Voting Rights Act Pointed in a New Direction

Bill Nichols, USA TODAY, April 3, 2006

MACON, Miss.—Lean, lanky and a fast-talking blur of perpetual motion, Noxubee County Democratic Chairman Ike Brown has roamed the political landscape of eastern Mississippi for 25 years with one clear aim: electing Democrats who are really Democrats.

Brown has no time for moderate white Democrats who might get elected but who would then support Republican policies. “To hell with ‘em,” Brown says of people he calls “Dixiecrats.” “They’re not doing me one bit of good.”

Brown’s lawyer, Wilbur Colom, says he is simply “a tough politician.” But the U.S. Justice Department says Brown’s take-no-prisoners brand of politics has crossed the line into discrimination against white voters and candidates.

The Justice Department has launched a landmark lawsuit against Brown—the first time the federal government has used the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allege racial discrimination against whites.

Brown calls the suit, which is expected to come to trial this summer, a “nickel-and-dime lawsuit,” an effort by the Bush administration to end his successes in building black voter turnout and electing black officials.

Justice Department spokesman Eric Holland accused Brown of “blatant and outrageous violations of the Voting Rights Act.” Holland said Brown had committed actions “with the racially discriminatory purpose of defeating candidates that white voters support . . . and with the intent of discriminating against black voters and black community leaders who support and work in coalition with whites.”

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“What’s going on here in using the Voting Rights Act in this manner by the Justice Department is unprecedented and extremely remarkable,” says Steven Mulroy, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis Law School who was a lawyer in the Justice Department’s voting rights section from 1991 to 2000. “It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic symbol of the change of orientation under the current administration.”

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Brown acknowledges a fiercely partisan streak he says was sharpened by his fury after watching then-vice president Al Gore lose the 2000 election through a controversial recount in Florida.

“I got angry, upset and everything else,” says Brown, who receives no salary in his political post and runs a recycling business. “Everything in my life became colored by R’s and D’s”—party identifiers.

He says he has no problem supporting whites for office—he campaigned for current Macon Mayor Bob Boykin, who is white. He chuckles when noting that Noxubee has only one white official elected countywide: prosecutor Ricky Walker. “If I could find a black lawyer who lives in the county, we’d get him, too,” Brown says with a sly grin.

Colom describes Brown as a character, a political street fighter whose local knowledge is so encyclopedic that he can tell a candidate how many family members—including distant cousins and kin by marriage—his opponent can claim in a particular district.

The Justice Department lawsuit takes a dimmer view of Brown’s actions. Some of the suit’s allegations:

•Brown recruited black candidates to run in Noxubee knowing that they did not meet state residency requirements.

•Brown has excluded whites from participating in county Democratic affairs, using such tactics as moving the sites of meetings.

•Brown has attempted to prohibit whites from voting in Democratic primary elections by challenging their registrations and absentee ballots.

•Brown and county election officials working with him have discriminated against white voters by rejecting absentee ballots cast by whites on grounds that they are defective while counting black voters’ absentee ballots that contained similar defects.

Brown does not rebut specifics of the suit but gives a blanket dismissal: “Bogus.”

He also waves off a lawsuit against the Noxubee County Sheriff’s Department filed late last year by former deputy Kendrick Slaughter, who is black. Slaughter says charges of disorderly conduct and reckless driving were filed against him by the department in retaliation for his cooperation with the Justice Department on the lawsuit.

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