BCR's BOCC endorsements: we back Jacobs, Reckhow, Hill, Fikes, Howerton from a stellar candidate pool
By Kevin Davis & Lisa Sorg
When we sat down last weekend to review our impressions from our Board of County Commissioners interviews, we realized that this election presented something unique to our nearly twenty combined years of Durham politics-watching:
This is, stem to stern, the strongest group of candidates that we recall in any City Council, BOCC or school board election. Which is pleasantly surprising, given that the BOCC in some recent years has struggled to attract the strongest candidates.
Out of the five incumbents and five challengers seeking seats, the strength of this pool is such that we'd be pleased to see any of eight candidates take seats on the East Main Street dais this fall.
Two candidates -- Fred Foster and Glyndola Massenburg-Beasley -- are not recommended for election by BCR. We did not have an opportunity to interview either candidate; however, as we'll describe below, there are compelling reasons to select others from this extraordinary pool of candidates.
Out of the eight remaining, whom to endorse? For two seats, it's no contest: Wendy Jacobs and Ellen Reckhow deserve unqualified, unfailing support and a sure return to office.
The other three selections were much tougher, particularly since all of the other six candidates are qualified, knowledgeable and would be an asset to the community. (And perhaps should think about running for City Council -- cough, cough.)
For a variety of reasons -- including the ability to bring diverse perspectives to the board, and to balance experience and service with new ideas -- we recommend James Hill, Tara Fikes, and Brenda Howerton for the remaining seats.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Based on our interviews, we believe Durham should be extraordinarily proud to be well-represented on the BOCC by Wendy Jacobs. Despite only having one term in office, Jacobs has attained a mastery of the County's business, structure and functions. Jacobs combines progressive, forward-looking positions on key civic issues with strong knowledge of county operations, and an ability to strongly articulate the positions and decisions she supports for the future of Durham County.
If you haven't read it, read our interview with Jacobs. If you have time, even better, listen to the interview recording. We strongly recommend Jacobs' return to the Board of County Commissioners.
Similarly, Ellen Reckhow has distinguished herself over a period of service on the BOCC that dates back to the 1980s; after Mayor Bell's more than four decades in elected office, Reckhow ranks second, a fact that's evident when you hear her tackle the details of county governance. Reckhow is a fair-minded, well-informed commissioner who doesn't hesitate to take an unpopular stand when she believes it is the right thing to do. In a year when we feel the BOCC will be well-served by the addition of several new voices, retaining the commission's longest-serving member is clearly the right vote.
As we noted above, from here, the choices get significantly harder. This year's candidate pool finds several candidates with similar backgrounds. Tara Fikes and Elaine Hyman both have insider experience as senior directors of county government agencies. Heidi Carter and Wendy Jacobs both bring important public schools experience, the former as a longtime school board member, the latter as a former teacher and a member of a key DPS advisory board. Michael Page and Brenda Howerton both have multiple terms' worth of experience on the BOCC and good knowledge of the underlying issues. And James Hill brings powerful opinions on economic inequality and real-world experiences as a displaced tech worker, job counselor and child support agent, all of which speak to very emotional discussions taking place within Durham right now.
After the better part of an hour's discussion filled with plenty of back-and-forth, we choose to mildly endorse three of the six. It's a "mild" endorsement not because of milquetoast feelings on the three we're endorsing from the set but because, frankly, votes for any of this half-dozen candidates are deserved. To us, however, the three names we're recommending provide the goals of generational and background balance on the commission, and an opportunity to both bring in new perspectives while also maintaining continuity.
James Hill is a candidate who can speak to the issues that are facing a number of Durhamites who find themselves sidelined amidst economic progress. His work experience, civic commitment on the City's capital projects committee, and his strong-voiced passion for a timely set of issues lead us to feel Hill deserves a seat on the commission. While (for instance) Reckhow's explanation of Durham's small-county, high-watershed disadvantages in recruiting middle-skill manufacturing are entirely accurate, Hill's vocal desire to more closely look at the kinds of jobs we are recruiting presents an important civic counterbalance. Hill would also provide a modicum of a generational change on a BOCC that's largely been AARP-qualified during our decade observing Durham.
Selecting between Hyman and Fikes -- two candidates with remarkably similar histories of civic and professional engagement -- was one of the toughest calls on the ballot. We do believe the BOCC would be well-served by having a member who has served as a senior county government staffer; however, with only five total board seats, this one was a literal toss-up. By a narrow margin, we give the nod to Tara Fikes due to her service on Durham's social services board, and her stewardship of housing, community development and civil rights functions in Orange County, versus Hyman's HR leadership within Durham; it also creates a second "outsider" opportunity. But, again, this is a close call.
Some -- particularly those who were incensed by the 751 debacle a few years ago -- would likely make a different selection than we would recommend for our fifth slot. And frankly, neither of us entered this interview cycle believing that we would have Brenda Howerton as one of our recommended candidates. But as we noted in a number of our BOCC interviews, the board has moved back to civic, productive engagement with controversies left in the past. Howerton's growth, learning and engagement as a county commissioner, and at the state level, are worthy accomplishments. We believe the BOCC is generally doing a good job, and that returning three incumbents while adding two new voices is a worthy outcome. In this light, we endorse Howerton's return to the board.
We strongly considered endorsing Heidi Carter, a passionate advocate for public education and a devoted public servant, to one of the five seats. Yet we feel there is widespread BOCC support for public education with the slate we've recommended -- both in terms of overall funding and pre-K support. On broader issues of county government, while we know Carter would be a fast study, it's hard to recommend Carter over Fikes, Hyman or Howerton in terms of knowledge of county government operations, particularly in areas like social services. And Hill -- the candidate we might have been most tempted to replace with Carter -- brings a diversity of age, gender and perspective. Still, Carter has been a fine elected official and will be a strong commissioner, if elected.
Michael Page has been a longtime county commissioner and school board member, and is clearly qualified for the role. Relatively speaking, we're more impressed with the knowledge, nuance and accomplishment that Howerton has had in less time on the BOCC, and we wonder if some of the challengers don't evidence -- here's a Campaign 2016 word for you -- a higher energy and passion for service. We see plenty of compelling reasons to retain Page in a year without such a qualified, motivated base of challengers. But this year, he doesn't make our top five.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We are not recommending Glyndola Massenburg-Beasley or Fred Foster for BOCC seats.
In the case of Massenburg-Beasley, while she brings a strong civic resume in some ways, we have unanswered questions over her past work leading a credit counseling service in Durham. The group, founded in 1998 and receiving a sweetheart deal on a downtown building a couple of years later, saw revenue plummet, debt rise (including at least one building with three mortgages), and had delinquent payroll when filing for bankruptcy in 2003. A Washington, DC non-profit that loaned the group $260,000 for low-income housing in 2002 was a creditor the very next year.
We would have considered Massenburg-Beasley's perspective on the issue -- she claimed at the time that the Herald-Sun was misrepresenting the issue, though the Triangle Business Journal's archived story on the matter quotes directly from the bankruptcy filing. That we were unable to receive a response for an interview does nothing to alleviate our level of concern.
Our local government has come a long ways since the turmoil of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Strong financial discipline and leadership skills are key to maintaining that progress. In absence of evidence to the contrary, we won't recommend a candidate where risks on these issues exist.
Fred Foster has gained a term's worth of experience on the BOCC, but we do not believe he has the deeper knowledge of county operations and strategy that either Howerton or Page have. In a year where we believe experience and new ideas should be balanced on the board, Foster falls to the bottom of the depth chart here. A voter seeking to stay-the-course on county governance might be tempted to bubble-in both Howerton and Page's bubbles, but the other talented candidates for office are too numerous to extend the same to Foster.
Now go vote, y'all.