BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for November 9, 2009
"F for Fake" -- and for "Free" tickets to Orson Welles' film at ATC

Do municipal incumbent snubs portend a coming Committee battle?

We've been sniffing around a story for a few days, but kudos to Carl Kenney for breaking the details on this one at his blog REV-elution.

Namely: the big outcome of last week's general election may end up having nothing to do with the incumbents who won or the challengers who lost.

Instead, the biggest impact it could have, according to two BCR sources (and implied in Kenney's article), could be on the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and its longtime leader, Lavonia Allison.

Allison's presented what this observer has seen to be a much more public image since last year's County Commission race, when Committee-backed Joe Bowser -- left for dead politically after the firing/rehiring of Mike Ruffin in '04, among other fracases -- moved smartly back into office well ahead of presumably better-situated challengers.

From speaking up and speaking back to elected officials like Cora Cole-McFadden and Brenda Howerton, to her angry comments about Durham taking a step backwards when it approved urban chickens, Allison has been a much more personally forceful voice in the limelight in the past eighteen months -- even as she's been a behind the scenes force for years.

I've suspected this forthrightness stemmed from a confidence after the 2008 BOCC elections; given the certainty with which she's intimated (as with Howerton) that one must support the Committee agenda or face ballot-box defeat, at least that explanation seems the most likely.

But I've also tended to suspect that the national political events of 2008 -- particularly that election's turnout of an unusual voter base that didn't typically participate in elections -- was really the story. (More succinctly, as one wag told me last week, much of last year's BOCC field was defeated by Barack Obama.)

I found it curious this year when Dr. Allison and her supporters on the Committee flirted with support for upstart challengers in the municipal race.

The endorsement of Donald Hughes over Cora Cole-McFadden wasn't much of a surprise, as the Committee relationship with the former City department head has never been particularly warm.

That Pastor Sylvester Williams came close to gaining the endorsement of the DCABP over Howard Clement also raised eyebrows.

The big surprise, though, happened when Mayor Bill Bell (as has been told to BCR) came within a single vote of losing the mayoral endorsement to Steven Williams.

Bell, mind you, has been an equal-opportunity mayor with as much support in the downtown community as the business community. But he's also spearheaded a range of civil rights efforts in his three-plus decades in local politics -- most notably the critical and difficult merger of a white-majority county school system with Durham's largely-minority city schools.

Heck, Bell's first experience when he moved to Durham as an engineer for IBM, a press report a couple of years ago noted, was in looking to buy a house Parkwood, and finding prospective neighbors a-twitter, meeting to discuss what it would mean to have an African-American neighbor.

To have a Committee that's closely aligned with the Democratic Party -- Allison has long been on the state party's executive committee -- look to swing its support not only to a novitiate challenger, but a registered Republican as well?

Well, let's pick up with what Kenney's dug up, since he tells the story better than I can:

The low voter turn-out and wide margin of victory by the incumbents hid the story lurking in the background of the most recent election. The real scoop is the rift between the black incumbents on the City Council and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People’s power base.

Conversations with Committee insiders unveils a contentious process that included a fiery exchange between Melvin Whitley and Lavonia Allison, Bill Bell barely receiving the endorsement of the powerful Political Committee and the allegation that Howard Clement was told to axe Whitley as his campaign manager or lose the Committee’s endorsement....

Most troubling is the move among some to oust Bill Bell. Change isn’t always a bad thing, but why would the Committee vote to place the leadership of Durham in the hands of a person with no political experience? The change that was hoped for wasn’t as much about making Durham a better place, but more about making a statement about the power of the endorsement process. Sadly, it all leaves the Durham Committee further disconnected from the Community they seek to serve.

Kenney goes into more detail -- including the little-reported alliance between the four incumbents' campaign, the so-called "coordinated campaign" that provided longer coattails for less sure-footed Council members, in the process of naturally emphasizing the team approach and unity on many issues, and the pressure brought against Clement and coordinated campaign chair the Rev. Melvin Whitley over Whitley's participation in the campaign.

But the pushback against Bell and other incumbents was so, frankly, bizarre that it may just have deeper implications for the Committee.

After all, as Kenney notes, it wasn't exactly very logical for the Committee's current power brokers to take on not just any old incumbents, but to pick fights with the like of Bell and Clement -- leaders whose long and successful tenures in City government suggests something that may be anathema to Allison to hear, but which must be said anyway:

They have more political chits and influence, as long-serving successful public servants, than Allison does with the putative power of a once-meaningful endorsement.

(Mind you, Cora Cole-McFadden did better in the general election without the Committee's endorsement than Clement did with it -- a pattern present in the primary, too.)

Is that a tough message for the Committee's chairwoman?

Hell, I wouldn't want to be delivering it in person.

My suspicion? That the 2008 electoral success went to the heads of the Committee's current leadership, and that issues like the urban chicken mess led Allison and others to want to flex their 2008 muscles again.

Friends, I don't think that approach looks like it will work again -- except, maybe, come Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If there's one person who hasn't faced anything in the form of a re-election challenge, it's been Allison, who's been regularly re-elected to the leadership of the Durham Committee in recent years since she took office.

Mind you, it's worth noting that Kenney's been a regular detractor of Allison -- with the Indy noting back in 2001 that he was a rumored opponent of hers in that year's bid for a new term, though Kenney's name was not nominated.

But BCR's heard from independent sources that a challenge may be in the offing for Allison this cycle.

If so, there's two big questions that likely determine whether Dr. Allison's hold on the Committee continues, or whether the group goes a new path at its biennial elections next month.

First, will the anger of incumbents -- perhaps most deservedly Bill Bell -- carry through to an actual organized effort to change the organization's leadership?

And second, will the political impotence of the organization in this election cycle combined with the unorthodox (and ultimately ineffectual) approach to endorsements this time around lead others to want to challenge Allison's leadership?

Mind you, as we've said here repeatedly, the political obit of the DCABP has been written more times than one can record.

And Allison has held on to her position now for twelve years.

It'd be ridiculous to count her out. But this time around, I'm suspecting that something may in fact be afoot -- at least where the Committee's chairwoman herself is concerned.


Frank Hyman

Interestingly, as the Committee's rules have narrowed the number of people who can participate in their endorsement meetings, their success rate for their candidates has gone down.

* Black voters supporting black challengers defeated Committee candidates Jackie and Regina (incumbents both) for their school board seats a few years ago.

* Howerton edged Committee candidate Fred Foster for a seat on the County Commissioners with the help of ticked off black women, who weren't happy that the Committee hadn't endorsed any female candidates.

* This go-round, the Committee endorses Jackie Wagstaff's son--Donald Hughes-- over long time Committee activist Cole-McFadden. And even tho Hughes tries to make an issue out of the incumbent's supposed indifference to inner-city neighborhoods, the Committee candidate gets his clock cleaned, mostly with votes from inner-city neighborhoods.

As the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People becomes less democratic, it also becomes less effective.

Frank Hyman


Thanks for sharing the story, Kevin. Also, thanks to Carl for the original story.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the Committee. What is their process for taking a stand for or against specific legislation? I'm just confused about the process that leads them to oppose urban chickens, yet support the 751 assemblage. Is it that the Committee does not actually take a stand on these issues, and Dr. Allison speaks for herself at public meetings? Or are there actually folks at the Committee making these decisions?

Kevin Davis

@Rob: Dr. Allison is not one to introduce herself as being chair of the Durham Committee at public meetings. She does not intimate that her positions are those of the organization. She also doesn't declare that they are not.

That cloudiness is, I suspect, part of the power play.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An interesting thought occurred to me after musing over this story some more.

The idea that powerful Durham political stakeholders who've given Allison a free-pass in the past might be ready to bring up a challenger to her this election is interesting for many reasons.

Not least of which, though, is transit.

After all, with Allison's stand against the prepared foods tax last year -- even linking up with the very anti-Obama "Americans for Prosperity" to do so -- there's little sense among the political cognoscenti that the good (Ed.D.) doctor would support a half-cent local option sales tax for transit.

(Note especially Donald Hughes' carefully-worded opposition to the sales tax while supporting novel options for funding transit service.)

And while the tax is certain to be stood up in a low-turnout election year (2011, we'd guess, to give time for the recession to fade), it'll have its best chances of success with the Committee's support.

A possible new chair of the DCABP provides interesting leverage on that front, come to think of it.

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