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As Catotti, Brown depart, who'll fill their big shoes?

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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.



Davis 2015!

John Martin

Sorry, Kevin, but I think this is a less perceptive analysis than you normally do, and way too self-congratulatory. I take particular exception to this: "In our weird little Durham bubble, not only have the typical entrenched or motivated interests avoided carrying the day. . ." That statement ignores two things: first, downtown developers seem to be getting everything they want, at least from our elected leaders. When the Historic Preservation Commission rejected some apartment plans proposed by Federal Capital Partners, the HPC's reward was a tongue-lashing from the Mayor and Eugene Brown. Roger Perry and East-West Partners destroyed a building that the Council had previously designated as an historic landmark (Liberty Warehouse) with the Council's whole-hearted approval. We will soon see how many of the historic buildings in the Central Park district will survive, and how many will be replaced by apartment buildings that have all the charm and architectural distinctiveness of a Hampton Inn. (And speaking of Hampton Inns, let's not even think about what happened to McPherson Hospital at the hands of Residence Inns.) This election may determine the fate of many more historic and architecturally interesting buildings.

But second, these comments fail to recognize that non-profit groups and government agencies may have their own self-interested agendas that may or may not be in the best interests of the larger community. (There is, by the way, a whole school of economic theory that analyzes just this; it's called "public choice" economics.) I would simply note that a lot of groups such as GoTransit (formerly Triangle Transit Authority), the Durham Housing Authority, the Durham Rescue Mission, Housing for New Hope and others, put forward projects that often fail to get sufficient scrutiny precisely because they are non-profits. Last night, I attended a meeting called by some folks in Chapel Hill and Orange County who are concerned that GoTransit's light rail plans will drain the transit funds that are urgently needed by Chapel Hill Transit to maintain and upgrade their bus service. Some people from Durham are also apprehensive because the light rail route is being ended short of Alston Ave. Therefore, while UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, and West Durham are served (somewhat), NCCU, Durham Tech, and East Durham are left out in the cold.

Or consider DHA. They lobbied the City not to choose the Fayetteville St. site for the new police headquarters even though that site was larger and cheaper than the East Main St. site. DHA thinks they are going to redevelop the Fayetteville St. site. So now we are going to put the police headquarters on East Main St. where it may well create one more fortress like the Human Services Complex that will stymie revitalization and connectivity between downtown and East Durham.

I agree that being a Council member is hard work if it's to be done well. But no one is forced to be on the Council, and citizens need to demand that those who are elected do the hard work necessary to carry out their responsibilities.

Kevin Davis

@John - reasonable people will disagree (and you're eminently reasonable.) When I talk about developer handouts, I mean the kind of wholesale, developers-can-do-no-wrong atmosphere I grew up with in Orlando, where developers make huge donations and face no challenges on their projects. E.g., a 751 South would have been a gimme in any other community. In those communities, City Council is basically an expressway to what bigger-business wants.

Has the Council favored downtown redevelopment? Sure. But while the developers involved are, by the nature of the beast, bigger players, my own opinion is that the Council hasn't been unreasonable. And to be real for a moment, the HPC blocking development on a West Village surface lot struck me as a puzzler at the time.

This Council has long pressed developers to try to reach accord with neighborhoods on projects; has appointed civic-minded folks (not developer shills) to boards like the DPC; and, while the administration is putting a turd on the table for the new Police HQ, is getting pushback -- including from some of our soon-departing Council members.

That you don't agree with the Council's decision is perfectly okay, but doesn't translate to their being developer shills. Durham, downtown and elsewhere, is far better than it was 15 years ago, or a decade back when downtown was an empty hulking shell.

No disagreement on non-profits and their interests, but credit to a number of Council members -- and groups like INC -- for pushing back on the likes of the East Durham transit equity issue you raise.

John Martin

I don't like terms like "developer shills" unless someone can clearly demonstrate that an official has been bribed. It's just name-calling otherwise. And let's be clear that the 751 South project went through because Durham Board of County Commissioners voted to rezone the land. You can lament what the legislature did all you want, but without the rezoning, there would have been no project, the legislature notwithstanding. I mention this because the majority on the Board bought into the idea that 751 South means "jobs." And whenever anyone says that magic word, projects seem to get approved. ("Increasing the tax base" is another magical incantation.)

The City Council has not been much different, and 751 South is the exception that basically proves the rule. Can anyone name a project downtown that they've objected to in any serious way? And I don't find the HPC's decision "a puzzler." The fact that the building was to be built on an empty lot is irrelevant. HPC is supposed to scrutinize new buildings in local historic districts to determine whether or not the design is in keeping with the character of the district. They said this one wasn't. Well, surprise, surprise, surprise, as Gomer Pyle would put it. All of the new downtown apartments look pretty much the same, and pretty much the architectural equivalent of elevator music.

The Council voted to make Liberty Warehouse an "historic landmark" when Greenfire wanted the designation, and voted to remove it when Roger Perry and East-West Partners wanted it removed. Among other things, this makes a joke of the historic-landmark designation. As I said, I don't like the term, "developer's shills" because I think that redirects attention to the Council members' motives (which I don't care about) and away from the objective facts of what they are actually doing. At the moment Roger Perry seems to be able to get almost anything he wants. He nearly rolled over and crushed Liberty Arts and nearly took what was really their property without compensation. The Council did stop that, and for that mild achievement, I'll salute them. But not much else.


Is Kalkof the presumed leading candidate?


The Durham Housing Authority is a mess. I have a wager about the life expectancy of Oldham Towers and Liberty St homes. The minute someone offers a mixed use mixed income development there you better believe those buildings will be demolished and tenants evicted.


Natalie, correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the point of "Mixed Income" communities to KEEP lower income housing?

Doesn't mixed mean high AND low (or in practice, middle AND low)?

Isn't that exactly what all the harbinging over affordable housing is crying for?


Election is 4 months away and I'm only aware of Phil Azar announcing he'll run? Candidate filing begins July 6 and closes July 17. http://dconc.gov/home/showdocument?id=11906

It'll be interesting to see who throws their hat in. Diane and Eugene offered many years of service and it'll be sad to see them go.


It is what well meaning people want but there are consequences. However, it typically displaces long-term and very low income residents in favor of 'better' low-income residents. Those units often do not then stay low-income or affordable. The replacement of units is not 1:1, the rents are not stable, and relatively few people are able to 'move back' once it's completed.

There are old people paying $50/month at Oldham Towers. Where would they live for the 24 months that a place like that was demolished and rebuilt? Once it is rebuilt- who would be around to return?

So yes, maybe it's ideal for the city and growth and land use. Unless you live there.


I'm in inclined to agree with John Martin. There are some bright spots on this Council and they have overall made more good decisions than bad ones, there is still a LOT of room for improvement. I'm hoping to see some fresh perspectives from competent challengers.

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