By Dr. George Reed
On April 13, 2021, the citizens of Chesapeake won an important victory in defeating a power crazed Mayor and his followers on Chesapeake City Council’s attempt to change the election to odd numbered years.
In spite of the passage of SB 1157 by the General Assembly changing elections to even-numbered years; the historic Virginia Voters Rights Act, opposition of citizens, and low turnout of voters on odd year elections, Mayor, Dr. Richard West tried to change the election to odd numbered years. His proposal would cut short the terms of some council and school board members which would subvert the will of Chesapeake citizens. His comment in support of the change was that citizens would have trouble understanding the issues on even year elections because of other candidates and issues on the ballot. He chastised our elected leaders in Richmond as being “Bullies” for not checking with the City prior to voting to change the election to even-numbered years.
Over 500 citizens wrote and spoke in opposition to the Mayor’s thrust to change the election to odd-numbered year. Citizens cited the low turnout of voters in odd-numbered years which diluted the minority vote which is unconstitutional under the federal and state Voters Rights Acts. Dr. West is a well-educated politician who understands the law, but he is also a power crazed politician seemingly more interested in winning elections and wielding power rather than governing to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Chesapeake.
At the April 13 city council meeting, his faction or coalition was shattered and for good reasons. Their personal integrity and trust were under siege by citizens opposed to changing the election. No city or society can function well without trust. We need to be able to trust that our representatives are honest, respect the law, and govern fairly. Mayor West and his followers failed the integrity and trust test April 13.
Three Republicans joined Dr. Ella P. Ward, lone Democrat on City Council, to defeat Mayor’s West proposal to suppress voting in Chesapeake in his desperation to move our City backward to a period of time when “Jim Crow” and discrimination against African Americans were pervasive.
Vice Mayor Dr. John deTriquet; Councilmember S. Z.” Debbie” Ritter; Robert C. Ike, Jr.; and Don J. Carey, III voted with the Mayor to change the election to odd-numbered years. Councilman Robert Ike insulted citizens by saying his comments would probably hurt “snowflakes” feelings and that this was not voter suppression.” Councilman Ike’s comment was offensive to fellow council members and the Black community. Snowflake is an epithet of choice for right-wingers fling at anyone who could be accused of being in need of a safe place or too fragile. However, historically in Missouri in the 1860s, a snowflake was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery. The implication was that people valued white people over Black people. The term “Snowflake” In the 1970s was a disparaging term for a Black man who was seen as acting white.
In the 1996 Fight Club book by Chuck Palahniuk, the term was used to indicate that each individual was not unique, but was part of the same compost pile. The term is also used as a slang term for cocaine. Councilman Robert C. Ike, Jr., who referred to citizens as “snowflake”, a term also used by the Alt-Right to promote white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value, is not deserving of the position he holds and should be defeated in the next election.
Four Republican Council Members, Vice Mayor Dr. John de Triquet; R. Stephen Best, Sr.; Mathew “Matt” Hamel; and Susan R. Vitale, joined Dr. Ella Ward to defeat Dr. West’s motion on a 5 to 4 vote. For the first time in several years I was proud of our City Council for listening to the citizens as well as voting for what was good for all citizens.
Many citizens and organizations working together brought about this change. The NAACP Chesapeake, Unit 7049; New Chesapeake Men for Progress, Inc.; Chesapeake Democratic Women; and Tiffany Thompson played a pivotal role. Tiffany conducted an electronic petition which gathered over 500 responses opposing changing the election to odd-numbered years.
With the changing of the election to even-numbered years, minorities, especially Blacks have a better opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. In my view, the time has come to abolish the At-Large city-wide voting and implement a ward system. At-Large voting systems is a violation of the Federal Voting Right Act, the historic Virginia Voting Right Act, and has been deemed so in case law.
Now is the time for community organizations, community activist, and individual citizens to demand the termination of At-Large Voting. The April 13 vote by City Council demonstrated that when citizens work together, we can bring about change that benefits all the citizens of Chesapeake. The Republican Faction, which is a majority on City Council, has ruled the City far too long and has slowed progress, as well as denied citizens amenities possessed by sister cities and said no to businesses they don’t like. We can control the effect of Mayor West and his faction by working together to bring about progressive changes in the City that will affect the quality of life for everyone.
It is time for citizens to move from At-Large voting to a ward system to achieve representation of all citizen on city council, school board, and planning council. In addition to being illegal, the At Large voting election dilutes the vote, especially the minority vote, thus preventing minorities from electing candidates of their choice.
A ward system of voting will bring about greater electoral equity, and cause council and school board members to be more accountable due to their connection geographically and ideologically to their constituents. Now is the time to make this change.
George F. Reed, Ph.D., is a Retired Educator and Nonprofit Consultant, who lives in Chesapeake, VA.