On the Subject of Vilma Leake: That’s Enough
The time has come for a forced retirement from public office
It’s time—past time, really—for Vilma Leake to adopt a new title: ex-public official.
She’s represented District 2 on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners since 2008 and served for 11 years on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board before that. She’s clearly popular with her constituents, who keep electing her.
But after this week, it’s hard not to conclude that she’s cancelled out any good she’s done with a thick layer of embarrassing, clownish episodes that have called into question her judgment, temperament, even her sanity.
The latest: Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Dondhi Burrell, said Leake jabbed fellow commissioner and Democrat Pat Cotham in the head during a campaign rally April 23. Leake called the charge “a lie.” But Cotham confirmed that it happened.
The two don’t get along—and haven’t since Leake voted to oust Cotham as board chair in December—and you might be inclined to dismiss the incident as a cheap shot by a campaign opponent. Except Leake has done stuff like this time and again—shoving Cotham’s chair during a recent commission meeting; publicly accusing fellow commissioner Dumont Clarke, as mild-mannered a guy as you’ll find, of racism after former County Manager Harry Jones’ firing last year; and accusing former commissioner Parks Helms of telling her to “shut up” during another meeting.
Looking back through her tenure on the county and school boards, you find a string of silly, needless, public outbursts that had nothing to do with county or school district business. In 2012, she complained about the seating arrangement around the dais in the council chambers where commissioners meet—to the point of placing an item on the board agenda. (It was no big deal. The board chairman determines where members sit.)
As a school board member, she faced a county elections board hearing after constituents noted that she owned a home outside her district but an apartment in it. The elections board decided to dismiss the complaint.
Then, three years later, residents near the house she owns complained that it was unkempt—knee-high grass, weeds sprouting from the driveway, sagging gutters. A smart public servant would have taken care of the property and apologized to the neighbors. Leake responded by noting that most of her neighbors were white, then added: “I wonder if we go through and ask white people who live in black communities if they keep that up? Maybe I’ll turn it into a Section 8 house. You think they’ll be happy about that?”
There’s one word for that kind of comment: Race-baiting. That’s a delicate thing, I know. That term has become a handy cudgel used in certain circles to beat anyone who dares mentions anything about race. But that doesn’t excuse the gratuitous use of racial grievance to just stir the pot, as Leake has done over and over. And the more Leake injects race into matters that have nothing to do with it, the harder it becomes for public officials who try to grapple in good faith with authentic racial disparity.
So, in short: Vilma Leake needs to go. She’s dismissed her primary challenger, Burrell, by calling him an “unknown” and “inexperienced.” Given that he’s running against Leake, I’d count those as major points in his favor.