By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
After last November’s Councilmanic Election, for the first time in the city’s history, four African-Americans sat on the Virginia Beach City Council. Jennifer Rouse, Chris Taylor, and Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond, a former member, joined Sabrina Wooten, who’s serving a term through 2024. She was the first African-American member of the panel to win a re-election.
“I did not believe I would live to see this,” said Louisa Strayhorn, 74, the first Black woman elected to the City Council, about the increased presence of African-Americans. She served from 1994-98. Two years ago, a Federal District Court in Norfolk, based on claims by the lawsuit Holloway vs. the City of Virginia Beach, abolished a system of electing council adopted when the city was first formed in the mid-1960s.
The city was forced to form a system of 10 single-member voting districts to elect the council. The mayor would be elected at-large. It replaced the old system where a candidate could win a majority of votes in, for example, the Kempsville district, but residents outside it could cast votes for candidates in it as well. This would nullify the choices of the residents of Kempsville, for example. This deterred Black incumbents from being reelected and reduced the number of minorities on the city council.
But, according to leaders of the Virginia Beach NAACP, the Virginia Beach Interdenominational Ministers Conference, and social activist groups, what is happening now in the city is an effort to go back to that old system or a modified version of it. What is happening now in the city is an effort to go back to that old system or a modified version of it.
These two organizations and others are issuing a call to action to deter the dismantling of the new system which they believe is happening by an alliance of city officials and business interests. On March 21, 2023, the NAACP and the Ministers Conference held the first of a series of Town Hall Meetings to educate the public on efforts to change the current 10-district voting system in Virginia Beach.
“We are concerned that efforts by the City of Virginia Beach would take us back to the system that would disenfranchise African-American citizens and other marginalized communities within the city,” said Rev. Eric Majette in a press release issued early last week. He is the recently elected President of the Virginia Beach branch of the NAACP.
“We would not have those four Black members on city council if it were not for the new 10-1 election system,” said Rev. Gary McCollum, a leader in the NAACP and Minister’s Conference. “There are people in this city who saw the results of the election last November and did not like it. It created too much diversity on the council for them.”
“Why should monied, and influential developers, who live in mostly white neighborhoods, determine the political future of people who live in mostly Black or highly diverse communities of this city,” said McCollum. “They are trying to turn back the clock, and we must educate our people to stop them.”
McCollum said the NAACP and Minister’s Conference’s Town Hall meetings are designed not only to educate voters on the city’s aims but also to counter a series of “Informational Town Halls” being scheduled by the city of Virginia.
He said the city wants to use its forums to influence residents to reject the new 10-1 system. He said Black council members and civic and faith leaders are concerned the city will be devising some scheme to return to the old hybrid district/at-large system. McCollum said the town halls being sponsored by the NAACP and the Minister’s Conference will be used to inspire people to attend the city events to voice their opposition to its efforts.
Civil rights activist Roy Perry-Bey helped recruit Latasha Holloway, a Black resident of Virginia Beach, as the lawsuit’s main plaintiff and the legal team which fought the old system in the federal court. He said there is another critical component of the city’s plan that activists should be concerned about. Shortly after the federal court struck down the city’s old system, State Delegate Kelly Fowler spearheaded the passage of the bill striking it down as well. But Perry-Bey said that the city has yet to request a State House or Senate member representing Virginia Beach to sponsor a bill to change the city’s charter to codify the change of the city’s system of electing city council.
Perry-Bey said that city officials are using their “Informational town hall meetings” to misdirect and confuse residents. He said the city of Virginia Beach is hoping at some point to modify the old system to make it appear less biased toward minorities.
“They want to change the residency requirements that would assure that only residents who live in a respective vetoing district can vote in that district,” said Perry-Bey. “But the federal court bars at-large voting in Virginia Beach, even though there is still the at-large election of the mayor.”
Perry-Bey said that the city of Virginia Beach is still under the thumb of the 2020 federal ruling.
“Our goal on Tuesday is to inform the public about the benefits of the current election system and the importance of voting rights in general,” President Eric Majette said. He added, “While there are several actions the city should take to make voting easier and more efficient – such as budgeting additional money for more election officials, expanding early voting sites, adding voting machines, and accommodating Sunday voting – taking us back to a system that the courts deemed discriminatory is not one of them.”