York mayor wins despite racist past

White incumbent beats black council member by 100 votes

May 16, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - In an Election Day drama he compared to refereeing the final seconds of a college basketball championship, two-term mayor Charlie Robertson squeaked by his opponent in one of the most closely watched mayoral primary elections in this southern Pennsylvania town's history.

Veteran City Councilman Ray Crenshaw conceded defeat after coming up about 100 votes short, according to unofficial results. He said he would not seek a recount.

Robertson overcame speculation that he played a greater role than he has admitted in the riot-era killing of a black preacher's 27-year-old daughter.

The mayor admits he attended a white gang rally 32 years ago on the eve of Lillie Belle Allen's shooting death, pumped his fist in the air and shouted "white power."

He denies, however, that he is the "unnamed police officer" whose inflammatory actions are detailed in affidavits filed as part of the grand jury investigation into the July 1969 deaths of Allen and Henry C. Schaad, a white officer who was shot three days before the minister's daughter died in a torrent of gunfire as her family unknowingly drove into a hostile, white neighborhood.

According to court documents, this officer not only shouted "white power" at the rally but also encouraged vigilantism, bemoaned his inability to participate in the violence against blacks and distributed ammunition to young white gang members who a day later gunned down Allen just down the hill from the site of the rally.

The unnamed officer's conduct was strikingly similar to behavior attributed to Robertson by several former gang members quoted last year in a local newspaper, further fueling speculation that Robertson has not confessed to his full role in rioting that left two dead and 60 others injured.

For York, a blue-collar town of 41,000 about 50 miles north of Baltimore, the reopening of the investigations, the recent arrests of four men and speculation about the mayor's involvement ensured the mayoral election would be steeped in racial overtones.

In addition, 40 percent of the city's population are minorities, mostly African-Americans, and Crenshaw was the city's first black mayoral candidate.

Robertson said yesterday's victory proved that his past was not on voters' minds.

"Yorkers are too bright to think about any rioting or fighting," he said last night, perched on the counter of a local cafe and bar where his supporters gathered to celebrate. "We are a community that stays together."

For longtime York residents Joan and Phares Barnhill, there was no reason not to vote for the mayor.

"I think he's done a pretty good job," Phares Barnhill said as he entered a polling site yesterday. "I think I'll give him another vote."

The Barnhills, who are white, have few complaints about their city these days. Their taxes haven't gone up. There are more drug enforcement officers on the street to fight what they say is York's most serious problem. Even their biggest complaint - slow and inadequate snow removal - has improved in recent years.

"This deal about the 1969 riots ... I think it's politically motivated," said Phares Barnhill. "Quite frankly, I lived here in those days and what he's accused of saying, `white power,' that was mild. They're making a big to-do over nothing."

To others, the mayor's past is more troubling.

Darrell Howell, who is black, moved to York from North Carolina 14 years ago.

"Charlie has done some good things, and people can change," he said. "But still, a person was killed. And from the accusations that are out there, I think he's tried to cover it up. I think he was a lot more involved."

Howell's vote for Crenshaw represented not only a vote against the mayor and his racist past, but also a vote for the man he said has an interest in healing York's racial wounds.

"I think Charlie has not done enough about that," Howell said. "Lancaster has marches against racism, and we don't have anything like that here."

About 12 percent of York's 22,000 registered voters turned out to cast a ballot yesterday, debunking forecasts that the only certain affect the controversy would have on the election's outcome was to bring out a record number of voters. City voters average 15 percent to 20 percent turnout, even in presidential elections, but both candidates made strong efforts to register voters.

The victory propels Robertson into the Nov. 6 general election, where he will face Republican Betty Schonauer. The former York City school board member, retired nurse and freelance writer ran unopposed in yesterday's primary.

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