One lesson that can be taken from the Democratic political war that took place in April in Guilford County Board of Commissioners District 8 is this: Don’t cross Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston.
The District 8 precinct, G-69, that nearly single-handedly kept Alston from regaining a vacant seat on the Board of Commissioners had three executive members – a chairman, vice chair and secretary – and, in the wake of the heated contest that Alston won, all three of those precinct executives have now resigned their posts and moved out of town.
When former District 8 Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp stepped down from the District 8 county commissioners seat in early April to take a job with NC A&T State University, all heck broke lose during the special election process to fill that vacancy. When a handful of whites on the Guilford County Democratic Party Executive Committee – led by the three from precinct G-69 – came this close to keeping the highly popular Alston from taking that seat in the largely black district, there was outrage. And now, two months later, the chips are still falling and the county Democratic Party is scrambling to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.
The reason a small group of whites could nearly “hijack” the special election (to use Alston’s word) is that about three-quarters of the precincts in the district weren’t organized – which meant those that were, mostly white districts, had much more say in the process than the mostly black precincts that weren’t organized, since precinct chairs and vice chairs get weighted votes in the special party elections such as the one held to fill Trapp’s seat.
In the end, Alston won the seat on the Board of Commissioners by the skin of his teeth over LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) activist and local Black Lives Matter leader April Parker – and, as soon as he did, he began striking back.
Alston orchestrated filing a protest to the county and state Democratic executive committees and he and other Democratic officials have been on a blitzkrieg effort ever since to organize District 8 and transform it in a matter of months from the least organized Democratic district in the county to the most organized. Party officials now expect that, by mid-July, 100 percent of the precincts in District 8 will be organized.
The three white leaders who led the opposition against Alston were Precinct G-69 Chairman Ryan Butler, Vice Chair Anne Evangelista and former NC District 58 Rep. Chris Sgro – who all left Greensboro right after the highly contentious proceedings of the special election.
Alston said it wasn’t because of anything he did and he insists he isn’t riding people out of town on rails.
“That was just a coincidence,” Alston said. “I’m not taking credit for that.”
He also said that, just because he’s now sitting on the Board of Commissioners and the three leaders of the opposition are gone, it doesn’t mean he is letting go of the protest. Alston said that the complaint regarding the District 8 election – and what Alston said were improprieties in the way Precinct G-69 was organized – are still relevant concerns. The protest was filed by Guilford County Board of Education member Deena Hayes, who lives in that precinct.
Among the complaints about the way the precinct was formed, Alston said, is that the meeting was held in Butler’s home rather than in a public place, proper notice to citizens wasn’t given and there were no blacks present at the meeting – and therefore there was no African-American representation in the precinct leadership, even though G-69 is 88 percent black.
“The complaint is still live,” Alston said. “I don’t care if they did leave town.”
He said that Hayes had filed the protest with his backing so that things like this wouldn’t happen in the future.
“We have to get a hearing and make a determination of a violation,” Alston said of the situation that almost cost him a seat on the Board of Commissioners. “It’s the principle of the thing. It’s a clear violation. What they tried to get away with was totally disrespectful and they almost got away with it. They had a motive to manipulate the votes and you had a small group of whites trying to oppose the will of the black district.”
Alston also said that, as polarizing and contentious as the special election was, his goal is for something positive to come out of it – the complete organization of precincts in District 8. He said that’s why he and other party leaders have been on a mission to organize all the precincts in that district and make sure it’s all done in an aboveboard manner with a large amount of citizen participation where the will of the people is reflected in the party leadership.
“My goal was to get the precinct organized in 90 days,” Alston said.
He added that it’s been about 45 days since he took office and he and others are about halfway done with organizing the district.
“By July 15, every precinct will be organized even if I have to do it every week,” he said.
Bess Lewis, the executive director of the Guilford County Democratic Party, said this has been a productive time for the party and the anxiety surrounding the special election has died down.
“It’s relatively calm,” Lewis said.
She also said Guilford County and state Democratic officials are working their way through the protest procedure.
“This is an ongoing process,” Lewis said.
Lewis added that there was now a refocused effort to organize Democratic precincts across all of Guilford County, not just District 8. She said that, after a recent party election, the local Democratic Party has new people in key positions and everyone is working hard to organize precincts. One vice chair is focused on organizing precincts across Greensboro, another is dedicated to doing so in High Point and a third is focused on organizing the other parts of Guilford County.
The county party also has a new chairman. Ralph Rodland, the former party chairman who ran the first April meeting to find Trapp’s replacement, resigned just days after that heated meeting even though he’d only held the job for two weeks.
New Guilford County Democratic Party Chairman Nicole Quick was elected last month and now, after serving about three weeks, she’s already been at the helm longer than her predecessor and she expects to keep at it for the whole two-year term.
Quick graduated St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina, before getting her master’s degree in economics at the University of South Carolina. She worked as an efficiency manager before having a child and leaving that job to raise him and work for various causes. Quick, who’s been active in supporting programs that address autism, has a son who is autistic.
Quick said the three vice chairs in charge of organizing districts are really getting the ball rolling across the county.
“Some of our focus right now is on rural areas,” she said, adding that many precincts in southeast Guilford County need to be organized.
There are 165 precincts in the county and 100 of those were organized on the Democratic Party side at the time of the District 8 ruckus. However, now that number is improving every week.
In addition to a black/white divide in the party that showed itself in the Alston debate, there were other divisive elements at play as well. To a large extent, it was members of the LGBT community that fought against Alston and for Parker. Another evident split in the party is between those who supported Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee in last year’s election and those who supported Hillary Clinton.
Parker was among a group of activists who came to the Board of Commissioners meeting on Thursday, June 1 to express their views on certain county budget matters.
“For me, a big goal is more unity,” Quick said. “We have been divided, and that has not all been along racial lines. You have the Berniecrats – millennials who are more progressive – and the traditional Democrats, and I’m hoping we can find a middle ground.”
Quick said the party has a lot of energy right now due to court rulings against gerrymandering and other factors.
Quick said the protest Hayes filed will ultimately be decided by state Democratic Party executives and that, in light of the events earlier this year, party officials are making it a top priority to have widely advertised precinct meetings that are open and accessible to all.
Quick also said Evangelista left Greensboro because she got a great job offer in Boone, and she added that Sgro took a new job in Washington, DC. She said the departures had nothing to do with crossing Alston.
Guilford County Democratic Party Vice Chair Heidi Fleshman, who’s in charge of organizing the precincts in Greensboro, said that grassroots organizing on the precinct level is vitally important, and she added that the events that occurred earlier this year are a great illustration of that.
“The best and worst example we have is what happened to Skip Alston,” Fleshman said. “He goes into an election but only six out of 20 precincts were organized. We use that all the time as an example of under representation.”
Fleshman said Alston had been a big help in the effort to organize District 8 and that he knows all the church leaders and business leaders who can help make that happen, and help find public places for meetings.
Fleshman said there are many benefits to being in an organized precinct.
“You chose the leader representing you and, on top of that, only organized precincts are allowed to write resolutions for the executive committee,” she said. “They say, ‘Here’s what we think should be adopted at the district level, the county level and the state level.’”
Fleshman also said that, in the case of special elections such as the one after Trapp stepped down, an organized precinct gets to have a say in that process while an unorganized one does not.
Like other party officials, Fleshman said there’s an emphasis on openness and fairness among Democratic Party officials.
“We have a plan of organization, and we publicize it fully,” she said.
She added that meetings are announced on the web, in newspapers and on social media, as well as with signs and, often, by knocking on doors.
Fleshman said the organizing effort does more than create a strong party structure – it also brings communities together.
“In some cases, they felt isolated and felt like they were the only Democrats on the streets,” she said. “And then they’re having barbeques and picnics together.”
Meanwhile, the Guilford County Republican Party also has a new chairman, Troy Lawson, and a whole lot of new energy thanks to who is working on the GOP’s side.
Lawson said it’s often difficult to get precincts to organize but that doing so is important, and he said that “slowly but surely” the county Republican Party is organizing districts.
“We are seeing a lot of new energy,” he said.
Lawson, who constantly exudes a great deal of enthusiasm, said party officials are really working hard to get precincts organized to infuse the party with vigor.
“I’ll put myself on that card as well,” Lawson said of those working to get that done.