Do Mecklenburg Democrats have a George Dunlap problem?

George Dunlap talks about the priorities of county commission

Dunlap says they'll focus on revaluation and as funders projects that help improve upward mobility in Mecklenburg County.
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Dunlap says they'll focus on revaluation and as funders projects that help improve upward mobility in Mecklenburg County.

If you’re a public official — or a private citizen speaking publicly — there have long been at least two basic no-nos to remember: Don’t compare your plight to slavery, and don’t compare your opponents to Hitler.

To those, we might add another: Be careful about comparing your personal battles to slain Civil Rights icons.

That’s what Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners chair George Dunlap did at a board meeting this month when he compared his experiences to those of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American murdered in Mississippi in 1955.

“I’m happy to say that I serve with at least the majority of the board that I believe is trying to do the right thing,” Dunlap said. “But I can’t deny the fact that there are things that happen that amount to what happened to Emmett Till when he whistled at a white woman and lost his life.

“And while I’m not whistling at white women, there are things that I do that cause me to be treated the same as Emmett Till even though I haven’t lost my life, when you discredit or attempt to discredit my leadership because of something that you don’t respect.”

The remarks sparked some outrage in conservative circles and eye rolling among Democrats, but few were particularly surprised. Dunlap has a history of bristling at criticism and questions, including recently when he faced both for leading a group email discussion between commissioners that was likely a violation of N.C. public meetings laws. Dunlap accused media then of perpetuating racism.

What’s perhaps more concerning, including to some in Democratic circles, is the timidity of Dunlap’s fellow commissioners. Are others on the all-Democratic board too reluctant to stand up to the less pleasant strains of the chair’s strong personality?

On the references to Emmett Till, commissioners’ silence in the moment was understandable. Those remarks came near the end of a two-hour meeting that included some raw, personal reflections on race, and commissioners were likely wary of invalidating Dunlap’s perspective as a black man. But other than independent Democrat Pat Cotham, commissioners also were silent when Dunlap suggested media coverage and Cotham were racist earlier this month, and no one other than Cotham objected to the likely violation of public meeting laws that stemmed from Dunlap’s emails.

As the new board chair, Dunlap has shown strong leadership skills by listening to fellow commissioners and building consensus. Democrats are pleased with the progressive measures Dunlap is shepherding, and it’s also true that despite the chair openly suggesting another commissioner is racist, this board might actually be less dysfunctional than those in previous years.

But such comments are still divisive, not only on the board but in the community. And while letting Dunlap be Dunlap might be a price Democrats are willing to pay to get their agenda passed, doing so enables more of the same, including the chair’s disregard of the public and transparency. That’s not good for Democrats, or for Mecklenburg County.