Durham Committee, Friends pick new leaders

Mar. 02, 2014 @ 04:08 PM

Two of the county’s big-three political groups have changed leaders, with the biggest moves coming in the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

Committee members recently voted in an all-new slate of officers, beginning by electing former state Sen. Ralph Hunt, D-Durham, as the group’s chairman.
Hunt, who served in the Senate from 1985 to 1993 and again in 2004, said the election should have “a major impact” and boost the influence of the Durham Committee.
“There is going to be more attention paid by a broad section of the community on what the efforts of the Durham Committee are,” he said. “That’s going to result a great deal from our efforts as an elected body that moves for broader membership and broader participation by the community in fulfilling our goals.”
Among the other new officers, former County Commissioners and City Council candidate Omar Beasley is the group’s new first vice chairman and former County Commissioner Deborah Gilles is its second vice chairwoman.
Acting District Attorney Leon Stanback will lead its legal-redress committee. And Walter Jackson, a consultant, is in charge of its high-profile political-action arm.
Jackson is replacing former school board member Jackie Wagstaff, who during the run-up to last year’s City Council election wound up quarreling with former Chairman Randal Rogers and other Durham Committee leaders. The fight yielded an on-again, off-again suspension of Wagstaff.
The 2013 city election cycle saw the Durham Committee raise just $8,631, with $8,000 of that coming from Cree Inc. co-founder and 751 South figure Neal Hunter and his wife.
Jackson acknowledged the group needs to broaden its donor base and mend relations with prospective benefactors.
“I would not like to see us at all be dependent on one or two or three large contributors to reach the goals of our organization,” Jackson said, adding “there are people who had somewhat lessened their [financial] support of the committee in recent years for various reasons.”
The changes at the Durham Committee happened as another big-three group, the Friends of Durham, was installing Alice Sharpe as the replacement for longtime leader David Smith.
Smith stepped down by choice. A property appraiser, he recently received a gubernatorial appointment to the N.C. Property Tax Commission.
Sharpe is a Durham business leader who once worked in the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. On the political front, she helped run former City Councilman Thomas Stith’s 2007 unsuccessful election challenge to Mayor Bill Bell.
She couldn’t be interviewed for this article, in part because she suffered a muscle injury while leading an exercise class.
The Friends are the most conservative and Republican-leaning of Durham’s big-three political groups, and these days have direct ties to Gov. Pat McCrory via Stith, a member who’s now the governor’s chief of staff.
The Durham Committee has had direct and indirect ties to the Democratic Party, but that hasn’t stopped it from entering a de-facto alliance with the Friends in recent local elections.
It and Durham’s other big-three group, the People’s Alliance, have disagreed about the handling of 751 South and other development applications.
Committee activists have long favored a loose rein on permits in hopes of expanding job opportunities for Durham’s black residents. The PA prefers that city and county leaders pick and choose the applications to support.
That difference has endured even though activists like Victoria Peterson who support the loose-reins approach have also questioned whether blacks received a fair share of the jobs created by prior approvals.
The Durham Committee/Friends coalition held for the 2013 City Council elections, the groups endorsing identical slates that included Beasley and former County Commissioner Pam Karriker.
They lost to the PA’s favored candidates, Eddie Davis and Don Moffitt.
The PA raised more money for the 2013 than the other two groups combined, a spokesman for it afterwards crediting it for having a better grassroots organization than the Friends.
Hunt and Jackson are holding their cards close when it comes to political strategy going forward. Hunt noted that he and Sharpe were childhood friends. But social ties are the rule rather than exception for activists in all three groups; PA spokesman Milo Pyne described Sharpe as “a good friend.”
“I don’t know we set out with any particular bias in mind about alliances,” Jackson said. “There’s a saying that it’s all about interests. Our interest is in securing candidates who will perform their duties well and represent our interests. If it turns out other groups think those are the best candidates, we’d love in that sense to ally with them.”