North Georgia diversity not reflected in government

North Georgia diversity not reflected in government

October 17th, 2011 by Perla Trevizo and Mariann Martin in News

Pictured at a Whitfield County Commission meeting are, L to R, Gordon Morehouse, Harold Brooker, Mark Gibson, Mike Babb, Robert Smalley and Robby Staten.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

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Denise Wood elected as first woman to ever serve on Dalton's City Council


ELECTED OFFICIALS IN NORTHWEST GEORGIA

Whitfield County

School Board 5 white men

Dalton School Board 4 white men, 1 black man

Dalton Mayor Council 4 white men, 1 white woman

County Commission 5 white men

Varnell Mayor/Council 5 white men

Tunnel Hill Mayor/Council 5 white men

Catoosa County

County Commission 5 white men

Ringgold Mayor/Council 6 white men

Fort Oglethorpe Mayor/Council 6 white men

School Board 4 white men, 1 white woman

Dade County

County Commission 5 white men

Trenton Mayor/Council 4 white men, 1 white woman

Dade School Board 4 white men, 1 white woman

Walker County

Sole Commissioner 1 white woman

Chickamauga Mayor/Council 6 white men

LaFayette Mayor/ Council 6 white men

Murray County

Sole Commissioner 1 white man

Chatsworth Mayor/Council 4 white men, 1 white woman

School Board 4 white men, 3 white women

Gordon County

County Commission 3 white men, 2 white women

Calhoun Mayor/Council 5 white men

School Board 5 white men, 2 white women

Calhoun City Schools 2 white men, 2 white women

Chattooga County

Sole Commissioner 1 white man

School Board 4 white men, 1 white woman

Summerville Mayor 1 black man

Total: 121

White women: 16

Black men: 2

White men: 103

Describing the average elected official in Northwest Georgia isn't too difficult.

It's a man. He is white and at least 40 years old, more likely in his 50s.

Out of about 120 people elected to the offices of mayor, city council, county commissioner and school board in Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Gordon, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties, more than 100 are men. A few are black. Not one is Hispanic.

This despite the facts that women make up about half the population in Northwest Georgia and that Whitfield County is 33 percent Hispanic. Blacks represent from 2 percent to 4 percent of the population in Northwest Georgia counties, according to 2010 census figures.

White male dominance trickles down to boards and commissions, as well. Of the more than 160 positions on various governing boards in Dalton and Whitfield County, about 40 are held by women and fewer than a dozen by minorities. Just a handful are Hispanics.

Political offices nationwide have historically been dominated by white men, but the inroads made elsewhere by women and people of color have not translated to like gains in the South, particularly in rural areas such as Northwest Georgia.

"There is still a big, wide streak of good ol' boyism going on in this area," said Helen Crawford, president of the Dalton League of Women Voters. "It's still a battle even in the 21st century. Dalton is still a small town and, in many aspects, a very traditional place."

But the reasons for the lack of diversity are complex, say Crawford and other experts. They include strong Southern traditions, an entrenched political system, lack of voter participation and few candidates running for office.

"A lot of it is because we've historically had a lot of middle-aged white males who were well-known business and community leaders, and they encourage their friends, their colleagues, their business associates to get involved," said Dalton State College political science professor Ken Ellinger.

TRADITION

Southern tradition remains strong in Northwest Georgia, where the women raise the children and take care of the household while the men conduct business. Even if women have careers, they tend not to get involved in politics.

Traditional values do play a role in the election process in Georgia, Crawford said. A feisty woman who moved to Dalton several decades ago, she doesn't mince words in describing the obstacles in her path when she ran for city council in the 1980s.

"It just wasn't happening back then," Crawford said.

But she has seen a change more recently. The Republican and Democratic parties in Whitfield County are both headed by women.

Denise Wood, who became the first woman elected to Dalton's City Council four years ago, said she noticed a marked difference when she moved to Dalton from Indiana. There, about one-third of elected positions were held by women, she said.

Nationally and at state levels, women hold from 16 percent to 22 percent of elected positions, according to statistics from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Statistics for local offices nationwide were not available.

"The South has the poorest record in any part of the country of women being involved in government at any level, and a lot of that is traditional gender roles," Ellinger said.

"You start to see the occasional person of color, the occasional woman who will break through that, but it's hard to do, and it's been my experience that there aren't many people of color or women who really express an interest, who really start attending functions where they start to get known," he said.

Ringgold Mayor Joe Barger, who has held an elected office for 44 years and been mayor for nearly 36, said he always has encouraged women to run for office. Under his tenure, one woman served on the Ringgold City Council for several terms.

Barger, 81, said he has tried unsuccessfully to get several other women to run.

Joe Barger - City of Ringgold Mayor

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

"Maybe it's because they are smarter than we are; they know better," he joked. "I definitely support any women who want to run and think they do a great job."

In the Hispanic culture, traditionally men run for office, said Dalton resident Viola Ibarra.

Ibarra is under 40, a woman and a Hispanic, and said she frequently is urged to run for office but so far has been reluctant to jump into the political fray.

Ibarra, who moved from Texas to Dalton in 1993, has the credentials to run. She is an energy efficiency education coordinator at Georgia Power, is working on a master's degree in leadership from Shorter College in Rome, and has graduated from Leadership Dalton-Whitfield, the Georgia Power Leadership Dimensions program and the Latino Leadership program through the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce.

Despite her resume, Ibarra said she is not sure she has the confidence to run for office.

"It's just going against the normal," she said. "I know there has to be the first one, but for me, it's a confidence thing."

POLITICAL SYSTEM

In some ways, the political system makes it difficult for newcomers, men or women, to become involved in a political race. In small towns and rural areas, which make up much of the Northwest Georgia region, certain families may run for office or candidates tend to be people who have been part of the community for a long time.

"To an extent, it's just people who are more likely to have been here for a while and know people, they are the ones who get chosen," Ellinger said. "It's very much a human nature sort of thing. The problem is it doesn't lead to much diversity."

Ken Ellinger is a Dalton State political science professor

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

As an additional factor in Dalton and Whitfield County, city council members and county commissioners are elected at large, rather than by districts, making it more difficult for minorities -- who may be centered in a particular district -- to elect a candidate. In at-large elections, the entire population, whether city or county, votes on candidates, rather than just the district those candidates will represent.

"Any Hispanic candidate would need to get at least three-fourths of the votes from blacks or whites, mainly whites because the black population is extremely small," said Ellinger.

In the last 30 years, plaintiffs have filed numerous lawsuits challenging at-large elections in a number of cities in the South and won many of them, but the system is still in place in Dalton and Whitfield County.

Tom Pinson, who runs the community center in east Dalton and is involved in community issues, said the issue of electing candidates at large frequently comes up in conversation when discussing the lack of minority representation.

"It is something we may want to look into," he said. "The votes certainly get diluted."

PARTICIPATION AND ELIGIBILITY

Some counties in Northwest Georgia have a lower percentage of voter participation when compared to surrounding counties, an effect that sometimes trickles over into running for office. Whitfield, Murray, Gordon and Chattooga counties all have a smaller percentage of active voters than Fannin, Bartow and Paulding counties.

Whitfield County has one of the lowest percentages of active voters in the area. With a population of 102,000, about 35 percent are active registered voters -- those who vote at least once every four years -- out of which almost 29,000 are white, 2,562 are Hispanic, 1,552 black and 2,505 "other."

This year, out of 13 positions up for re-election in Whitfield County, only two are contested races. In 2009, Dalton even canceled the city elections because the four candidates running for city council and the school board were unchallenged.

Both women and Hispanics have run for office in Whitfield County in the last 10 years, but only a handful. Several woman came close to being elected to the county commission, and others have served on the school board.

Virgelia Meek, 73, a 37-year member of the Dalton League of Women Voters, said she frequently tries to encourage women to run for office.

"I've talked until I'm blue in the face, but they say they can't devote the time," Meek said.

Out of the three Hispanics who have run for Whitfield County Commission, school board and magistrate judge, none received more than about a quarter of the votes.

Dalton is the largest city with the highest percentage of Latinos that doesn't have Hispanic representation in Georgia, but experts say it is not unique, especially among places where there's an emerging Hispanic community.

In addition, while Dalton's population may be 48 percent Hispanic, many may not be eligible to vote or run for office. Some are unauthorized to be in the country, while others are legal permanent residents. In order to vote, a person needs to be a U.S. citizen.

"It's a matter of it taking time for the Latino population growth to translate into Latino participation and election," said Rosalind Gold, with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Fort Oglethorpe City Councilman Louis Hamm

Fort Oglethorpe City Councilman Louis Hamm said he expects that more Hispanics will run for office as the population grows in Catoosa County and minorities live there longer. Fort Oglethorpe has had women serve in the past, he noted.

"I'd guess it is because they are not as established, but hopefully we will see them step up to the plate and get involved," Hamm said.

In 2000, Rafael Sanhueza became one of the few Hispanics who have ever run for public office in Dalton. Sanhueza moved to the United States from Chile in 1979 with a scholarship to play soccer for Brigham Young University in Utah and held various jobs with such companies as Toyota and Honda.

Sanhueza, now 60, was the executive director of Centro Latino, a local organization that helped newcomers with everything from translations to tips on how to apply for a job. The nonprofit closed in the early 2000s.

He was encouraged to run for the school board, he said, by members of the community, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic. He ran for a Dalton school board position against Mark Orr, a Dalton High School graduate and a member of the board for over a decade. Orr is currently vice chairman of the board.

Sanhueza lost with 653 votes against Orr's 2,416 votes. And Sanhueza said he knows part of that loss can be attributed to the fact he was a newcomer.

"I probably didn't get more votes because I was running against a well-known candidate," he said.

Ibarra said seeing what happened to other Hispanics who ran for office has discouraged many in the community.

"You see others that didn't make it, so you think there is not a chance that you could be elected," Ibarra said.

Thomas Pinson, director of the Dalton Community Center

CHANGES ON THE HORIZON

The changes may be gradual, but almost everyone said they are hopeful that elections in the area will soon see more diversity.

Pinson said he sees a change in the Hispanic community, especially among those who have lived in Dalton for 20 years and are becoming more involved in groups and events.

"I think there is a trend coming about, and in the next five to 10 years there will be a big difference," he said.

In 1996 there were no Hispanic elected officials in Georgia. By 2000, there were three city council members, according to Gold. As of January 2011, there are seven Hispanics elected in different parts of the state: two state representatives; two city council members; and three state court judges.

Minorities and women would bring benefits to elected positions, Crawford said.

"We can work together and know how to compromise -- we don't think it's a dirty word," she said.

Norberto Reyes, 54-year-old Mexico native who moved to Dalton 31 years ago from Marietta, said he has worked to bridge both communities, Hispanics and non-Hispanics, even though he hasn't run for office.

Norberto Reyes, business owner in Dalton Georgia

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Reyes has become a well-known and respected member of the community. He owns three restaurants, two in Dalton and one in Ringgold, and has been a board member of different groups, including the Chamber of Commerce.

People have told him he should run for public office, but he hasn't done it, he said, mainly because his businesses and his family take most of his time.

"A unified community works better," he said.

And he, as well as Sanhueza, hope this generation of young Hispanics may be the leaders the community is waiting for.

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