It wouldn't be late-summer if we weren't seeing the endorsements season getting underway here in the Bull City.
And the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People is first out of the chute with their endorsements.
No surprise, the Mayor's race: Bill Bell is the Committee's nominee for what would he promises would be his last two-year term, capping off a four decade stint in Durham elected offices.
Perhaps more intriguing: Besides a nod for the only incumbent, Steve Schewel, the Committee is also endorsing Ricky Hart and Mike Shiflett for the three at-large Council seats.
One thing connects all three of the Council candidates endorsed by the Committee: a long tenure of civic engagement and tenure in the kinds of city and county committees that often have been the development league, if you will, for elected official talent.
The endorsement of four candidates who've all been long-engaged in Durham's traditional politics may be a sign of the Committee's desire to see known quantities in key office roles, especially in a year where a number of first-time candidates and relatively new Durhamites are running.
Interestingly, the campaign features two strongly social justice-oriented candidates; does their failure to get endorsed by the Committee send a message given recent scrutiny on Durham Police and race relations? Or, is this more a reflection of tapping known entities with long history of engagement, versus relative newcomers to civic life?
We suspect the latter -- but this could also foreshadow an intriguing campaign meme to watch, one of political elites (all three PACs, not just the Committee) in a year with a surge of grassroots political activity.
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For those new to Durham politics, the Dem/GOP party ain't the thing that's got the swing when it comes to our non-partisan City elections. Of course, the parties that are so dominant on a state and Federal level could endorse candidates, but they typically don't (or no one seems to care, at least, if they do.)
Instead, the endorsements of Durham's three key political action committees, as well as those of the Indy and Herald-Sun, usually hold a disproportionate impact on election outcomes.
The PA is Durham's progressive wing and reliably picks not just Dems, but individuals who pass muster to the organization's issues and priorities. The Friends of Durham has long been tagged as the conservative voice in the community, though based on their sometimes-overlapping endorsements with the PA including progressives, I'd tend to paint them in recent years more as a center-right group than they'd been in the past.
The Durham Committee endorsements, some of the longest-running in the community given the organization's multi-decade history, have appeared from outsiders' view to ebb and flow not on conventional left-right lines, with candidates from a mix of political viewpoints winning endorsement.
The old saw was that if you locked up three and even two of the PAC endorsements, you likely had your ticket punched for election. Things have always been more interesting when PACs split on their endorsements, though.
For much of the past thirty-plus years, as Paul Luebke noted a few years back, the PA and DCABP tended to be closely allied in their nominations, with both backing liberal candidates with a common vision for progress in Durham.
In recent years, there's been more division in their nominations, driven in part by perspectives on development efforts. Different views on the 751 South project -- which raised concerns over environmental protection from progressives, but which some leaders in the black community responded was needed for construction and retail/commercial jobs in the years after the Great Recession -- led to markedly different, often non-overlapping endorsements in the 2012 County Commissioner race.
(The Herald-Sun's Ray Gronberg notes some of the leadership changes at the Committee, including what he describes as a "de-facto" alliance with the Friends, in this 2014 story.)
As Carl Kenney noted in his Rev-elution blog at the time, the DCABP endorsed incumbents Michael Page and Brenda Howerton along with challenger Omar Beasley, while the PA endorsed Fred Foster, Wendy Jacobs, and Ellen Reckhow -- while intimating that candidates not nominated, notably Page and Howerton, were on the wrong side of the 751 South debate:
“In the Durham County Commissioner race, the threat to progressive values is not from Republicans, but from candidates who are beholden to shadowy developer super-pac money and who are not reliable on equal rights for gay and lesbian people,” the [PA] website states. “PA-PAC encourages you to override your straight democratic vote in this race by voting specifically for Foster, Jacobs, and Reckhow only. […]"
Those comments have further alienated Durham’s black leadership, and have seriously impacted the possibility of future collaboration between the two PAC’s. In assuming ownership of Durham’s only authentic progressive voice, the PA has entered a war zone that may shape politics in Durham for years to come.
The loser in the war is Foster, who lost his endorsement with the DCABP due to his allegiance with PA. It was logical to assume the DCABP would endorse the four black candidates, with the assurance that Foster would win due to the endorsement from both the PA and the DCABP. The PA rolled the dice on posting comments that labeled the DCABP in a way that negates the history and mission of the group. Put another way, those were fighting words.
As it happened, despite Beasley getting the endorsement of both the Friends and the DCABP, Foster rode to victory in the Commissioners' race -- though given the impact that straight-ticket Democratic voting may have had in the partisan race and the high turnout in a Presidential election year, it's dangerous to draw any solid conclusions around the impact of endorsements in that race.
Still, as Jeremy points out over at Durham.io, in 2014's School Board races, the PA and Committee parted ways on several nominations -- each one carried by the PA.
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Before we go too far down the inside-baseball path, let's take a straight-up look at the four candidates the Committee has endorsed.
That Bill Bell would get the nod from the Committee for mayor is, frankly, in no way any surprise of any sort. Indeed, while the mayor faces opponents in this race, it's hard to imagine that the race's outcome would be any different than in any race since then-City Councilman Thomas Stith challenged Bell in 2007, and where despite being outspent by nearly six-figures, Bell still won by 16%.
Since then, Bell has averaged victory margins that, were they seen in another country, ordinarily led Pres. Carter to call for international election monitors.
Small wonder: Bell, first elected to office in 1972 and serving in county or city roles with only the briefest of interruptions since, is probably the most successful electoral candidate in Durham's history in terms of victories. And while there will probably be two more years in which to project his legacy, given that he will likely have served in local office for nearly 30% of Durham's existence (city founded: 1869), one suspects that it'll be in rarified air.
Steve Schewel was pleased to pick up the Committee's nod, noting that he had not earned it in his 2011 race.
"I really appreciate getting it. It means a tremendous amount to me," Schewel told BCR in a Sunday interview. "I have worked with the Durham Committee since the late 1970s. I worked with Babe Henderson when he was the chair, and I worked with Willie Lovett when he was the chair," Schewel said, recalling political organizing meetings at longtime Durham political-wag hangouts.
"This is the first time I've received the Committee endorsement, and I'm thrilled about it," Schewel added.
I've worked with the Durham Committee a lot, on campaigns that I supported and they supported.
Asked about the accomplishments he's most proud of in his first term on Council and which might most resonate with PACs and voters alike, Schewel cited what he
"In most ways, in the public at large, I think there is a lot of support for the direction Durham is heading. And I don't just mean the government, I mean the city," Schewel said, citing the city's growing prosperity, downtown success. "I think that benefits me, and it benefits the mayor, because we're both incumbents. I think that helps us," he added, while also noting a range of other issues he was proud of specifically -- including the City allocating a penny of tax rate for affordable housing, the allocation of dedicated funding for parks/recreation support, and -- as we'll discuss further below -- city leadership's response to concerns over the Durham Police.
Michael Shiflett noted that he was similarly pleased to be nominated by the Committee this time around, having not received the Committee's when he ran in 1999.
Shiflett's long been involved in a wide range of community activities, from two stints as Inter-Neighborhood Council president (and ongoing service as a representative), to active work in the Watts-Hillandale and Northgate Park neighborhoods, to serving on and sometimes chairing Durham Businesses Against Crime and the Housing Appeals Board for much of the past couple of decades -- along with advocacy for affordable housing, transit and other topics.
"I was truly humbled," Shiflett said, noting that he has long worked on causes that have helped him build bridges with multiple Durham communities, including across class and race lines. Shiflett also noted that his work on topics like affordable housing and crime had frequently led him to have an opportunity to exchange ideas with a range of Durhamites with similar interests, including bail bondsman and DCABP first vice chair Omar Beasley.
Ricky Hart has had a quieter campaign than some of his fellow challengers -- his campaign web site doesn't yet appear to be easily found on search engines, for instance -- formerly chaired Durham's Human Relations Commission, notably serving during the recent controversy over the D.P.D.'s approach to enforcement in light of cases like Jesus Huerta's locally, and the challenges in Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore and other cities more generally.
Hart also has served as a past vice president of the Lincoln Community Health Center's board, chaired the Stagville Descendants Council, and served as a member of the NC Child Support Council.
An Army veteran and a Northern High graduate, Hart is described in the DCABP's news release as also having long been an active Committee member and former treasurer of the DCABP's political committee.
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So what do the Committee's endorsements mean for the race?
It's too soon, of course, to know if the Committee's challenges in getting traction the last couple of cycles are over -- though given the Committee's change in leadership in 2014, including the end of the tenure of controversial political committee chair Jackie Wagstaff, it will be interesting to see the impact of new hands at the rudder of one of Durham's leading PACs.
The tempting and natural question to ask, of course, is whether the Committee is sending any message with their endorsement of candidates who've been closely aligned with establishment positions on public safety and law enforcement causes.
Recent years have seen charged protests over police tactics, including a shutdown of the Durham Freeway during one protest march.
The Human Relations Commission was charged by City Council with reviewing police practices, and found evidence that "racial bias and profiling" were present.
Hart noted his satisfaction at city manager Tom Bonfield's response to the report, telling one news outlet that he saw it as a positive step towards improving community-police relations.
Similarly, Schewel noted in an interview with BCR that he was satisfied with the balance struck by the Commission's findings.
"I think people are appreciative of how we have handled the police issues," Schewel said, speaking of the recent Council's work. "It's really important on these police issues to be able to hold two things in your mind at the same time."
"On the one hand, you have to hold that we need an excellent police force of people who are going to be willing to put themselves in danger in order to keep us safe. And on the other hand, we need to keep in mind that we can't have even a scintilla of racial discrimination in the way our policing is operating. And I think that we have done a pretty good job of trying to balance those things," Schewel said, complimenting Mayor Bell for putting citizen complaints in the Human Relations Commissions' hands -- and for the work the HRC did in coming back with excellent recommendations.
Interestingly, the Council race has other candidates who've made social justice and racial equity more central parts of their campaign than some of the Committee's endorsees -- even as they've championed strong themes of racial equality.
Jillian Johnson's campaign web site, for instance, notes her work with the Moral Monday movement, and explicitly warns that "[y]outh of color suffer from racial profiling by police" and as a warning that development patterns may cause Durham to "become another gentrified town where racism and inequality are built into the very structure of our city." Noting she is a parent of two African-American boys, Johnson warns, in language echoing that of social justice protest groups that have gained visibility this year, that she "knows how necessary and urgent it is to build a city where no lives are disposable."
Similarly, challenger Robert Stephens' web site cites the death of Trayvon Martin and his time protesting in Ferguson as motivators to get more involved in issues involving low-income persons of color -- leading to his involvement and arrest in a march for justice near Southpoint Mall last December.
Correlation is not causation, of course. And while there are challengers in the race who are more focused on racial equity issues than the Committee's nominees, and it's very tempting to link the discussions, we'd wager there's an alternative plausible explanation: a strong tilt towards history of civic engagement, versus endorsing political newcomers.
Stephens cites a childhood in Hoke County and time spent in Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Washington, D.C. and Dallas before moving to Durham. He lists no civic experience in local governance or politics.
Johnson, a self-described labor activist, arrived in Durham in 1999 to attend Duke and works for a non-profit, the Southern Vision Alliance, described on its web site "as a network of organizations that share a theory of change that center the leadership and brilliance of communities impacted both by historic inequalities and current austerity policies that disproportionately impact poor people, people of color, queer people, and youth." She's also been associated with recent rallies protesting alleged police abuses and violence against minority communities.
While Johnson has clearly engaged in advocacy, her campaign bio doesn't cite experience on the types of committees and civic organizations that the four candidates the Committee endorsed do.
My gut instinct? The Committee, like most PACs, has long been a group that engages political elites, long-timers and residents.
It's a group, in other words, that's likely to value the Missouri ethic: show me what have you done to make a difference?
In that light, one can imagine a newcomer status to local political service -- such as that typically gained through neighborhood work, appointment to City/County boards, or lower-rung roles such as the ever-popular Soil and Water District Board -- as pre-requisites to an endorsement from a PAC such as the Committee.
And after all, that would seem to be a direction right in the wheelhouse of the Committee's more veteran, seasoned leadership, including Committee chair and former State Sen. Ralph Hunt and political chair Walter Jackson and
The interesting question to watch in this year's race is, what impact will we see given the wealth of attention being paid to social justice issues, and to the protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere?
City Council elections are (probably purposefully) in off-year cycles, leading only the motivated to vote. In past years, those voters have been turned out by PAC and media endorsements. And, we've typically had the PAC-supported candidates, and (I have to say it) the fringe candidates -- with few between.
Will challengers be able to tap into the theme of frustration taking place nationally, and among some facets of Durham civic life, to win election?
That will be one of the interesting questions to watch in the months to come.
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Then, of course, there's the other question to watch: how do the DCABP's endorsements align with other groups', notably those of the People's Alliance, which handily bested the Committee in contested endorsements during the last couple of elections before the group's leadership change.
Of course, the PA endorsements won't be made until their endorsement meeting on Aug. 25. That meeting is open to PA members, and the group encourages an open dialogue as nominees are selected.
Still, two sources have told BCR to not be surprised if a slate that includes Schewel, Johnson and fellow first-time candidate (and PA secretary) Charlie Reece has some serious momentum from PA members -- to say nothing of power brokers -- when the endorsements meeting rolls around.
We're not gamblers here, so we won't offer a line on it, but we'll be interested to see how much those two challengers' names come up a fair bit come a week from Tuesday.
Coupled with still-to-be-announced Friends of Durham endorsements, to say nothing of the debates and scrutiny to come, that could make this an interesting race to watch.