black representation," she said. "There was an effort to have balance on the council."

Andrea James, the District 1 council member who is moving out of that district therefore making her ineligible to hold that office, said the race of the candidate doesn't matter.

"It's the older mentality that thinks only black people can represent black people," she said, pointing to the election of President Barack Obama and Myers whose district is majority white.

James, who is not endorsing either candidate, said District 1 is undergoing exciting changes with the renovation of the Lyric Theatre, the new William Wells Brown Elementary School and community center, and with the Hope VI revitalization of land once occupied by the Bluegrass Aspendale Housing Projects. There are also renovation projects along North Limestone Street and at LexTran's headquarters at Loudon Avenue and North Limestone.

The area is changing and so are the demographics. The area has been majority white since she has held the seat, James said.

So, is carving out districts that would encourage minority representation on the council a thing of the past?

"I think it would be a travesty if all of a sudden there is only one person of color on the urban county council," said the Rev. Edgar Wallace, a former councilman who had engaged in some of the discussions during merger. "It would be very unfortunate."

He and Ross agreed that the council should have been more vigilant in watching the population changes and the drawing of district lines. Depending on what the 2010 Census reveals next year, the council may have to redraw the district lines.

However, Thomas Tolliver, treasurer of the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association and longtime District 1 resident, said the qualifications of a candidate, not his or her race, is most important.

"As a 1st District resident, it is more important that we have a representative who is responsive to the needs of the district, regardless," he said. "I'd like to think we have moved beyond that era."

But, Tolliver added, "I'd hate to see the day come when there are no black people on the city council. I think that would represent a shift in the wrong direction."

That shift would be more of an indicator that blacks are not actively engaged in the political process, he said. "I fear it for that reason and not that they would not get adequate representation."

Blues of District 2 said there was skepticism when he first was elected in 2006, but "over time I've been more accepted. I think things have gone pretty well."

Although he's heard complaints, Blues said he hasn't had an African-American opponent since he was first elected. "I don't know what to make of that," he said. "I think it is really important to have a voice or voices on the council who really understand their districts, their neighborhoods and their history. I've learned a lot from Andrea (James) and from constituents."

That means more people need to run for office, he said. Especially more people of color. I agree with that.

Ford, a contender for the District 1 seat and a youth football coach, said one of his players saw him on a news report and commented about it. The boy couldn't remember what Ford said, but he remembered the image.

"If we don't have African-Americans on the council, our young people won't see that," he said, adding the African-American representative should also be qualified to do the job.

His opponent, Clifford, said that he understands that racism and prejudice have harmed this country and community and that he has gained "unearned privileges from a broken system."

"I know I can make a difference and feel a responsibility and obligation to make the difference," Clifford wrote.

So, maybe our social boundaries have advanced more than we in the older generation realize. But because of our history, I find it difficult to believe that a lack of intentional diversity is a step forward.