Durham County

Opinion: What did the elections reveal about Durham? – Frank Hyman

Frank Hyman
Frank Hyman jleonard@newsobserver.com

So what did the elections reveal about Durham?

Skills matter a lot. Primary voters weren’t backing candidates who hadn’t honed their skills as an elected or an appointed official or as a leader in an effective political group. Hopefully council members will respect this voter preference when they choose someone for the seat left open by current member Steve Schewel’s election as mayor.

Money matters less. There was little correlation between money and votes. One example: Pierce Freelon raised at least $90,000 (half of it from outside Durham) and mounted an expensive and sophisticated campaign that netted only 4,000 voters; most of whom would have voted for Ali in the primary if Freelon hadn’t run.

Forums could be better. Candidates sometimes almost outnumbered attendees, and a common complaint was a lack of time to make one’s case. Perhaps groups can collaborate and offer joint forums or forums that feature only one ward or focus on only one topic.


The Durham Committee delivered more votes than in past elections, but they are still recovering from the street cred they lost under the leadership of Dr. Lavonia Allison and Jackie Wagstaff. But they are on the upswing.

The Friends of Durham endorsed perhaps their first all-black slate. But some Durham Committee and GOP leaders complained that Friends voters didn’t turn out. And poll workers reported hearing some white voters ask which candidates were white. In the past, 30 to 50 percent of the Friends vote would go to a white candidate rather than a black candidate with a Friends endorsement. I think that practice has diminished greatly, but not completely.

The Peoples’ Alliance (PA) endorsement is a hot ticket (most of the time). The PA’s endorsement of John Rooks was unexpected, given that the group’s interview committee recommended Mark-Anthony Middleton who also gathered endorsements from other progressive groups like the NC AFL/CIO and the Independent Weekly. Levon Barnes, the candidate backed by NC Equality, also endorsed Middleton. In a campaign where everyone professed to represent all of Durham, Middleton was the only one getting that broad a base of endorsements, yet he won without the PA endorsement; he also earned precinct victories citywide.

After that surprise endorsement meeting, I asked a dozen people what they thought had happened with the Ward 2 race. I heard complaints about questionable practices and confirmation of organized attendance by members of other organizations.

But I think a major explanation was offered by an African-American member long active in the PA who told me right after the meeting “it was white middle-class guilt.”

Surprising leap

After hearing from the good people of McDougald Terrace on their preference for Rooks (a very good guy with a very spotty voting record), a number of white, middle-class PA members made quite a leap in declaring that these folks somehow also represented the 80,000, mostly black residents of Ward 2.

As someone whose first three years were spent in a trailer park and whose father only had an eighth- grade education, I’m used to middle-class folks making a lot of assumptions about working people. But the racial leap here was surprising: a large number of white folks deciding which group of black people represented the black people in Ward Two. Wow. Talk about whitesplaining.

And the proof is in the pudding. Middleton won citywide in a landslide, but more telling, the voters of Ward 2 voted for him over Rooks 2:1 in both elections. Given that Rooks’ total dropped 7,000 votes below that of other PA candidates, we can see that was very roughly the number of progressives who ignored the PA endorsement.

Oh well. Onto the next round of spring elections (and a winter appointment).

Frank Hyman was the marketing chair for the $20 million bond campaign for affordable housing in 1996. He is the policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback and is a member of the People’s Alliance.