If recent history is any guide, the Durham People’s Alliance could likely endorse the Bull City’s next mayor and City Council members.
In the mayor’s race, current council member Steve Schewel is the only candidate who has won PA backing before and appears to have an edge over his five opponents on getting it again, some political observers say.
But winning the group’s endorsement is no sure thing for Schewel’s council colleagues Don Moffitt and Cora Cole-McFadden, who face challengers with PA ties.
For decades, the city’s three main political action committees’ endorsements and efforts to turn out their constituencies have helped determine elections.
The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham long held the advantage, but in recent years the track record has shifted.
“For the last five or 10 years, the People’s Alliance has been the big dog that can deliver 10,000 votes,” said Frank Hyman, a City Council member in the 1990s, a local political columnist and PA member.
There are seven PACs on the Durham County’s Board of Elections website, but several political observers interviewed said candidates need the backing of at least one of the big three to get elected.
The PA, founded in 1976, and Durham Committee, founded in 1935, have political action committees within their larger organizations. The business-focused Friends, founded in 1986, is a standalone PAC.
Rise of the PA
In the three races since 2009, every municipal candidate the People’s Alliance endorsed has won.
In 2015, the three City Council candidates the PA endorsed – Schewel, Jillian Johnson, and Charlie Reece – won the three at-large spots in a six-person run off.
Reece, who received the least votes of the three winners in 2015, had 2,304 more votes than fourth-place candidate, Mike Shiflett, who along with Ricky Hart received an endorsement from the Durham Committee and the Friends.
A similar situation unfolded in 2013, when the PA endorsed Eddie Davis and Don Moffitt, both of whom won, as well as Mayor Bill Bell who received all three PAC nods. That same year, the Durham Committee and the Friends both endorsed Omar Beasley and Pamela Karriker, who both lost. Longtime incumbent Cole-McFadden ran unopposed.
“Over the last decade, the People’s Alliance has done a great job of raising money and getting better organized than I remember any time in their history,” said state Sen. Mike Woodard, a former City Council member. “The volume of mailings has increased significantly, and their poll working operation has improved dramatically. Concurrent with that, the other PACs have fallen off a little bit.”
The last time a PA-backed City Council candidate lost was in 2007, when the group recommended two incumbents and David Harris. The incumbents won, but Farad Ali, backed by the Durham Committee, took the third seat.
Campaign reports show in 2015, Durham’s last municipal election, the People’s Alliance raised $31,192 – mostly from individuals - and spent $20,876.
The Friends raised $8,481, also mostly from individuals, and spent $7,901. The Durham Committee raised about $7,905 – $5,500 of which came from candidates they endorsed – and spent about the same amount.
Beasley, the Durham Committee’s chairman, said it is harder for the African-American organization to raise as much money since black people generally make less money than whites.
Durham’s current candidates, including mayoral contenders Schewel, Ali and Pierce Freelon, said endorsements count but they are campaigning to win voters’ support not the PACs’.
Keith Bishop, political chairman of the Durham Committee, said focusing on the PA’s recent successes ignores the Committee’s longstanding success.
“We have a history, and our people know it,” Bishop said. “Our people know when they go to the polls to expect the committee’s recommendation. City and county leaders understand the role the Committee plays in keeping their community informed about the issues that affect them and helps frame their opinions.”
“If the Durham Committee sounds an alarm on an issue, it’s worth paying attention,” he said.
Bishop pointed out the PA and Durham Committee share some members, work together and have learned from each other. All three PACs are holding candidates’ forums Aug. 16 and Aug. 17.
“The PA is a much younger organization than ours, has had its learning curve and has matured to the point that it can claim significant successes, and I think that is good,” Bishop said.
“We do not claim to have a monopoly on politics, but we want to make certain that the candidates we endorse are acutely aware of those things that are relevant to our community,” he said.
Alice Sharpe, chairwoman of the Friends, said the organization remains relevant.
“I think that our voice is still needed,” Sharpe said. “If we can’t turn out, get everyone we endorsed into office, that isn’t going to keep us from still going out and trying to identify what we think is the best for Durham.”
Tom Miller, one of the People’s Alliances six PAC coordinators, said the strength of the PACs can’t be measured by whether the candidates they endorse win.
“It’s about what role the organizations play in shaping the entire political environment,” Miller said. The issues are shaped by the organizations’ questions and the candidates’ answers, Miller said.
Some may think that candidates win because the PA supports them, but that’s not the case, Miller said.
“The PA’s genius isn’t in the power of its campaign, it is in the integrity of its selection process,” Miller said, explaining the group weighs candidates’ values, advocacy and effectiveness.
The rise of the PA
Progressives moving to left-leaning Durham have been galvanized by political issues over the years and turned to the People’s Alliance, Woodard and others said.
Those issues include the 2011-12 fight against Amendment One, a state constitutional amendment that made marriage between a man and woman the only valid legal union in the state (later turned over by a federal judge) and House Bill 2, the law known as the “bathroom bill” that said people could only use the bathroom assigned to their gender at birth (later replaced).
“I think that people who have progressive values, and don’t like the direction they see coming out Washington and Raleigh now, look for a place to engage, a place to plug in politically,” Woodard said.
A shift within
Once the PA makes its endorsement it will get behind its candidates, Woodard said, but getting that endorsement might be more complicated this year.
In Ward 1, Cole-McFadden, 71, a retired city worker in the seat since 2001, has been endorsed by the PA in the past. This year DeDreana Freeman, a 39-year-old nonprofit administrator and a former PA board member, is among three challengers.
“That People’s Alliance endorsement is going to be pretty interesting,” Woodard said. “As well as with Ward 3.”
Moffitt, 61, a consultant for cooperatively owned grocery stores, was endorsed for the Ward 3 seat by the People’s Alliance in 2013. One of his three challengers this year is Vernetta Alston, 35, an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and a PA board member who stepped this spring.
“Again, you are seeing an older status quo versus newer, more recent candidates who are qualified and effective leaders,” Woodard said.
Eugene Brown, a former City Council member who served three terms and didn’t run for reelection in 2015, said that dynamic also played out when the PA endorsed community organizers Sendolo Diaminah for school board in 2014 and Johnson for City Council in 2015.
“The People’s Alliance has become much more liberal, some people would say radical,” Brown said. “It’s like there is a mini revolt going on with the PA. And that is epitomized by Don Moffitt’s race. We will see what will happen in that endorsement.”
PA PAC coordinator Milo Pyne said the whole political scale has shifted.
“The center of the pool has moved to the left; therefore, it gives us an opportunity to endorse candidates who actually represent our principles better,” he said.
Schewel has the edge in obtaining the PA’s endorsement, Pyne said, especially given its backing in his two council and one school board runs.
What it will really comes down to, however, is what members show up to vote at the PA’s Aug. 29 endorsement meeting, Pyne said.
“Once they are endorsed, the PA is going to get behind then,” Woodard said. “Their pictures, their profiles, their endorsement statements are going to tens of thousands of Durham’s homes.”