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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.

Comments

Michael Bacon

Howerton?!? After all the nonsense she pulled over 751 South?

Brian Hawkins

Thank you for the thoughtful and thorough work here. It is much appreciated, as always.

But...what Michael said.

Natalie

Also disagree about Howerton. She's there to make and have a name for herself, not to lead Durham.

Rann

Yes, I'm with all the above re Howerton, and I'm a little disappointed you picked Fikes over Carter. Schools are utterly critical right now, as you've highlighted, and should be given all the backing possible.

Kevin Davis

Thanks, all, for the feedback. I can only speak for myself (not Lisa -- though she may want to comment as well.) I'll note that our choices came after a long discussion where we filled the final three slots about five different ways. And, they were a unanimous consensus, no horse trading. With that said:

1) 751 is probably the main hesitation I had at least on endorsing Howerton. On the other hand, an election has already taken place after 751's initial controversy and this race. I decided that voters had an option in 2012, and retained Howerton and Page at that time.

2) I was impressed by the work Howerton has done to engage in continuous learning, and how much she has grown in knowledge in the last eight years.

3) All in all, the BOCC is working pretty well right now. Retaining 3, and adding 2, seems reasonable. Of the incumbents outside Reckhow and Jacobs, I felt Howerton was the strongest choice.

4) While I am sure much of this is still 751-based and nothing else, I was pretty disturbed by the effective outcomes of the PA and DCABP endorsements. The PA returned the two white incumbents and none of the AA incumbents; the DCABP, more egregiously, returned only the three black incumbents, ignoring two highly qualified incumbents, and nominated Massenburg-Beasley, whom we are unable to recommend at all for the reasons stated in the article.

The Friends endorsed the whole BOCC incumbent slate, which is arguably reasonable -- but there are some legitimate upgrade opportunities, particularly with the Foster seat.

There is something to be said for a unity/best-of-all-worlds endorsement set here, I think.

5) Carter's views on education were the strongest reason to endorse her -- folks should read her interview or ideally listen to it; it's an excellent and persuasive rejoinder to some of the issues raised in BCR's series. On the other hand, as she was the first to admit, her knowledge on other county issues outside public health weren't as strong as Hyman's, and Fikes' experience in Orange County government is highly relevant. On schools, Carter's positions particularly on pre-K are widely supported by almost all the other candidates.

TBH, I fret that my extended explainer above sounds too much like I'm trying to convince y'all that Howerton is a must-vote. The great, great thing about this round is, there are great arguments, I think, to make for all but two of the candidates. Again, this is a really first-rate group. And it's a bit of splitting hairs to pick five. (But we tried anyway.)

Natalie Beyer

“I want to see elected officials who have experience as managers…I want to see elected officials with the experience and gravitas to be able to sit down at a table with Charles Meeker and other Wake County leaders over difficult choices facing us on Jordan Lake and on transit…I want to see elected officials who actually know how our local government works.” From BCR’s Why I’m Voting For…Series (September 28, 2009). In 2009 your own words perfectly described Heidi Carter yet this year you missed the opportunity to endorse her. What an oversight! I've heard from other longstanding BCR readers who share this concern. I have had the honor of working with Heidi Carter for years and know her dedication, integrity and unwavering service to the people of Durham. Heidi has served on the Durham School Board since 2004. She is a quiet leader. She listens to citizens, is caring and empathetic, reads vociferously and asks tough questions. She advocates for equity and excellence for all. She serves on the Durham County Board of Health, the Durham At-Risk Youth Collaborative and numerous other community organizations. Along with City Councilman Don Moffitt, Heidi Co-Chairs the Health Care Committee of the Mayor’s Reducing Poverty Task Force. Heidi has served as Chair of the Board of Education since 2012. In this role she and Vice-Chairman Mike Lee regularly meet with County and City leadership to discuss strategic initiatives. Heidi’s leadership around Universal Pre-K for the Durham community has unified these three elected bodies to focus collectively on this evidence-based strategy towards greater equity for all children in Durham. In electing Heidi Carter as a Durham County Commissioner, citizens would be served by a thoughtful progressive with the deep breadth of knowledge and service to our community. Heidi works countless hours behind the scenes for our community. She is responsive to every phone call and email. She would work with County staff to focus improvements in social services, libraries and health care, listen and respond to concerns from citizens about conditions within the jail and courthouse, and hold all County functions to high standards of service. Heidi works well with everyone and will listen more than she speaks. Her character and integrity are beyond reproach and she is consistent behind closed doors and in the public eye. Luckily Durham citizens can vote for five Commissioners and Heidi Carter should be one.

Natalie

Can I just add that Heidi Carter is a genuinely nice person? She's approachable, kind, and smart and that goes a long way in my book.

Steve Bocckino

Sadly, I don't think the 751 South saga is over.

In her just-filed financial report, Brenda Howerton received $1000 from John Mitchell, one of the 751 principals, and another $1000 from Jeff Hunter, brother of 751 principal Neal Hunter. Howerton also received $250 from 751 attorney Patrick Byker.

Why, if it's all over? What do they want? You'll have to ask Howerton.

Steve Bocckino

root

Play Ball!

Robin

Thank you for pointing out the 751 South info, Steve Bocckino.
(Howerton's report is linked among the others at:
http://dconc.gov/government/departments-a-e/board-of-elections/campaign-finance-schedules-reports-forms/2016-campaign-finance-reports/2016-first-quarterly-reports )
They (and the NC Realtors PAC, listed among the individual contributions) seem to be among her biggest donors. They haven't forgotten...

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