We noted here earlier in the month that there were signs of a possible rumble in the works this December at the biennial election for leadership of the venerable Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
And BCR's learned this week that one of the voices most disgruntled with the decade-long leadership of Dr. Lavonia Allison -- the Rev. Mel Whitley, most recently the campaign manager for Howard Clement's successful Ward 2 re-election bid -- is throwing his hat in the ring for leadership of the decades-old civil rights and political action organization.
Whitley's isn't the only possible candidacy out there; there's also rumors that former DCABP head Ken Spaulding or former political chair and treasurer Keith Corbett (a former NC Mutual CFO, now at Self-Help) could step up for the position.
But Whitley's announcement that he'll be running, confirmed by the N&O, is setting off a firestorm of debate in Committee circles.
None of which helps to answer the question that looms over the entire process, though: the question of just what qualifies one to vote in the DCABP election, and whether the voting rules are strict enough to deny anyone except the incumbent Allison a chance to walk away with the necessary votes.
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As we've talked about here before, and as Carl Kenney has documented very well at his REV-elution blog, the frustrations of some with Allison's leadership are not a new occurrence, but this year's endorsement cycle seems to have galvanized the opposition of at least some.
The turning point may well have been the near-endorsement of virtual unknown Steven Williams over three-decades-plus leader Bill Bell for the mayoral race, a move averted only by the last-minute presence of a qualified voter to break the tie at a Committee endorsement meeting.
That the Committee nearly turned away from Bell -- a longtime BOCC and City Council fixture, and the man most responsible for moving through racial politics to merge the city and county school systems in the early 1990s -- created some significant ill will, it seems, among a number of Durham black elites.
The four incumbents in this fall's election, meanwhile, ran individual campaigns but also a "coordinated campaign" encouraging voters to re-elect the entire slate of officeholders.
That coordinated campaign, helmed by Whitley, was an unusual tactic -- and one that drew Allison's ire, BCR's learned, since it undermined the Committee's endorsement of Donald Hughes over incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden.
At the election night incumbents' celebration, Whitley made no secret of his frustration with the DCABP endorsement process.
And now, it seems, he's ready to take a shot at leading the organization.
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Two major challenges seem to be at hand.
The first: Whitley's role as treasurer of the liberal-leaning People's Alliance.
Although the PA and Committee (directly, or via underlying interests) have worked together in the past to form a quasi-Democratic/liberal alliance, in recent years Allison has steered a course significantly more conservative than the PA:
- The Committee's current leadership has strongly backed the 751 assemblage rezoning, while the PA has been a consistent voice opposing the dense south Durham project;
- The PA's support for urban-chickens contrasted Allison's opposition to the change, which drew strong words and ire from the Committee leader; and,
- The Committee teamed with the right-wing Americans for Prosperity to oppose a local-option sales tax in 2008 to support museum and community cultural projects, a vote that the opposition strongly won in a high-turnout election year.
The PA's current president, David Harris, also got the cold shoulder from Allison and the Committee in 2007's City Council at-large elections, something that likely cost Harris the election over eventual endorsement recipient Farad Ali.
To longtime political activist and Joe Bowser supporter Lois Murphy, a Whitley win would be part of a subjugation of the Committee to PA interests, and possibly hasten the Committee's demise -- though Murphy does, interestingly call for a change in leadership. From a widely cc'ed and forwarded email thread:
Allow me to emphatically inform you that for years Melvin has been working with Katie Munger, who wrote an e-mail several years ago vowing to dismantle the Committee. Melvin has no interest in the mission of our Committee and only wants to chair it so he can usher in the demise of our organization, which has been in the works since its inception in 1935.
Certainly, I do not deny change is needed; however, change fueled by lust for power, vengeance, and with the intent of dismantling the Committee is not the answer. There is not a one of us who has not at one time or another been disenfranchised with the Committee’s leadership. However, one thing that we must not ignore is that Dr. Allison has a long standing record of protecting the mission of the Committee. She regularly attends meetings to voice concerns about the conditions of our people, and she is black and bold enough to publicly divulge racist discriminatory practices, which stifles the advancement of blacks in Durham....
[W]e must not allow the Committee to fall into the hands of those who want to dismantle our organization, not willing to equally share power and resources, as well as continue the Jim Crow mentality. Katie Munger, the People Alliance, and Melvin Whitley desire to see the only independent organization for blacks destroyed because they cannot control it or our leaders. We must lay aside our personal difference to protect this organization from them, as well as those among us who seek to destroy this Committee for their own self serving interest.
It was an argument that drew a rebuke from Chuck Watts in his own email reply; while acknowledging the work Allison has done in the black community and the progress occurring as a result, Watts questions whether the Committee's greatest risk of irrelevance comes from maintaining the status quo rather than changing it:
In my lifetime, I cannot recall a time when the Committee has been at such a low level and has become all but irrelevant to matters of significance to black folks in Durham. You essentially acknowledge that fact in your comments, as has every person with whom I have had private conversation about the state of the Committee over the last few years. I will say it maybe more clearly than you have, IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP AT THE DURHAM COMMITTEE. The destruction of the Committee is more likely to occur from a continuation of the current leadership than it is from almost any change in leadership.
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For all the talk of change and challenges, though, any person desiring to challenge Allison for the leadership of the Committee faces a second, and by no means insignificant challenge -- the qualification to vote.
Watts cites the "bizzare rules that have been put in place to give the Chair control over voting" in his email, a reference to attendance requirements that have made getting elected in the Committee a challenge indeed.
Carl Kenney made a reference to this at his blog, noting attendance requirements he claimed required you to attend two general-body Committee meetings in a year to be able to vote. Yet one of his commenters said the bar was even higher than that -- two general meetings plus one political meeting per quarter.
Regardless of the specifics, the presence of barriers (some of which were enacted after enterprising candidates started packing Committee endorsement meetings a few years back) was visible in the Bell-Williams endorsement vote... in which only eleven souls were able to cast ballots for the major mayoral endorsement.
It is, Kenney implies, a situation that reinforces Allison's control over the organization: individuals uncomfortable with the Committee's direction don't attend meetings, which are dominated instead by those who are close supporters of Allison; that, in turn, makes changing leadership impossible.
The biggest obstacle facing the Committee is a major change that alienates people who want to make a difference. Even if I wanted to come back and participate, I can’t vote for the next leader due to my lack of participation.
In the past, anyone could vote for the leadership of the Durham Committee. The only requirements were that you be black and a resident of Durham…. [The new eligibility rule] leaves the organization under the control of the few who continue to support the work of the Committee. A person like me would have to attend two meetings while waiting for the next election. You would have to bite your tongue and embrace the agenda of the current leadership. Frankly, that is something I can’t do.
Former City Council candidate Darius Little has been approaching the issue from a bylaws, by-the-book perspective, asking Allison for copies of the Committee's constitution and bylaws -- something he's claimed in email threads to Committee members and local elites that he has not received.
(The rumor on the street, in fact, has been that when Durham's first black mayor, Chester Jenkins, passed away this summer, the membership and attendance records of the Committee meetings were in his possession -- a wrinkle that made the endorsement season just past, and perhaps the Committee election to come, that much more interesting.)
The election is set for Thursday, December 10 at White Rock Baptist Church. We'll know then whether Whitley or another challenger has mustered the votes needed to take the reins -- or whether the Committee's rules have, in fact, closed the door to any effective challenge to Allison's leadership.