By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Now that Norfolk has elected its first Black mayor, an assessment of how the city overcame its resistance to such progress is taking place. At the same time the Mayor-elect, State Senator Kenneth C. Alexander, is seeking to define how he will lead the city forward politically and economically. Historians, political activists and analysts who thrive on using numbers to tell the story of a political victory, have begun the post mortem on how Alexander wrote this significant chapter in the city’s history book.
Norfolk, during the recent decades, has sought to overcome parts of its anti-progressive legacy, including the closing of seven of its all-White public schools in the late 1950s rather than desegregate them. In 1998, leaders of the city’s NAACP and a group called the Concerned Citizens for Political Education, were skeptical of an effort to elect the city’s mayor at-large due to polarized racial voting patterns and the historic low turnout from Blacks
From the end of Reconstruction to the 1968, although they tried, no African-American was elected to council until Joseph Jordan. Eventually, despite the at-large system, two Blacks would sit on council until the ward system was adopted in 1991 and enabled the election of three Blacks to that panel. But while there were Black leaders who were skeptical of a mayor being elected at-large, there were those who believed it was doable, instead of having council appoint the city’s mayor.
In a January 21, 1998 edition of the Guide, Paul Riddick, one of the first Blacks elected to Norfolk City Council in 1992 under the ward system is quoted as saying about the ward system, “A lot of people are wondering if this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “They wonder if this is a grand conspiracy, down the road, to weaken the ward system and then go back to the at-large system.” “But we must be careful not to overact to these ideas,” he said 28 years ago. “Some kid sitting in the sixth grade who may be Black or female and may have, as a dream, the desire to be mayor one day may benefit from such an (at-large) system,” Riddick said prophetically.
At that time Kenneth C. Alexander was a leader in the Beacon Light Civic League and running a funeral home he inherited from his father. Riddick was reminded, by this reporter, that he mentioned Alexander as one of those aspiring civic leaders who could lead Norfolk in the coming years. “Norfolk has turned it around as we see,” said Riddick. “We see that the racial dynamics changed. There are younger voters who were wiling to endorse a candidate who is qualified and has the skills to lead our city.”’
If Riddick’s views were prophetic so was the longstanding view that a large turn out among Blacks, joining Whites could support a “skilled” Black candidate to ascension to the city’s top political job. On May 3, using the once dreaded at-large system, Alexander won 30 of the city’s voting precincts. Plus he won the majority of the precincts in the majority Black Super ward 7.
He did well even in the Ward 6 precincts won by either of his opponents who were White. He also won a majority of the absentee ballots (460) cast prior to the election. Many of the precincts where he lost, Alexander ran close enough to the eventual winner to add to his overall tally across the city to dominate the race quickly on election night. There are some 115,132 residents eligible to vote in Norfolk. Of that number 31,832 or 27.65 percent of them went to the polls.
The Norfolk Office of Elections had projected a turn out of about 27 to 30 percent which was slightly higher than the previous spring municipal election.
Alexander, a State Senator, said he officially kicked off his campaign on March 14, the day the General Assembly ended its 2016 session and began criss-crossing the city cultivating support for his campaign.
Alexander represents Senate District 5, which has about 200,000 residents. Norfolk has a population of some 243,000 plus residents. “So my district is about as large as the city of Norfolk,” said Alexander. “As senator I deal with education, economic development, public safety…all of the issues which the mayor of Norfolk will face. A lot of people already knew my record and who I was as a business man.”
“In a six-week period after I came back home from Richmond, I spent all of two of them working the mostly White section of the city,” he said. “Then I began to devote attention to Ward 7 and the Black section of the city. “So by the end of the campaign I had support among White, Black, Hispanic, Gay, poor and rich voters of this city,” said Alexander. “I was not elected just by Black votes and I will lead this city to include everyone once I take office.”
Before the election, with two White candidates bidding for White support, there was an assumption that they would split that segment of the electorate, leaving the Black voters to coalesce around Alexander’s candidacy. Councilman Andy Protogyrou and Sheriff Bob McCabe, political analysts point out, managed to pull some 15,298 votes collectively. Throughout the campaign, Councilman Protogyrou mailed out campaign literature that highlighted the negatives of his two opponents.
Some political watchers believe it was his effort to lure White voters away from Sheriff McCabe to compensate for those White voters who were poised to support Alexander. “I am not surprised at the extent of our victory or some of the negativity which was seen throughout the campaign,” said Alexander. “We ran a very clean and evidence-based campaign which connected to the voter. I ran as an agent of change. I was not surprised at him going negative. But we see that I was not his (Protogyrou’s) problem; it was McCabe.”
Protogyrou received 8,022 votes (25.2) and 7,276 (22.6) for McCabe. Or a difference of 746 votes. Alexander said that he has a basic list of issues he wants to pursue during his first tenure as mayor. “Education is important. It impacts our economy and our families,” said Alexander. “We have 19 of our schools with accreditation problems, and we have issues with retention and graduation rates. The council has signed off on the school division’s budget every year. But there has to be some accountability, and we need to see results as we move forward.”
Alexander says he believes in a wholistic approach to deal with the city’s educational woes, including encouraging greater parental involvement in their child’s educational experience. He said the city of Norfolk must increase the pay and support systems of its teachers to compete with adjacent locales. During the course of the campaign, several episodes of gun violence and police shootings of civilians were recorded. Alexander said he must address the issues by removing guns from the streets of the city as one solution.
One idea is a gun buy-back program which is used by several communities that have been plagued with Black on Black homicides and street violence.
Alexander said he will be working to lure more employment opportunities to the city. He said he will be working with state and federal officials to address warnings of flooding of the city due to global warming in the future. Alexander will be sworn in as the city’s next mayor on July 1. He is soon to resign from his Senate seat and there are politicians already gearing up campaigns to replace him.
Andy Protogyrou will have to resign from his Ward 2 seat since he ran for mayor, and in the coming months, a special election must be held to replace him. After July 1, there will be four women – two of them African-Americans, and two Black males – Alexander and Councilman Riddick – on council. Martin Thomas and Johnson Andrews have filed papers signaling their intent to run for the Protogyrou’s Ward 2 seat, and after the election along with Tommy Smigel, there could be two White males on council. Norfolk will have one of the most diverse city councils in the region.
Alexander said he will listen and build consensus among his seven colleagues on many issues facing the council once he takes office. “I have been in the Virginia General Assembly working with 140 different strong personalities and temperaments,” said Alexander. “I have worked in the legislature which did not agree on everything but worked to do their best for the state. I think my colleagues on council will want the best for the city of Norfolk.”