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Minorities unite to change Gainesvilles electoral system
Alliance aims to end at-large voting in city
Newtown Florist Club’s meeting room is filled to capacity Monday afternoon during a meeting of Latino and African-American political organizers to discuss an alliance to end Gainesville’s at-large voting system.

The exterior of a house on residential Desota Street in Gainesville gives little away about the history it holds inside, save for a sign marking it as the office of the local Newtown Florist Club.

But once through the front door, the legacy of Gainesville’s civil rights activism jumps to life in pictures so numerous that they appear as a kind of wallpaper decorating a living area and kitchen that leads to a meeting room in the back of the home.

And there in the meeting room, with framed newspaper articles about the club’s work and a regal mosaic of the iconic Martin Luther King Jr. hung on the walls, African-American and Latino community and political organizers gathered Monday to partner on what they believe is the next notch in the struggle for equality.  

“I think a solidification of the black and brown communities as one, as one alliance with a common goal, is absolutely essential to move forward,” said Arturo Corso, a local criminal defense lawyer and the first Latino to run, though unsuccessfully, for Gainesville City Council.

No Latino has ever served on the council.

The Newtown Florist Club and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials are working together in an effort to bring an end to the city’s at-large electoral system, wherein voters across Gainesville cast ballots for all City Council candidates.

They want to replace this method with a district voting system, whereby only voters in a particular geographic area select a candidate from their ward to represent them.

Proponents of district voting say it is more equitable and will ensure that minority candidates are elected to the City Council. They said it is important to have people in government who can relate to the needs and desires of minority neighborhoods.

“It is for the benefit of all the citizens of Gainesville to be able to elect their own candidates of choice in their own neighborhoods,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of GALEO. 

Corso compared the at-large voting system to someone in Texas voting for a Georgia representative. Others drew harsher analogies.

“At-large voting ... reminds me of South African apartheid,” said Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, referencing the racial segregation that Nelson Mandela helped bring to an end in the 1990s.

There is a long history of activism against Gainesville’s at-large voting system. But for those involved in the fight to end what they view as a discriminatory practice, the momentum and urgency has never been stronger than it is today. 

The Newtown Florist Club filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the voting system in 1991, and GALEO took up the cause a few years ago.

Elsewhere, however, and more recently, the cause has been justified by law. 

For example, a federal court ruled that Fayette County’s at-large voting system violated the Voting Rights Act, and last year, a majority black district was carved out for county commission and school board elections.

“We recognize the history ... and we appreciate and acknowledge the deep amount of work that’s been done already in (Gainesville),” Gonzalez said. “But all across the South, we know that at-large voting has been used as a weapon against minority communities to keep them from exercising and electing their own candidates of choice.”

The latest challenge to Gainesville’s at-large voting is three-pronged: calls to amend the city charter, election of new council members to change the charter, or litigation.

Gonzalez told The Times that the city is close to having a Latino majority district. But it could be another two or four years before this is a reality.

And while litigation is on the table, there appears to be little appetite from those on either side of the issue to battle in court.

When members of GALEO addressed at-large voting at a City Council meeting in early May, Mayor Danny Dunagan, Councilman George Wangemann and Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras defended the system. 

They said the current system is fairer because each elected official represents the whole of Gainesville, rather than a certain subset of the population or a specific neighborhood.

Councilman Sam Couvillon and Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said they were open to reviewing the issue.

GALEO members said they plan to attend the council meeting scheduled for July 7 to raise greater awareness about their dissatisfaction with at-large voting, and have vowed to make it a campaign issue this year.

Figueras has announced that she will not seek reelection this fall.

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

Bruner and Councilman Bob Hamrick have said they will seek new four-year terms.

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.

Gonzalez said GALEO is actively canvassing neighborhoods in the city to register voters and drum up interest among Latinos to run for office.

And GALEO has reached out to business owners to bring them on board.

“So I am with you in the personal level. In the institutional level ... you have also my full support,” said Javier Chavez, the director for Latino/Hispanic markets at BB&T bank in Gainesville. “BB&T has always been an institution that has always engaged with multicultural and ethnic communities. This is a good cause. We are going to fight for this cause together.”

Meanwhile, the Newtown Florist Club has brought on Rickey Holland, a former councilman in Calhoun Falls, S.C., as the organization’s voter engagement director.

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.

“I hope we can work together and get this changed, one way or another,” Holland said.

Engaging young voters is critical to this effort, leaders said.

“There is a huge need for this coalition ...” said Frank Medina, pastor of Restoration Community Church in Gainesville. “ ... You see how our younger generation is disconnected in some ways to the needs and the struggle and the fight. That gap, if not bridged, then we face a big danger.”

Medina called on citizens of every race and class in Gainesville to unite in opposition to at-large voting.

“You can do some work from the pulpit, but the real work is on the streets and in the community,” he added.

Leaders said they hope to piggyback on recent rallies for racial unity and equality following the murder of members of a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., this month that spurred calls to lower the Confederate battle flag from government buildings.

Sheila Nicholas, chair of the Hall County Democratic Party, said she wants to keep the ball rolling.

“When I first heard about at-large voting, it totally confused me,” she added. “How can we as a party help you? It’s very important for us. I think this is the time. I really do.”

But Corso cautioned that change never comes easy.

“We had a fantastic crescendo this past week of change,” he added, referring also to Supreme Court decisions that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and upheld the Affordable Care Act.

But then Corso reflected on the fact that several black churches had been burned in recent weeks, including an arson fire in Macon.

“So there will be pain,” he said.

While African-Americans and Latinos have worked together for years, the latest coalition has brought renewed energy to the cause.

“This has been an incredibly long journey,” Johnson said. “It’s like reaching out to a brother and saying, ‘Will you hold my hand?’ Because the struggle has been so long.”

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