The swirling force of Texas politics

2 of 3 Black Council Members in Jasper Recalled

Town was the site of 1998 dragging of James Byrd Jr.

Tuesday, Nov 8, 2011  |  Updated 11:06 PM CDT
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2 of 3 Black Council Members in Jasper Recalled

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Jasper voters on Tuesday ousted two of three black City Council members who had voted to hire the first black police chief in the East Texas town, notorious for a racial hate killing more than a decade ago.

The election, believed the first recall attempt in Jasper's history, attracted the attention of the U.S. Justice Department. It assigned monitors to ensure the balloting complied with federal election laws barring discrimination.

Councilman Tommy Adams, in office since 2006, was the only one to thwart Tuesday's recall attempt, with only about 25 percent of voters in favor of his removal. Willie Land, the other member who represents a district within Jasper, lost his council seat with about 59 percent of the vote. Terrya Norsworthy, an at-large member and the mayor pro-tem who first was elected in 2008, was ousted with about 54 percent of the vote.

The fourth black councilman who voted for the police chief is retiring and wasn't on the recall ballot.

Council members had voted 4-1 last spring to hire Rodney Pearson as Jasper's first black police chief, splitting the vote along racial lines.

"If you're black, African-American, in Jasper, that's a very meaningful event considering its history," said Cade Bernsen, a lawyer for the council members who faced the recall vote.

The East Texas town became infamous after the 1998 murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr., who was chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged three miles down a bumpy rural road. Three white men were convicted of the hate crime slaying, and two of them were sent to death row. One was executed just seven weeks ago.

A group calling itself the League of Concerned Voters organized the recall petition, accusing the council members of incompetence and misconduct for hiring Pearson, a veteran Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. Recall supporters say the chief was selected over more qualified applicants, including the former second-in-command who is white.

Bernsen described the election as "just a dirty, real emotional deal" because it was bringing the issue of race to the surface.

"People had thought Jasper had healed after the James Byrd dragging," he said. "In fact, it's showing serious problems there."

Backers of the three council members went to federal court to scrap the recall election, contending it was racially motivated and challenging some signatures on the petitions as improper.

A federal magistrate said two weeks ago that the city charter provision covering recalls was poorly written, but refused to block the election.   

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