Val Applewhite remembers how awkward it felt being the only woman on the Fayetteville City Council in 2007.
She said the five women and eight African-Americans who will be on the council next month after Tuesday’s historic election should find it less awkward.
Before Tuesday’s election, the 10-member council had five black members and five white members. There were two women on the council. The new council will have eight African-Americans and two whites. The new council will include five women.
The new council members are Christopher Davis, Courtney Banks-McLaughlin, Yvonne Y. Kinston and Shakeyla Ingram. They will join Mayor Mitch Colvin and council members Johnny Dawkins, Kathy Jensen, Larry Wright, D.J. Haire and Tisha Waddell.
It’s the most ever number of women and African-Americans on the City Council.
Colvin described the election as a “historical moment.”
“It speaks to the diversity of our electorate,” he said. “It speaks to the diversity of our city, and we’re starting to see more diversity in every level of government.”
Marshall B. Pitts Jr., who was first elected in 2001, was the first African-American mayor in Fayetteville. He said times have changed from when he was elected.
Pitts said when he became mayor it was unusual for a person of color to be in office in Cumberland County.
“People are now used to seeing people — whether they be women or men or people of different colors — elected to leadership positions,” he said.
After becoming mayor, Pitts led a successful effort to get rid of the at-large seats on the council, reducing the number of members from 13 to nine members elected from districts with a voting mayor.
Pitts said single-member districts give minorities a better chance of winning seats, as was evidenced by Tuesday’s election.
The logic behind district elections, Pitts said, is that there is a guarantee that someone who lives in that district will be elected. The minorities don’t always win, but it gives them a better chance, he said.
“At-large members tended to come from usually the same or similar areas of the community, which tended to be the more affluent and more able to run citywide campaigns,” he said. “When you have a majority race of any race in a particular community, they’ll always have the ability to outvote the minority race. With district representation, it kind of makes sure that all of the geographic areas of the community are represented.”
Jimmy Buxton, president of the Fayetteville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the new council members expressed interesting ideas when they attended that organization’s forum.
“I just think we have a good set of council people that I think are really concerned about the city,” he said. ”I don’t think they came in from a black standpoint. They all seemed to me to be very smart and intelligent people that think for themselves and have great ideas.”
“You know in this community, we’re in the South,” he said. “You have a lot of people who will not accept black people in office, just like a lot of people did not accept President Obama when he was elected. They didn’t accept him as president. You’ve got a lot of people here in our community who feel that blacks cannot come together and do anything at all. It’s ingrained in some people to think that the only thing we can get done correctly is from a white face, and that’s totally wrong.”
Buxton said he likes the fact that the people coming on the council are young and not seasoned politicians.
“They are coming in with a new perspective, and I’m just waiting to see if they live up to what they promise,” he said. “They’ve got to learn the system. They’ve got to learn how to govern, and they’ve got to work together.”
Buxton said he’s also pleased to see so many women on the new council.
“I think women are great leaders,” he said. “It’s been proven time and time again. Sometimes they are much stronger than men when it comes down to getting things done.”
Pitts said the ability to lead can come from any demographic in the community.
“On the local level, African-American women specifically have really been flexing their muscles over the past several years,” he said. “I have to say it’s probably long overdue since that demographic has for a long time been under-represented in Cumberland County for many years.”
Applewhite, the former councilwoman, said she would expect to see the women on the new council ”have some sort of bonding.”
“We’ll see,” she said. ”Just like any council member, they’ll bring their history and their background with them. I think women govern differently. What I don’t like is when people say, ‘Women are emotional.’ I think women can be as strategic, if not more strategic, than men, but our approach is different.”
She said she was accustomed to a male-dominated organization when she served in the military, but it was never a problem.
“But somehow on the City Council it felt so different,” she said. “It was a different environment for me, and I didn’t know how to interject myself.”
She said men and women can be equally effective in office, but women can bring a different and needed perspective.
For example, she said when she was on the council the issue of revising the city’s daycare center ordinance came up for discussion. “The men didn’t get how important (daycare) was,” she said. “Maybe women look at issues a little bit different, and maybe we bring a different perspective to governance. It will be interesting to see how this gels.”
Like Applewhite, Councilwoman Kathy Jensen also has felt outnumbered on the council as a female.
When she was elected in 2013, she was the only woman on the council who was married with children. In 2015, she was the only woman on the council.
She said it’s great to have a council with an equal split of men and women.
When she was the sole female on the council, the men would look to her to explain the female perspective on some issues, Jensen said.
“What is so great about having these five women on the council is that we are all in different stages of our life,” she said.
She said women can look at issues differently, pointing out that she is passionate about the city’s park system because they are used by families with children.
“I look at it as a mother,” she said.
Jensen said the race of the council members makes no difference.
“I think that we’re all trying to move Fayetteville forward,” she said.
Ingram, who grew up in Fayetteville, is moving into the District 2 seat. She said she also sees the recent election has historic.
“I think that historical change started with Mayor Pitts, with him being the first African-American mayor, and he did a lot of great things so he really set the tone for history,” she said.
She said the election of African-American Kady-Ann Davy in 2009, who upset an incumbent, continued to further inroads of minorities in politics.
“She made history with being the youngest (council member),” she said. “Now we are here making history in saying this is the most women that have been on council and this is the most African-Americans on council. I’m glad we have that balance of men and women.”
She said even though city residents see a majority of African-Americans on the council, she hopes that people of all races feel like they are represented.
Ingram said having five women on the council brings a “balance of perspective.”
“Men typically tend to do it a little bit differently than women,” she said. “Women tend to think a bit differently than men.”
Banks-McLaughlin said the different ages, races and genders of the new council “can bring a lot to the table.”
“I look forward to working with the rest of the ladies and men,” she said.
Banks, who has young children, said she hopes the election results inspire them to believe in themselves.
“I think this is amazing,” she said. “For my daughters to see that if there is something you want to do in life, regardless of your struggles, if you are determined, you can do it.”
Staff writer John Henderson can be reached at email@example.com or at 910-486-3596