Lavonia Allison, the longtime chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, was re-elected Thursday night for her seventh two-year term, despite a surge of support for a new nominee, the Rev. Melvin Whitley.
Although more than 200 people showed up to White Rock Baptist Church in Durham to vote, only 25 were deemed eligible to cast ballots, due to an attendance rule many said they felt was incorrect, unfair or both. The result was a 15-to-3 finish in favor of Allison, who declined to comment to the Indy after her victory. (It was unclear what happened with the remaining 7 voters.) Most attendants said they had heard of previous voting rules that only required participants in the election of a chairperson to be a black resident of Durham.
Allison's challenger, the Rev. Melvin Whitley, had the notable support of City Council members Cora Cole-McFadden and Howard Clement. But neither council member was able to vote.
"I truly believe in the African American community that they love democracy," Whitley said. "This organization was built on democracy. ... Democracy died tonight."
To vote, members had to be considered "active," explained Democratic state Sen. Floyd McKissick, who, despite attending 90 percent of the committee's meetings, was not allowed to cast a ballot, he said. Attendance rules required members to attend a certain number of meetings per quarter of the calendar year, he said, adding that this requirement was established in 2004.
But several people contested the attendance requirement, saying it applied only to members of the Committee's political subcommittee, who vote in endorsements of political candidates.
Media was not allowed into the meeting to view the proceedings. But according to Whitley, when Allison announced the rules, several members asked for proof that the rule was implemented and applied to the election of a Committee chair. But no documentation could be provided, Whitley said.
Once it became clear to participants that the attendance rule was being enforced, many began streaming out of the room, shaking their heads at news reporters.
"There's a new time and a new day for everything," one man said to reporters as he walked hurriedly from the meeting. "It's not today."
McKissick said he sees the reason for limiting who can vote, but that the attendance requirement in play Thursday seemed excessive.
"I think perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, becoming more restrictive than necessary," he said.
The election of the Committee's chair, which is held every two years, was seen as a turning point for the 74-year-old organization with an influential record of Civil Rights engagement and political activism. Many local leaders have come out in recent weeks to criticize the state of the Committee, in part pointing to the endorsement of a less experienced Donald Hughes over two-term incumbent Cole-McFadden in last month's election. (Read more background in the Indy's story this week, and see references here to other blogs.)
Allison's opponents have labeled her a divisive figure who is controlling instead of collaborative. But her supporters Thursday night said they're pleased to see Allison lead for two more years.
"I think she's worked very hard," said Elaine Cardin, an Allison supporter who wasn't allowed to vote, as Thursday was her first meeting. "When she's ready to get down, she should go on. I don't think she should be forced out of anything."
Shea Neville, 38, said he also supports Allison, despite not being allowed to vote.
"She's got the energy to do the work," he said. "She's really resourceful. She's in contact with people in key positions."
He added that the only change he'd like to see moving forward is more engagement from residents under age 45.
"We have to take over at some point. Somebody has to step up," he said.
Whitley supporters, including Cole-McFadden, said that change could still be possible--it would just take longer.
People came out in droves because they were interested in the Committee, Cole-McFadden said, and she thinks they'll be compelled to attend more meetings for a chance to vote in a future chair election.
"They will be back. I think they are just that committed," she said. "And as Dr. Allison said during the endorsements, a change is needed."
Clement stood beside Cole-McFadden after the meeting, and added: "We lost the battle, but the war continues."