Durham County

Why John Rooks got the surprise People’s Alliance endorsement for council

People’s Alliance is one of the three big political action committees in Durham, and its municipal endorsements often mean candidates will be elected.
People’s Alliance is one of the three big political action committees in Durham, and its municipal endorsements often mean candidates will be elected. dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Every municipal candidate since 2009 endorsed by the People’s Alliance political action committee has won their Durham race.

On Tuesday night, the PA held its endorsement meeting, which drew several hundred of its 1,200 members to vote. Their endorsements could help decide Durham’s next mayor and three council members.

The People’s Alliance endorsed Durham City Council member Steve Schewel for mayor and two political newcomers who are challenging incumbents once endorsed by the PA.

In Ward 1, PA endorsed DeDreana Freeman, who has served on the PA board and is challenging incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden. In Ward 3, it endorsed Vernetta Alston, also a former PA board member, who is challenging incumbent Don Moffitt. Both Cole-McFadden and Moffitt have previously been endorsed by the PA. Alston is an attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Freeman has served on the Durham Planning Commission and is an administrator for a nonprofit.

For Ward 2, the seat being vacated by Eddie Davis, the PA endorsed another political newcomer, John Rooks Jr., an engineer involved with Men of Vision who wants to give residents of public housing a voice in the community.

John Rooks
John Rooks Jr., candidate for Durham City Council. submitted

Miller said that it was the rank and file of McDougald Terrace, Durham’s largest public housing community, who were persuasive on Rooks’ behalf during the endorsement meeting.

On Wednesday, Rooks said that he waited outside by himself when he was the topic of the meeting. He joined the PA six months ago and this is his first run for political office. He shook hands with everyone when they came out to tell him he received the endorsement.

“One lady – I will not forget her – she thanked me for being a voice for those who don’t have a voice ... we hugged, and both agreed there’s a lot of work to do,” Rooks said.

The meeting at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was closed to non-members, but for an hour before, candidates for mayor and three council seats greeted the crowd. After the four-hour meeting, PA PAC coordinator Tom Miller said there had been vigorous debate.

“It did ultimately center in Ward 1 and Ward 3, the contest did set on the incumbent versus a very attractive newcomer who campaigned and had a lot of support,” Miller said.

“Sometimes newer people excite folks more than the people who have been serving for a time and built up a record, and sometimes because of their service, we see this all the time, the challenger has the advantage of not having a record, a council kind of record,” he said.

The PA is the third of the big three Durham political action committees to announce its endorsements for this fall’s municipal election. The People’s Alliance also endorsed Schewel in his 2015 council run.

Earlier this month, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham, the other big PACs, both endorsed Farad Ali for mayor. Ali said Tuesday that he was honored just to be considered for their endorsement and that “when you apply for the job for mayor, you serve the entire city.”

DCABP and the Friends both endorsed Cole-McFadden for Durham City Council Ward 1 and Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton for Ward 2. But those two PACs split their Ward 3 endorsements, with the Committee endorsing attorney Shelia Huggins while the Friends endorsed Moffitt. All four of those candidates were also campaigning before the PA meeting.

The [People’s Alliance] endorsement is critical. Not the be all, end all, but critical.

LeVon Barnes, Durham city council candidate

PA member Nicholas Graber-Grace came to the endorsement meeting wearing a T-shirt supporting Alston, who ultimately received the PA endorsement. Graber-Grace described Alston as a strong progressive champion who understands policy and is “what Durham needs right now.”

PA members Heidrun and Bill Erwin came knowing that they would vote for the endorsement of Schewel for mayor, but had no favorites for council endorsements.

LeVon Barnes, candidate for Ward 2, was hoping to get the PA endorsement as he shook hands with people walking in. Getting a PA endorsement means that “historically, some people would say that’s the election.”

“The PA endorsement is critical. Not the be all, end all, but critical,” Barnes said.

On Wednesday, Bill Erwin said that during the meeting he was swayed by supporters to vote for the council candidates who ultimately won the endorsements – Rooks, Alston and Freeman.

“It was easy to vote [for them] on the basis of what we heard last night,” Erwin said. “And in all three cases, it was the passion and enthusiasm from their supporters.”

Erwin said that while the PA PAC’s interview committee recommended endorsing Middleton, the crowd was swayed by McDougald residents who supported Rooks.

“Moffitt had enthusiastic supporters, especially because of his knowledge of zoning ... but I was swayed by Vernetta Alston’s supporters who pointed out that as a LGBTQ black parent she speaks for a large constitutency in Durham,” he said.

For the Freeman endorsement, Erwin credited her neighbors and friends in the Golden Belt area.

“One person after another pointed out how involved she is, dedicated she is, personable she is,” Erwin said.

The two candidates who receive the most votes in each race during the Oct. 10 primary will move on to the municipal general election on Nov. 7. Early voting for the primary begins on Sept. 21.

Miller estimated between 400 and 500 PA members attended the endorsement meeting Tuesday night. Annual dues are $35. PA’s endorsed municipal candidates have won elections in Durham since 2009.

Miller said that the PA has spent 42 years building its brand and had also endorsed the mayoral runs of longtime Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who is not seeking reelection.

The PA will promote their candidate endorsements by direct mail, poll work and canvassing, all separate from the candidates’ own campaigns.

Equality NC, the state-wide LGBTQ rights group, has endorsed two candidates for Durham mayor: Schewel and political newcomer Pierce Freelon. Equality NC’s other Durham endorsements are Freeman for Ward 1, Barnes for Ward 2 and Alston for Ward 3.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan