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  • The Nevada Independent

    Will Reno elect its first Black city council member in 30 years?

    By Carly Sauvageau,

    2024-06-09

    A Renoite voting in 1991 was likely concerned about the same issues facing Northern Nevada today — development, growth and water .

    Housing and environmental issues are not the only historical parallels to 1991. It will also be the first time a Black woman has appeared on the ballot as a Reno City Council candidate in more than 30 years .

    After a successful campaign in 1991, Bernice Mathews — now 90 — became the first Black person to serve on the Reno City Council. During her time on council and her time as a state senator in 1994, Mathews was known to be a champion for women’s rights and advocate for education .

    Now, Lily Baran and Tara Webster are seeking to become the next Black women to hold the title of Reno city council member. Baran is contending with better-funded candidates in the Ward 1 race including Kathleen Taylor, who already holds a seat on the council but is running in a different ward after a law the city failed to reverse resulted in the at-large seat dissolving and the addition of a sixth ward . Webster faces a similar dynamic in Ward 5, with opponents including Devon Reese, who also serves on the council but is running for a different ward seat as his at-large seat is being sunsetted.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2HyqT7_0tlb00QU00
    Tara Webster, a candidate for Reno City Council Ward 5, during an endorsement event for the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter on June 5, 2024, at Craft Wine and Beer in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

    “Running as a [Black-Latina] candidate can and has been an isolating process,” said Webster, who has experience working as an outdoor science advocate in the nonprofit sector. Webster emphasized there are many capable and qualified Black people who could have ran for municipal seats in the last three decades, but likely haven’t because of the challenges.

    Reno city council races are nonpartisan, with the two highest vote-getters advancing out of the primary to the November general election.

    Webster said she and Baran — a housing activist who was a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union during the last legislative session — have been “clawing our way to earn endorsements that end up going to established candidates, navigating the challenges of fundraising and running barebones campaigns on small-money donations, and working immeasurably hard to prove ourselves just to be palatable to white voters.”

    “We have so much working against us systemically,” Webster said.

    Both candidates said the election should come down to which candidate has the best policies, but they also said representation matters in government as well.

    “I'm happy to see people and hear people say I will vote for someone who looks like you,” Baran said. “I would hope that even if I were a white man that my policies would be the reason why you're voting for me.”

    Numbers game

    Compared with Northern Nevada, Southern Nevada has a significantly higher percentage of Black residents — about 13.8 percent of the population compared to 3 percent in Washoe County, according to the United States Census Bureau.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3JXDh5_0tlb00QU00
    Bernice Mathews, the first Black woman on Reno City Council (Courtesy of blackpast.org).

    Demographics may not be the only thing working against minorities who decide to run for office in Northern Nevada.

    It took nearly eight decades for Reno to elect its first female mayor — Barbara Bennett in 1979 — though the region has an almost even split between men and women in population density. More recently, Oscar Delgado became the first Latino member of the city council after his election in 2012, despite the Latino community making up more than a quarter of Washoe County’s population.

    Despite Reno’s sizable Asian population ,there has never been an American Asian elected to the Reno City Council. That could also change this election if Michaelangelo Urbina Aranda, a second-generation Filipino immigrant, is elected to the Ward 6 seat.

    Nevada has in recent years made significant strides in diversifying its pool of elected officials — including electing Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the nation’s first Latina senator , and in 2019 becoming the first state to have a female-majority Legislature.

    But some glass ceilings are taking longer to break through — Nevada’s first-ever Black mayor , Pamela Goynes-Brown, was elected to lead North Las Vegas just two years ago.

    Lack of support

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1igGzR_0tlb00QU00
    Darryl Feemster served on Reno City Council after he was appointed in 1998. (Courtesy of the City of Reno)

    Politics is not the only space Webster has been the only Black woman in the room. She has faced challenges in the academic and science world — Webster has a master’s in biology and experience working in STEM education — as well as a homeowner in her neighborhood, where she said she has been called racial expletives.

    “There are so many qualified, amazing people that could be running for these offices, and they don't, and I don't know what the reasons are,” Webster said. “I can only imagine what those reasons are based off of my experience living in Reno and in Northern Nevada … It's not an easy space to live in.”

    She added that the area is making progress and becoming more diverse, but people of color still face discrimination in Reno.

    Baran has garnered community support from Reno residents concerned about housing and community issues. Webster’s science background earned her endorsements from some environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club PAC, which also endorsed Baran.

    Edward Coleman, the founder of the Black Community Collective, an organization focused on supporting Black-owned businesses, has knocked on doors for and donated $250 to Baran.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4WqPFl_0tlb00QU00
    Now Assemblywoman Angie Taylor (D-Reno) and then-Washoe County School Board trustee at the Women's March on Jan. 18, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

    He said “that some organizations may have chosen not to endorse because of a perceived, whether actual or not, threat of retaliation from the powers that be.”

    “Just because someone in Northern Nevada is Black doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to stand up to the issues of Black people,” Baran said. “We need to be more discerning when we're voting for people and make sure that they're also holding the values and they have the courage to not only support other Black candidates, which is not always what's happening.”

    Assemblywoman Angie Taylor (D-Reno), who is Black and running for a state Senate seat this election, endorsed Frank Perez, the former chair of the Washoe County Library Board and one of Baran’s competitors for the Ward 1 seat.

    Taylor told The Nevada Independent that Perez had asked for her support months before Baran announced her candidacy, but commended Baran and Webster for throwing their hats into the political ring.

    “When you have you don't have a lot of people that look like you, it takes even more courage in my mind … especially for the two women who are running for city council and this is their first run,” Taylor said. “I cannot understate what that has to have taken for each of them.”

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2f7dTf_0tlb00QU00
    The Needham Rooming House on Elko Avenue in Reno on June 6, 2024. The Needhams offered necessary lodging for Black visitors to Reno in the 1940s and 50s. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent

    Webster said campaigning is already difficult, but it’s especially hard when the candidate is a person of color.

    “I definitely understand why people maybe don't pursue this route, because it's already hard enough as it is to be in politics,” Webster said. “It takes a certain level of thick skin and that can really be compounded when you're facing all of these other areas of discrimination.”

    Why it matters historically

    Baran said the Black experience is often forgotten when discussing Reno’s history, despite the many contributions the Black community has made to the area. The historic Lear Theater was designed by Paul Revere Williams, a famous Black architect known for designing homes for Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0Lelkh_0tlb00QU00
    American poet and activist Langston Hughes. (Photo from the Library of Congress).

    Langston Hughes retreated to Reno to focus on his writing, visiting Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, residing on Elko Avenue and eating at Reno’s Chinese restaurants, which were the few places that non-white people were welcomed.

    Black Springs, located in the North Valleys, was one of the first places Black residents could own property in Washoe County and was a vibrant community in the 1940s. However, until recently, much of this history was forgotten .

    Reno’s history has many racist undertones — the city has a history of redlining brought on by the Federal Housing Administration’s policy to only provide financing for white families in certain neighborhoods, and Reno’s Chinatown was burnt down twice and has not been fully rebuilt.

    During the 2023 legislative session, SB368 passed and removed racist language — which included who could and couldn’t reside in the house, which was typically non-white people — from various home titles in Washoe County .

    Although Baran said representation matters, she hopes it is her policy, not her race that people are excited to vote for. Webster added representation goes beyond physical resemblance but experience as well.

    “Voters and nonvoters alike need representation that goes beyond mere physical resemblance,” Webster said. “We need representatives who share our experiences and our culture, understand our struggles, and can create policies that truly benefit the working class and marginalized communities.”

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