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Newbern, Alabama, election debacle highlights bigger, fundamental issues

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series. Read part 1 here.

Loretta, a lifelong resident of Newbern, Alabama, likes to walk in the morning.

“It’s already getting hot,” she said as she finished up her daily ritual. It was not yet 10 a.m., but already the April sun was creating a heat shimmer on the parking lot at the First Baptist Church on Beech Street, where she parked.

At 54, she’s seen a lot of changes in her hometown of Newbern. But the furor over the town’s 2020 mayoral election and its fallout – in which Newbern’s first Black mayor was locked out of town hall and replaced by his white predecessor – hadn’t fazed her.

“I heard that Patrick (Braxton) was the mayor, but then they said Mayor (Haywood) Stokes was back,” said Loretta, who declined to give her last name. “I didn’t hear why.”

Like everyone else, she hadn’t voted for a mayoral candidate in 2020. In fact, she can’t remember ever voting for a mayor.

“I know as far back as my grandfather, back in 1972, he never voted for a mayor,” she said.

As far as the records show, the offices of mayor and council member in Newbern have instead been passed down from one incumbent to the other since the founding of the town in 1854. If there ever has been an elected mayor, those records have yet to be uncovered.

And if Patrick Braxton had not gone through the process of qualifying to run for the office in 2020 and becoming the only candidate on the ballot, there would probably not be an elected mayor in Newbern anytime soon. But the attention he brought to the town – and the hand-me-down government that had been in place for more than a century – when he filed a federal lawsuit in 2022 to regain his office pretty much ensured elections will take place in the future.

The fracas has also highlighted the lack of oversight in Alabama elections at the local level. In his search for support during his term as mayor, Braxton approached the Alabama League of Municipalities for help. Instead of guidance, he said he was told to “just get along,” even as documents show the organization was helping Stokes and the former council work through a plan to keep control of the council and, eventually, to lock Braxton out of office.

Almost four years after Braxton became Newbern’s first Black mayor-elect, a hearing this week may bring an acrimonious lawsuit to an end in a settlement that could put Braxton back in the mayor’s seat. A federal judge has slated a teleconference for tomorrow, June 18, to go over a memorandum of understanding between the two rival camps.

Lawyers for the two sides have been working on an agreement in principle since a settlement conference was held on May 30. If they do agree to dismiss the legal action during tomorrow’s teleconference, it would eliminate the need for a planned jury trial in September and allow Braxton to serve the remaining year of his term leading into the municipal election scheduled for August 2025.

A delayed transition

Haywood Stokes said initially there were no issues when he turned over the keys to the town hall to his successor in November 2020. But steps were already underway to make sure the previous council, with the addition of Stokes, would remain intact and in power.

“I received a call from the League of Municipalities attorney who told me Mr. Braxton was the only qualified candidate, so he was the mayor-elect by default,” Stokes said in a court hearing in May. “Then I turned all the paperwork over to (Newbern town attorney) William Holmes and (then-Alabama League of Municipalities General Counsel Lorelei) Lein. Whatever she said, we did. And she said we needed to hold a special election for town council.”

Council members in Newbern had never run for election. Lein, who retired at the end of last year, said there needed to be an election held after the lack of any voting in the town came to light.

“If a municipality fails to engage in the election process, the remedy is to engage in the election process,” Lein said when contacted for comment on this story. “That is the advice that was provided to him and to the town, but under no circumstances would he, as the mayor-elect or mayor, have the sole authority to appoint his own council. The law does not allow for that authority.”

In a May 6 hearing on Braxton’s federal lawsuit against Stokes and the council, U.S. District Judge Kristi K. DuBose questioned Lein’s legal theory.

“So you are telling me that the repair for the due process injury caused when these council members did not qualify for their election is to reopen the qualification period so they can do what they should have done already?” DuBose asked. “That does not sound right.”

After Braxton made it clear he intended to follow Newbern’s 170-year-old practice and appoint new council members instead of keeping on the four members who had served with Stokes, the transition became more contentious.

“I had asked people to serve with me,” Braxton said. “I didn’t just ask all Black folks. It’s not just about one side of town. You need both sides, ideas on how to make the town better. You’re not looking at it because this is what you’re gonna do for the rest of your life. This is something you want to do for the town. Everybody is in it together.”

Dueling councils

Although the outgoing town council unanimously confirmed Braxton as mayor-elect of Newbern at its meeting on Aug. 10, 2020, the council passed another ordinance that evening calling to reschedule the council member election and reset the window for candidate qualification. The four outgoing council members, along with Stokes, were the only candidates who filed the required paperwork to qualify – or at least they said they did.

Documents related to the 2020 election show that the ordinance was signed by Haywood Stokes Jr. – the name of his father, who was the previous mayor. The current mayor is Haywood Stokes III. Braxton has claimed that the discrepancy suggests that someone other than Stokes filled out the paperwork for him.

Additionally, there were disagreements about whether the new election date and qualification period were correctly published. Stokes said in court that he posted the notices of the upcoming election in prominent locations around Newbern, a claim Braxton disputed.

A public records request in August 2023 for a copy of the notice or documentation of either posting or publishing the dates turned up a single half-page document, in 12-point serif text, that laid out the date of the election (with no listed polling hours).

Irregularities aside, only the four lame-duck council members and Stokes filed to run.

After they were sworn in on Nov. 12, 2020, they called on Braxton to organize those members as his council. Because he had already selected his council and had them sworn in with him on Nov. 2, 2020, Braxton ignored the other council’s demands. He also had the locks to the town hall changed.

When he tried to open the town’s post office box, he was denied access. The same thing happened when he attempted to access the town’s bank accounts. When he finally did get access to the town hall, all of the town’s records had been moved.

At its meeting on Nov. 9, 2020, the Stokes council discovered the town hall locks had been changed. A week later, the Stokes council called a special meeting for Nov. 19, 2020, to organize the council. Braxton did not attend, since he had a meeting scheduled with the council members sworn in with him scheduled for Dec. 7, 2020.

Three weeks later, when Braxton did not appear at the Stokes council’s Dec. 11, 2020, meeting, Stokes said, “When we have Mayor Braxton at our next meeting, I will request all the minutes from their meetings.” He also asked the council to move that the town’s bank accounts remain unchanged, with Stokes as signatory, not Braxton.

Less than two months later, at the Stokes council’s meeting on Feb. 8, 2021, Stokes reported that he had the locks to the town hall changed again and had opened a new post office box for the town. The council members then voted to remove Braxton from office, referring the matter to the town attorney and, rather than notifying the secretary of state’s office, an email was sent to the Alabama League of Municipalities.

According to documents received from the town of Newbern as part of a public information request, Holmes sent a letter to Lein on Feb. 10, 2021, to let her know the deed was done. It was exactly 100 days after Braxton was sworn into office.

“I appreciate all of your help and guidance regarding the town of Newbern and wanted to update you on the status,” Holmes wrote. “Is (sic) there anything the council needs to do in the interim or the next council meeting, please let me know.”

None of Lein’s correspondence regarding the election was included in the response to a public records request served on the town.

a locked door
The doors of the Newbern Town Hall were sealed shut after former town council members moved all of the town records and began holding meetings at their homes or other locations in the wake of their effort to oust Patrick Braxton, the town's first Black mayor. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)

Drawing the spotlight

For two years, Braxton solicited help in his fight to take his seat as mayor. He approached nongovernmental organizations like the League and the Alabama Conference of Black Mayors without success.

“They wouldn't help,” he said of his conversations with the Conference. “No, all they would tell me is that they would issue ‘moral support.’”

With a population of 133 people according to the 2020 census, Newbern is by no means a major metropolis. It covers roughly 1 square mile, straddling Alabama State Road 61 in Hale County. Newbern’s biggest claim to fame is serving as the home to Auburn University’s Rural Studio, where more than 1,200 architecture students have worked with local communities over the last three decades on more than 220 homes and projects.

It is a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” kind of place, with a mercantile store, post office, fire station, town hall and library stretched over a few blocks of highway, with a few houses and churches sprinkled in between. So Braxton’s rise to the leadership position of the predominantly Black town did not make a big splash in the rest of the nation’s media pond.

Most communities would welcome input from a prestigious program like the Rural Studio. But the predominantly white council under Stokes has shot down a proposal from the Rural Studio to upgrade the town’s sewage system, something the Black residents had been wanting, Braxton said.

“They don’t want the Rural Studio because they say it helps the Blacks,” Braxton said. “That’s where they are.”

Lawyers expressed interest in representing Braxton pro bono, he said, but without any results. Yet when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took on Braxton’s lawsuit, the first step was to elevate it to federal court. From there it popped up on the mainstream media radar. Within weeks of the suit being moved, the traditional broadcast networks, along with cable news and online outlets, had either flocked to Newbern or covered the story from afar of the town’s first Black mayor being locked out.

“They might not have known where Newbern was before, but everybody can go down and point on the map where Newbern is now,” Braxton said.

a courthouse
The federal courthouse in Mobile, Alabama, where a May 30, 2024, settlement conference took place on Patrick Braxton’s lawsuit over being ousted as mayor of Newbern, Alabama. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)

Separate and unequal

Over the last year, Braxton and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys who are representing him have filed and refiled their complaint as lawyers for Stokes and his council members, all named as defendants, have filed motions to delay and dismiss the complaint, stop the discovery process and essentially prevent the case from moving forward.

Stokes and his co-defendants on May 20 filed a fourth motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that a decision last year in the 8th Judicial District in Arkansas states that only the U.S. attorney general can file a lawsuit based on violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which bans racial discrimination in voting policies.

The Arkansas decision was seen as another attack on the VRA, which has been under assault in conservative courts since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision eliminated federal preclearance of changes to election laws in states with histories of voter discrimination.

Alabama, however, is in the 11th Judicial District, where the U.S. Supreme Court in 2023 affirmed redrawing the state’s congressional district map in the Allen v. Milligan case, giving that decision precedent in the district. That decision ordered the state to create a new congressional district map that did not discriminate against Black voters.

Previously, on March 22 of this year, Braxton’s team filed a motion seeking an injunction calling for a new election, to be held no later than Nov. 5, for the five Newbern council seats. At a hearing on the issue in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in Mobile on May 6, DuBose denied the motion, but put the case on a fast track to trial. The judge also ordered that the May 30 settlement conference take place.

Even though she denied the preliminary injunction calling for a new election, DuBose said the case that citizens’ due process rights have been denied was strong. She noted that the issues of whether notice was given or documents were submitted properly were questionable, but it was apparent that Newbern citizens had not been able to select their municipal leaders.

“Your procedural due process argument has problems,” DuBose said. “But the substantial due process argument could win out.”

After the May 6 hearing, as the dozens of people who had attended to support Braxton boarded a bus to head back to Newbern, Braxton said he was happy with the hearing.

“I feel strong,” he said.

Image at top: Patrick Braxton, who in 2020 became the first Black mayor-elect of Newbern, Alabama, stands in the parking lot at First Baptist Church in Newbern in August 2023. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)