Council election made history in Lenoir

Nov. 07, 2013 @ 08:39 AM

More than half of the Lenoir residents who came to the polls Tuesday voted for at least one of the black candidates on the ballot, Ike Perkins and Chrissy Thomas, helping to usher in a new era of diversity for the Lenoir City Council.

When they are sworn, it will be the first time in the city’s history that both a black woman and a black man have served on the council at the same time. There has not been a black member of the city council in 18 years, and there has not been a woman on the council in four years.

“From the way the votes came out,” Thomas said, "it shouts aloud that it’s time for us to turn the page and be open to diversity and the need for community engagement as a whole."

A total of 1,256 city residents voted, about 11 percent of Lenoir’s registered voters; 702 included Thomas among their picks for four city council seats, and 620 included Perkins, according to complete but unofficial returns.

There have been three black council members and four female council members in Lenoir’s history, including one black woman, Inez Jones, who was Thomas' guidance counselor and mentor at West Caldwell High School. Jones served one term, from 1991 to 1995.

Thomas said she is inspired by many women leaders she works with through her church, nonprofits and other community organizations.

"I also stand on the shoulders of people like her (Jones) and other women leaders," encouraging her to strive to do the right thing and carry on their legacy, Thomas said.

Perkins was not feeling well Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

In Lenoir, almost 13 percent of the population, or more than 2,000 out of 18,000, is black, according to a U.S. census estimate from 2012.

Claude Erwin was the city's first black councilman. He was appointed to the council in May 1971 to fill an unexpired term and was elected to his first full term in 1973, serving until 1981. Larkin Horton Jr. was the second, elected in 1979 and serving alongside Erwin for two years. Horton served until 1991.

Anne Bernhardt became the first woman to serve on the council when she was appointed to fill an unexpired term in 1972, then was elected to a full term and served until 1978. Dr. Margarie Strawn was elected in 1981 and served nearly 30 years, to 2009. Betty Buff was elected in 1993 and served until 2005.

Mayor Joe Gibbons said he is excited to work with both Perkins and Thomas and hopes their addition to the council will help work toward the city’s goal of getting each community in the city more involved.

The issue of African-American representation among elected officials in the state and county has been an ongoing discussion in the community, Thomas said. “How can we get our African-American community to feel that there’s things going on that they can be a part of?” she said, and as a leader she wants to take that information into the community and start having that conversation.

“Engagement is one of the things that’s important to me –- making sure that all people in the community understand what the council does,” Thomas said, adding that regardless of differences, the community needs to work together toward progress, jobs, better education and financial stability for the city.

Thomas left Caldwell County in 1986 to attend college and returned in June 2011 but said she kept up with the transitions, changes and challenges the city has faced, and said the biggest reason she wanted to come back was to make a difference.

"I feel so fortunate to be able to come back in a leadership role," she said. "I want to continue to help people realize this is something they can accomplish."