The Durham County Board of Commissioners has been making clear progress on such critical issues as environmental protection and public school funding. But in recent months, the board has become mired in the kind of infighting that has bogged down the Durham school board and hurt public confidence in local government. The five open board seats are for four-year terms and in the primary, the contest is among the Democrats. Candidate Tonja Washington dropped out last month, leaving four incumbents and four challengers in the race. Incumbent Mary Jacobs is not seeking re-election. Republican Carolina James Rivera is unopposed in the primary.
Of the incumbents, two are trusted veterans with long institutional memories and consistent track records. Current chair Ellen Reckhow, who's been on the board since 1988, has used her background as a professional planner to shepherd a new model for transportation planning and a good compromise on the disputed Eno Drive project. Reckhow led efforts to plug a shortfall in child-care funding last fall and pushed the adoption of domestic partner benefits for county employees. She has not been as successful in recent months in keeping the board unified. But that's hard to do in the glare of media headlines.
Becky Heron, a board member since 1982, has been particularly strong on environmental issues, playing a role in the Eno Drive compromise and voicing support for new zoning rules that tie development to infrastructure and keep it in the city limits to avoid sprawl. She correctly identifies health services as a major unmet need for the county's Latino residents. While her plainspokenness doesn't go over well with everyone, Heron's integrity over her long board tenure is unquestioned.
Philip Cousin Jr. is another incumbent who deserves reelection. A senior pastor at St. Joseph's A.M.E. church, Cousin spent four years on the Durham County School Board and the last four on the county commission. While some consider him too passive, in recent months Cousin has found his voice on such issues as a living wage, more funding for public schools and more attention to services for children. He is more conservative than some other candidates on social issues--he opposes gay marriage, for example--but if he continues to speak up about problems affecting low-income citizens, he will be playing a much-needed role on the commission.
Until now, that role has been dominated by the remaining incumbent, Joe Bowser, a retired railroad company employee and president of the Durham NAACP. During his seven-year tenure on the board, Bowser has been forthright and consistent in advocating for programs to benefit Durham's working-class communities. But in the past year, Bowser has fixed on championing the interests of individual county employees and criticizing individual department heads--to the detriment of his wider constituency. He made headlines this spring for supporting a controversial audit of the Human Resources Department that cited favoritism in raises and promotions. The audit's findings have been questioned and the department head has filed an ethics complaint against Bowser, accusing him of targeting administrators who won't help his friends on the county payroll (a charge he has denied). County employees may well be experiencing problems that need attention. But Bowser has been unable to clearly pinpoint their source, and he has overstepped his elected role by taking on individual cases that should be handled by the county manager. He has also personalized the issues in ways that have precluded finding allies or standing on broader principles. Members of a commission he chaired on vocational education say Bowser exhibited a similar failure of leadership there, with the result being that the commission folded without fully completing its charge.
Of the four challengers, Michael Page and Josh Parker represent the best way to deliver new energy and renewed purpose to the board. As the first African-American chair of the Durham school board, Page helped put that body on a forward-moving track. Unfortunately, he had to resign his seat when his new house was found to be outside his district. Page brings a solid understanding of school and social-service issues to the county commission. He'll need to get up to speed on some other topics--especially land-use planning--but his tenure on the school board shows he is more than capable of playing a positive role.
Parker is only 21, and his experience in government is limited to his participation in a school achievement gap task force and a neighborhood watch. Still, he's worth going out on a limb for because he brings a much-needed passion for getting citizens involved in solving problems facing the county. As a former consultant to Blue Devil Ventures, Parker understands the nitty gritty of how smart-growth principles are applied to development. And he's connected to the growing community of artists and young professionals who've been fighting for downtown revitalization that better meets the needs of Durham citizens. If elected, we hope Parker will drop the campaign rhetoric about the need for sweeping reform and get down to the business of supporting the positive initiatives already in place.
Lewis Cheek is an attorney and former city council member with longstanding family ties to Durham who gets high marks for personal integrity and a willingness to take independent stands (he cast a deciding vote in favor of domestic partner benefits for city employees). But he is not specific enough about what he wants to accomplish on the county commission--especially on critical growth issues, where his record shows a pro-development tilt. His main campaign issue, returning citizen confidence to government, seems aimed more at recent headlines than daily realities facing the board.
Warren Herndon is a retired Duke University Medical Center administrator who ran a failed campaign for city council in 2003. He has good intentions about improving county budgeting and services, but his proposals lack depth, and his campaign has failed to galvanize the needed excitement and support.
The Durham school board has been fractious and stymied in recent years, often dividing 4-3 along racial lines. Some trace the tensions to the way voting districts were set up after the city and county schools merged in the late 1980s. In the past year, there have been positive signs--both in terms of board dynamics and in benchmarks for student achievement. Much of the credit for better board relations is due to the work of Michael Page, the board's first African-American chair. Sadly, Page had to resign his seat after he purchased a home outside his district. His absence underlines the need for new leaders who can identify common goals in addressing the challenges facing Durham schools. The stakes are high in this nonpartisan race that is decided in the primary. Fortunately, voters have some standout candidates to choose from for three open seats.
There's no getting around the fact that the Independent has deep and longstanding ties to Steve Schewel, founder and president of the board of our company. Yet, a clear-eyed examination of his positions, his record of public service and his connections to people across a wide spectrum of Durham shows he is by far the better choice for the at-large seat.
The other candidate, Steven Matherly, is a videographer and past president of the liberal People's Alliance political action group. Matherly is sincere in his desire to improve public schools. But he has the wrong take on some key issues--his apples-to-oranges comparisons with the Chapel Hill system on student achievement, for example--and is not specific enough in his proposals for change.
Schewel is well informed and thoughtful on the issues. He doesn't shy away from such contentious topics as Superintendent Ann Denlinger (he supports her). And his priorities are clear and measurable: close the racial achievement gap, dramatically reduce suspensions, retain good teachers and address the needs of Latino students. Perhaps Schewel's greatest strength is his personal knowledge of the public schools--the product of years as a parent, PTA member, soccer coach and philanthropist. It's what gives him the ability to cite what is working in the system as well as identify gaps. Schewel, who has a Ph.D. in education from Duke University, served on Durham's merger task force and has stayed active as a bridge-builder on numerous community issues over the years. On the board, he will turn that caring into a force for positive change in the public schools.
In Consolidated District A, one of two "super district" seats, Minnie Forte will be more than just an able replacement for Page. Forte, who grew up in Durham and teaches speech at North Carolina Central University, brings energy and humor to the table. She rightly identifies suspension and dropout rates as the worrisome flip side of the student achievement issue in Durham. And she has some solid ideas about using community institutions such as churches and NCCU--where she earned a master's degree--to reach out to struggling students and parents. Forte has varied classroom experience as a diversity consultant in Seattle public schools, as a teacher in a Baltimore magnet school, and as a substitute teacher in Durham. She is vibrant and upbeat about tackling problems facing the schools--an approach that will serve the district well.
Her opponent, Anne Murphy, is well meaning and has the valuable perspective of a just-retired classroom teacher. But she is not as sharp as Forte in her analysis of problems, nor as bold in her solutions.
In Consolidated District B, Heidi Carter has an impressive track record as a volunteer, PTA member and substitute teacher. She has good strategies for broadening student achievement by focusing on middle schools. And rather than being judgmental about parental involvement, she offers practical suggestions such as extending city bus service to all schools. Our survey asked for two ways that education of Latino students can be improved; Carter offered six--including having Latino PTA and site-based decision-making committee liaisons in all schools. She has worked at all levels of the system--from the classroom to schoolwide committees to district headquarters.
Doug Wright, manager of the county's ABC Board and chair of the mental health board, has good intentions in seeking this seat. But he lacks Carter's breadth of experience and knowledge of the school system.
Senate District 18
Wib Gulley's departure from the state senate was an unexpected loss. Gully, a 12-year veteran of the legislature who resigned after being hired as attorney for the Triangle Transit Authority, was a leader in campaign finance reform and a trusted vote for such worthy causes as public education and mass transit. At the same time, redistricting has transformed District 18 from covering half of Durham and all of Granville and Person counties to including only parts of southern Durham along with all of Chatham and Lee counties. Democrats are still a majority of registered voters, but the new district has far fewer African Americans--the main reason why Ralph Hunt, a black lawmaker appointed to fill Gulley's unexpired term, is not running for the seat.
Gulley is a hard act to follow. And the three Democrats vying for his seat bring varied and impressive skills to the task. (Republican Christine Mumma and Libertarian John Guze are unopposed in the primary.)
Paul Carrington is a Duke University law professor and former dean of the Duke Law School who's been active on criminal justice and campaign reform. Tommy Griffin of Moncure works as an air conditioning mechanic at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he is chair of the university's employee forum. Bob Atwater is a retired UNC administrator and Chatham County Commissioner.
All three get high marks from local political leaders for integrity and enlightened approaches to state policy. Carrington and Griffin are on the more progressive end of the spectrum--stating clearly that they would raise cigarette taxes, for example, and lobby for a living wage. But none of the three differ fundamentally on the key issues of education, health care and the environment.
What gives Atwater the edge, in our view, is his experience in elected office and his broad-based ties to citizens in the district. While Carrington has strong links with organizations such as the American Bar Association and Democracy North Carolina, he lacks a track record of political work at the community level. And Griffin, while garnering praise for his role as an advocate for working folks and his welcoming demeanor, lacks the broader support needed to make a difference in the legislature.
Atwater, a U.S. Air Force veteran who grew up in Durham, has been an elected official since 2000 in Chatham--a county where the pressures of growth have reached the boiling point. His positions have evolved--slowly, some say--but clearly in the direction of stricter controls on development and more citizen involvement in critical planning and zoning decisions. Atwater cast the lone vote against the Homestead development, which will put 450 homes overlooking Jordan Lake. He's also interested in job creation--a definite need in the district. And he'll advocate for funds for higher teacher pay and smaller classes in public schools.
If elected, we hope Atwater will continue Gulley's strong leadership on issues facing Durham--a county that will still make up 42 percent of District 18 and which, with its sizable African-American population, offers an important test of how well the state is doing by its minority citizens.
Register of Deeds
Of the two candidates running for Register of Deeds, our support goes to incumbent Willie Covington. During his two terms, he has overseen a major modernization of the office and pledges to continue to increase public access to public records. Under his tenure, Durham became the third county in the state to place documents online. Covington is sympathetic to the needs of new immigrants, who sometimes lack documentation needed to obtain marriage licenses. And his record of community service is long and distinguished.
His opponent, Bryan Williams, who runs a real estate records-searching business, is well spoken and well qualified. But there is no good reason not to return Covington to another term.
Durham County voting guide
On July 20, Durham County voters will select county commissioners in a partisan race, school board members in a nonpartisan race, a register of deeds and a state senator. For information on where to vote, call the Durham County Board of Elections at 560-0700 or go to www.co.durham.nc.us/elec . Below are the Independent's endorsements in contested races, based on extensive research and detailed questionnaires. Not listed are candidates without opposition in the primary.
County Commissioner (five seats, Democratic Party primary): Philip R. Cousin Jr., Becky Heron, Michael D. Page, Josh Parker, Ellen Reckhow
School Board: District A: Minnie M. Forte
District B: Heidi Carter
At Large: Steve Schewel
Register of Deeds: Willie L. Covington
State Senate District 18: Bob Atwater, D