After years of racial division in Portsmouth, Black candidates sweep council races

Ana Ley, The Virginian-Pilot
·6 min read

Tuesday was transformative for Portsmouth, a majority-Black city with a majority-white City Council and a reputation for racial discord.

In what was an American election day without precedent, voters here changed course by choosing four Black council candidates, including a new mayor, and kicking out the only white incumbent running for office. Two other white council members didn’t seek re-election.

Sitting council member Shannon Glover, who is Black, led Danny Meeks, who is white, with a comfortable margin in the mayoral race.

If the results hold, the city would have only one white council member, Bill Moody, though with Glover’s newly open seat to be filled by council appointment.

Efforts to reach Glover and Meeks were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The shakeup follows months of political fallout from a June 10 protest and vandalism at the city’s downtown Confederate monument. More than two months later, police sought unusual criminal charges against 19 demonstrators and observers, including state Sen. Louise Lucas — one of Virginia’s most powerful Black politicians. In the days that followed, the city’s police chief, city manager and city attorney were forced out abruptly and without explanation by the City Council. Like with many of the group’s major decisions, racial identity was the dividing line.

Mostly Black demonstrators gathered by the hundreds in the weeks that followed, vowing to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Meanwhile, mostly white protesters — led by a Virginia Beach attorney and gun shop owner — gathered to denounce Lucas and call for her removal from office. As of election day, their recall efforts have been unsuccessful.

While it could be days before the races are officially decided, as of Wednesday — with polls closed and election officials done counting most ballots — Glover had 35% of the vote with all 32 precincts reporting. Meeks claimed 29% and was about 2,800 votes behind.

In a separate election for three open City Council seats, De’Andre A. Barnes claimed the most votes in early results, at 17%, followed closely by incumbent Lisa Lucas-Burke — Sen. Lucas' daughter. Former council member Mark Whitaker claimed the third-highest number of votes, at 13%, though School Board member Tamara Shewmake was only behind him by 269 votes.

“One of the biggest things I want to do is bring revenue to our city so we can have funding for things like education, recreation and public safety,” said Barnes, who sits on the Portsmouth School Board. “Those are very important things to combating crime and making sure kids stay safe.”

For years, the school division and the City Council have been at odds over how the division manages its finances. Barnes said his being on the council will help mend that relationship.

As for the council’s racial discord, he said having an almost entirely Black elected body will alleviate infighting.

“I don’t think that issue is going to exist,” he said, noting that at 34, he will be the youngest person ever elected to join the City Council. “As of right now, at the end of the day, we have to understand we all come from different backgrounds. We think differently, and just because a white person disagrees with you it doesn’t mean they’re racist.”

Reached by phone, Whitaker declined to comment “out of respect for the process.”

Whitaker served as a council member until 2018, when he was suspended from his seat after a judge sentenced him on three felony forgery counts in a criminal case launched by political foe Bill Watson.

Whitaker and his supporters have denounced the investigation as baseless and racist — Whitaker told The Virginian-Pilot last year that Watson targeted him, in part, out of an aversion to Black elected officials. He has long been an advocate for racial equity and is a vocal proponent of the city’s school division, with whom his white peers on council have long had a contentious relationship. The city’s public school students are 72% Black.

Incumbent Nathan Clark, who is white, only claimed 9% of the vote, ranking seventh among the 10 contenders. Attempts to reach Clark were unsuccessful Wednesday.

This new group of politicians will face many tall tasks: filling the job of Portsmouth’s recently ousted city manager, tackling upheaval within its police department and erasing the city’s deeply entrenched racism. It will do so against the backdrop of a raging pandemic that is wreaking physical, emotional and financial ruin on communities of color. Portsmouth is 55% Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Glover is a graduate of Norfolk State University and owns a local human resource consulting company. He made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2016, losing to John Rowe, who is white. Rowe decided in January not to run for a second term.

This year’s race mayoral drew six candidates, including fellow council member Paul Battle, gadflies Cliff Page and Donna Sayegh and political newcomer Anthony W “Tony” Goodwin.

According to an analysis of state campaign finance data by the Virginia Public Access Project, Glover raised $73,800, the second-highest amount among candidates after Meeks, who raised $274,600. Meeks, who served on the City Council between 2012 and 2016, raised twice as much as all of his competitors' campaign coffers combined with the help of tens of thousands of dollars in loans.

At $36,242 and $31,046, Mark A. Hugel, who is white, and Lucas-Burke vastly outraised eight fellow contenders, according to VPAP data. But Hugel’s fundraising efforts did not result in enough votes to get a seat on council. With only $4,600, Clark raised considerably less money than Lucas-Burke.

Including the mayoral vacancy, four out of seven at-large City Council seats were up for grabs. Longtime Councilwoman Elizabeth Psimas decided not to run for reelection.

In addition to the high level of interest in the presidential race, this election season looked different than any before in Virginia, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and a newly Democratic General Assembly.

Virginia had long required an excuse to vote absentee, but lawmakers did away with the need this year. That change, the pandemic and the presidential race led millions across the state to vote in person or by mail before election day.

Lawmakers also allowed absentee ballots to be counted until the Friday past Election Day, so long as they were postmarked by Tuesday. Voters also have until noon Friday to correct any mistakes on their ballot that would render it invalid.

The new rules expand access for voters, but also mean it will take longer to count all the votes.

Ana Ley, 757-446-2478, ana.ley@pilotonline.com

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