When the Rev. Carl Kenney looked at the results of last week's primary election in Durham, he came to this conclusion: The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People--arguably the most powerful black political organization in the region--"is in trouble."
That's why Kenney, a pastor who writes a column for the Durham Herald-Sun, says he's "seriously flirting" with the idea of challenging Committee Chairwoman Lavonia Allison for the group's leadership post in November.
On the surface, Kenney's conclusion is surprising, to say the least. Despite failing to get all of its candidates elected, primary results show most voters in Durham's African-American precincts cast ballots in line with the Committee's endorsements.
In the county commissioners' race for example, the Committee endorsed three black candidates for five open seats: incumbents Joe Bowser and Phil Cousin Jr. and newcomer Warren Herndon. In predominantly black precincts, those candidates were the top vote getters, according to tallies by the Durham County Board of Elections. (By contrast, voters in white precincts went for candidates endorsed by the liberal People's Alliance and the conservative Friends of Durham, two groups with predominantly white leadership that backed identical slates for the first time.)
"The turnout in black precincts was strong and the committee turnout was strong," says Stella Adams, a committee member who is head of the N.C. Fair Housing Center's Durham office.
So why is Kenney saying the group is in trouble? Because he's not questioning whether the Durham Committee is still a powerful force in local elections--it clearly is. What Kenney is asking is: Are the Committee's endorsements really in line with the desires of black voters?
For Kenney, the key results in the primary are Michael Page's win and Joe Bowser's loss in the county commissioners' race. Both candidates are black, but they represent opposite sides of the Committee endorsement coin. While Page won handily without the Durham Committee's backing, Bowser narrowly lost despite getting the group's nod.
For Kenney, those results show that "there are still those areas where the Committee continues to have a strong hold. But outside of those, you have African Americans who are following their conscience."
Echoing a statement he made in his July 16 Herald-Sun column, Kenney says the Committee's failure to endorse Page "sent out a very strong red flag around the politics of the Committee."
It's well known that Page, the school board's first African-American chair, is considered by Committee leaders to be too willing to compromise with that board's white majority. But Kenney believes that Page's approach is one favored by a growing number of black citizens--and that his primary win in the commissioners' race proves it.
"There are lots of people out there who want to move beyond racial politics to where we can really get to what's best for the community," Kenney says. "For the Durham Committee to bypass Page in favor of a person like Warren Herndon, who has no real political experience, that didn't sit well with a lot of voters. These candidates are being used as pawns by the Durham Committee. And there are people who are really tired of that process and want to say, 'Hey, we don't follow that.'"
Allison, the Durham Committee's chair, did not return phone calls asking for her take on the primary election results.
But at least one other black political leader agrees with Kenney's analysis of Page's success at the polls last week.
"The community is looking for leadership that can form coalitions and bring the community together to solve some of our problems," says former City Council member Ike Robinson. "I think that's a position that's not well spoken in the media and probably among the leadership publicly. But you do hear people talk privately that there is a sort of jadedness with the old political conflicts that have occurred in Durham.
"I think Michael's ability to go from the school board to the county commissioners is a reflection of that," Robinson adds. "He represents the kind of boldness that Durham wants in leadership."
Frank Hyman is another former City Council member and longtime observer of Durham politics. Hyman, who is white, has been analyzing ballot results and calculating the numbers of voters he believes the various PACs turn out in each election.
"The numbers are the same as they ever were," he says. "It's the mix of candidates that's changed." In a Democratic primary, Hyman estimates that the Friends of Durham and the Durham Committee each bring out about 10,000 voters while the People's Alliance brings about 5,000.
He agrees with Kenney in a big-picture way. "The candidates who can put together a coalition are the ones that win," Hyman says. "That's the defining geography of Durham politics. When the progressive whites and progressive blacks can bring their organizations into line behind a candidate, that's what works."