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Black elected to panel in Worcester Businessman defeats incumbent in District 3; First in 253 years; Democrat wins with 744 votes to Republican's 659


SNOW HILL -- James L. Purnell became the first black county commissioner elected in Worcester County's 253-year history yesterday, winning in the court-ordered District 3.

Mr. Purnell, a 55-year-old businessman, school bus driver and Democrat, won with 744 votes to incumbent Republican Floyd )) Bassett's 659, according to unofficial results from the Board of Elections last night.

"It feels great," said a smiling Mr. Purnell as he celebrated his victory at the Judge's Bench, a local restaurant where Democrats gathered after the polls closed. "We've worked together as a team during this campaign."

Mr. Purnell's history-making victory was part of a Democratic success: four of the five districts were won by Democrats. All five were previously held by Republicans elected in 1990.

Mr. Bassett was prosaic in defeat.

"They did a great job and I hope they stick together in the future," he said after the results were announced. "It's a great credit to the African-American community. They did a great job and they deserve it."

Voter turnout figures supported his assessment. Countywide, the turnout was 37.4 percent, well above the 25.8 percent that turned out for the primary, and a fairly substantial showing for a rainy day with only one local election on the ballot.

In District 3, drawn with a majority black population, the turnout was considerably higher with 51.8 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in one precinct, and 46.8 percent and 38.8 precent in the other two precincts.

A steady stream of voters, many of them black, kept poll workers in one District 3 precinct busy most of the day.

"It's time for a change," said A. Henry, a black voter in District 3 and a county worker. Others echoed his sentiments.

The election itself marked a turning point for Worcester County, where the county commission waged a three-year legal battle to keep the at-large voting system used in the county since 1742.

A suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1992 to force the county to switch to a district system met strong resistance from the county.

The case went to a federal court in Richmond and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court declined to hear it but after the court threw out a race-based districting plan in Georgia earlier this year, the county refiled the case. At present, the appeal is still before the Supreme Court.

At-large voting, say its critics, dilutes a minority vote. Worcester County, which has a population that is 21 percent black, has never had a black county commissioner. The newly created districts included District 3 with a black majority (58 percent).

The election was delayed for a year while the case made its way through the court system, and the county commission seats were the only races on yesterday's ballot.

Opinions in Worcester County on the districting issue broke along party lines. All five commissioners until yesterday were Republicans, and the county Republican Party opposed the change to district voting.

"We have worked so hard to keep this whole county together," said Ann Horner Granados, who heads the Worcester County Republican Central Committee.

For Democrats, the issue was the cost. The legal battle cost the county $753,513, and the special election costs reached nearly $100,000.

"Astronomical amounts of money have been spent I think foolishly -- considering that the money could have been spent on our senior citizens and the education system in the county," said Ron Horn, who heads the county's Democratic Central Committee.

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