By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
A flyer released on Memorial Day by the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Committee of Portsmouth is touting the vast accomplishments of the city’s mayor and its council.
The flyer is in direct response to an effort led by Bob Marcus who owns Bob’s Gun Shop in downtown Norfolk to recall Mayor Kenneth Wright.
The MLK Leadership Steering Committee’s flyer, entitled “What’s Really Going On In Portsmouth” rebuts Marcus’ effort whose supporters were to begin collecting signatures last week to put the decision to recall Mayor Wright on the ballot.
Marcus led a similar effort in 2010 when then Portsmouth Mayor James Holley was recalled. This time, the recall effort will need 8,000 signatures to get the vote on the ballot.
Leaders of the MLK Committee note several major accomplishments that have taken place under the current mayor’s leadership and the city council to include the city’s AA rating from all Wall Street’s Credit Rating Agencies; the city’s reduction of interest rates on bonds which saved the city $4 million dollars; the expanded businesses in the city such as Kroger, Hibbett Sports and the newly opened T.J. Maxx; support for raises for teachers, staff, and general wage employees; the renovation of a city-wide recreation center; and other accomplishments.
Opponents of the mayor and council contend there is too much political infighting among council members over the city’s budget.
They cite also the recent firings of the city’s interim city manager and attorney and the pending departure of the Police Chief and Chief Fiscal Officer.
The leaders of the recall effort claim Wright is unable to corral the disharmony among council members which led to the exit of key city officials. Also, they cite the three cents raise in property taxes council approved to fill a gap in the budgetary demands for the next fiscal year.
The conflicts on the seven-member panel appear centered around the decisions made by a bloc of four African American members led by Wright and include Paige Cherry, Dr. Curtis Edmonds, and Dr. Mark Whitaker. They cast the deciding votes to oust the city manager and city attorney and raise the real estate tax by 3 cents instead of the 17 percent originally proposed by the ousted city manager.
Demographically, Portsmouth is the second largest Black majority city in Virginia, behind Richmond. Nearby Franklin also is a majority Black city.
The four Black members who form the majority on council have been at odds with the two white male members: Bill Moody, who has the longest tenure, and Danny Meeks.
The lone woman on the council, Elizabeth Psimas, has sought to play the middle.
Blacks hold a majority not only on council, but school board, and many in the Black political leadership say that the Black council members voting as a bloc has riled not only the two white male members of council, but white residents of the city who have not grown used to the city’s new power dynamic.
“There are people who have not gotten used to Black people not having to beg or compromise the interest of their people to get something done in this city,” said a city leader, who agreed to speak if their name was not used. “Those four members are trying their best to work in the interest of the people of their hometown. When whites were in control, they voted as a bloc all the time. Blacks complained, but there was no talk that leadership was inept or was unable to communicate. It is a new day.”
Another political observer of the conflict, who also would speak if their name was not used because they were close to the council, said that “tensions on council between the Black male majority and the two white males will continue until they find a way to divide them or a more compromising figure is placed among them. I am not betting on it.”
The late James Holley was the target of the city’s last two recall efforts. In each of those cases, whites leading and paying for the recall received enough support from the Black community to achieve their goal.
It is not clear if the effort Marcus is leading now will be able to count on Black support for this mission to oust Wright.
During the recall organizing meeting, the media reported the petitions would be floated about the city, especially at last week’s Umoja Festival, an event to highlight and celebrate Black culture and history in the city.
It is unclear if any members of the recall drive were collecting any signatures during the days of festival activities on the Portsmouth waterfront during the Memorial Day weekend.