Longtime political observers say two clear frontrunners have emerged in the Durham mayoral race.
In the past two weeks, Farad Ali has nailed down endorsements from both the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham, two of Durham’s three major political action committees (PACs).
While some say those endorsements were expected, the backing of those two PACs has helped build the expectation Ali will likely be one of two candidates to survive the Oct. 10 primary election. The top two vote getters in the primary will move on to the general election.
“In terms of the mayor's race, it's going to come down to Farad and Steve (Schewel) end of discussion. That is it,” said Eugene Brown, a former city councilman.
Brown said that is because he believes Schewel is most likely to get an endorsement from the People’s Alliance, the city’s other high-profile PAC. The People’s Alliance will endorse candidates next week.
A spokesman for Pierce Freelon, the third high-profile candidate in a six person field, downplayed the importance of those endorsements.
Freelon declined to comment for the story, preferring to answer through his campaign manager.
“I think that ultimately people are going to vote (not the PACs),” said Freelon’s campaign manager, Joshua Vincent. “The PA is an important organization in Durham, but ultimately the people are going to decide.”
Vincent said the Freelon campaign has been focusing on reaching out to voters that aren’t traditionally politically active, including those in poorer parts of Durham and younger voters.
Many believe that if the Freelon campaign is to have a chance, it will have to attract voters to the polls who don’t usually show.
“Folks are excited about the race, and if the turnout is high, then I think that will be good for us,” he said.
That could especially be true in a year where three candidates are raising significant funds, state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham said, especially if a political outsider like Freelon could drive turnout among young voters.
“It will be interesting to see what Freelon will do if he doesn’t get a PAC endorsement,” he said. “If he is able to get results at the ballot, it could show that the existing political endorsement (landscape) could be shaken up. (He) is the third person in the race I would watch closely.”
The upcoming election will be one of the most expensive in Durham history.
In the first six months of 2017, Ali and political newcomer Pierce Freelon each raised nearly $60,000. And as of Aug. 4, Schewel had raised nearly $55,000.
But endorsements can mean more than money in Durham, Brown said.
The ability of the three PACs to organize and push voters to the polls consistently in low turnout elections has always been key in Durham, Brown added, noting that in recent times the People’s Alliance has done the best job at organizing.
“Durham used to be called ‘endorsement town,’ and it still is to a certain extent,” Brown said. “That has lessened a bit since we have so many new people here … but they still matter. Endorsements are almost more important than money.”
McKissick agrees that the PAC endorsements give Ali an edge to get out of the primary.
“I think (the endorsements) put Ali in a strong and competitive position,” he said. “It is emerging as a two-man race” between Ali and Schewel.
McKissick believes Ali will face tough competition in Schewel, who he agrees is likely get the People’s Alliance endorsement.
That opinion is one of near consensus, said state Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, a former city council member.
“It definitely looks like it will come down to Schewel and Ali,” Woodard said.
Woodard cautioned that the track record of the Durham Committee and the Friends has not been as strong in the general election as the People’s Alliance in recent years.
The last time a PA-backed city council candidate lost was in 2007.
Omar Beasley, chairman of the Durham Committee, which endorsed Ali, said a PAC’s backing in the primaries is important because the candidates are unknown by many voters.
“It’s hard for the citizens in Durham to get to know these candidates,” he said, noting the city’s large population. “The PACs have always helped citizens to get to know the candidate. (All three PACs) go through a vetting process.”
Ali’s two endorsements “put him in a position to get through the primary at least,” Beasley added. “But it’s still all about the ground game. You have to have a grassroots organization to get the vote out.”