If gentrification could be personified in an election, it would be last week’s Greenville City Council District 2 race.
Lillian Brock Flemming, who grew up in the Southernside neighborhood and still lives there, is the longtime incumbent whose advocacy for African-Americans and the underprivileged dates back to the civil rights era. Matt Cotner, the Republican candidate, is young, white, and a commercial banker.
“It was very much perceived by the black community that Cotner represented the gentrifying elements,” said Brent Nelsen, a Furman University political science professor.
During the last redistricting, District 2’s borders were redone and snaked through disparate areas of the city – at one point connecting only by the Reedy River itself – to carve out a district that retained its minority majority. The lines, which took effect for the 2013 municipal election, created a district in which 52.26 percent of voters were black.
Now, just five years later, the makeup has flip-flopped, with white voters comprising 52.15 percent of voters. Some city residents were convinced the whitening of the district would cause the whitening of City Council, leaving it with less than two minority representatives for the first time since 1981, the year Flemming won the District 2 seat for the first time.
“People thought, and I was one of them in the beginning, that there was a chance the seat would flip,” Nelsen said. “But I think it was one election too early.”
A big turnout, relatively speaking, helped Flemming retain the seat. While off-year elections typically have a turnout of around 10 percent, this year’s City Council election got about 18 percent of registered voters to the polls. In addition to the Flemming-Cotner race, Democrat Russell Stall faced Republican John DeWorken in a race for the council’s at-large seat now held by Democrat Gaye Sprague.
Prior to Tuesday, the 2009 at-large race between Sprague and Joyce Smart had the highest number of votes cast in a City Council race. And the Flemming-Cotner race surpassed that by 16 percent.
Cotner got 905 votes, a number that the campaign expected would be enough to win, if results from other recent City Council races were to serve as a guide. Amy Ryberg Doyle won re-election in 2015 for the District 1 seat that represents the North Main area with less than 700 votes. Earlier this summer, Wil Brasington won the Republican primary (and the District 4 seat overall) with 1,122 votes.
Cotner won five boxes – and won them by big percentages – but his margin in those precincts weren’t enough to offset heavy turnout in District 2’s traditionally Democratic – and black – precincts.
Cotner won more than 69 percent of the vote in Greenville 16, the precinct that is bordered by West Faris, South Church Street, Mills Avenue, Watts Avenue, Jones Avenue, and Augusta from Jones to Faris that includes Swansgate Place, Conestee Avenue, and Grove Road, taking the box 362 to 159. Greenville 18 also went to Cotner, who got 116 votes to Flemming’s 34.
But while Cotner won three other boxes, taking anywhere from nearly 75 percent to nearly 82 percent, the spread in ballots was relatively small — 36 to 8 in the Southside precinct; 50 to 17 in the Greenville 17 that includes McDaniel Avenue, McPherson Lane, and Crescent Avenue; and 20 to 8 in Greenville 20 that includes Riverside Drive, Byrd Boulevard, and Sirrine Drive.
Flemming won eight boxes, as well as the absentee.
Flemming won big in Greenville 7, which includes the area around where City Park is being built, and Greenville 8, which includes part of the West End and the Village of West Greenville; both areas are seeing rapid redevelopment and have raised concerns over gentrification and longtime residents being pushed out. And both have been traditionally heavily Democratic and minority.
In addition, Flemming had a huge margin in Greenville 5, which includes Viola Street, an area that was redeveloped by the city more than a decade ago and is now seeing those homeowners sell to take advantage of downtown’s growing popularity.
Before the election, it was clear demographics had shifted. But the unknown was whether there was a mobilization of the new voters in the district, Nelsen said.
“It was clear the demographics shifted,” Nelsen said. “What we didn’t know was if there was mobilization of the new voters in the district.”
About the base
Flemming said gentrification gave Cotner an opportunity to run for the seat. But gentrification also played a role in his loss.
“I didn’t focus on gentrification, but I had my concerns. Further gentrification, that’s what bankers do,” she said. She said she was shocked when Cotner said at a debate prior the election that he attended his first City Council meeting about three weeks before the vote. “I think voters were not ready to trust this district to somebody without experience building relationships. Being a businessman doesn’t mean you’re a team player.”
Nelsen said the election speaks to Flemming’s ability to get her base out “and she’s got a very solid one.”
“Never underestimate a scared incumbent who knows she’s really got to work to get her base out,” he said. “She knows how to win. She knows who her supporters are, and she knows how to get them out.”
Compared to 2009, more than 10 precincts citywide doubled the number of voters casting ballots and another eight increased by one-third, political consultant Krista Bannister said. Forty-two percent of the 7,761 voters voted straight party ticket. Of those who did vote straight party ticket, 62 percent voted Democratic. By comparison, 54 percent of those who voted straight ticket in 2009 voted Democratic. In 2011, 53 percent of those voting straight ticket in the city voted Democratic.
“Both candidates did an excellent job getting their voters to the polls,” Bannister said.
Nelsen said he didn’t think Cotner was a greatest candidate, although he was definitely qualified and “is a decent guy.” Republicans would have had a better chance to take the traditionally Democratic and minority seat with a white candidate who is making a living in the area.
“I think there’s another way to win the seat and that’s with someone deeper into the neighborhoods with both the white and black communities, somebody who is making a living in the area, perhaps running a restaurant or a brewery,” Nelsen said.