The old debate over when younger leaders in historically black Southeast Raleigh will be elevated to public office is heating up again in the midst of political turmoil there.
This time, the question has arisen since the resignation three weeks ago of 85-year-old Harold Webb from the Wake County Board of Commissioners. James West, who until last week was serving his 11th year on Raleigh City Council, replaced him. West was chosen by Democratic Party leaders in Council District C in Southeast Raleigh, a long-familiar process of succession from within the "Old Guard" of black Raleigh officials. Webb himself was similarly tapped eight years ago when he replaced Vernon Malone following Malone's election to the state Senate.
Now the issue is, who will replace the 68-year-old West on the council?
Sixty-nine-year-old Eugene Weeks emerged from the meeting of Democratic leaders as the "front-runner," so called by Mayor Charles Meeker, among others. Weeks is a longtime party organizer and community leader in Southeast Raleigh—an "Old Guard" regular, in other words—and if the choice was up to the Democrats, he'd be a certain pick.
However, because tRaleigh City Council is non-partisan, the council, not the party, will choose West's replacement. The other seven council members include four Democrats, one Republican and two independents, all of whom are white. None live in Southeast Raleigh.
At a recent candidates forum at Shaw University sponsored by the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association (RWCA), Weeks was joined by two announced rivals: the Rev. Lent Carr, 38, and Racquel Williams, 35, both of whom claimed the mantle of "change" candidate. Williams also said that it's time for the council to have its first female African-American member.
A fourth candidate, the Rev. Sheila Jones, 48, was unable to attend because of a prior commitment, but she told the Indy she's in the race.
The RWCA has been the major black political group in the city since its founding in 1932. But the RWCA's influence may be waning as its membership ages. And its leader is under fire: RWCA President Danny Coleman was jeered and faced calls for a no-confidence vote two weeks ago when he invited Wake County school board member John Tedesco to address an RWCA meeting.
Tedesco is part of the controversial Republican majority on the school board that removed diversity from the student assignment process. Virtually all of Southeast Raleigh's community leaders, except Coleman, oppose Tedesco's efforts.
Oddly, Coleman scheduled the candidates forum at nearly the same time Saturday as a community meeting elsewhere in Southeast Raleigh, at which NACCP leaders announced a federal civil rights suit challenging the school board's anti-diversity moves.
Coleman said that his forum, though announced after the NAACP's meeting was set, was scheduled weeks ago as part of a well-planned process to replace Webb with West and (presumably) West with an RWCA-backed candidate.
At the forum, four candidates, not including Jones, initially came forward. But one, Yvonne Holley, was introduced only for the purpose of saying that she isn't running and is supporting Weeks.
"The fix appears to be in," declared Bruce Lightner, a veteran Southeast Raleigh leader. "Weeks seems to have the nod of the Southeast Raleigh old guard and Coleman's RWCA," he wrote to City Council members Tuesday. His anti-Weeks e-mail rocketed around the district.
Lightner, whose father, Clarence Lightner, was Raleigh's only African-American mayor, said he and Weeks are longtime friends. Nonetheless, it's time for younger leadership to have a chance, he said.
"I would hope that the powers-that-be will show some courage, intestinal fortitude and vision for the future," Lightner wrote. "Regardless of pronouncements of Black leaders to the desirability and necessity of elevating and supporting a younger generation of new leaders, it seems apparent that such sanctimony rhetoric rings hollow in the face of current realities."
At the forum, Weeks called himself "a foot soldier" for District C since he moved to Raleigh in 1973. He's a retired military veteran (senior master sergeant in the Air Force) who later taught ROTC classes at Broughton High School, and he's current chair of the city's Parks, Greenway and Recreation Advisory Board.
Rather than calling for change, Weeks said, "we need to move forward with the things that are on the table" at council, including the stalled Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center proposed for downtown.
Williams, a high-energy speaker, emphasized her independence and ability to inspire. "I don't have any ties to any particular group," she said. She pledged to expand the number of people participating in community affairs and "to include, not exclude, the younger generation."
Williams works as an aide to state Rep. Nick Mackey, D-Charlotte. She also heads what she called a "neophyte" nonprofit called Can I Live, Inc., whose goal is community empowerment. She has a master's degree in public administration from N.C. Central University and said she is "a mother of four young men" and accustomed to "breaking through barriers and overcoming obstacles."
Lent, pastor of Emmaus Puritan Apostolic Baptist Church on Poole Road, hit hard on crime issues in Southeast Raleigh and called for the city to condemn and get rid of "problem properties." He's been ministering on the streets in Raleigh for three years, he said, and is "no one's yes-man."
Businesses won't come to Southeast Raleigh, Lent said, until residents work with the police to drive out the drug dealers. "We can blame others," he said, but until we deal with that central issue—crime—developers aren't coming."
Jones is also a preacher and founder of the J.T. Locke Resource Center based in the historically black Method community of Southwest Raleigh. The center provides academic and other help to low-income children and their families, mainly single mothers, she said. A majority of the students live in Southeast Raleigh. She is its unpaid director.
A single mother of two, Jones was in a pilot Work First program as a welfare recipient, she said, which led to a job with the Wake County Sheriff's Department. She later worked for the Wake County Human Services Department, helping single mothers. She, too, holds a master's degree in public administration from N.C. Central and is studying for a divinity degree at Shaw. "I'll continue to serve the community whatever the council does," she said.
Meeker set a Monday, Oct. 4 deadline for applicants for West's job. The Council will hear candidates at its afternoon session Oct. 5 and vote at the evening session the same day. The RWCA is scheduled to meet again Monday night to decide on its endorsement, Coleman said.