Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston has launched a formal protest with the Guilford County Democratic Party over what Alston said was an illegitimate organizational process of a key precinct in District 8 that hurt his chances of becoming a county commissioner.
The protest calls for that precinct to be reorganized in accordance with the bylaws of the Democratic Party and it addresses other issues related to the political organization of that district.
Alston said this week that a group of white residents in the predominately black District 8 “hijacked” the Guilford County Democratic Party Executive Committee and nearly cost him the seat he now holds on the Board of Commissioners.
He said filing the complaint is an attempt to fight injustice and overturn an effort by that small group of whites to subvert the will of the vast majority of African Americans in that district.
Alston was elected as the District 8 Guilford County commissioner late last month by the county’s Democratic Party Executive Committee, which was filling a vacant seat on the Board of Commissioners that opened up when former Commissioner Ray Trapp stepped down to take a job with NC A&T State University.
Alston won the seat over opponent April Parker in a heated and bitterly divisive battle that saw issues of race, sexuality and party politics come into play and left acrimonious feelings permeating the district.
Alston won that Executive Committee election by the skin of his teeth – a 2 percent margin – on Wednesday, April 26, but the new commissioner said the narrowness of his victory was the result of illegal or improper organization that violated the bylaws of the state’s Democratic Party.
Parker, who is black and gay, was nearly put into the seat through an effort spearheaded by fellow gay advocates in that district.
While Alston is extremely popular in District 8, and would have easily won in a one-person, one-vote committee election, precinct chairs on the Executive Committee get more votes than other committee members – which is how a small group of white residents was able to call the shots in one April meeting where Alston’s quest was put on hold.
Alston said one of his major complaints centers on Precinct G-69. He said the organizational meeting for that precinct made Ryan Butler, an attorney for Replacements Ltd., the precinct chairman, and he said the meeting was held in Butler’s house.
Alston also said citizens in that precinct weren’t properly notified of the meeting and that the meeting was not held in a public place, in a violation of party rules.
He added that that allowed the whites who knew about the meeting and attended it to make all the calls regarding the precinct’s leadership.
“They hijacked the precinct,” Alston said. “They organized it with five white people.”
He said that, though the precinct is overwhelmingly black, there was no black representation and that allowed a small group of whites in a private home to control it.
He said there were other issues of impropriety in District 8 that unfairly helped Parker’s quest as well.
“Those should have been black votes,” Alston said of some of the multiple votes that went against him. “April should not have gotten all the votes she got, and I shouldn’t have had to go through this. She really didn’t have all those votes.”
Alston added that he may also file a complaint with the North Carolina Bar Association against Butler, since he’s an attorney, and, Alston claims, Butler used illegitimate practices to organize the district.
Butler did not respond to a phone message left at Replacements Ltd., a message left on his cell phone voicemail or a Facebook message sent by the Rhino Times requesting an interview.
Alston said that, in the battle over whether he should fill Trapp’s seat, the small group of whites “made an end run” around the will of District 8 residents and the rules of the Democratic Party – which, he reiterated, was why his election turned out so close.
Alston said he had many concerns about the organization of the precincts in the 21-precinct district – as well as about the lack of organization for 15 precincts in the district.
Complicating matters was the fact that many of the white community wanting to vote Parker in were also LGBT advocates. Parker, a grass roots organizer, Black Lives Matter activist and an outspoken gay rights defender, would have been the first openly gay commissioner to serve on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, and some of the voters backing her wanted to see her on the board for that reason.
Though Alston won the seat in the end, he said he’s disturbed by the way the district has been organized and the way much of it is completely unorganized.
“I am not going to let this go,” Alston said, vowing to help repair the party’s political structure in the district.
He said he wants the see the unorganized District 8 precincts organized, and the complaint is also meant to force a reorganization of G-69.
He said another precinct in the district raised serious questions as well, though the current complaint does not address those concerns.
Alston also said that, while he’s happy he won the commissioners seat, that doesn’t change the fact that the representational system for the Democratic Party in District 8 is broken and needs fixing. He said that’s the only way there will be fair representation for the community in the future.
“I don’t like injustices,” Alston said, adding that that was the key reason for seeking the changes.
Alston said the protest is being filed by Guilford County Board of Education Member Deena Hayes-Greene – who represents District 8 on the school board and lives on the same street as Butler. He said that Hayes-Greene, like many others, was aware of the improprieties in the way G-69 has been handled.
“Deena is filing it on behalf of the residents, and I am supporting it in my role as a county commissioner for that district,” Alston said.
Alston added that the meeting organizing G-69 should have been held in a public place that was handicapped accessible and that met other criteria laid out in party bylaws.
Parker came close to beating Alston even though she was a newcomer to county politics and an activist who had angered many members of the black leadership.
One week and one day after a faction of Democratic Party executives backing Parker voted to adjourn an April 18 meeting held to fill Trapp’s seat, Alston was able to muster all his political power and squeak out a win.
Alston, who served as a commissioner for two decades before starting his new term earlier this month, said this issue is much bigger than his race to be commissioner again. He said action must be taken to right wrongs so that the District 8 party disputes and races will be fair going forward.
The structure of white power in the predominately black district came under scrutiny last year when former North Carolina District 58 Rep. Chris Sgro, a white man, was elected by the Guilford County Democratic Party Executive Committee last year to carry out the term of the late Rep. Ralph Johnson, a black leader who died in office.
Sgro’s election to that seat – at a poorly attended, quickly called Saturday morning Executive Committee meeting – didn’t go over well with some black District 8 residents, but those complaints didn’t reach the highly public fever pitch that recent complaints did when it looked as though Parker might defeat Alston.
Adding to the intrigue is that fact that Sgro is married to Butler and it was Sgro who made a sudden motion to adjourn the Democratic Party meeting on April 18 to allow more time for other candidates, at the exact moment it looked certain Alston would be elected commissioner with no opposition on his first try.
Sgro, who just stepped down as the executive director of the gay rights organization Equality NC, was one of 18 Executive Committee members voting, and he made that motion to adjourn and schedule another meeting for April 26. Sgro said that would allow time for other candidates to come forward and the process would therefore not be done in haste.
It isn’t clear why Sgro, at the April 18 meeting, made his motion to adjourn only after nominations had been opened and closed, at a time when Alston – the only one nominated – was walking up to the front of the room to claim his victory.
Many, including Alston, saw the strange timing of that motion as an “in your face” move – and it may be one reason Alston is still so fired up about the proceedings even though he won the seat in the end.
“I was kind of embarrassed,” Alston said. “I was ready to give my acceptance speech.”
Ralph Rodland, the former party chairman who ran that first April meeting to find Trapp’s replacement – which was Rodland’s first full meeting as chairman – resigned just days after that heated meeting even though he had only held the job for two weeks at that point.
At the April 18 meeting that was abruptly adjourned, it became evident very quickly that the room full of black District 8 residents didn’t appreciate a handful of powerful whites halting the meeting. Many said the surprising move was a civil rights violation and they threatened court action since, they said, it was a clear case of the will of the blacks being suppressed by a small group of whites.
Alston said other precincts in District 8 also presented questions. At the meeting where Alston was stopped in his tracks, some party members raised vocal objections about G-69 as well as other districts and other procedures.
“They didn’t properly advertise and they held it in a private residence,” Alston said of the complaint over G-69’s organization being made in the current protest.
“That’s why everybody was so upset,” he said.
The North Carolina Democratic Party rules read, “In any case, the precinct meeting must be held in a public facility accessible and open to all registered Democrats residing in the precinct, except that when the precinct chair or acting precinct chair, wishes to meet in their precinct, and the county chair certifies that no public facility is available in the precinct, the precinct meeting may be held in a non-public facility accessible and open to all registered Democrats residing in the precinct.”
Democratic Party leaders are now busy trying to get at the facts with regard to the complaint.
Bess Lewis, the executive director of Guilford County’s Democratic Party, said her office has been focused in recent weeks on finding a new party chairman, but she added the party will be addressing the issues that have come up in the District 8 commissioner replacement battle.
“I know we are very careful,” Lewis said. “We tell people when we organize that it is important to follow the rules. I tell them, ‘You must follow the rules,’ and we do a lot of follow up.”
Lewis also said precinct meetings are announced in a party email blast and some organizers go door to door to make precinct residents aware of meetings. She said others mail notices for the meetings and said the meetings are usually held at a well-known public place such as a nearby coffee shop or a recreation center.
According to Lewis, there are 165 precincts in the county and 100 of those are organized on the Democratic Party side.
Since 15 of those 65 unorganized precincts are in District 8, that suggests District 8 is more unorganized than most.
One high-ranking black elected official said there was some animosity between the gay rights advocates and the black community because the gay rights cause is often portrayed as the new civil rights battle and some members of the black community do not see that effort as analogous to the black’s civil rights struggle. That elected official said that tension that can be seen nationally has been playing out in District 8.
There aren’t many parallels between Alston and President Donald Trump, but one is that, despite winning elections, both men are calling into question the process that put them in office.