Saturday, November 26, 2022

Diversity in public office in the Historic Triangle is very limited. What does that mean for representation?

From left, Williamsburg City Council members Edward F. Maslin, Barbara Ramsey, Mayor Paul Freiling, Vice Mayor Douglas G. Pons and Benny Zhang pose for photographs after the council’s swearing-in ceremony Monday, July 2, 2018, at the Courthouse of 1770 in Colonial Williamsburg. (WYDaily/Bryan DeVasher)
From left, Williamsburg City Council members Edward F. Maslin, Barbara Ramsey, Mayor Paul Freiling, Vice Mayor Douglas G. Pons and Benny Zhang pose for photographs after the council’s swearing-in ceremony Monday, July 2, 2018, at the Courthouse of 1770 in Colonial Williamsburg. (WYDaily file))

It’s probably no secret that while the Historic Triangle is made up of thousands of people from various races and backgrounds, elected officials are primarily white.

Take for instance York County.

The current Board of Supervisors is comprised of four white men and a white woman despite nearly 14 percent of the population being black, according to census data

And this could hinder feelings of representation among black residents.

According to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center, four in 10 black adults felt that having more black people in public office would help achieve equality.

“To me, it’s important because of policy,” said Montgoussaint Jons, a member of the York County Planning Commission. “It reflects the values and interests of those involved in policy making.” 

Jons has been a member of the Planning Commission for the past decade, but he said since he’s the only African American member, he has to keep an eye out for voices that aren’t being heard.

When Jons first moved to the area in 1984, he said he was shocked by the lack of black representation not only in local government but in more affluent businesses. He has seen in the area only a few African Americans run for local office and succeed.

“We have to get involved and get a voice, but the ones before us have tried and lost,” he said. “That’s what’s so discouraging, you give it everything you’ve got and know you should be on there.”

Jons can only remember one black man, Dennis Gardner, being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1991, according to local reports. He recalls other black individuals running for office only to face defeat, including himself who ran for a seat in 1999 and lost to current supervisor Sheila Noll.

Noll, who is now the only woman on the Board of Supervisors, said while diversity is important, getting elected is about how a person represents themselves to the public.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, what your are or what you represent, it’s within the person to decide if they think they can do the job,” she said. “I don’t think the color of your skin or gender has anything to do with it, I think it’s how you relate to the people in the district you represent.”

Noll said she realizes it’s difficult to get women to run for office for similar reasons as other minorities. Many face struggles to balance home responsibilities or feel as though they are capable of doing the job.

But even in his own election for the Planning Commission, Jons said it was difficult because he felt as though he was fighting an uphill battle.

“The current [Black Lives Matter] movement is great because it means a shift in power,” he said. “Black people are being motivated and they’re demanding. They’re no longer asking for change, they’re demanding it.”

Walter Zaremba, vice chairman of the York County Board of Supervisors, said what’s important about elected officials is not necessarily the color of their skin but their ability to represent their district.

“I think diversity is important but not diversity just for diversity’s sake,” Zaremba said. “It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, [if] you run for an elected position, you better be running to represent the people who make up the district.”

County supervisors in Virginia are chosen by individual districts within the locality, Zaremba said. That means each board member is elected by a portion of the local population to represent that area.

Zaremba said he’s noticed in past elections that candidates who run with a goal of turning a particular area toward a political party or only representing the interests of one portion of the population end up doing poorly during elections. 

“I think the folks who make up the electorate, the citizens who get up out of their house and vote, have a great opportunity to vote for people regardless of color,” he said. “I don’t think color itself is the reason.”

James City County’s Board of Supervisors is made up of white people. But how about the other elected boards in the Historic Triangle? (WYDaily/ Courtesy of James City County’s website)
James City County’s Board of Supervisors is made up of white people. But how about the other elected boards in the Historic Triangle? (WYDaily/ Courtesy of James City County’s website)

In James City County, the Board of Supervisors is currently comprised of five white individuals, including two women. The county has a 13 percent African American population, according to census data.

Supervisor Jim Icenhour said he hopes to see diversity on the Board continue to grow.

“If you’re going to be representative of your community, your government ought to reflect that community,” he said.

Icenhour said it can be difficult for minorities to run for office in the area but their input is important. As a member of the Democratic Party, he said he has helped recruit minorities to run for office but the nature of gerrymandering in some districts makes it difficult for them to actually be elected.

“I think it speaks a little bit to what we’re going through right now in the country,” he said. “We’ve been effectively segregated, maybe not intentionally…but it makes it difficult for folks in minorities to run and be elected. When they do though, they do great work for their communities.”

And then there’s Williamsburg.

Brian Smalls, a local attorney and the chairman of the York- Williamsburg-James City County NAACP chapter, said the Williamsburg City Council only has Benming “Benny” Zhang but outside of him there is no minority representative for the city.

“When we look at our school board, we have Greg Dowell, who is recently elected for the school board (WJCC) and he’s the first representative in quite some time that’s a person of color,” Smalls said. “And so when you look at across the board, when you look at the numbers here in the city of Williamsburg and James City County and York County for that matter, you don’t have the representation you’d like to see. I think there are a varying reasons as to why that is the case.”

Smalls hopes with everything going on in the community and the country, people will get more engaged in the political process.

“What’s happened in the past, we can only start at where we are right now,” he said. “I think that for a long time people had felt disenfranchised, in many respects haven’t felt included in the process.”

Smalls said that meant people were discouraged from voting in the past.

“I have no doubt you’re going to see a wave of individuals who step and say ‘hey I’m willing to step out there and run for a position because I think it’s the right thing to do and we need representative at a level in our local government, state government and national government,” he added.

Smalls said as a branch, the NAACP is “always” looking to encourage people to run for local positions and they aren’t looking to back one party or the other.

Zhang wrote in an email Tuesday that while he was a student at William & Mary, he was active in the city government serving on the Public Housing Advisory Committee.

“By the time the next council elections came up in 2016, it was my senior year, and I had wondered which likely candidate I would support,” he wrote. “I realized then: why not me, as a young professional resident living in the city? That’s when I consulted closely with local businesses and key stakeholders before announcing my candidacy in the spring of 2016.”

“Personally, I know Asian Americans are among the lowest demographic-wise in public participation, ie. voting, running for office, in the country,” he wrote.

Are minorities not running for offices or are they discouraged from running?

“Before launching my campaign, my father and I had a frank conversation about my candidacy,” he wrote. “He had posed the question of why in Williamsburg, rather than returning to New York after graduating from college.”

“In his opinion, he didn’t think the demographics in Williamsburg would support a young Chinese-American candidate compared to that in Chinatown in New York,” Zhang added. “He ultimately supported my candidacy, but the skepticism only reinforced my desire to work hard and to dispel that notion.”

Zhang’s term ends in July and he did not seek reelection this year.

The Williamsburg City Council is currently made up of five people: Three white men, Zhang, and a white woman.

Newcomers Caleb Rogers, also a recent William & Mary grad and W.P. Pat Dent, the city’s former fire chief, are both white and will replace Zhang and Mayor Paul Freiling’s places on the council.

The Williamsburg-James City County School Board has seven members: Four white woman, two white men and a black man.

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Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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