Mayor got votes that Obama didn’t

Published 12:12 pm Saturday, November 17, 2012

Two schools of thought prevailed in analyzing Raystine Johnson-Ashburn’s election as Franklin mayor last spring.

One is that Franklin inevitably would elect an African-American mayor, given the city’s changing racial demographics and residents’ propensity to vote for candidates of their own skin color.

The second was that Johnson-Ashburn had built an unprecedented biracial coalition in the city that carried her to a historic victory over a longtime white incumbent.

Results from the recent presidential election support both theories — and suggest that Johnson-Ashburn benefited from a combination of the two.

Without question, Franklin’s population is becoming increasingly African-American.

The 2010 Census numbers documented the trend. The presidential vote reinforced it.

Sixty-five percent of Franklin residents’ votes on Nov. 6 went to President Barack Obama, up more than a percentage point from four years ago, when turnout was nearly identical.

Based on what white Southerners told the exit pollsters, one can safely conclude that only a handful of Obama’s Franklin votes were cast by whites.

In a two-candidate race — one black, one white — and all other factors being equal, the black candidate has a decided advantage in Franklin.

Attributing Johnson-Ashburn’s victory to mere demographics, however, is simplistic, chiefly because of the presence of another black candidate, Greg McLemore, on the May ballot.

Put the mayoral results side by side with the presidential results, and it’s clear that Johnson-Ashburn got a substantial number of white votes — not a huge amount, but enough to make the difference in a race decided by fewer than 150 votes.

In mostly white Ward 1, Johnson-Ashburn received 35.2 percent of the vote in the mayoral election, compared to Obama’s 31.1 percent in the presidential race.

In predominantly white Ward 2, incumbent Mayor Jim Councill’s own ward and where he should have run the strongest, he got 52.9 percent of the vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 56.5 percent a few months later. Likewise, in Ward 1, Councill got just 60.4 percent of the vote, compared to Romney’s 67.3 percent.

If white votes didn’t put Johnson-Ashburn over the top, they certainly gave her some breathing room in a race in which McLemore claimed a fifth of votes cast and could easily have played the role of spoiler.

A comparison of the May and November results proves one other unfortunate reality: Most folks don’t give a flip about local government.

A “hotly contested” mayoral race — with two excellent candidates and one rabble-rouser on the ballot — drew fewer than 2,000 people to the polls, less than half of the 4,300-plus who voted for president.

STEVE STEWART is the publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at