It is a flaw in Durham's election system that all five county commissioners seats come up for re-election every two years. In most other Triangle counties, the commissioners serve staggered four-year terms, ensuring some stability from year to year and giving those elected a chance to do some actual work between campaigns. But, fortunately for Durham voters, four of the five incumbents are again seeking re-election, and because they are all doing a pretty good job, our endorsement goes to Joe Bowser, Philip Cousin, Becky Heron and Ellen Reckhow.
Bowser, a retired railroad worker, provides a much-needed minority voice on the board, often speaking up on behalf of Durham's less affluent citizens and occasionally splitting with his colleagues to take a principled stand. Bowser also supports growth controls such as impact fees and requiring infrastructure before development, a position he shares with Heron and Reckhow and one that's crucial for Durham's future.
Cousin, a former school board member and pastor of St. Joseph AME Church, has a good understanding of the county's responsibilities to both the school system and to social services, and pledges to work hard to find funding for both of those important expenses in these tough budget times.
Heron, a 20-year veteran of the board, isn't afraid to take a tough stance, either. She has taken a lead role in grappling with this year's financial crisis. Heron has a long record of helping constituents with problems big or small, and for advocating for citizen involvement in county government.
Reckhow, a planner by training and a 14-year commissioner, uses her invaluable technical knowledge and leadership skills in areas such as land-use planning, transportation and environmental protection. Besides, we have to admit she won us over easily this spring during the asphalt plant zoning controversy. In the wake of citizen allegations that the city-county planning department is too developer-friendly, Reckhow empowered her constituents by insisting neighborhood associations be notified of proposed zoning changes, and launching plans for citizen workshops to help educate residents about the development process.
In addition to the four incumbents, five other Democrats are seeking seats on the board. (The winners will face five Libertarians in the general election in November.) For the fifth seat, which is being vacated by MaryAnn Black, The Independent makes no endorsement.
The candidacy of newcomer Warren Herndon has generated lively debate among Durham's political observers this year. Herndon, a self-employed business consultant and former host of a local radio show, has convinced some progressives he would be a good addition to the board by supporting impact fees, focusing on education issues, and possessing a record of community service, including 10 years on the Human Relations Commission. But some Duke University insiders claim Herndon was encouraged to retire from the university medical center administration amid allegations that he was using his Duke time to run a family construction business on the side, and was generally ineffective in his various jobs at Duke. Jack Preiss, a former city councilman and retired Duke professor, lobbied both the People's Alliance and the Durham Voters Alliance PACs unsuccessfully not to endorse Herndon based on those allegations this fall. Preiss cited his first-hand experience as the head of an affordable-housing nonprofit organization that hired Herndon's company to build the Sherwood Park apartment complex in Durham in 1996. Preiss alleges Herndon directed the $3 million project during his Duke-salaried time and botched it. Documents obtained by The Independent show Priess and his partners provided Duke auditors with information about Herndon's construction business in 1999, shortly before Herndon's retirement in 2000. Preiss says he sent the documents in response to a phone call from Duke auditors, but Herndon denies his employer ever investigated the matter.
Herndon says Preiss is attacking his candidacy because Preiss is disgruntled with the outcome of civil suits Herndon and his subcontractors filed seeking payment for their work. The suits were settled in private arbitration under terms that Herndon says were a defeat for Preiss, and even Preiss admits were "a sour business." While Duke University personnel issues are private, the allegations raise significant questions about Herndon's potential effectiveness as a county commissioner.
The remaining candidates offer little hope for leading Durham in the right direction. In a county with severe growth pressures and a City Council willing to annex land for development, real estate brokers Preston Edwards and Arnold Spell would bring too much pro-growth bias to the county board, especially considering that each of them accepted large donations from building interests early in the race. Mary Jacobs, a former Durham City Councilwoman and retired director of the county extension service, also has a pro-growth voting record, and her stock answer to Durham County's pressing problems is more economic development. Candidate Ricky Hart hasn't run much of a campaign and failed to respond to our questionnaire.
Durham Public Schools Board of Education
When the Durham school board comes up in conversation, even casual newspaper readers tend to cluck their tongues, shake their heads, and use words like "an all-time low in Durham politics." The never-ending controversy over Hillside High School, with its racial undertones and dramatic public power struggles is but one slice of an embarrassingly embattled elected body sorely in need of strong leadership by its members--of all races.
Unfortunately, though it seems no one in Durham tires of complaining about the school board, depressingly few qualified, dynamic people seem interested in doing anything about it. So this fall, when four of the seven seats are up for grabs, The Independent is borrowing a play from the Hillside community and is boycotting making any endorsements because of the lack of strong choices.
Maybe in 2004, when the other three seats are open, more candidates will step up to the plate and take a stab at making a difference for Durham's schoolchildren. In the meantime, here's the rundown of the races, which are nonpartisan and will be decided on Sept. 10.
District 1: Former city councilwoman Jacqueline Wagstaff faces retired school librarian Omega Curtis Parker. Wagstaff, though she has a long record of activism in North-East Central Durham, was not effective at fulfilling her agenda as a city leader. Wagstaff identified her first priority on the school board as "developing a 'hiring web' reflective of minority educators." With so many other pressing issues on the table (Hillside's leadership, a lack of public confidence in Superintendent Ann Denlinger, the achievement gap between white and black students, to name a few), Wagstaff's questionnaire lacked any understanding of the real problems facing schools, and when asked about Denlinger's leadership, she offered a lame "no comment." Parker, a political newcomer, has run a low-interest campaign and didn't return our questionnaire.
District 2: Incumbent Regina George-Bowden faces challenger Don Williams Jr. George-Bowden, an educator by trade, has shown little initiative or leadership during her first term on the board, though we give her credit for stating her opinion of Denlinger clearly, whether you agree with her or not. (She said in her questionnaire: "Ann should probably seek to use her skills at another level of education.") Williams, an IBM account manager who has run for school board in previous years without much support, seems to have some good ideas, such as mentor programs for new teachers and revising the transfer policy.
District 3: Incumbent Gail Heath faces challenger Nick Staffa, along with write-in candidate Rita Winchester-Murrell. Heath, a pre-school teacher who started in politics as a PTA mom, has strongly supported worthy goals such as early literacy initiatives and dropout prevention programs. But Heath is also a big supporter of Denlinger's agenda, and hasn't shown real leadership on any particular issues in her first six years on the board. Staffa hasn't run much of a campaign and also didn't return our questionnaire. We do give a nod to the gumption of Winchester-Murrell, a Hillside parent, for her last-minute campaign, which earned her the endorsement of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
District 4: Former Carolina Theatre executive director Steve Martin is running unopposed for the seat held for the last decade by Arnold Spell, who is seeking a commissioner's seat.
Durham District Attorney
It would have been hard to imagine about four years ago, when the Durham District Attorney's Office was caught cutting a hallway deal that let a prominent dentist out of a drunken driving charge, that Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin Jr. would be getting anyone's endorsement for re-election. Though he was never personally linked to the deal, the two assistant DAs who handled the case were disciplined by the State Bar, as were defense attorney Wes Covington, a close confidant of Hardin's, and District Court Judge Craig Brown, who signed off on the deal. The dentist, Dr. Kenneth Podger, told a hearing of the State Bar that when Covington told him, "If things worked out, we hope you would appreciate it," he thought he was being told to make campaign contributions to Hardin and Brown. But that was months after Hardin was re-elected without opposition, and there have been three years since the lengthy scandal subsided. Since then, though, Hardin has not gone without criticism. It was pointed out that he takes a lot fewer murder cases to trial than other DAs around the state, and pleads a lot more murder defendants down to lesser charges than other district attorneys. And then there's the strange case of attorney Mark Simeon, who went through an unlocked door into the DAs office after 6 p.m. one night. Simeon says he was looking for a case screening list, and had a 15-minute conversation with an assistant DA while he was there. Hardin decided that was grounds to send the case to the state Attorney General's office for investigation, which referred it to the Greensboro DAs office, which found that no charges should be filed.
Well, whaddya know, Simeon, it turns out, was thinking of running against Hardin for DA. And now he is. But that has put Simeon's shortcomings in the spotlight--and they don't look good for someone who's thinking of running an office that handles more than 60,000 cases a year. He once had 55 unpaid parking tickets. He's behind on repaying his student loans. Then, last month, a judge threatened to hold him in contempt of court for failing to show up on behalf of a client two times in a row. Shortly afterward, Simeon said he was suspending his private law practice to focus on the campaign.
So there's the choice: A DA with the smell of a fixed case not far from his office, or a private attorney who can't remember to pay his parking tickets or show up in court. It's a tough call. But after reviewing their accomplishments as well as their shortcomings, we're coming down on the side of Jim Hardin Jr. On the business of keeping the wheels of justice turning in Durham, he has done a good job. He created a Community Life Court to prosecute slumlords. He created a system for letting crime victims know when their cases are headed to court (though his office has cut deals with defendants without telling victims before they offered tearful testimony). He allowed traffic violators to negotiate directly with his staff, so they don't need an attorney. And he has speeded the judicial process through implementation of a case management system, in conjunction with the defense bar. He also is actively involved in the community in a variety of organizations, including the YMCA, the Youth Coordinating Board and sentencing services. And he's been very active in the U.S. Army Reserve, where he holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General's Corps and is a deputy staff judge advocate.
Simeon has much less community involvement, serving as president of Durham Companions, a mentor program for at-risk youth. He says he will strengthen murder trial prosecutions, make better use of rehabilitation and treatment services, get parents more involved in their children's cases, and lighten the caseload in traffic court by allowing safe drivers with suspended licenses to earn their licenses back. And he says Hardin has abused the habitual felon law by using it to artificially inflate low-level drug offenses into cases equivalent to attempted murder.
But Simeon hasn't shown yet the ability to take on the job of running an operation as big as the Durham DA's office. Let's hope Hardin has put an end to improper deal-making in his office--or that more capable opposition arises four years from now.
Durham County Sheriff
In the race for Durham County's top law enforcement job, The Independent endorses incumbent Sheriff Worth Hill over challenger Tony Butler in the Democratic primary. Hill, who is seeking his third term, has provided a steady hand at the helm of a department that was in chaos when he stepped into office in 1994. Under Hill, the sheriff's department has done good work with the Durham Crime Cabinet and the Youth Advisory Board. Butler, a former state trooper and current pastor, offers some broad goals for improving crime-fighting, but his platform lacks the specifics to show he would do a better job than the incumbent, whom he faced unsuccessfully in 1994 and 1998. And even though talks of a city-county law enforcement merger have subsided in recent years, we're sure Hill would be willing to lend a hand with a few municipal duties while Durham City Manager Marcia Conner casts around for another police chief this month.
Durham Clerk of Court
The clerk of court is one of those little-known elected offices that actually wields a lot of power behind the scenes. This year, for the first time since 1976, Durham Clerk of Court James Carr isn't running. Durham voters have a chance to elect a new clerk to preside over the myriad of records contained in the county's judicial system, including overseeing a much-needed technological modernization. Since Carr decided to step down into retirement this year, three Democrats have stepped up to compete for the job--Dick Boyd, Larry Hall and Archie Smith, whom we endorse.
Smith, a longtime private-practice attorney like both his competitors, has demonstrated a people-friendly approach to improving the operations of the clerk's office, including plans to implement innovations that neighboring counties are already using. He supports "second-parent" adoptions, a key issue for gay couples, and has a reputation of being an all-around good guy.
Hall, on the other hand, has some progressives worried about the clerk's office becoming an extension of his insider status at the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, where he is a close ally and personal legal counsel for Chairwoman Lavonia Allison. Hall also has profited from development-related controversies, recently collecting legal fees from the residents of the embattled Kentington Heights neighborhood--money that was supposed to pay for sewer and water hookups for the working-class neighborhood, not rezoning advice. Boyd, a real estate attorney and former city council member, says his motivation for seeking the clerk's job is "entirely personal," citing the $87,000 annual salary.
Each of North Carolina's 100 counties has a district courthouse and each county must have at least one district court judge. Races for these seats are nonpartisan. Judges serve four-year terms hearing misdemeanors, juvenile cases, probable cause hearings in felonies, commitments to mental hospitals, domestic cases and civil cases where damages are $10,000 or less.
Two seats are open in District 14 in Durham. In the first, incumbent Ann McKown deserves to be returned to the bench. Although some defense attorneys have been unhappy with what they see as an unwillingness to plea bargain in criminal cases, overall, McKown wins praise for being thorough, fair and particularly strong on women's issues. She wants to see more services for crime victims, such as additional witness coordinators, and more resources devoted to alternative sentencing and substance abuse prevention. McKown supports mandatory mediation in family court and merit selection of judges to avoid "expensive, contested elections" that she says have led to a loss of public confidence in the judiciary. She's chair of the family selection committee for Habitat for Humanity and is a founding member of the Orange/Durham Coalition for Battered Women and Durham rape Crisis Center.
Challenger Anita Smith graduated from N.C. Central University law school and worked for Legal Services of the Coastal Plains, She has good answers to questions about what's needed to improve the courts. But she lacks McKown's long experience in the field. The same is true of a third candidate, Ann Credle, a partner in Bourbon & Credle, who has focused on domestic cases.
Four candidates are vying for the second open District Court seat previously held by Judge Kenneth Titus, who's running unopposed for a seat on the Superior Court. Of those, Brian Aus and William Marsh are the strongest contenders. Choosing between them has not been easy for many in the community. Aus, a private attorney in Durham, and Marsh, a former assistant legal counsel to Gov. Jim Hunt and an assistant city attorney in Washington, D.C., bring different strengths and weaknesses to the race. The People's Allliance endorsement committee backed Aus, but the membership voted for Marsh. Marsh is clearly qualified and has garnered significant local support. His candidacy offers voters a chance to support another African American for the bench. But Aus gets our nod, based on his more extensive trial experience and his thoughtful answers to questions about the criminal justice system. He calls for an end to budget cuts to mental health, substance abuse and vocational training programs that are too often overlooked as crime prevention strategies. And he says he'd urge the General Assembly to "revisit the application of the Habitual Felon laws which often result in substantial, automatic terms of imprisonment for many non-violent drug addicts."
Others in the race are Tab Hunter an assistant district attorney in Durham; and James Hill, an attorney with Randall & Hill. Neither of them is particularly forward-looking or revealing about their opinions. Hill, a lifelong Durham resident, says he's "not opposed to creative sentencing, community service, restitution and the like" but adds that each case must be handled on an individual basis. Hunter had "no opinion" on the critical issue of how to select judges.