The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Tuesday, July 2, 1996                 TAG: 9607020238
SECTION: LOCAL                   PAGE: B3   EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: PORTSMOUTH                        LENGTH:   74 lines


For the first time in this century, Portsmouth's City Council will have an African-American pair at its helm.

In its reorganization meeting on Monday, the council voted to retain Johnny M. Clemons as vice mayor.

Clemons will serve under new Mayor James W. Holley, who is no stranger to setting city history. Holley was Portsmouth's first black elected mayor and its only mayor to be recalled in modern times. He returned to the mayor's office on Sunday, completing a nine-year battle to redeem his political career.

Clemons won the vice mayor's seat on a 4-3 vote that did not split along racial lines. The choice did break with the council's unofficial policy of having a bi-racial team leading the body.

But Clemons' supporters on Monday said it was time to get past purely racial considerations. They added that they are confident that citizens would accept Clemons and Holley in the top two council spots.

Clemons has served as the city's vice mayor for the past two years and had done an exemplary job, several council members said.

Councilman Cameron C. Pitts was the other nominee for the job.

Councilman James T. Martin, who is white, nominated Clemons, citing his past performance and ability to represent the city.

Martin, Clemons, P. Ward Robinett and J. Thomas Benn voted for Clemons.

The Portsmouth Committee, a private group of influential citizens, supported Robinett, Benn and Martin for their council positions. The committee had supported Pitts in his first run for council, but it broke with Pitts after he fought a riverboat gambling proposal for the city.

Pitts, who was the only councilman to actively lobby for the vice mayor's seat, said Monday he was not surprised by the vote. He added that he would support Clemons.

``I appreciate the nomination and the vote,'' Pitts told his fellow council members Monday. ``Mr. Clemons has done a great job as vice mayor, and I will continue to support him. My only regret is the fact that we won't project a bi-racial image.''

The council currently has four white and three black members.

On Friday, Pitts said that the leadership should reflect the population and that, as the senior white member of council, he was lobbying for the vice mayor's position.

``We don't want to give an image of white folks in control or black folks in control,'' Pitts said Friday. ``We should be a city of mutual leadership, reflecting our population.''

Clemons, who did not lobby to retain his position, said simply that he would be happy to continue in his role as vice mayor if that's what the council wanted.

Councilman Bernard D. Griffin, who is black, nominated Pitts, who is white, for the vice mayor's spot. Griffin said he wanted to keep a racial balance in the city's top two positions. Griffin said he had been asked to serve as vice mayor but refused because he believed in the tradition of racially balanced representation.

Griffin, Holley and Pitts voted in favor of Pitts.

This is not the first time the council has ignored its bi-racial tradition.

After Holley was recalled in 1987, then Vice Mayor Gloria O. Webb, who is white, was appointed to serve as interim mayor. Councilman J. Robert Gray, also white, was selected vice mayor. That marked the first time in a decade that Portsmouth did not have bi-racial leadership.

Both continued in those jobs for two years after Webb was elected mayor.

A contingent of citizens complained at that time about the council having two white leaders, saying that it was a slight to the city's African-American population.

Gray was followed as vice mayor by African Americans E.G. ``Tip'' Corprew, Lee E. King and Clemons. ILLUSTRATION: James W. Holley

Johnny M. Clemons