Monday proved an interesting day in Durham's "silly season," as one neighbor calls our bi-annual political merry-go-round.
The City Council meeting brought a tremendous turnout -- over eighty, by the news media's count -- of individuals who appeared to be present just for the promised discussion of Durham's "illegal immigrant" policy, as broadcast in automated robo-calls from mayoral candidate and Councilman Thomas Stith.
Just hours before, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People made an expected Council primary endorsement (Farad Ali) -- and an (almost-)completely baffling one (Victoria Peterson).
Let's take a look at each in turn.
Stith Goes Down to the "Sanctuary City"
As noted above, the Council chambers were packed Monday night with individuals looking to speak out on the question of how Durham leaders choose to review and revise the policies on matters relating to illegal immigration.
I continue to differ with the Herald-Sun's interpretation of the policy; today's piece notes that the standing Durham Police Department policy "is even more restrictive and says police 'shall not inquire into the immigration status of any person.'" However, as we noted yesterday, that statement is within a section of the policy titled "Identification Procedures During Stops and Calls," whereas the police practices of checking names against immigration databases, as described in recent Council meetings, all occur after arrest. (General Order 4073 as promulgated by former DPD Chief Chalmers has separate sections for pre-arrest and post-arrest activities.)
The fact that the Council doesn't seem surprised or disappointed that police are checking into immigration matters after arrest makes it clear to me that the current practice and policy were intended primarily if not solely to protect individuals from being racially profiled on the basis of 'appearing to be' Hispanic, and being interrogated prior to arrest as to immigration status. (The one citizen who spoke on the subject, activist Theresa El-Amin, was active in the 2003 push for the resolution -- and noted angrily in her comments a similar interpretation of the resolution's meaning, and that it was not intended to create some "sanctuary" in Durham.)
Now, whichever interpretation of the policy and practice are correct, I found it interesting that Stith in his Monday night comments seemed pre-occupied with such matters of doctrine and legalese, as opposed to the raw emotion of the topic.
When you have released a robo-call onto the answering machines of local residents that says, in part--
"Did you know that Durham is a sanctuary city, a city where illegal immigrants commit crimes without fear of being deported? That's right, our local police can't inquire about the citizenship of people who commit a crime in our city."
--you're not raising an issue of logic, procedure and analysis. You're throwing a raw piece of emotional meat to the voting public, trying to stir up passions and anger and bring out the voting base.
To some extent, Stith appeared to this observer to be a bit taken aback by the size and hostility of the crowd, which broke into applause several times during early comments by Council about the topic. If Mayor pro tem Cora Cole-McFadden delivered the coup de grace (as Barry put it) with her "innocent" question asking the audience why they all turned out for a topic not on the agenda, Stith seemed to resemble foie gras by the time the bulk of the crowd left the meeting as the discussion approached the consent agenda.
Of course, this is not to say that Stith may not be able to make some hay out of the topic. For one, the Council is likely to reword its policies to bring them in line with the practice that seems well-accepted -- something Stith can try to leverage as ammunition. At the same time, the turnout of a large crowd to protest a change to the status quo policy provides a powerful visual imagery that can certainly be used or misused.
That is, although Durham does not appear to in any way be a sanctuary city, those viewers of the evening news who are themselves concerned about the immigration issue are more likely to take a message away from the sight of Monday night's large crowd that fits their own existing views and concerns, and not catch the nuance of what the discussion was actually about. In that light, they may walk away thinking, "Hey, Stith wants to use the police to rid Durham of illegal immigrants. I like that."
Even though, of course, that's not what Stith is saying at Council, or even on the robo-call.
It's this kind of politics-by-totem that is new to the Bull City in this race, on the local political level at least. And it's that fact that I think swings this issue to a negative for Stith. Some of the anger and emotion at Monday's meeting emanated from the topic of discussion -- but just as much seemed to stem from the nature of the campaign tactics Stith used here. (By example, when Cole-McFadden asked her delicious question as to who publicized the immigration topic, the answers of "robo-calls" from the crowd also met the cry of one man, "Ask the Robo-Cop," a seeming reference to Stith that drew chuckles.)
My guess is that Stith has engaged a political consulting firm to help him put together his campaign (a practice that many candidates follow.) From the tone of the campaign so far, though, it seems like they're used to playing in your typical Sunbelt town, where these tactics often work.
Durham is a metro area, however, that is decidedly left-leaning, and which also has one of the highest concentrations of individuals with advanced degrees in the country. This is a place where people turn out for political action committee meetings and where there is a high level of attention paid to politics and public life.
In short, there may not be that many channel-flippers who make a quick-study choice based on the politics of imagery here. There are many more who are likely, through listservs and blogs and meetings and word-of-mouth, to be turned off by Stith's tactics last week with the racial robo-calls.
If I reckon right, the strategy displayed late last week isn't something likely to fly here.
The Durham Committee: Proving Revenge is a Dish Best Served Crazy
The other big political news to come from Monday's headlines, of course, were the primary-election endorsements of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
The choice of Farad Ali was no surprise. Ali holds a respected position with a local non-profit focused on minority economic development, and has a past career as a local and corporate banker. He also appears to have significant support from throughout Durham neighborhoods, as evidenced by the number of fundraisers and meet-and-greets being held throughout Durham communities for Ali.
The choice of Victoria Peterson as the second endorsed candidate, however, marks what I can only describe as a sad day for Durham politics, and for the storied Committee, which has played an integral role in Durham politics for decades.
The Committee, it should be noted, typically backs only black candidates (though not always, as the choice of Diane Catotti over Stith in the primary four years ago showed.) However, the Committee chose to grant only two endorsements instead of the expected three -- leaving a black candidate, David Harris, off the roll call.
Now Harris, mind you, is one of the better-pedigreed candidates for the election. President of the InterNeighborhood Council, a traditional base for stepping up to City leadership. Past co-facilitator of Durham's PAC 2. Past president of the Old Farm Neighborhood Association.
Peterson, for her part, is a longtime political activist and perennial election runner-up who has demonstrated what has appeared, at least to this observer, to be behavior that is best described as bizarre in recent memory. Witness, for instance, the District Attorney Appreciation luncheon earlier this year, which marked the point by which everyone in Durham's political universe, white or black, left or right, pretty much realized Mike Nifong was perfectly loony.
Or Peterson's behavior at Council, where she frequently extends Council meetings by a half hour or more by signing up to talk on every topic, only to veer into favored subjects -- some positive, like the need for more job-training for African-American males, but some darkly negative, particularly around Durham's Latino population, and insinuations interpreted by this observer to imply that Durham's black community is more deserving of jobs than its Hispanic community.
Peterson's also angered members of Durham's large gay community with less-than-progressive stands on issues of importance to that community, too, including reportedly opposing gay/lesbian-themed films being shown at the Carolina Theatre.
So, why Peterson over Harris? The short answer seems to be, Harris ticked off Lavonia Allison more recently.
Allison, the powerful but aging chair of the Committee, was pilloried by Peterson in this 2001 Independent Weekly article, which depicts Peterson as railing against the closed-door politics of the Committee and the need for fresh voices:
"I think the committee needs new leadership," group member and conservative activist Victoria Peterson said after the vote. "We need to get a new generation ready. I'm hoping this will be Dr. Allison's last term."
Harris' offense? Sources say that Harris, who like Allison is active in Durham County Democratic Party politics, was offended by Harris' support for a candidate for a party position who varied from Allison's old choice.
End result? Payback time for Harris in this election cycle.
Which, to my mind, is a real shame. Peterson has no chance at all of being elected -- even if she survived the primary, she has left a veritable battlefield of behavior, public statements, and burned bridges that make her the most unelectable candidate in the Bull City.
All of which serves as another unfortunate turn in the proud history of the committee, and another distraction to the issues of the day in Durham politics.
A "silly season," indeed.