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NAACP says race is a factor as council chooses Unseld replacement

NAACP says race is a factor as council chooses Unseld replacement

by Joe Arnold


Posted on June 29, 2010 at 5:23 PM

Updated Monday, Jul 19 at 2:20 PM

After interviewing ten applicants who have applied to fill the seat vacated by the death of Metro Councilman George Unseld, the Louisville Metro Council is set to name a successor in a vote late Wednesday afternoon.

Council members say they have been lobbied to consider various factors and applicants, including a hard press from the NAACP and CFAIR, the political action committee of the Fairness Campaign. 

In a letter delivered to council members just before the interviews, Louisville NAACP President Raoul Cunningham insisted that the council  maintain the same racial balance it has had since the first Metro Council election in 2002, six black members.

While most of the applicants are African-American, the applicant who narrowly lost to Unseld two years ago is Ken Herndon, who is white and favored by the Fairness Campaign.

Yet, the NAACP says now is not the time to reduce black representation, as just released U.S. Census figures show that Louisville's black population is growing.

"African Americans were 20.36% of the county population," explained Cunningham, "So therefore, I don't think that there is a legitimate substantial reason to make the change."

Cunningham says it was an inherent promise of Louisville and Jefferson County merger that at least six of the 26 Metro Council seats would be filled by African Americans.

"There was never a promise of anything," countered Metro Council Member Kelly Downard (R-16), "How can you promise someone who's going to be elected?  That would mean you would only allow someone who is an African American to run."

Downard agrees, however,  that Metro Council Districts 1 through 5 were drawn to make African-American representation likely.  But Unseld's District 6 which includes Old Louisville, and the California and Russell Neighborhoods, is more closely drawn, with minorities in the the majority but no guarantee of a black Metro Councilman.

"There is no guarantee," Cunningham said, "The people of that district or any district, they become the ultimate decision makers."

Meanwhile, the prominence of Herndon, who narrowly lost to Unseld in the Democratic primary two years ago, presents not only Herndon's race, but also gay rights as possible factors in the council's decision.  Herndon is co-founder of the Fairness Campaign. 

The Fairness Campaign has endoresed Herndon as the obvious choice, and dismissed race as a factor.

"Through all of his years as a co-founder of the Fairness campaign and all of his work with us, he has proven that he is an anti-racist, that he is someone who is really working to connect to the community," said Chris Hartman, Fairness Campaign Director.

The root question remains.  Should race be a factor in filling Unseld's seat?

"No," said Downard, "Look, if it is to you, then it is to you.  If it's one of the factors,  would it be a factor yes?  Is it the determining factor? Whatever happened to the best qualified?"

"We need to choose the best person for the job no matter what their demographic profile is," Hartman said.

"The African American community and the entire city was ensured that there would be fair representation on the make-up of city council," said Cunningham.

Civil rights activist and former state senator Georgia Davis Powers stood outside the council chambers during the interviews.  Powers said one of the reasons that she fought against city-county merger in the 1980's effort was precisely because of her concern that African-Americans would lose proportionate representation.

"If we lose (Unseld's seat) now, we could lose it, forever," Powers said.

Though 20 people had originally applied for the seat, two candidates have since withdrawn and seven others were disqualified for not meeting the residency requirement of living in District 6 for one year.  One candidate who met the residency requirement, John Albers, did not appear at the interviews.

Council members will nominate members for a vote by the full council Tuesday night.  Four council members, two Democrats and two Republicans, were not in attendance on Tuesday and Metro Council Democratic Caucus spokesman Tony Hyatt said that the same four are not expected to attend Wednesday.

The rules for the replacement vote, however, dictate that the successor receive a majority of the elected council members, or 13 of the 25 current members.  13 Democrats and eight Republicans are expected to vote on the replacement, which means that the swing vote could be made by a Republican.

GOP members of the council, however, said that the Metro Council should appoint a Democrat, because District 6 voters had selected a Democrat.  By that same reasoning, Cunningham said the Metro Council should also not change the racial make-up of the council.