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An Alabama Town’s New Mayor Was Locked Out. 3 Years Later, He Will Return.

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Nearly four years after Patrick Braxton won the mayoral election for the small town of Newbern, Ala., in November 2020, he could soon get to serve his first term.

Mr. Braxton said in a lawsuit that, after he won the election, he never received access to manage the town’s finances, was barred from opening the municipal mailbox and was even locked out of the town hall, after the locks had been changed twice in six months.

Finally, on Friday, Newbern and Mr. Braxton filed a settlement agreement that, if approved by Judge Kristi K. DuBose of the Southern District of Alabama, will allow Mr. Braxton to begin his first term — three and a half years after it started.

“Every time I turned a corner, there was another obstacle in my way,” Mr. Braxton, a handyman who has long worked as a community volunteer, said in an interview.

A town of about 130 people, Newbern had not held an election for mayor since 1965 and instead allowed mayors to pick their successors. The town, where a majority of residents are Black, had never had a Black mayor. That more than five decade long streak without an election ended when Mr. Braxton filed the paperwork to run for mayor in the town’s 2020 election and, since he was the only person to do so, became the first Black mayor in Newbern’s history.

But over the next three years, the town’s incumbent leaders tried to bar Mr. Braxton from serving in the role, according to the lawsuit, in which he accused town leaders of racial discrimination. The lawsuit names the former mayor, Haywood Stokes III. Last week, the town and Mr. Braxton agreed on a settlement that would instate Mr. Braxton as the town’s rightful mayor, ensure the town holds regular elections, and require the town to admit to violating a series of laws, including the Fifteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

“There was enough to try to make me walk away from the scene,” Mr. Braxton said. “But I didn’t.”

Morenike Fajana, a senior counsel at the Legal Defense Fund and one of Mr. Braxton’s lawyers, explained that the judge dismissed Mr. Braxton’s lawsuit against the town’s former leadership because of a legal doctrine that makes it harder to prosecute government representatives. Ms. Fajana said it was likely that the judge would approve the settlement agreement.

A clerk for Judge DuBose declined to comment when asked if she planned to approve the settlement.

The incumbent leaders sued by Mr. Braxton did not admit to wrongdoing. Mr. Stokes could not be reached for comment. A lawyer who represented Newbern in the settlement declined to comment.

Newbern’s history is deeply rooted in slavery in the American South, according to the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative. In a 2023 article, the organization wrote that one of Mr. Stokes’s ancestors, Peter P. Stokes, “enslaved at least five Black people.”

Emily Zhang, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who teaches election law, said she was surprised when she read about the case.

“What’s so crazy is when we teach election law, a case like this would never come up because we almost never litigate claims over whether or not to have an election,” Ms. Zhang said, explaining election disputes are usually over more specific legal debates.

And while towns have a lot of autonomy over their laws, Ms. Zhang said Newbern’s tradition of not having elections was not defensible.

Local law cannot violate state or federal law, Ms. Zhang explained. She gave a hypothetical example: A town could perhaps require that all voters wear blue and yellow clothes as they cast their ballot. But they must still hold elections because of requirements by state and federal laws.

With Mr. Braxton’s case, Ms. Zhang said she would be “filing it away” and using it in future election law classes.

Mr. Braxton is also looking ahead. If the judge signs off on the settlement, he will begin by setting up his cabinet. He has already announced plans to run for re-election.

“I’m in it now,” he said with a smile.

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