By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Travis, Donna and Michael Brown are a father, wife and son who usually agree on most things when it comes to their domestic arrangements, religion and what and who will take the family dog for his daily walk. But when its comes to politics and the 2016 Mayoral race to determine who will be the next Norfolk Mayor, the Brown family is at odds. The family, who are African-American, live in the Lindenwood section of Norfolk, did not want their real last names used for the story.
But they were willing to share their current domestic divide over who they will select to become the city’s next political leader come May 3. Travis prefers current council member Andy Protogyrou because he said “ We need someone who is currently on the council who has a feel for the job of making decisions.” Donna Brown likes Sheriff Bob McCabe because she admires how he has “implemented programs at the city jail to help the inmates and the youth camps he has organized for Black youth. Michael says Senator Kenneth Alexander is not only an effective politician in Richmond, but a viable Black businessman who “gives back to not only the Black community neighborhoods all over the city.”
Each day the threesome seek to lure the other from their stand. But each is firm in their views and are convincing others outside their home to follow. This Norfolk mayor’s race has ginned up excitement not seen in a several generations, according to political historians and old timers. Mayor Paul Fraim has held the job for 22 of the 30 years he has been on council and announced he will not seek another term. From 1918 to 2006 the council chose the mayor until the voters approved the law to elect them via the ballot.
On May 3, voters will choose the first new mayor in over 22 years and a chance to elect an African-American to that post for the first time in the city’s history. State Senator Kenneth Alexander, who is Black is competing with Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe and council member Andy Protogyrou to become the city’s next mayor. The competition is heavy and the diversity of opinions points to a complex view of who the residents of Norfolk, the most racially and economically diverse city in Hampton Roads, will support in this mayoral race.
Census data indicates that Blacks are slowly approaching the majority of residents in Norfolk. The city is the only one with such a large Black populous which has not elected an African-American Mayor. Many Black civic, political and religious leaders say they eager to harness the historical excitement they are witnessing to tap Senator Alexander to achieve that goal.
Since Alexander announced his candidacy, support has come in the form of political mobilization to register voters, the encouragement of voters to turn out on election day, use of absentee voting and promotion of the historic, political and economic importance of the contest’s outcome. Many in the Black community are comparing Norfolk’s 2016 mayoral race to the campaign which elected Barack H. Obama to the White House as the nation’s first African American president.
But the dream of electing the city’s first Black mayor will rest on the level of voter turnout among residents across the city, especially African-Americans. The Alexander campaign and key supporters have been seeking to broaden his support and appeal to not only Blacks but Whites across the city. Because his rivals have cultivated support in the Black community, as well, Alexander’s operation and supporters say he is competing for as many Black votes as their campaign can muster.
They see the possibility that Sheriff McCabe and Councilman Protogyrou may split the votes of Whites who are committed to their elections. If so, then Alexander could win the contest if he can gain the bulk of the Black electorate’s support. Norfolk councilman Paul Riddick, a strong supporter of the Alexander candidacy, said that a strong turnout from Whites plus a huge vote from Blacks will get the Senator across the finish line come May 3.
But there is concern that the traditional low voter turnout among Norfolk voters, especially in the Black precincts, which at times can be less than 20 percent of those eligible, may frustrate Alexander’s goals. Riddick and other Black leaders hope that voter registration and get out the vote efforts will work to overcome this trend. In 2012, when Riddick ran for reelection for council, out of the 650 eligible plus voters in Tidewater Gardens, one of his strongest precincts, only 50 people turned out.
Riddick said the “numbers crunchers among the political strategists studying the voting potential for the mayoral race say that Alexander must garner over 40 percent of the Black vote and 80 percent of the White vote come on election day. “The Black vote will be crucial and it must turn out in force,” said Riddick. “If we can just get those 4,200 residents of the city’s public housing community, Alexander can win it. I think that voter bloc is more vital to his success than West Ghent. But Black people must get out to vote.”
Another political analyst working close to the Alexander operation said that the last competitive mayoral race when Fraim faced then Councilwoman Daun Hester, the race was determined in Ward 2, one of the most racially diverse, but Whites had the highest turnout. The analyst said that Alexander and his rivals must devote resources to that ward to compensate for slack voter turnout in other parts of the city, especially the Black wards.
Bettye Potts, a political activist and former chair of the Norfolk Democratic committee, said she has witnessed a level of activism and excitement, she has not seen since the 2008 presidential race. “I see civic leagues, churches and political groups all over the city excited about this election,” said Potts. “They are registering people, encouraging people to get out to vote and educating people about the issues.
“We see the excitement among older voters who are reliable, but we must also encourage the young people to get out to vote,” said Potts. “People worry about voters suppression… I don’t think that’s happening. But we suppress ourselves when we do not get out to vote.” Ellis James, a long time civil rights, environmental and equal housing activist in Norfolk, has been planting ‘Alexander for mayor’ signs about the city.
“I am seeing signs for Alexander not only in the Black community, but standing along side McCabe and Protogyrou signs in traditional White sections of the Norfolk. “There are people who are aware of Alexander’s work not only in the community but in the General Assembly,” said James. “I was putting out a sign in Camellia Acres recently and a lady noticed it and wanted to put one in her yard because she was excited about the Alexander candidacy. They are aware of his record as a good leader and believe he will be a good mayor for the city.”
Yvonne Wagner, who sits on the Norfolk school board, said she has noticed many Blacks who are leaning toward supporting Alexander’s rivals for varying reasons.
“I hear people talking about how Protogyrou supported the naming of a street for a Reginald Walker next to Booker T. or the work of the Sheriff’s educational programs in the city jail,” said Wagner. “Alexander will get a large portion of the Black vote, but I think there are those who may be thinking of other options because of the excitement the race is generating.’
Six years ago, then councilwoman Daun Hester challenged Fraim to become the city’s first Black mayor. But Fraim’s financial and operational advantage allowed him to attract 60 percent of the vote compared to 30 percent for Hester.
Hester now sits in the House of Delegates and is supporting Alexander’s bid to achieve a goal she and other Blacks have fallen short in achieving. “We have to have a turnout equal to the one which turned out for Obama in 2008,” said Hester. “He has the leadership and the record. And he has to energize and galvanize not only the Black vote, but Whites all over Norfolk.”
Rev. Anthony Paige, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church Lambert’s Point, says that although church leaders cant directly support a specific candidate, they encourage their congregations to study the issues and vote for the candidate of their choice. “We will need a double knock at the doors in the coming weeks to get people to polls to vote,” said Paige. “We cannot tell folk who to vote for, but we can get foot soldiers out there out on the ground to get people to participate in the political process.”
Paige said he has encountered people who are excited about the possibility of Norfolk joining the Virginia communities who have elected an African-American as mayor. “But we cannot take his rivals lightly,” said Paige. “The Sheriff’s work with broken people in the jails or Protogyrou’ s work on council. But people also know what Senator Alexander has done, not only in Richmond, but at home with his business. Many people believe that Alexander’s record give him a tremendous advantage. They can attest to how he (Alexander) has helped people bury their loved one who did not have a dime. The people of this city have a hard choice to make, but I think they will make the right one.”
John Wesley Hill who is leading an effort to recall Norfolk City Treasurer Anthony Burfoot said that turnout will be key and appreciates how the candidates have worked to earn the attention of Black voters. “The number of signs you see on the side of the streets do not always translate into votes,” said Hill. “I don’t think any of the candidates are taking the Black vote for granted. There are Black civic leagues which are torn. But for Alexander to win, the turnout has to be big. He cant afford to have any one sit home.”