CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A Mecklenburg County commissioner is under fire for making statements with racial overtones that have some people calling for removal – or at least a reprimand.
This time, it’s not Bill James, the longtime Republican commissioner who’s been known to utter divisive remarks.
It’s Kim Ratliff, the board’s Democratic vice chairwoman, who told WBTV that she’d prefer commissioners not choose a “white male” to be the next county manager.
In the first story, aired Friday, Ratliff, who is black, said the county needs a manager who is “a nonwhite male who can have good working relations with all people.”
A second story, aired Monday, had Ratliff standing by her statement, though she said she may not have used the right choice of words.
On Wednesday, Ratliff told the Observer that her remarks were “taken out of context” and that her intentions weren’t to cut white men out of the application process.
“I was saying I want all types of people to apply, not just white men. And black men,” she said. “We know they are going to apply. I want women to take a shot at it. We have a lot of women in leadership roles across the country. But a lot of times when positions come open, women are apprehensive about stepping up.
“I will support the next county manager, whoever it is.” The controversy comes as Mecklenburg begins the search for a new county manager to replace longtime manager Harry Jones, who is black. The board fired Jones on May 7. Ratliff voted against the firing.
Commissioners hope to announce Jones’ successor by mid-October.
Ratliff had told board Chairwoman Pat Cotham, a Democrat, that she wanted to lead a four-commissioner search committee that would help establish a list of worthy candidates for the board to interview. The entire board will vote on the new hire.
In the end, Cotham not only didn’t let Ratliff chair the committee but left her off altogether. Instead, Cotham chairs the committee, saying she has experience recruiting executives.
It was clear the snub upset Ratliff. She’s openly chided Cotham for not appointing her to committees in emails to commissioners and at a Mecklenburg Democratic Party meeting two weeks ago.
Commissioner George Dunlap, a Democrat, said he talked to Ratliff and was satisfied that her intent wasn’t to discriminate against white men.
“I think … Kim believes the county needs a new manager who will be fair to everybody in this community, irrespective of what color or gender that person is,” Dunlap said. “I don’t think she’d be bothered one bit to hire a white man if she thought that person would be fair and responsive to the community.”
Dunlap said he found it “curious” that no one raised a stink over comments that James has made in the past. “Where were these people when commissioner James was making his racial statements?”
‘She’s a decision-maker’
On the contrary, James, who is white, stirred up significant community outrage when he used inflammatory language about urban blacks living “in a moral sewer full of promiscuity.” That statement drew a censure from 20 influential Republicans, including then-Mayor Pat McCrory and two other former mayors.
At the time, Jones condemned James, saying the comment smacked of “racism in the highest form.”
James also took shots at illegal immigrants, calling them criminals like “prostitutes and drug dealers,” and homosexuals, calling them “sexual predators.”
His anti-gay remark drew threats, James said. The board also considered reprimanding him but in the end didn’t. Instead, commissioners passed a resolution calling for tolerance and respect for diversity. The vote was unanimous, including James voting for the resolution.
This week, James said his past remarks were a reaction to issues the board was debating and “they were based on facts.”
“If I make a connection to the breakdown in the family and the damage it does to kids, that’s a fact,” James said. “What Kim said is her opinion, and that would be fine if she was just sitting on the sidelines. But she’s a decision-maker. When you’re one of nine people making that decision and you automatically prejudge and don’t want someone of a particular race – a nonwhite male – you’re going to get people upset.”
James said he didn’t think the board could remove Ratliff “because they disagree with speech. She said this to a reporter. She’s entitled to her opinion.”
He said if he or a Republican commissioner had said that the next county manager “shouldn’t be a black man, it would have reverberated across the country. There’d be massive protests by the NAACP and the Black Political Caucus.
“There’s a classic double standard at work here.”
‘I am not a racist’
That’s not entirely true. Since the Ratliff interviews aired on WBTV, residents have voiced their outrage. Dozens have emailed commissioners, or reporters. A few have posted comments on Ratliff’s commissioner Facebook page calling for her to resign.
“Your original comment toward white men in Mecklenburg County was racist and unacceptable,” Jennifer Taite of Charlotte posted on Ratliff’s Facebook page. “… Shockingly, you still stand by your comment!”
To Taite’s post, Ratliff responded: “I am not a racist.”
Another woman posted that Ratliff was elected at-large to “serve ALL the people, not just others than non-white males.”
On the same page, a third woman posted that Ratliff should be removed from the board. Ratliff responded: “It’s amazing the women don’t get it.”
Some of Ratliff’s colleagues said they are concerned about the impact her statements will have on Mecklenburg’s image and whether they could expose the county to a lawsuit.
The board plans to discuss the legal ramifications with County Attorney Marvin Bethune in closed session on Tuesday.
Cotham said she’s received at least 60 emails from residents, many expressing those concerns.
“Her statement was very inappropriate; so blatant,” she said. “In this day and age, to have someone say that was just shocking and very unfortunate.”
Cotham said she hoped Ratliff would recuse herself from the board’s vote on the county manager.
Ratliff said she doesn’t see the need to apologize, because “whether this has been good or bad, it got the community engaged.”
She said she’s received about 30 emails and responded to each. One white man, she said, emailed that he thought she “shouldn’t be representing our citizens.”
After Ratliff wrote back and explained her comments, he replied that he appreciated her response and they decided to meet for coffee, she said.
“This is a diverse county,” she said. “We should all have a voice at the table and be heard.” Some commissioners fear the controversy could discourage qualified applicants from seeking the job.
Republican Matthew Ridenhour said commissioners ought to be able to “weigh in” on decisions, but “understand that our words carry weight.”
“It sounded like she was prequalifying candidates,” Ridenhour said. “It doesn’t matter what gender or race or religion a candidate is. I just want the best person who can effectively manage a county with a nearly $2 billion budget and 4,000 employees.”