Sept. 24, 2008 12:00

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 by the candidates who receive the PAC’s endorsement — does not necessarily hold the weight it once did. At a candidates forum last spring I grabbed a copy of the PAC’s endorsement list from Guilford County Unity Effort organizer Sharon Hightower after she brandished it and announced her intention to toss it in the garbage.

“As an individual voter I personally prefer to make my own decision and will not be influenced by a PAC endorsement, and I will not be utilizing their endorsement,” Hightower told me. “I will make my own informed decisions.”

A paralegal and single mother with a daughter at East Carolina University, Hightower was recruited to join the Guilford County Unity Effort by Democracy North Carolina field organizer Jonathan Peterson because of her community involvement. She serves as president of her neighborhood association in College Forest, holds a seat on the Southeast Medical Task Force and is a member of the Southeast Neighborhood Coalition. She has worked on precinct development in southeast Greensboro: registering voters, badgering people who are already registered to cast their ballots and offering rides to those who might have trouble getting to the polls. Though these are nonpartisan efforts, high voter turnout in southeast Greensboro working-class — predominantly African-American — tends to benefit Democratic candidates.

And yet closer scrutiny of Democratic incumbents does not necessarily foretell better odds for Republican challengers, especially in this presidential election year in which the historic candidacy of Democrat Barack Obama is generating new excitement.

Debra Compton-Holt, a labor organizer with the Beloved Community Center who introduced Obama at Greensboro’s War Memorial Auditorium in April, asked tough questions of candidates for US Congress during the Sept. 16 candidates forum, pressing them about the false pretexts for the invasion of Iraq and the lack of mental healthcare for returning military veterans.

And though the Guilford County Unity Effort may challenge the influence of the Simkins PAC, get out-the-vote efforts like these are likely to bring the priorities of the black community into sharper focus.

Democracy North Carolina’s organizing director, Adam Sotak, was among those in the audience at the recent 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 for more 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.

“You can… conduct a GOTV campaign for your congregation by sponsoring special early-voting gatherings on a Saturday or Sunday, giving voters rides to the polls, asking church members to commit to voting and other activities,” a guide distributed by the two organizations advises. “So long as these events do not advocate for a specific candidate, they are permissible.”

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