09/29/10: The flow of money into Norfolk’s Ward 7 race

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

NORFOLK employs a ward system for electing members of the City Council. The city is divided into five roughly equal-sized wards, overlaid with two superwards, each covering half the city. The people who live in a given ward elect their representative. Only the mayor is elected by all of the voters of the city.

This wasn’t always the case. Beginning in 1918, Norfolk used an at-large system of selecting council members. For 50 years, the system produced an all-white city council, which was ended in 1968 with the election of black attorney Joseph A. Jordan Jr.

Even so, it was the majority of members from the west side of the city, supported by the city’s business community, who controlled the council. The black community, as well as those from the east and north portions of the city, were not included in the decision-making.

Elections by wards returned to Norfolk in 1992, after a successful suit by seven individuals and the Norfolk branch of the NAACP. Within four years, the majority of council seats were occupied by newcomers, including a third black member and a representative from the east side, the result being a shift in the city’s focus and resources. In 2006, an eighth member of the council — an elected mayor — was added.

Some believe this change has created a permanent 5-3 white majority on council; I’m not so sure. Current population estimates provided earlier this   year by the Virginia Employment Commission indicate that black residents will outnumber whites in the city. We will know for sure when the Census data is released in February.

But the possibility of a continuing white majority on the council is real, primarily because the ward lines, like those of all legislative districts, will be redrawn in Norfolk next year. Those drawing the lines will be those in power, and we could very well end up with lines that meet the letter of the law but are drawn in such a way as to continue the current majority for at least the next 10 years.

Which brings me to the upcoming special election in superward 7, one of three wards drawn as a result of the 1983 suit to increase the likelihood of electing a black person to the council. The seat became vacant as the result of its occupant running for higher office. There are four candidates — all of them black — competing to represent this ward. Based on the last financial reports filed, it looked like the Ward 7 race was going to be an evenly matched fight, as each of the candidates had about the same amount of money.

But looks can be deceiving, particularly when viewing early financial reports. Typically, the candidate with the most money wins. Money buys the ability to reach voters. Mail, radio and TV advertising is not possible without it.

One of the ways candidates have to raise money is by obtaining endorsements. Among  the notable endorsements received by the candidates are Councilman Paul Riddick for Earl Fraley Jr., Del. Algie Howell for Jimmie Wilson, former Ward 7 council member Daun Hester for Phillip Hawkins and Mayor Paul Fraim for Angelia Williams. Will any of these endorsements result in additional dollars being contributed to the campaign coffers? Time will tell. The next filing deadline is Oct. 15.

One of these four will represent half the voters in Norfolk. One of these four will have a voice in helping to shape Norfolk for years to come. With just over a month to go before Election Day, I hope the voters in Ward 7 take the time to learn about all of them.