Court-ordered district map of Fayette County that includes the mostly-black District 5, in yellow. (Staff map by Robert Calzada)

Fayette’s voting rights feud: A petri dish of social, political change

Alan Felts was drawn to Fayette County a decade ago for its good schools and an unplugged, traffic-free lifestyle that offered lots of elbow room. So was Lurma Rackley who also thought it would be a good place to look after her aging mother.

Both relish their small-town life but they’re split over the best method for electing leaders in this suburban county of about 110,000, just south of Atlanta.

Fayette’s voting method has drawn a lot of attention since the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the county four years ago on behalf of some black residents seeking to replace its at-large voting with district voting. The two sides, due to go to trial earlier this month, are instead in court-ordered mediation.

Until the lawsuit, Fayette was one of fewer than three dozen of Georgia’s 159 counties solely using at-large voting, viewed by opponents as a Southern electoral relic. Of the 10 metro Atlanta counties defined by the Atlanta Regional Commission, only Fayette and Rockdale - the two with the fewest residents - use at-large solely to elect county leaders. Neighboring Coweta County, which is not among the 10, also uses district voting.

Opponents note that at-large voting can allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of the seats, and often results in racially and politically polarized decision-making, according to Laughlin McDonald, director-emeritus of the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

Supporters say it allows voters to have a say in the election of all representatives who are responsible to the whole electorate and not just those in their district.

Past challenges to at-large voting usually involved bringing some sort of parity to rural communities where black people had lived for decades and historically faced economic and political disadvantages.

However, Fayette’s case is a striking new look at the modern South. The current challenge involves well-to-do black newcomers — many of whom are part of the wave of black people returning to the south or southern-born, college-educated success stories — who are seeking to be part of the political system in a smaller, formerly rural white outpost.

Felts, a white Peachtree City resident, said he does not believe the current system is discriminatory and favors preserving at-large voting over district voting. He says federal laws like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act enacted 50 years ago ended biased voting practices and gave black voters more political representation.

“With at-large voting you’ve got a cohesive county where the majority’s voice is going to be heard,” said Felts, 56, who works for a defense contractor. “When you break the county into districts then there is no more majority voice. Then every (commissioner) may focus primarily on the desires of their individual district versus the county.”

Rackley, who is black has lived in Tyrone since 2002, says the 2013 federally-ordered district voting is a better fit now that Fayette is more diverse and has already shown some results. At-large voting was unfair, she said, because it continually produced all-white commissioners and school board members even as Fayette’s black population has grown to 20 percent.

“I didn’t feel (it) was representative of the full county,” said Rackley, a writer and editor who works for an Atlanta nonprofit. “They can’t roll back the clock. If the population is becoming more diverse, having a diverse commission would better serve the entire county.”

Fayette’s four-year legal fight to preserve at-large voting has dredged up decades-old ghosts and racial animus not seen since the Civil Rights Movement.

The local paper’s website dripped with acrimonious exchanges about the issue. One commission meeting devolved into a emotionally-charged session after audience members accused the commission of being racist. At another commission meeting, a resident complained about “outside agitators” causing dissension in the county over the matter.

Two prominent businessmen and the Chamber of Commerce recently weighed into the dispute imploring the county to embrace district voting even as some residents dug in their heels and urged the county to continue fighting a case that has cost both sides $1 million each.

Racial Chex-Mix

An influx of newcomers in the last 20 years has transformed Fayette from a small, mostly-white farming community to a racial Chex-Mix of suburban affluence. Median household income in Fayette overall eclipses most of the surrounding metro Atlanta counties and black household income in Fayette surpasses whites by $7,300, according to the U.S. Census.

Fayette County is a collection of small towns linked mainly by residents’ desire to live the American Dream outside the traffic-clogged environs of Atlanta, daily slogs into the city to work notwithstanding.

It is light-years from the Fayette County of Derryll Anderson’s childhood 60 years ago when the KKK marched past her home on Church Street in downtown Fayetteville after her father tossed his voter registration form through the courthouse window when officials refused to accept it.

Anderson’s father was one of the first black residents to run for office, she recalled. He ran for Fayetteville City Council in the early 1980s.

“He lost, of course,” said Anderson, who lives with her 94-year-old mother in the home her father built after he returned from World War II.

“I am very blessed to be a part of Fayette and I’m very proud to say I was born and raised here. (But) there is so much racism still here. Trust me. I know,” Anderson, 66, said. “But there’s still been a lot of progress.”

Between 1980 and 2010, the black population in Fayette County grew from just under four percent to an estimated 22 percent, according to U.S. census records. Many live in the northern half of the county in exclusive enclaves and subdivisions where homes range from the mid-$400,000 to more than a $1 million.

“They want what’s fair. Some are paying more taxes than others and they don’t feel they’re being represented,” said Anderson, a Realtor.

For Pat Earnest, who is white, the changes have been mostly unsettling. She and her family moved with their three little girls to Fayette from East Point in 1973 to escape the “dicey” changes there. They settled in a house on a rural stretch of Redwine Road, named for a prominent Fayette family. Chick-fil-A Chairman Dan Cathy lived about a quarter-mile away.

Back then, her family was surrounded by rolling cattle-grazed farmland. Upscale subdivisions have since claimed the farmland.

“It’s not the same Fayette County my children grew up in,” the 71-year-old widow said. She has followed the legal volley over the county’s election system.

“It has snatched away 80 percent of everybody’s voting power,” said Earnest who has urged county officials to keep fighting.

Before U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten Sr.’s order for single-member district voting, Earnest says “everybody in the county voted for every board of education member and every commission member. Now we can only vote for the one where you live. It has balkanized the county.”

Unfairly branded

The fight over Fayette’s political process began long before attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York came calling in August 2011 with a lawsuit on behalf of a group of black residents.

State Rep. Virgil Fludd, a 20-year county resident instrumental in bringing in the NAACP, says going to court was the last resort, a decision made after years of failed attempts by at least a dozen black Democrat and Republican candidates to get elected to the school board and county commission. Black residents had publicly pushed for district voting since 1993.

“It wasn’t a ‘Eureka event,’ it was a series of events,” Fludd said.

Two years after the NAACP sued to get Fayette to adopt single-member district voting, Batten ordered the change. His ruling was appealed. An appeals panel sent the case back to Batten earlier this year for trial, which has since been postponed as both sides try to resolve the matter in mediation. Both sides have been instructed not to talk about the case while in mediation.

The county’s first-ever election by districts in November 2014 resulted in Pota Coston becoming the first black person to win a seat to the county commission or school board. She succumbed to cancer six months after her election. A subsequent special election by District 5 voters filled the vacancy with Charles Rousseau, Fayette’s second black commissioner.

“When it was first filed, I was asked by some attorneys representing the (government) what they should do,” recalled University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock.

“I said they should settle it,” said Bullock, co-author of the book “Triumph of Voting Rights in the South.”

“I thought they were going to lose,” he added, because the case had all the markings of earlier cases that showed there were significant enough black residents to expect some level of representation.

While some complain that the court-ordered, mostly black District 5, is gerrymandering. Bullock says, “although it’s an ungainly district you can actually draw a district there.”

Opposition to the NAACP lawsuit appears to fall into two camps: A small but vocal group of longtime mostly white residents intent on seeing the case through to the end, angry that “outside agitators” have disrupted their community. Then, there are those like Felts who have taken a more thoughtful approach but who is nonetheless concerned that Fayette and its white residents are being unfairly branded.

“Honestly I’m offended that my neighbors and myself are being tagged as racist because of the outcome of elections that don’t include successful minority candidates,” Felts said. “Whether the county stays hard conservative or more moderate is going to change as people come in. We’re trying to use the government to force what is happening naturally.”

At-large proponents point to the recent election of the first black mayor in Fayette — a town of about 16,700 residents with a 55 percent white majority — as evidence that at-large voting can provide diverse representation.

Fayette Commissioner Steve Brown said Fayetteville mayor-elect Ed Johnson appealed to Republicans and Democrats.

”He built relationships,” Brown said. “It’s not that an African-American can’t win, you have to have African Americans who are willing to appeal to white and Republican voters by saying ‘I’d like to be your representative and here’s where I stand.’ ”

Tyrone Jones agrees. Jones is black and the chairman of the county Republican party. He has concerns about the mostly-black District 5 created from the 2013 court order.

“I understand the rationale is to ensure they have representation in local government,” said Jones who became chairman in March. “However, to some degree it does seem to create a situation where the only candidate that could win in that district would be a black candidate because the district is based on race. If you really look at it, you have to look at the quality of the candidate. By having district voting, you never give a candidate of another race the opportunity.”

Ultimately, Jones said the decision is up to the court.

“Whatever’s rendered in the end that what we have to abide by.”

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