FLORISSANT • Robert Parson Jr. is a lawyer, husband, father of three. He has served as deacon of his church, board chairman of a condo association and as a Seabee in the Navy Reserves.
On Monday night, he will add a new title to the list: first African-American to serve on the City Council.
It’s significant in St. Louis County’s largest city, where one in four residents is black and where Parson’s election comes less than a year after the city agreed to redraw the boundary lines of its nine wards so that each has roughly the same number of people.
The change in boundaries came at the urging of the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the country’s first civil rights law firm.
“We believe that the city’s current electoral plan may undermine the opportunity of black voters in Florissant to participate equally in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice,” wrote Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill and three other attorneys from the firm in a letter two years ago to Mayor Thomas Schneider.
“We, therefore, write to encourage the City Council to pursue a readily available fair and inclusive approach to elections that complies with the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and other applicable laws.”
The letter was unexpected, Schneider said, and was the first indication that the city had used incorrect data when redistricting, something it is required to do after every decennial census.
“We were surprised by the letter, surprised that the data was flawed, then surprised at how flawed it was,” Schneider said. “It actually made the wards worse.”
The letter was written April 15, 2015, eight months after teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in neighboring Ferguson. The Legal Defense Fund attorneys pointed out that in addition to under-representation on their city councils, both communities have few black police officers, and officers make a disproportionate number of traffic stops involving African-American motorists.
Ifill pointed out that while blacks constitute almost 27 percent of Florissant’s population, 8 percent of the police force is African-American. And of those stopped by police, 57 percent are black.
“Recently, in nearby Ferguson, the U.S. Department of Justice found substantially similar racial disparities in stopping, searching, and ticketing of black motorists, and concluded that Ferguson officials had engaged in a pattern of egregious unlawful conduct, in violation of both the Constitution and federal law,” Ifill said in her letter to Schneider.
Continually drawing comparisons between Ferguson and Florissant, Ifill said Florissant officials “should be mindful” of the significance of this report. In it, then-Attorney General Eric Holder noted that the DOJ’s report was “only the beginning” of a reform process, not limited to Ferguson but also with “surrounding municipalities.”
“Because Florissant shares some of the striking racial disparities … we urge the City Council to embrace this important opportunity to proactively address the city’s interrelated issues of racial discrimination.”
Florissant City Attorney John Hessel said the city had based its redistricting on census numbers provided by St. Louis County. When the allegations arose that wards were not equally representing Florissant’s population, the city was taken aback.
“We said: ‘Really?’” Hessel said. “If your data is right and ours is wrong, we have to correct it.”
A balancing act
The city brought to the table David Kimball, a political science professor from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, to help confirm that the Legal Defense Fund data was accurate and to work with a newly convened redistricting commission, appointed by city leaders.
Kimball said the reason for redistricting, which happens every 10 years in congressional districts and in cities divided by wards, is to assure there is an equal distribution of residents within those boundaries. Otherwise it can appear that “hanky-panky” was going on to tilt the advantage toward a particular race of people, a political party or an incumbent by keeping disproportionate numbers of voters in place, he said.
The Legal Defense Fund argued that Florissant’s wards violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires wards to be “of nearly equal population, so that each person’s vote may be given equal weight in the election of representatives.”
In other words, voters are at a disadvantage if they live in a ward with 1,000 residents while other wards contain only 500 residents. The collective voice of residents of the larger ward is diluted.
That situation is doubly bad, in the eyes of the Legal Defense Fund, if the larger ward also contains a higher concentration of minorities — which was the case in Florissant.
The city’s 9th Ward, the only one with a majority of black residents, had previously been drawn up to include 715 more residents than it should have. Stated in more statistical terms, the city’s deviation from properly balanced wards was more than 25 percent. Deviations exceeding 10 percent “create a prima facie case of discrimination,” the firm said.
But moving residents from one ward to another is tricky. If done the wrong way it could actually hurt minority representation. In presenting its case, the Legal Defense Fund said that the Voting Rights Act prohibited “minority vote dilution,” which can occur by “the dispersal of black people into districts in which they constitute an ineffective minority of voters.”
Deuel Ross, an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund, said he believed the new plan hit the right balance. In taking 712 residents away from the old 9th Ward, he said, new boundaries left the percentage of black voting-age residents essentially unchanged, at 54 percent.
Similar changes were made in other wards without producing large declines in minority voter percentages. The new boundaries were formally approved in May.
Ross said a goal of the changes was to “create an additional opportunity for black voters to elect a candidate of choice, which we achieved by increasing the percentage of black voters in Ward 8, from a 39.7 percent black citizen voting age population to 44.6 percent.”
Parson was elected in the 8th Ward.
“Although I think I benefited from what happened in redistricting, there were a lot of people of all races that wanted change,” said Parson, 46.
‘A fair and equitable voice’
Parson said his community involvement, which includes serving as chairman of the city’s Environmental Quality Commission, helped get him plugged into Florissant politics and form a strong base of support to run for council. His wife, Tanya, is a teacher at Commons Lane Elementary, also in the 8th Ward, “and a lot of people know me through the school,” he said.
Schneider played down Parson’s race as the reason for his win over a longtime incumbent.
“It was a coincidence. We had a very qualified candidate,” the mayor said.
Parson said the City Council should look like those it is elected to serve.
“I believe everyone needs to have representation. About a quarter of the city is African-American. We pay taxes like everyone else and deserve representation like everyone else.”
While the matter of council wards appears to be resolved in Florissant, a separate but related dispute continues over voting for the Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education. In that case a judge ruled in favor of the ACLU and NAACP, saying that having board members elected as at-large candidates narrowed the possibility of electing minority candidates.
The case has been tied up in appeals. In the meantime, blacks hold three of seven seats on the school board, while 80 percent of the district’s 11,200 students are African-American.
Like many other north St. Louis County communities, Florissant’s black population has steadily increased. In 2000, African-Americans represented 11.5 percent of the city’s population. In 2010, that number grew to 26.7 percent. With Parson’s election, he becomes the second person of color on the nine-member council, joining 9th Ward Councilman Tommy Siam, who is of Indian heritage.
The Legal Defense Fund walked away satisfied with the city’s effort, saying Florissant was setting an example for the region.
“The events in Ferguson demonstrated the critical role that municipal government plays in the day-to-day lives of black St. Louis County residents,” Ifill said in a statement after the Legal Defense Fund and Florissant reached an agreed on ward map. “Florissant’s decision to help ensure that all residents have a fair and equitable voice in their local government is encouraging.”
Hessel, the longtime city attorney, called it “the right thing to do. We’re headed in the right direction.”
But he also pointed out that Parson’s running marked the first time a black resident had done so.
“We’re batting 1,000 percent,” Hessel said.