Leaders tested in tumultuous times – Ted Vaden

Ted Vaden
Ted Vaden

The thermometer read 95 degrees on June 17 – one of the hottest days of 2015 in Charleston, S.C. - when Mayor Joseph Riley received the call that a shooter had just shot 12 worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Riley was wearing shorts and a golf shirt: “I stood up and looked in my closet. I knew that everything I did had to be perfect, and that began with showing complete respect for the church and the community.”

The mayor put on a coat and tie, rushed to the church and, with police, consoled families of the victims. It was the dignified and heartfelt response that went on to characterize how Charleston reacted to crisis.

We all remember how the reaction of the victims was one of forgiveness, not hate – standing in stark contrast to other angry racial confrontations that have characterized our national dialog.

“That unspeakable event, which in many ways was Charleston’s worst moment, the way the citizens responded was its finest moment,” Riley said.

Now retired after 40 years as mayor, Riley recounted that episode at a recent forum at Duke’s Sanford School. He and Durham Mayor Bill Bell appeared together to discuss lessons in urban leadership derived from their combined six decades leading redevelopment of two successful Southern cities.

The same week I saw them, I derived contrasting lessons from a separate forum in Chapel Hill on the changes that have occurred in state and national politics in the era of Trump. “What is happening now is not normal,” said Nancy McLean, a Duke history professor and author of “Democracy in Chains.” “Our democratic system is in deep crisis.”

I thought it would be useful to search for threads of understanding from those two discussions.

Riley and Bell reflected on two topics: urban redevelopment and crisis management. Both were mayor during the time when their cities emerged from “rock bottom,” as Bell described it, to thriving urban centers where people want to live and visit. Riley attributed Charleston’s rise to a strategic plan executed by a public-private partnership of business, nonprofits and the African-American community. Bell traced Durham’s rise to Brightleaf Square and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Both went through crises that tested their cities and their leadership. Riley talked about the Emanuel shooting, Bell about the Duke lacrosse case. Charleston was able to heal quickly, Riley said, because of a long-established “nurturing relationship” among neighborhood groups and races in the community established over decades of Charleston’s revitalization. “When it happened,” he said, “what people did was rather than react in anger or destructively, they reacted in love and joined together.“

In the lacrosse case, Bell said, the focus was on enabling people on both sides to share openly their anger and concerns. “The good thing about Durham,” he said, “is we have a forum to talk. Somehow, we let people vent.” He recalled advising the Rev. Jesse Jackson not to come to Durham, so as not to throw flames on the fire.

Asked how cities can fare in the current climate of national political turmoil, Riley said: “The thing about city government that’s so wonderful is: it’s not about blue or red, or national political party or philosophical litmus test. It’s about getting stuff done. Words don’t get it done. Action gets it done.”

That optimistic view contrasted strongly with the dystopic landscape portrayed at the Chapel Hill panel. Duke historian McLean, Durham state Rep. Mickey Michaux and News & Observer political columnist Rob Christensen addressed the question, “How did we get here?”

Michaux had the starkest assessment. Progressive voters became complacent after the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and were blindsided by the conservative upswell in the 2010 elections. “It’s because we didn’t vote,” he said. “In 2008, we thought we had reached Nirvana and everything was going to be all right … until 2010 rolled around.”

In 2008, we thought we had reached Nirvana and everything was going to be all right … until 2010 rolled around.

State Rep. Mickey Michaux

McLean said the right-wing takeover of state and national government was part of a long-term strategy executed by far-right ideologues and fueled by special interests, dating to the 1950s. “I think it would be a grave mistake to imagine that this only started in 2008 or 2009,” she said. “These plans were well underway, the organizations had been launched, the money was in place, the people were in place. It’s a very well thought-out, very strategic long game that’s being played.”

Christensen’s key point was that, despite the conservative agenda put in place after the Republican takeover of the legislature, North Carolina still is one of the most moderate states in the country, as evidenced by polls showing Tar Heel voters evenly split between conservative and progressive.

“North Carolina has probably had as dramatic a shift as any state in the country in the last decade from the moderate state it was to the very conservative policies” enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, he said. But “I think the underlying nature of the state has not changed.”

That could mean, he said, a swing of the pendulum in the 2018 and 2020 elections as aroused progressives make their feelings known at the polls: “It’s obvious to me that all the enthusiasm and anger is with the Democrats.”

Ted Vaden, a former N&O editor who lives in Chapel Hill, can be reached at tedvaden@gmail.com.