One of the challenges I'm sure folks in government face is that, while everyone wants a piece of you when something goes wrong, everyone takes your work for granted when things are going right.
With last week's announcement that Diane Catotti is stepping down from City Council after three four-year terms -- coming on the heels of Eugene Brown's similar announcement a couple of weeks back -- Durham's City Council is about to lose two experienced, veteran leaders.
It's perfectly natural for Brown and Catotti to be ready for new challenges and some time off after twelve years on the Council.
But to those who've paid less attention to City happenings in the past few years than, say, in the early 2000s, it's easy to forget that the City's veteran legislature is undoubtedly one of the keys to the City's success. And in looking at the elections to come, will we come to realize we've taken experience for granted?
Durham's City Council, in my time observing it, has stood out from other elected boards in places I've lived on a couple of fronts: the members by and large are experienced; have civic and private-sector leadership experience; they analyze issues on their merits; and special interests take a back seat.
This doesn't mean I always agree with their positions or their votes on issues, but it's hard not to respect the background from which they come on issues, and particularly the deep experience they bring to their roles.
Our mayor is an engineer by training, who's served in local government since the early 1970s -- not, one can imagine, an easy time to be an African-American in Southern politics or society in general. And he's served the community in a range of roles over forty years, usually able to triangulate a key point of compromise on most issues.
A mayor pro tem with experience as a City department head before her retirement and new role. A former Whole Foods executive, and a former newspaper publisher, each with copious civic experience. A retired teacher long active in civil rights and educational causes, including service on the State Board of Education.
And, in Brown and Catotti, a residential real estate agent and health care consultant, both active in civic affairs and advocacy.
Another unusual aspect of the Council is the relative longevity that's been seen on its core members.
While Don Moffitt, Steve Schewel, and Eddie Davis are fairly new additions -- none, though, being novitiates to Durham civic affairs by a long shot -- Bill Bell, Cora Cole-McFadden, Brown and Catotti have served on the Council for more than a decade; fourteen years for the mayor and his pro tem, a dozen each for Brown and Catotti.
Together, that's fifty years of public service just in elected City office. Add to that nearly three more decades of County Commission service by Bell and Cole-McFadden's City staff service, and you're closing in on a century of civic experience.
Nearly one-quarter of which disappears with Brown and Catotti's retirement.
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We live in a era when it's fashionable to praise what Michael Lewis called "the new-new thing" -- be it the latest disruptive app, the hottest new restaurant (that pushes last week's hot restaurant out of mind), and so forth.
I'd daresay that we tend to celebrate innovation, creativity, and change over tradition and experience; things we tend to see as staid, outmoded, or old-fashioned.
And not that politicians have ever been in the running in too many most-popular contests, but more than ever, we live in an age when, nationally, new-entrants on the scene are seen as more impactful than the long-serving statesmen.
Against that backdrop, Durham's moved in exactly the opposite path since 2001. And when you look at how that has coincided with a drastic improvement in the stability and progress of Durham's civic life, it's not hard to see the wisdom in, well, electing wisdom.
Durham once had a larger City Council, and while I haven't looked through the full roster, my sense is that electeds tended to rotate in and out more frequently, including a decent drumbeat of in-and-out mayors. And City politics were more chaotic and ineffectual in that period, certainly.
Since the Council shrunk, and the current membership (plus a few longtime and now former members, including Mike Woodard and Howard Clement) established their tenure, City government has moved in a much more positive direction.
Newcomers are less and less likely to hear the old jokes that were once endemic about politics in Durham -- about an incompetent City government featuring a rotating door of City managers. (Many of us, I'm sure, remember Marcia Conner.)
Durham's City Council has managed its appointed resources well. It did a smart thing several years ago in moving Patrick Baker from an interim role after Conner's departure to the city attorney seat, while Tom Bonfield has been certainly a significant improvement in the quality of city manager versus those that Durham had for years.
At the same time, even where disagreements exist on policy matters, you generally find a general consensus on the big-picture items from this Council. Unlike some legislatures, where deep fissures exist in belief, Durham's electeds by and large want the same outcomes, differing largely in shades of policy approach and nuance.
Unfortunately, you only have to look a few blocks away from City Hall to Durham's County Commission to see the difference that collaborative, trusting relationships have in what the public can accomplish.
Or to see the difference between a board that is competent yet unexceptional, versus one that I would consider high-performing.
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At the risk of sounding nostalgic for leaders who haven't left office yet, the departure of two senior members makes me want to emphasize just how unique, and beneficial, the weird nature of Durham's politics is.
In too many cities, City Council candidates run with the nod (and financing) of development interests, or as part of an established insider's network. And in those cities, government policy seems driven more by special interests than by the merits of a particular matter.
In Durham, the most common source of grumbling is the outsized role that political action committees (PACs) like the People's Alliance play in folks' elections, through their candidate endorsement machinations.
Do we ever stop for a second and realize how interesting it is that, in Durham, the supposedly "entrenched" power base are groups consisted of "ordinary" (perhaps) citizens? Where, in some recent elections, developers have decried the role of these interests and tried to bankroll alternative candidates, to a silent thud at the ballot box?
We don't see astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity and their ilk persuading Durhamites to vote for the "pro-business" candidate -- a candidate who would, most likely, be in favor of approving any zoning or development request that comes their way.
Of course, the "ordinary" citizens who run these PACs aren't ordinary in Durham -- but instead of money being their currency of the realm, their expertise, time, and interest.
American political scientists have written for decade about the role that money has had in buying voice ahead of those who would speak or volunteer; in Durham, active civic engagement still carries more sway.
In our weird little Durham bubble, not only have the typical entrenched or motivated interests avoided carrying the day, but we've tended in a relatively meritocratic style to see those who've been most engaged as citizens step up into larger, more prominent elected roles.
The leadership we've grown in our municipal borders, then, shows up in the results Durham has seen in the past decade-plus of revitalization and growth.
Are we going to see municipal statesmen (and stateswomen) step up into the breach?
And what does the pipeline look for leaders who'll follow? (After all, one presumes that Mayor Bell, having completed more than four decades in public office, will not run for office forever.)
It's easy to criticize public officials when they miss the mark, or when we're unhappy with a decision that local governments make. But it's harder to remember to give kudos when things are going right.
Here's hoping this election round gives us reasons to be excited moving forward, and not regretful at the beginning of what's most likely a generational transition in leadership.