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Posted on Thu, Dec. 02, 2004
Jones condemns James' remarks

Racial comments spark uproar in county government


Staff Writer

Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones reprimanded Commissioner Bill James Wednesday for comments he said "smack of racism in the highest form."

The e-mail from the usually reserved Jones came a day after James sent an e-mail to a list of 1,272 people in which he wrote that urban blacks "live in a moral sewer."

In an interview, Jones, who is black, said sending the e-mail was out of character for him. He said that he was incensed by the comment, and that he hoped other board members would break their silence on James' often controversial rhetoric.

"I sometimes feel very strongly that through silence, you could be perceived as being supportive of comments that people make," Jones said.

Wednesday, several other commissioners said they, too, believed James had gone too far.

James, who is white, said in an interview that the original e-mail was about the challenges facing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He said he was trying to address social problems among urban African Americans and used "hot and direct" rhetoric "because politically correct, namby-pamby terminology won't work and hasn't worked."

Jones requested an apology in his e-mail.

James e-mailed a response to Jones. He did not apologize, but said "to solve a problem you have to discuss it openly and there is no doubt that the urban core is a moral sewer full of promiscuity that leads to illegitimate kids and a continuing cycle of poverty which no one wants to address."

James, 48, a Republican, represents a district in South Mecklenburg and was unopposed in his bid for a fifth term last month. He has drawn heat before for making inflammatory comments that are often directed at gay or black people, but this time, several of his fellow board members -- including some Republicans -- said his language was inappropriate.

"The brush he painted with this time was too broad," said outgoing board member Ruth Samuelson, a Republican who lost her bid for an at-large seat last month.

After Republicans lost all three at-large board seats in last month's election, some Republicans -- including outgoing board chairman Tom Cox, who did not run for re-election -- said comments James made before the election were viewed as racially inflammatory, and were one reason why the party lost control of the county board. Cox, and others, said so again today.

Samuelson said Wednesday she has grown increasingly uncomfortable with James' comments over the past six months, and believes they were a factor in the Republican loss.

"I did get some feedback from friends of mine ... expressing concern to how their friends were reacting to Bill's comments," she said. "They were saying, this is not making us look good. And they were embarrassed. I think Harry's right. This needs to be addressed."

The board's six Democrats -- newly elected at-large members Wilhelmenia Rembert and Jennifer Roberts, and incumbents Dumont Clarke, Valerie Woodard, Norman Mitchell and Parks Helms -- issued a statement in response Wednesday to what they said were James' racially insensitive comments.

The statement said they were committed "to building bonds of racial trust in Mecklenburg County," and criticized James for "sowing seeds of racial division."

Helms, who is likely to be elected chairman when the new board meets next week, said James has a right to express his opinions, but "I find it irresponsible. I find it divisive. I find it to be derogatory."

Helms said the comments are "getting pretty close to yelling fire in a crowded theater. It's time to put a halt to that."

Jim Puckett, who, along with James, will serve as one of three Republicans in the minority on the new board, said he was happy Jones and James could have a frank exchange of ideas, and he believed Jones' e-mail was appropriate.

Puckett said that were he African American, he would find "both the message and the delivery insulting. I can't say that it's insulting because I'm not being insulted. I find it probably inappropriate."

Puckett said James' rhetoric allows people to dismiss points he is trying to make, and concentrate instead on his language. Willie Ratchford, the executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, also e-mailed James to say he found James' comments offensive. In an interview Wednesday, he said he believes James is a good man, but crossed a line.

"While there may be some people in the inner city who fit into your view of their world, all of them, including my mother, don't," he wrote, adding, "I find the broad stroke of your brush to be racist, immoral and sinful."

Later in his e-mail, Ratchford said Samuelson and outgoing at-large Republican commissioner Dan Ramirez lost their re-election bids partially because "it was assumed that in their silence they agreed with you and were also racist."

In an interview, Ratchford said he does not believe James is a racist, "but that's how it read."

"I just got the sense that he just stepped over the line this time. Before, Bill has been on the line a few times, if not over it, but this time, he just stepped over the line," he said.

Cox described James' comments as maddening, and said he would like to see all elected Republican officials and important party members "declare themselves whether they agree with what Mr. James said or not. I'd like to see the list."

James said voters in his district have supported him.

"If somebody is going to go in and vote for me, they know what they're getting," he said. "I'm as honest with people as I can be."


-- CARRIE LEVINE: 704-358-5071; [email protected]

Controversial Words

This isn't the first time Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James (above) has sparked controversy by making remarks denounced by critics as racist or homophobic.

? Before a 1997 arts funding vote, James said groups could receive county money if they agreed to adhere to "community standards" as "defined by whoever is elected at the time." He called gay advocates "just so obstructive because they insist on making homosexuality and other perversions a civil right when it's really a civil wrong."

? In April 1997, James told The News & Observer of Raleigh that he believed Charlotte Repertory Theatre managing director Keith Martin was gay, which he is not. James described Martin as "a flaming activist for the avant-garde."

James called his remark "an innocent misstatement" and later phoned Martin to apologize.

? On Sept. 25, 2004, in an e-mail about a proposal to help struggling high schools, James said busing for desegregation failed to increase literacy. "Having little Twanna and Ahmad sit next to little Skippy or Susie did NOTHING except hide the extent of the problem and leave kids on the bus for hours at a time," he wrote. Later in the e-mail, he said "Wonder why HIV-AIDS is rampant in the Black community? Because of sin and immorality and promiscuous behavior. You don't get it by sitting on a toilet seat."
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