Just before daybreak Monday, George Dunlap pulled up to the tiny WGIV studios, feeling like a celebrity.
Dunlap had recently made enough news to be a topic on his own call-in program, “Closing Gaps with George Dunlap,” on 1370 AM in Pineville.
As in years past, he had drawn a controversy: Republicans a week earlier had blocked his appointment as a Democrat to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, calling him too divisive and raising questions about how he was elected.
Inside the cramped studio, Dunlap said he's been encouraged by support he's gotten since then.
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“I really appreciate all the love and affection that has been coming my way,” he said on the air. “I've been feeling pretty good.”
Commissioners have called a special meeting today to vote again on appointing Dunlap to the board. The Democratic Party also wants a judge today to order commissioners to swear in Dunlap.
For nearly two hours on the air and later in an interview, Dunlap demonstrated why he holds his appeal for fellow Democrats – and why some opponents say he's preoccupied with race.
“I think, in time, history is going to reveal who the true supporters are of an integrated community and an integrated society,” Dunlap said after his show. He also talked about run-ins he's been accused of involving white, female colleagues.
At 52, Dunlap described a life spent working to secure equal rights. Voters have elected him four straight times, twice without opposition, to serve a heavily black district spanning parts of east, central and north Charlotte.
He's been called divisive, threatening, even racist. He is accustomed to criticism from some Republican elected officials, especially from school board member Larry Gauvreau and commissioners Dan Bishop and Bill James.
“As far as I'm concerned Larry Gauvreau, and Dan Bishop and Bill James might as well just go ahead and put those sheets back on,” Dunlap said off the air.
Told of his comments, Gauvreau, Bishop and James dismissed them. Gauvreau laughed: “Another George Dunlap absurdity.”
Moved to serve
Dunlap, a retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, says his 13-year stint on the school board started with a homework assignment.
His son, then a student at Ranson Middle School, asked Dunlap to take him to a county library so he could complete a book report. The school library, he said, didn't have the books he needed.
Dunlap, who served on a number of school and PTA committees at the time, started asking his colleagues why.
“It was an equity issue for me,” he said. “While I had the means of being able to take my kid to the library, I was certain that there were parents who … would not be able to take their kid to the public library.”
His focus on equity has roots in his childhood: Dunlap originally attended an all-black elementary school before moving in fifth grade to integrated classrooms. While happy at his first school, he said it was missing amenities he found after transferring to a formerly all-white school.
Dunlap was elected to the school board in 1995, the same year his son came to him about his assignment. On the board, he has argued for adequate facilities, teachers and other resources, at schools across the district.
Retired teacher Richard McElrath, who is active in community groups, said Dunlap has been a voice for African American children. School board colleagues Joe White and Molly Griffin said he has focused on the needs of minority and low-income students as the district moved away from busing to neighborhood schools.
“He grew up in these schools,” Griffin said. “He just brings a perspective we otherwise wouldn't have.”
But Gauvreau, a frequent critic of Dunlap and the board's majority, faulted Dunlap's policies, including a push for some new schools that are now half-empty. Those schools are in primarily low-income areas with high numbers of black students.
Gauvreau also said Dunlap uses race as a way to get support from colleagues, though he would not give specific examples.
“He's part of the old guard … and hasn't changed his ways, ” Gauvreau said.
Dunlap defends using provocative statements to achieve his goals.
“Whatever is used, if it's what convinces people to do the right thing, then I'll continue to use it,” he said.
Dunlap was chosen by local party officials on Oct. 20 to succeed Valerie Woodard, who died this month. He'll serve until 2010, filling a two-year term she was seeking in this fall's election.
Commissioners have no say in the two-year term, which must be approved by the Board of Elections. The county board is in a stalemate over naming Dunlap to fill the remainder of Woodard's unexpired term through the end of November.
In blocking his appointment last week, some Republicans cited three incidents involving Dunlap and female colleagues.
In 1991, he served a 10-day suspension from the police department for hitting a female officer after he says she slapped his hand away during a confrontation at the jail. The officer, Janice Cundy, said Wednesday Dunlap was “out of control.”
Dunlap had previously told the Observer it was an unfortunate incident that “happened instinctively.”
In 1997, then-school board member Lindalyn Kakadelis said Dunlap lost his temper during a closed-door session. She said Dunlap jumped up, knocked over his chair and pointed his finger in her face. Other board members had to step between the pair, she said.
One other former school board member has backed Kakadelis' story, but Dunlap said the encounter didn't happen.
Kakadelis said this week the incident shocked and scared her. She didn't call police, but said she told her colleagues she would if something similar occurred again.
Three years ago, current school board member Kaye McGarry requested security during closed board meetings after two incidents with Dunlap, including one in which she said he called her “sweetheart.” School board members denied her request.
At the time, three other board members said they had not witnessed threatening behavior from Dunlap.
McGarry said recently the pair haven't patched up their differences, but she's moved on.
Dunlap was never criminally charged in any of the cases.
But James said the events signal Dunlap may have an anger management problem.
James himself has drawn criticism for comments about race, including a 2004 comment that urban blacks “live in a moral sewer.”
James drew a distinction between how he uses words and Dunlap's alleged behavior. “It's one thing to use verbiage to drive home a point. It's something else to basically physically intimidate people to get what you want,” he said.
Dunlap said the commissioners' opinions against him are tainted.
“Emmett Till was killed because he whistled at a white woman, and here you have these women who think that we're still living in those days, and so if they make an allegation about a black man, then everybody is supposed to come in and jump in … to lynch that brother,” Dunlap said. “Well, the problem … is that there ain't nobody to substantiate any of it.”
Dunlap said he had considered running for county commissioner before, but did not want to run against Woodard. After her death, Dunlap said he started receiving numerous phone calls from people hoping he'd replace her.
Dunlap supporters, including some people who ran against him for the District 3 vacancy, say Republican commissioners have no right to delay his appointment.
Gregory Moss, pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church, said he and Dunlap have become friends since first meeting at the church a decade ago. He called him a people person who is passionate about his views. But he stressed he's never seen him be intimidating.
“If you're going to be Mickey Mouse and petty about somebody's background, let's look into everybody's background,” Moss said. “Let's stop wasting the taxpayers' money … and let's get to the real issues of policy as it relates to Mecklenburg County and stop the character assassination.”
Supporters also point out the longer commissioners wait to appoint Dunlap, the longer residents of District 3 are without their own representative.
Once on the board, Dunlap has said, he would welcome the chance to weigh in on issues like park and recreation, health and human services, veterans, as well as education.
“I expect to … vote the concerns of the constituents of District 3. I am not there to please Bill James or (commissioners) Karen Bentley or Dan Ramirez.” Staff writer Eric Frazier and researcher Marion Paynter contributed.