New Journal and Guide Staff
Black leaders stood in frigid temperatures on January 18 to show their support for the embattled Mayor Kenneth Wright, who has been under attack by critics of his leadership on council.
Members of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Steering Committee, and city leaders stood in front of the St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church to voice their support for Wright on the same day the nation was celebrating the birthday and legacy of Dr. King.
They held a news conference to explain their reasons for supporting the mayor a week after Sheriff Bill Watson, noting Wright’s expired inspection sticker, pursued him as the mayor failed to halt.
The incident occurred shortly after a city council meeting on January 12. The following day, Wright was charged with felony eluding.
The Black leaders said the Sheriff should have issued the Mayor a warning, thereby avoiding the controversy, media attention and public scorn of Wright. The press conference was led by Councilman Curtis Edmonds.
One member of the Steering Committee called Watson’s efforts an abuse of power.
‘I cannot address this issue because it is a legal matter,” Mayor Wright said during a brief phone interview with the Guide. “But I appreciate the support of the citizens and the city’s stakeholders.”
Tensions have risen in recent months between members of the Portsmouth City Council, which has a 4-3 Black majority. Many Black leaders and citizens say unease exists because the White citizenry has not adjusted to having Blacks in such a position of power and control on the council.
“Our intention was to send a message to the community at-large that Mayor Wright should have taken care of the expired sticker,” said Costella Williams, a member of the MLK Committee. “But many White and Black residents believe that to be charged with a felony is an abuse of power.”
“He (Sheriff Watson) could have just placed a ticket on the windshield or just issued a warning,” she continued.
“It was a set up. You could hear him (Watson) on the tape saying, ‘if he gets in that car, he (the mayor) is mine’, as Watson stood in the garage watching the mayor get into his car to drive home.”
“The mayor did not know what was going on … once you see them in the video,” said Williams. “Then you hear the media reports of a wild chase through the city … at 25 miles an hour?”
Portsmouth is now the largest majority Black city in the region.
To trim city expenses, the mayor proposed that some $1 million be cut from the Sheriff’s operating budget, which has been a source of angst between the mayor and Watson.
Watson is quoted in the media stating that “He (Mayor Wright) keeps poking me with the stick. I have never gone after him. He crossed the line and I zapped him.”
Such comments have triggered resentment from the Black community whose members say that despite the expired sticker, the mayor was being harassed.
An effort led by gun shop owner Bob Marcus to recall the mayor seems not to have gained any steam, to date. Marcus needs up to 9,000 signatures from Portsmouth residents to get the issue on the ballot. Right now he said he only had 5,000.
Williams said the recall effort has not gotten traction “because the people see it as a vendetta against the mayor.”