People’s Alliance unfazed by ‘plagiarized’ questionnaires; councilwoman ‘fired up’

People’s Alliance buttons photographed during its 2017 Durham municipal election endorsement meeting.
People’s Alliance buttons photographed during its 2017 Durham municipal election endorsement meeting. dvaughan@heraldsun.com

An endorsement from the People’s Alliance political action committee can help elect a Durham candidate to office, so its questionnaires get a lot of scrutiny.

Two City Council candidates were accused of plagiarism in an Indy Week article Tuesday, but the People’s Alliance PAC already knew about it and said other candidates did the same thing.

PAC leader Tom Miller said the amount of borrowed material in five or six candidate questionnaires didn’t rise to the level of being a problem for those making endorsements. They’ve been running checks for years, he said, after a local candidate had cut and pasted endorsement questionnaire answers.

Ward 1 incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden said Wednesday she’s “tired of the People’s Alliance – and the Indy, too,” after accusations of plagiarism in her answers to a People’s Alliance questionnaire used for candidate endorsements. “If they focused more on the future of black children, what a city this would be. For me, I’m moving on.”

Indy Week first reported the partially copied answers in the questionnaires.

Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Billman said they called Cole-McFadden’s questionnaire plagiarism “because it was, by definition, plagiarism.”

“She copied and pasted stuff off the internet and passed it off as her own thoughts. She did it repeatedly and only apologized after we called her out on it,” Billman said. “We ran every other candidate’s questionnaires — both the PA and ours — through a plagiarism checker, and put Cole-McFadden’s and [opponent DeDreana] Freeman’s through Google as well, and all that came up was what we reported: several verbatim passages from Cole-McFadden and one sentence from [mayoral candidate Farad] Ali.”

The People’s Alliance already knew Cole-McFadden “had a lot of borrowed material,” Miller said. They ran their own checks and were contacted about it by non-PA members, too. “It wasn’t just Cora.”

He said five or six candidates in the primary borrowed material. The PAC discussed the material and decided “none of it obscured the candidates’ responses to questions.”

Miller said Cole-McFadden’s uncited sources were only a few among several pages of answers to 20 questions.

“Pierce Freelon used borrowed ideas, but assiduously quoted his,” Miller said. “These are candidate questionnaires, not a college term paper. We’re not looking for footnotes.” Miller would not name the others who didn’t cite source material, but said none used material in a way that affected the endorsements.

“The test for us is that is so much material borrowed that the question response is inauthentic,” he said. “We didn’t find any of that.”

The PAC ended up endorsing Freeman in Ward 1. Cole-McFadden was endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

Cole-McFadden thinks people she would not name are behind the accusations.

“I don’t know why it’s so important to marginalize the strength of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People,” she said. “I have a feeling that there is a faction who decided to do this.”

“They know who they are,” she said.

Miller said people outside the PA contacted them about the questionnaires, and that he explained the PA’s endorsement process and that they were already aware of the material.

Cole-McFadden said she and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People are moving on.

“When I look at what’s happening in Durham overall, we are a part of the Committee, so you can’t separate us from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People because we are black people,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “You can’t separate black people from the Committee.”


The Herald-Sun ran all of mayoral and council candidates questions to the the People’s Alliance’s questionnaire through an online plagiarism checker and found passages that closely resembled online sources for two answers on Cole-McFadden’s questionnaire and one from mayoral candidate Farad Ali.

The plagiarism checker found that Cole-McFadden lifted parts of her answers on the subjects of gentrification and job creation from multiple online sources.

cora no 7 part 2
Durham Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden’s answer to question No. 7 on the People’s Alliance questionnaire appears to closely resemble language from an article on the website Shelterforce.org. The Herald-Sun

Her answer on what gentrification means to her and how to address it appears to closely match sentences from an article on Shelterforce.org, a website that covers affordable housing issues.

And on the subject of worker cooperatives and job creation Cole-McFadden’s answer resembles phrasing from the Democracy at Work Institute, a think tank created by the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

Cora answer no. 5
Durham Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden’s answer to question No. 5 on the People’s Alliance questionnaire appears to use language from the Democracy at Work Institute’s website without citation. The Herald-Sun

Ali also appears to have used language from Democracy at Work Institute to discuss the subject of worker cooperatives and job creation.

Ali said his answers to the questionnaire were the result of a brainstorming session.

“The intent was not to plagiarize,” he said. “Someone passed it on to me.”

Farad Ali answer No. 5
Durham mayoral candidate Farad Ali also appears to have similarly lifted language from the Democracy at Work Institute’s website’s work on worker cooperatives. The Herald-Sun

On Wednesday, Ali questioned this coming out less than a week before the general election.

Other passages

Indy Week also found other passages from Cole-McFadden’s questionnaire similar to language in a brief on racial inequity from the philanthropic organization the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

On Tuesday night, Cole-McFadden told The Herald-Sun her biggest mistake was not citing the source material.

She said she was not aware of the Kellogg Foundation report and that her information came from a packet she referred to as a “Racial Equity Toolkit.”

“We have so many groups sharing things,” Cole-McFadden said. “I should have done a better job citing it.”

Miller stopped short of calling the borrowed material “plagiarism.”

“Plagiarism, to me, is a term that describes an academic crime,” he said. “Cora’s response goes on page after page, and she used some language from some article, but used it as laying a base for what she’s talking about in Durham.”

On Wednesday, Cole-McFadden said that she filled out the questionnaire herself and knew she wasn’t going to get the People’s Alliance PAC endorsement anyway.

“Stuff comes into my office through publications. I just failed to mention a source. I didn’t deliberately do it, I’m just busy. I’m not going to say anything else. I’m getting fired up. I’m tired of it,” she said.

The People’s Alliance PAC has previously endorsed Cole-McFadden many times and respects her service, Miller said.

“It is tough. Our members decide the endorsements. This year, members had to choose between candidates long involved in the People’s Alliance and in the community,” he said.

Cole-McFadden isn’t the only candidate this campaign season receiving fallout from endorsement questionnaires. City Council Ward 2 candidate John Rooks Jr. has apologized repeatedly for answers to an Equality NC questionnaire that did not support LGBTQ equality, saying that a friend submitted the responses without his final review. Rooks calls the move “a mistake.”

Ben Graumann, director of communications for Equality NC, said he’s not sure how seriously Rooks took Equality NC’s endorsement if he didn’t take the time to read his responses before submitting them. Equality NC’s endorsement for Ward 2 went to LeVon Barnes, who did not make it through the primary.

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

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes

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