District Representation Enters Local Politics
April 19, 1977
A transformation of Charlotte politics occurred on April 19, 1977. That's when the voters approved by the narrowest of margins district representation on the Charlotte City Council. Sam Smith, a computer software developer, called it "as pure grass-roots an effort as you'll ever see."
Smith insisted that Charlotte's Westside was the "stepchild" of the city and would never receive just treatment until it was more adequately represented on City Council and on other elected and appointed committees and agencies. Smith recruited other Westsiders, including truck driver Marvin Smith, and leaders of Charlotte's emerging neighborhood movement to back his efforts.
Another key supporter was City Council person Betty Chafin, now Betty Chafin Rash. "Almost the whole council lived in one quadrant of the city," declared one of Chafin's allies. "This whole community was being governed by a slice of pie which if you'd eaten it, you would've eaten up southeast Charlotte."
Mayor John Belk worked tirelessly to defeat district representation. On October 11, 1976, the mayor vetoed a resolution calling for a vote on the issue and made the backers gather thousands of signatures forcing a referendum. "Being for district representation is like being for motherhood," Belk declared. "In my opinion, you've got to find out who your mother is before you come out for motherhood."
Belk insisted that district representation was not a priority issue. Wrangling over district boundaries, he argued, would take inordinate amounts of time and would divert public attention from the more urgent need to consolidate city and county governments.
Much like his father, Belk believed that corporate executives and their lieutenants would provide the best government for all. "When you've got a winning team," he maintained, "you ought to leave it alone." Mayor Belk contended that "district representation would impede growth of the city, create ‘horse trading' among council members and mean that the district council members would not represent the city at large on some issues," writes Alex Coffin in his book, Brookshire & Belk.
The establishment of district representation on City Council in 1977 and the eventual adoption of similar arrangements for the Board of County Commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board in the 1980s sounded the death knell of the political system that the New South leaders had established at the turn of the last century. "The result," says Alex Coffin, "was that fewer payroll-meeting businessmen—or businesswomen—were elected thereafter."
Not surprisingly, there was a concerted effort by some business executives to abolish district representation. In 1981, the citizens of Charlotte defeated that initiative. They went to the polls and said "yes" to continuing the new system by a margin of 11,023 votes. The days of unrivaled political hegemony by Charlotte's business elite were over.
Dan Morrill is head of the Historic Landmarks Commission and a professor at UNC-Charlotte. He is also author of Historic Charlotte: An illustrated history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.