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Gainesville councilwoman Figueras could still be contender
Despite announcing retirement, longtime official may run for re-election
Myrtle Figueras2014
Myrtle Figueras

Other City Council races this year

  • Council members Ruth Bruner and Bob Hamrick have said they will seek new four-year terms this November.
  • Bruner represents Ward 5, a district covering largely residential neighborhoods to the immediate west and northwest of downtown. She was first elected in 2003.
  • Hamrick is the longest-serving member on the council. First elected in 1969, he represents residential neighborhoods from Green Street east to Limestone Parkway.
  • Gainesville resident Zack Thompson has announced that he will run against Hamrick for the Ward 2 seat.

When Gainesville Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, long the lone African-American representative among the city’s elected leadership, announced last month that she would retire and not seek re-election to another four-year term this fall, it seemed like the beginning of the end of an era.

Figueras has represented Ward 3 on the City Council, which includes Gainesville’s historic African-American neighborhoods, since 1996. She also served two stints as mayor before it became an elected position.

But no one has yet committed to running in her place, and now Figueras appears to be having second thoughts.

“Who knows? I may have to (seek re-election),” she told The Times earlier this week.

When contacted Thursday, Figueras reiterated and expanded upon her current state of mind.

“I’m not considering getting back into the race today,” she said. “Whether that is the case by Aug. 31, who knows?”

That’s the anticipated date when candidate qualifying will begin.

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly known simply as the state ethics commission) requires sitting elected officials to sign an affidavit affirming their intention not to seek re-election.

Figueras has not signed this affidavit. And she may be compelled to run again if no contenders enter the race for the Ward 3 seat.

“I have spoken with several young people that I believe could do the job much more effectively than I do,” she said. “Nobody has given me any indication that they are definitely going to run.”

Family and job obligations have prohibited some members of the African-American community from committing to a run for office, Figueras said.

Willingness and availability to serve in what amounts to a full-time job, “that’s been the biggest challenge” in convincing individuals to become candidates, she added.

There are several other reasons why no one from Ward 3 has emerged to run thus far, according to political organizers in the community.

“Here’s the issue: Everybody, practically, that we have talked to about running for public office, they are so concerned about at-large voting and feel that it would just really be an exercise in futility to run,” said Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club in Gainesville and a renowned civil rights activist.

African-American and Latino organizers have actively protested the city’s at-large electoral system in recent months, where voters across Gainesville cast ballots for all City Council candidates from all wards.

They say this process is discriminatory and disenfranchises both minority candidates and voters.

“That is not to say there will not be candidates who will emerge (from Ward 3) ... but the ones who are even considering it walk into it (facing) that reality,” Johnson said.

Johnson and her allies want to replace the at-large method with a district voting system, with only voters in a particular geographic area selecting a candidate to represent them.

They say district voting is more equitable and will ensure that minority candidates are elected to the City Council.

But Figueras, reflecting on her own election to office, believes this can be accomplished through the current at-large voting system.

“I think, from any group, a voice needs to be heard because each of us has a perspective about life,” she said. “And I believe the African-American perspective should always be at the table. I believe the Hispanic perspective should always be at the table.”

Nevertheless, fears are rampant in local minority neighborhoods that voters at predominantly white polling precincts such as the Civic Center will always have more influence than those casting ballots at a precinct on Fair Street.

Johnson said she desires to see multiple candidates run for the Ward 3 seat to counter this perceived imbalance. 

Gainesville elections are often uncontested, and with no term limits, sitting council members can become entrenched in their positions, she added.

“That’s why this issue (of at-large voting) is so very important,” Johnson said.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said this is an issue that also affects Latino and Hispanic neighborhoods in Gainesville.

While GALEO has been active in recent months organizing voter registration drives, engaging local business owners and working alongside the Newtown Florist Club, no Latino candidates have announced a run for office. And no Latino has ever served on the City Council.

There are about 3,200 registered Latino voters in Gainesville, and more than 2,000 black voters, according to community leaders. There are a total of 15,250 registered voters in Gainesville.

Of the city’s 35,500 residents, about 42 percent are Latino or Hispanic, about 15 percent are African-American and about 39 percent are white alone (no Latino or Hispanic identity).

Gonzalez has said that the city is close to having a Latino-majority district. Still, he’d like to see someone replace Figueras who is willing to support district voting.

“There comes a point in time in any career, or position, that the time is for moving on,” he added. “(Figueras) has not been a friend to the minority community because of the fact that she insists on perpetuating a barrier to enable them to select their own preferred candidates of choice.”

To Figueras, the city’s segregation is most pronounced not along racial lines, but rather by class, which presents its own obstacles and prejudices.

Her fight is on behalf of working, low-income families and individuals, whether black, white or brown, Figueras said.

“I don’t put a whole lot of credence in a person who doesn’t like me because I’m black,” she added. “You can’t draw a racial line (in the city). In Gainesville, Ga., the sticking point for most of us who live here is much more classicism than it is racism.”

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