If there's one sure bet in the Bull City, it's this: There are as many diverse opinions about what's good for Durham as there are Durhamites. City politics are a much-debated, often-fractious blend of ideology, economics, race, public scandals and private agendas.
As voters choose three city council members and a mayor from large fields this fall, they should look for incumbents with a track record of positive change and real results, and serious challengers who bring fresh ideas and realistic goals to the city's leadership. Key needs in the job of city leadership are: a more structured and unified vision for growth; a 21st-century approach to fighting crime; an ability to successfully steer redevelopment projects downtown while also addressing the needs of its economically challenged citizens.
Durham is poised on the verge of some really exciting progress. A long-planned, $10 million city-run affordable housing project on Barnes Avenue is just beginning to come out of the ground, next door to the federally funded Hope VI development.
In June, the council signed off on funding for a $31 million theater and $11 million in incentives for redevelopment of the former Liggett & Myers factory, two more projects designed to transform downtown into a "destination" for residents within the Triangle and for tourists.
A new city manager took over the administration in January, and initial reports are that he's got a firm hand on the helm.
But true to Durham politics, each of those steps forward have come after many frustrating steps back.
The Barnes Avenue project, a major prong of Mayor Bill Bell's campaign platform, has been delayed nearly a year by an ugly and convoluted controversy over alleged bidding improprieties. The Hope VI redevelopment of the former Few Gardens public housing complex, while not directed by the city, has drawn fire from federal officials and launched an investigation of the Durham Housing Authority resulting in the departure of its former director.
The theater plans have generated plenty of criticism that big public projects for the arts--like the new theater--and other endeavors are placed too far above the needs of lower-income residents and of artists and small businesses downtown.
And new City Manager Patrick Baker, who was promoted from within the administration's ranks, took over from an embattled predecessor whose legacy still reverberates through City Hall.
Durham citizens need leaders who will follow through on grand ideas, and keep close tabs on the use of bond money, as voters are asked to support a $110 million spending plan in November.
In recognition of his steady leadership over the last four years, the Independent endorses incumbent Mayor Bill Bell for a third term. While Bell's critics have made some valid points about his signature initiative, the Barnes Avenue project, moving slowly and perhaps concentrating too many affordable-housing resources in one place, overall Bell is clearly the best candidate for the job. A quiet but firm leader with a long record of public service as a county commissioner prior to his mayoral tenure, Bell makes a convincing case to keep him on the job. In defending his record, Bell points to the council's recent adoption of a comprehensive land use plan as a tool for managing growth, and lower overall crime rates (though homicides are on the rise). On the issue of poverty, he cites initiatives such as a joint partnership among the city, county and school system to turn the former Holton Middle School into a vocational training and community and health center. Bell has a realistic approach to balancing the needs of inner-city neighborhoods with private redevelopment projects, acknowledging that it's difficult to make dollar-for-dollar comparisons and taking a comprehensive look at intangibles like "livability."
Bell's challengers are school board member Jackie Wagstaff, who says she wants to tap into "gangsta" culture for constructive purposes; political newcomer Jonathan Alston, who also ran unsuccessfully in 2003; and contractor Vincent Brown, who has filed a complaint about the city's bid processes with HUD and for whom this campaign seems a roundabout way to protest his not being awarded the Barnes Avenue contract.
City Council Ward 1
In this race, our nod goes to another incumbent, Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden. Since we supported her in her first campaign four years ago, she has been a consistent advocate for a progressive approach to managing growth and controlling crime. A former Democratic party leader and retired director of the city's equal opportunity and equity assurance program, Cole-McFadden does her homework, uses her inside knowledge of the City Hall bureaucracy to solve problems, communicates clearly, and has helped develop partnerships with private and nonprofit groups to address housing, poverty and other issues.
She faces two challengers in the northeastern district: conservative activist Victoria Peterson and perennial candidate Joe Williams.
City Council Ward 2
In two of the three council seats up for grabs, qualified challengers offer progressive alternatives to incumbents. In Ward 2, which covers the southeastern portion of the city, the Independent endorses Regina Stanley-King in her first bid for public office. A native of Lumberton who has lived in Durham since 1990, Stanley-King works for the Social Security Administration and has been a union leader, a foster parent and the founder of an informal mentoring program for girls and women that she runs out of her living room. She's also been very busy campaigning, including old-fashioned, door-to-door canvassing to ask residents what they need from their city. She's focused on crime and housing as two of her top priorities, and makes a convincing case for why she should replace 23-year incumbent Howard Clement. Clement has contributed much to Durham over his long tenure but in recent years has not brought anything new to the table, while contributing to the city's sprawl by rubber-stamping development. In a testimony to our suspicion that the incumbent is just a little too comfortable in his office, Clement returned his Indy questionnaire in a city envelope, stamped with the taxpayers' postage meter.
Other candidates for Ward 2 include repeat candidate Carolina James-Rivera, pastor John Holmes and newcomer Jason Maynard.
City Council Ward 3
Four years ago, we lamented the dearth of good candidates for this seat, which covers the western portion of the city. Then, Republican Party leader John Best Jr. unseated his predecessor and has since gone on to approve developments without restraint or analysis, oppose health benefits for domestic partners of city employees, and embarrass himself in a public spat over his private life, landing a jail sentence for falling behind on his child support payments to his ex-wife.
Thankfully, this time around there's a promising alternative to Best, who is seeking a second term. The Independent taps community leader Mike Woodard. A Duke administrator with a long record in a wide variety of civic leadership positions (InterNeighborhood Council, chamber of commerce, the citizen advisory committee on the upcoming bond issue, to name just a few), Woodard is making his first bid for elected office. His résumé is an unusual blend of progressive politics and a strong background in the business community, which, he argues--and we agree--puts him in a position to build bridges between competing interests and bring a progressive voice to debates on issues such as economic development. In just one example, he has actively recruited small business owners and local proprietors to balance out the big corporate representatives on the chamber's local government committee, where he recently advocated strongly for living-wage standards. Woodard, who also received the backing of the People's Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, two powerhouse endorsements, is one of those rare first-time candidates who has a real record of putting his principles into action in demonstrable ways, and the Independent heartily endorses him.
Also campaigning in Ward 3 is former People's Alliance president Steven Matherly, who has been outspoken on issues of racial equality in the Durham schools in recent months, including getting arrested and then acquitted for trespassing at a recent school board meeting. Other challengers are Pam Karriker and Shawn Cunningham, an N.C. Central University student leader whom we applauded last fall with an Indy Citizens Award for his successful efforts to boost turnout among young black voters, and whom we encourage to stay involved in city politics.