The Executive Committee of the Guilford County Democratic Party held a raucous and chaotic meeting on Tuesday, April 18 that left many Democrats in the room angry and in a state of stunned disbelief after a contingent of white committee members in the heavily black Board of Commissioners District 8 voted successfully to put off the selection of a new commissioner for the district until Wednesday, April 26.
The only item on the meeting agenda was finding a replacement for former Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp, who stepped down from the Board of Commissioners earlier this month to take a job as the director of government relations for NC A&T State University. Trapp had publically endorsed longtime former Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, a five-time chairman of the board, for the District 8 seat. Trapp said Alston was the best choice to take that vacant spot and a large majority of people in the meeting room Tuesday night clearly desired that outcome as well.
Alston was the only candidate running for the position and the only candidate nominated and seconded when the nominations were closed at the Democratic Party Headquarters on West Meadowview Road in Greensboro. At that point, it seemed as though the entire affair was going to last five minutes and be completely uneventful other than the perfunctory coronation of Alston.
But what happened next sent the meeting into turmoil: After the nominations closed, but before the vote on Alston, former NC District 58 Rep. Chris Sgro – who lives in District 8, is the executive director of the LGBT rights organization Equality NC and was one of 18 people voting – made a motion to adjourn the meeting 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.
The vote outcome is determined by a weighted system in which members’ votes can count as more than one vote. Some members get only one vote but others get more – the number is based on the number of votes from that District 8 precinct that were cast for the Democratic candidate for governor in the last election – so the number changes every four years.
Though there are 20 precincts in District 8, only six of those precincts are organized. Those are districts that largely sent white precinct chairs and vice chairs to the meeting to vote. So though District 8 is overwhelmingly black, the decisions at the April 18 meeting were largely controlled by the white block of District 8 precinct chairs and vice chairs, who obviously had a majority share of the votes under the weighted system.
Sgro’s motion was seconded and there was a vote by a show of hands, but the party’s brand new chairman, Ralph Rodland, was unable to discern the outcome given that the vote was close and the party members’ votes carried various weights.
Rodland and the voting committee members left the meeting room for about 10 minutes to tally the votes using recorded signatures and, when Rodland returned, he announced that the motion to adjourn had passed. When he made that announcement, the meeting became even more contentious and there were many people shouting over one another.
Rodland tried to bring order to the room, but given the heated emotions at play, that was impossible to do at times. Rodland was conducting his first full meeting as chairman and it was truly a baptism by fire.
The ambiguous vote by a show of hands had shown that it was a contingent of white members who had backed Sgro’s motion. Several Democratic Party members said later that, although District 8 is overwhelmingly black, much of the district isn’t well organized, and that opening provided the contingent led by Sgro, who is white, to have a large say in the outcome.
“All white! All white!” one angry audience member shouted when it was announced that the motion to adjourn had carried.
Several in the room expressed concern loudly that this meant that those members voting to delay the vote might name a white commissioner to represent District 8, but Sgro said that the next District 8 commissioner would be black.
Though the meeting had been declared over, no one left and, when some members of the audience called out to Rodland asking him to recognize them to speak, Rodland said there was no need for anyone to be recognized or for any other action by the chairman because the meeting was over.
“I’m sorry folks, he said. “That’s just the way the rules are written. All I can do is enforce the rules that are in front of me. It’s over. “
While some were pointing out the racial implications of the situation, others shouted that Sgro was a hypocrite.
In March 2016, Sgro was selected by the Democratic Party to fill a vacancy in the NC House of Representatives created by the death of former NC District 58 Rep. Ralph Johnson. Some at the meeting said Sgro won that seat at a quickly held, thinly attended Saturday morning Guilford County Democratic Party meeting and it was inconsistent for Sgro to be now saying this current process had been too rushed.
“You are a hypocrite!” one man shouted, repeating it several times.
One woman called out to Sgro: “Last March, when you replaced Ralph Johnson, Mr. Sgro, it wasn’t ‘too quick.’ It wasn’t ‘too quick’ when you came over here on Saturday. Now there’s all this hullaballoo about it being fast – it was not fast in March!”
She also stated loudly that Alston was clearly the best choice for the job.
“We know we don’t want to put a neophyte in there in the budget season,” she said. “We know that Mr. Alston is capable of doing that job.”
Others pointed out that the county commissioners have a meeting on Thursday, April 20 and a delay means another commissioners meeting will be held with no District 8 representation.
There were also arguments about whether the county party’s rules of procedures were being followed, loud disagreements about whether proxies could vote at the meeting and plenty of other questions raised. Some members said after the meeting that they were going to immediately file grievances with the Democratic Party and seek remedy in the courts as well, since African-American voters’ rights were being suppressed in District 8.
If some party members have their way, there may be action by the party or by the courts that could complicate matters even more as the committee continues to attempt to fill the seat.
After the meeting, Alston said he was surprised at the turn of events, but he said that is why you should never count your chickens before they hatch.
“You never know at a meeting when you can have nominees from the floor,” he said.
He said it was interesting that the contingent used a move to delay the decision rather nominate another candidate that night.
Alston said he plans to give it another go at the April 26 meeting.
“I intend to run, but I reserve the right not to run,” he said.
When asked what that meant, Alston said, “After tonight, I may just say the heck with it.”
Guilford County Commissioner Carlvena Foster had one word to describe the meeting.
“Crazy,” Foster said.
She added that it was an unusual move that she didn’t see coming.
“It was very strategic,” she said.
Commissioners Carolyn Coleman and Kay Cashion, who like Foster were at the meeting supporting Alston, said they were shocked as well.
Rodland hinted at one point at the meeting that he was about ready to resign as chairman, though he just got the job. When asked about that after the meeting he said he was not resigning, but he added that there would be two parliamentarians at the April 26 meeting.