Blacks in Warrenton have failed to win election to the Town Council because they have not shown a "commitment to come out, turn out and organize," an attorney for the Virginia town told a federal judge yesterday.
Attorney Robert A. Bendall told U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige in Alexandria that the town rejects allegations in a lawsuit filed by several blacks and the American Civil Liberties Union charging that its at-large system of filling council seats discriminates against the town's minority residents.
Merhige rejected a motion by Bendall to dismiss the suit and urged the attorneys to try to settle the dispute on their own.
Bendall's view was challenged by political scientist Gordon Henderson from Richmond, Ind., and several black residents of the Fauquier County town.
The Rev. Joseph E. Penn, pastor of the town's First Baptist Church, testified that many of his church members were "disheartened and dejected" about prospects of winning one of the seven seats on the council. "There seemed to be an invisible line and if blacks crossed [it] they were afraid of economic reprisals," he said.
"After 175 years I'm sure we've got some representation, but we want participation," he testified.
Henderson testified that blacks, who compose 12 percent of the town's voters, do not participate in its political system on an equal basis with whites and said that the at-large system prevents minority candidates from winning a council seat.
The suit is the eighth filed by the ACLU against Virginia towns in an attempt to overturn at-large elections, which the organization says prevent blacks from being fairly represented in local governments.
In 1969, blacks ran for local office in Warrenton. Several blacks testified yesterday that they had not renewed attempts to win office since then because they believed they could not win.
In February, after the Warrenton lawsuit was filed, a black was appointed to the Town Council to fill a vacancy. Asked by ACLU lawyer Victor Glasberg whether Frank Mann was appointed only because he was black, Warrenton Mayor J. Willard Lineweaver said: "I would not argue with that at all."
Mann testified that he was approached by some whites to apply for the vacancy while he was bartending at a Christmas party. He "had never given . . . much thought" to running for office before that, he said.
Henderson, testifying before a courtroom filled with spectators from Warrenton, said that his conclusions were based on a review of several factors, and the fact that no black had ever been elected to office in the town, a fact he called "the inexecrable zero."
Town officials, Henderson said, often told him that they did not think there was a large difference between the incomes of blacks and whites in Warrenton.
As a result, he was not surprised to hear blacks say they felt "left out" because "they are represented by people who really don't think it's important to know much about them."
As a result of similar ACLU suits against Virginia localities, Farmville, Prince Edward County, Halifax and Hopewell have instituted ward election systems.