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Newbern’s first Black mayor reaches settlement after being kept out of office

Years after he was first elected, Patrick Braxton may finally be able to replace Newbern’s unelected local government.

Patrick Braxton is the first Black mayor of Newbern, but white citizens tried to keep him from assuming the role. Michael Malcolm
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On June 21, Patrick Braxton and the Town of Newbern submitted a memorandum of understanding and release to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. If approved by the court, Braxton will soon be recognized as the official mayor of Newbern more than three years after he became the mayor-elect.

Before 2020, Newbern was dominated by what the court described as “a form of ‘hand-me-down governance,’ where the sitting mayor would pick a successor to inherit the position and that successor would then appoint residents to serve as councilmembers.”

While 88 of the town’s 133 residents are Black according to the 2020 Census, only one of the so appointed councilmembers had ever been Black. The town had never had a Black mayor.

In 2020, despite the town not having held elections in over fifty years, Braxton, a Black contractor and firefighter, filed the proper forms and became the only qualified candidate for mayor. No one qualified to be a candidate for the town council.

Braxton then asserted that he had won due to being the only qualified candidate and began to appoint his town council.

However, the pre-Braxton, appointed city council “announced” they were holding a special election for the town council (no town residents were actually told). The only votes were cast by the sitting town council members and the outgoing mayor. Unsurprisingly, they won.

Braxton and the town council that he had appointed were promptly “denied access to the Town’s records, financial documents, and mail.” The locks on the town hall were changed.

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And in April 2021, the pre-Braxton city council announced that they had removed Braxton from the position of mayor “for failing to attend meetings” and restored the former mayor to his position once again.

For the past few years, the ensuing litigation has been working its way through the courts. Braxton first filed pro se but then acquired professional counsel.

The recently announced settlement agreement is specifically not an admission of guilt and the unelected councilmembers “specifically deny having engaged in any wrongful practice, or other unlawful conduct.”

However, all parties had to “agree that [the Town of Newbern]’s failure to administer elections prior to 2020 discriminated against Plaintiffs in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and that [Newbern] violated Plaintiffs’ right to vote under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

If the settlement is approved by the court, Braxton will be officially recognized as the mayor of Newbern and the other parties ordered to grant him access to all associated documents and town property.

To fill the five town council positions, Braxton will need to submit a list of candidates to Gov. Kay Ivey within two weeks of the court approving the settlement. However, Ivey could order a special election be held instead of approving his candidates.

Newbern’s first regularly scheduled elections will be held in 2025—Braxton has already announced he plans to run for re-election.

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Additionally, under a clause of the Voting Rights Act, the town of Newbern will have to have all “future changes related to voting and eligibility to vote in municipal elections” approved by either the court or the U.S. Attorney General. An independent audit of Newbern’s finances will also be carried out.

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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