Voter Education Widens Choices
The candidates trooped into the gymnasium at New Light Baptist Church in Greensboro on a recent Tuesday evening, toting yard signs and pressing the flesh. A good politician is an inveterate networker, if nothing else; a smile and a handshake are the basic units of currency. The candidate hopes to lodge any impression at all with the voter, who might in turn say something kind about them to a coworker, spouse or neighbor. They were all there to see and be seen, to maintain and build influence through relationships and to immerse themselves in the fervor of an historic election. For that matter, so was I. Having been chosen by the nonpartisan Guilford County Unity Effort to ask questions, I was setting some of the agenda, building the brand of my newspaper and nurturing relationships with sources. There was Chip Hagan, husband of the Democratic sitting state Sen. Kay Hagan, who is seeking to take Elizabeth Dole’s seat in the US Senate. There was Don Vaughan, a lawyer and former Greensboro City Councilman with four young men clad in campaign T-shirts, running as the Democratic nominee against Republican Joe Wilson for the District 27 seat being vacated by Hagan. And there were the handful of judicial candidates who weren’t invited to speak, but at least got a chance to stand up and be recognized. One member of the crowd could not be denied. The Rev. Cardes Brown, the namesake of the CH Brown Jr. Family Life Center annex, strolled the floor and then settled into a chair as the candidates made their pitches. During the portion of the program set aside for questions from the audience, Brown exercised his pastor’s prerogative to preach to the candidates for state legislature on the evils of expanding incarceration and racial disparities in sentencing. “The question was asked earlier: What can be done about people who reenter [society] after incarceration?” he asked, piggybacking off another audience member’s question. “In most of our cities there is really nothing. You are at the mercy of those who may want to give you another chance. It seems that the government that provides money for food and — what many of us might not realize — about $30,000 a year to incarcerate. That’s a whole lot of money that could be used more productively. And I think that it is irresponsible to build prisons, which is some of the highest construction right now in Guilford County. “And legislatively, I noticed that there was a great deal of response, support about getting the criminals off the street,” he continued. “As a preacher I guess all of us would be incarcerated if all the criminals were incarcerated…. How many of you actually believe that the actual representation of incarceration reflects criminality? When you look at the population of African Americans that fill our prisons, do you really believe that we’re the only ones that are committing crimes?” New Light Baptist Church is a political base of power no less important than the Simkins PAC — the political action committee whose members include state Reps. Alma Adams and Earl Jones, Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston and Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson — in that it provides a conduit between black elected officials and their constituency. There’s a new streak of independence emerging in the African-American community. The Simkins PAC endorsement list — determined in a closed-door meeting by a committee of black elected officials and distributed to black voters with funds contributed bythe candidates who receive the PAC’s endorsement — does not necessarilyhold the weight it once did. At a candidates forum last spring Igrabbed a copy of the PAC’s endorsement list from Guilford County UnityEffort organizer Sharon Hightower after she brandished it and announcedher intention to toss it in the garbage. “As an individualvoter I personally prefer to make my own decision and will not beinfluenced by a PAC endorsement, and I will not be utilizing theirendorsement,” Hightower told me. “I will make my own informeddecisions.” A paralegal and single mother with a daughter atEast Carolina University, Hightower was recruited to join the GuilfordCounty Unity Effort by Democracy North Carolina field organizer Jonathan Peterson because of her community involvement. She serves as president of her neighborhood associationin College Forest, holds a seat on the Southeast Medical Task Force andis a member of the Southeast Neighborhood Coalition. She has worked onprecinct development in southeast Greensboro: registering voters,badgering people who are already registered to cast their ballots andoffering rides to those who might have trouble getting to the polls.Though these are nonpartisan efforts, high voter turnout in southeastGreensboro working-class — predominantly African-American — tends tobenefit Democratic candidates. And yet closer scrutiny ofDemocratic incumbents does not necessarily foretell better odds forRepublican challengers, especially in this presidential election yearin which the historic candidacy of Democrat Barack Obama is generatingnew excitement. Debra Compton-Holt, a labor organizer with theBeloved Community Center who introduced Obama at Greensboro’s WarMemorial Auditorium in April, asked tough questions of candidates forUS Congress during the Sept. 16 candidates forum, pressing them aboutthe false pretexts for the invasion of Iraq and the lack of mental healthcare for returning military veterans. Andthough the Guilford County Unity Effort may challenge the influence ofthe Simkins PAC, get out-the-vote efforts like these are likely tobring the priorities of the black community into sharper focus. Democracy North Carolina’sorganizing director, Adam Sotak, was among those in the audience at therecent candidates forum. He mentioned the “Souls to the Polls” project,a collaboration between his organization and the NC NAACP. (Disclosure:I am a former staffer at the Institute for Southern Studies, led formore than two decades by Bob Hall, who went on to found Democracy North Carolina.) Democracy North Carolina won a victory last year with the passage of House Bill 91, which allows for same day registration and voting in North Carolina between 19 and three days before Election Day. Two of those early voting days fall on Sundays next month, and Democracy North Carolina and the NC NAACP are capitalizing on that opportunity to organize churches to help get people to the polls. “Youcan… conduct a GOTV campaign for your congregation by sponsoringspecial early-voting gatherings on a Saturday or Sunday, giving votersrides to the polls, asking church members to commit to voting and otheractivities,” a guide distributed by the two organizations advises. “Solong as these events do not advocate for a specific candidate, they arepermissible.”
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