Special Edition
Oct 16, 2007

Minorities think they lack voice

by Ron Brown, Conor Reilly and Matt Busse

Community leaders say they fight an uphill battle when trying to register
voters in Ward II.

Since at least 1994, Ward II - which covers most of downtown Lynchburg -
consistently has had the fewest number of registered voters compared to the
city's other three wards.

It has produced the fewest number of at-large City Council candidates, for
which anyone in the city can vote.

Unlike other wards, it has 600 jail inmates counted against its voting
population when determining the boundaries of the wards. The inmates are
unlikely or ineligible to vote.

Ward II also has a number of children and convicted felons, who are
ineligible to vote, said Walter Fore Jr., president of the Lynchburg Voters
League.

The impact of a lack of voter strength is reflected in a community that
feels it has no voice, Fore said.

He said the current ward system pigeonholes many poor and black voters into
Ward II, which has very little political clout.

"There is no way that we can win without a coalition of people," Fore said.

Lynchburg Voters League Secretary Sherry Diggs, who has been involved in
voter registration efforts since she was 9 years old, echoed Fore's thoughts
on diluted voting power.

"I tell them that one voice is a squeak," she said. "But many voices
together, you know, that's harmony."

Right now, with the power of Ward I's delegation on City Council, Ward II's
representative is in little position to force compromise.

As evidence of his ward's small seat at the table, Fore pointed out that not
one council member, except Mayor Joan Foster, publicly addressed citizen
concerns about the death of Clarence Beard, who died during a confrontation
with police at James Crossing apartments in September 2006.

The issue touched off an uproar among many in the black community, who
months later still feel the sting of what they perceive as governmental
indifference to the circumstances surrounding Beard's death.

"I have seen what it's like when people feel as if they control you, that
there is nothing you can legally do about it," Fore said. "They put you in a
hole and you find yourself legally rebelling."

Fore said he would like to see Ward II, which has a history of supporting
Democratic candidates, pursue a more independent voice.

"We don't want to be targeted as being beholden to the Democratic Party,"
Fore said. "We would be remiss if we allowed ourselves to become the right
arm of the Democratic Party. We do have a commitment to the people of Ward
II to let them know who would best represent them, whether it be a
Republican, Independent or Democrat."

Diggs said there are significant obstacles when trying to register people
who feel disenfranchised by their government.

During her time knocking on doors around Ward II, Diggs has come across
people who think registering to vote will somehow jeopardize their food
stamps or other government benefits.

She's found streets in downtown Lynchburg where not one person is eligible
to vote because of criminal records.

"It doesn't frustrate me," Diggs said. "It just bothers me that people still
feel this way, and feel that they have no voice."

Among those with no voice are the hundreds of prisoners at the Lynchburg
Adult Detention Center. While they are counted as part of the U.S. Census,
those convicted of a felony are prohibited by law from voting.

The practice of counting prisoners as part of a legislative district has
drawn fire on a national scale, including a January editorial in The New
York Times that argued prisoners should be counted at their permanent
address, not their jail address.

"The Census Bureau counts prisoners as if they lived voluntarily in the
communities where they are incarcerated," said the Web site of the
nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative. "And though most states bar prisoners
from voting, the inaccurate census figures allow state lawmakers to pad
district populations when drawing legislative maps."

Fore said Ward II residents will have to be more selective with their votes
and cast ballots on who will best serve the ward's interests.

"We, as a people, are not doing our jobs," Fore said. "We've got caught up
with determining which is the lesser of two evils. As a result, many of the
issues on which we need to bring to resolution, we don't have that. It is
important that the interest of the public be more important than the
interest of a political party."

Fore said Ward II's political will is diminished by a population in
transition and largely less fortunate than their counterparts in other wards
in the city.

"We are losing a lot of our people," Fore said. "We're losing them to the
suburbs."

Diggs said it's often difficult to make people realize that voting in local
elections is as important, if not more important, than voting in state and
federal elections.

"Your water bill doesn't come from the state, it comes from the city," she
said. "But it really is hard to explain that."

The ward's loss of political power mirrors its loss of key businesses, which
once provided Ward II residents with dependable, good-paying jobs.

"We are trying to rebuild a house that was intact at one time," Fore said.
"We're going from room to room, trying to rebuild this house once again."

Right now, Ward II is being defined by its losses.

"We used to be strong as far as employment was concerned because we had
Griffin Pipe, Lynchburg Foundry and the paper mill," Fore said. "Many of our
residents were within walking distance of their jobs."

Now, many of the businesses have closed and many residents have moved away.

"There are a few of us who are living good, but a majority of us are
catching (heck)," Fore said.

Many of those who remain are single parents with minimal- paying jobs and
small children to feed, Fore said.

"You have a heck of a problem there," said W.E. Clark, chairman of the legal
redress committee of the Lynchburg NAACP. "We have a cancer in this
community and the USA, an economic cancer."

Many labor jobs have been lost because of the North American Free Trade
Agreement, a measure supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.

"When you have those major plants that shut down and were paying $15 to $20
a hour, and those people got to go back to $6.50 or $5.50 an hour, that
disparity brings on hate and bad race relations and it carries us back,"
Fore said.

One of the city's responses to the ward's economic woes has been to invest
in downtown revitalization and projects like Bluffwalk, an upscale hotel and
restaurant complex planned for Lynchburg's riverfront.

"All Bluffwalk is going to do is bring about minimum-wage jobs," Fore said.
"We'll be down there cleaning up and cooking. The harvest that will be
reaped, very little will come back into Ward II."

The economic realities are bleeding over into the fabric of Ward II's very
existence.

"We're talking about community dynamics," Clark said. "We find our people
leave Lynchburg, period. Those who could be in leadership positions simply
don't stay here."

Clark said that leaves Ward II with a shortage of viable council candidates
and little hope of competing for at-large seats.

Since 1994, only four at-large council candidates have lived in Ward II, the
fewest of any ward. None have been elected.

"We can't expect good representation from those people who don't respect
you," he said. "We are going to have to show some people what we stand for
and what we don't stand for. It's going to have to be an in-house thing. We
are not going to be able to get Ward I and Ward III to come over and do for
us."

As more affluent people move into some of Ward II's historic housing, its
political base is starting to change.

"It is still black, but it is getting whiter and greener," Clark said. "The
blacks are getting ready to really be in the minority here. We are already
in the minority as far as economics and education and power are concerned."

Clark said without political power, poorer black residents will be left with
diminishing hope of having a real say in the city's political process.

"We can only control our grief and that's about all," Clark said. "We've got
to change our whole structure."


Printable Version