Former alderman, election commissioner clash over racial comments

“Vote for Obama and a black mayor,” former Pine Bluff alderman Jack Foster could be heard saying into a bullhorn from his post in a lawn chair across from the Jefferson County Courthouse on Monday afternoon, the first day of early voting for the Nov. 6 general election.“Don’t go back to the plantation. Vote for Obama and vote for a black mayor. Don’t turn back the clock.”

Jefferson County Election Commission Secretary Stu Soffer confronted Foster over his actions and told him that he believed urging voters to make a choice based on skin color was illegal.

As Soffer walked back toward the courthouse Foster resumed his rhetoric.

“Vote for Obama and vote for a black mayor; you’ve got seven choices,” Foster said in reference to black Pine Bluff mayoral candidates Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr., Clarence Davis, John James, Kent Broughton, Peter Daniels, Thelma Walker and Steven Mays.

Debe Hollingsworth and Tim Whisenhunt are the two white Pine Bluff mayoral candidates.

Soffer said Monday afternoon that he filed a formal complaint with the U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas over Foster’s actions.

“He does have a First Amendment right to free speech but he does not have a right to promote any candidate based upon the color of that candidate’s skin,” Soffer said in a conversation inside the courthouse. “I believe it is illegal to ask someone to vote for someone based on the color of their skin. I filed the complaint in my personal capacity on behalf of the voters of Jefferson County. I filed it individually because the commission has not had a chance to meet on this issue yet.”

Foster was adamant that he could say what he wanted to say as long as he was more than 100 feet from the polling site.

“I can say what I want to say because it is my opinion,” Foster said. “I’ve got a right to say what I want to. I’ve got a Constitutional right to free speech. I am more than 100 feet from the polling site. The Arkansas [Attorney General’s office] has said I can use this bullhorn.”

Foster was clear as to why he was sitting on the side of Barraque Street with his bullhorn.

“I’m here to make sure we elect a black mayor,” Foster said.

“To elect a white mayor is self-imposed apartheid and I don’t support apartheid,” Foster said.

Soffer said the election commission had recently received a letter from the U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas that expressed the Department of Justice’s concern over racial issues being interjected into campaigns.

“The Justice Department referred me to the FBI investigative arm in Little Rock,” Soffer said. “I spoke with a duty officer who said that the subject was a gray area and that they would look into it.

“I do believe that asking someone to vote for someone based on the color of their skin is against the Voting Rights Act and I am taking these actions as an individual election commissioner on behalf of the people of Jefferson County,” Soffer said. “I would do the same thing if somebody were saying vote for Romney and a white mayor.”

Soffer said he also filed a complaint with the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office and the State Board of Election Commissioners and contacted the Obama campaign office in Little Rock.