Days after a city council showdown over whether Durham is a "sanctuary city" for undocumented immigrants, Mayor Bill Bell and Councilman Thomas Stith were on opposing sides of an issue again. They convened in a conference room at the Hilton Hotel on Hillsborough Road for a mayoral debate, mingling in separate circles, facing away from each other, while the crowd buzzed about Stith's campaign tactics and the heated rivalry.
When the debate began, Stith, dressed in a dark, pinstriped suit, white shirt and red-and-black tie, stuck to the messages he's consistently pushed since announcing his candidacy this summer. With Bell seated inches to his right, Stith called for accountability, efficient and effective government, a crackdown on crime and strong leadership to remedy an administration that's stumbled from one mishap to the next.
But there were no fireworks that night. "I think Bill Bell has served our community well, but I think it's time to make a change," Stith said, chuckling and patting his opponent on the arm.
Yet, the following evening, Stith showed his less cordial, more calculated side. He hired the firm TelOpinion—which has conducted research for several Republican candidates and conservative thinktanks, including the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute, Stith's former employer—to push-poll Durham voters. Pollsters asked questions hinting that Bell has a conflict of interest because UDI Development Corp., his employer, received thousands of dollars in Community Development Block Grants from 2002-2005. Pollsters also probed voters' views on Bell's leadership as chairman of the board of the failing Mutual Community Savings Bank. And they queried whether voters are concerned about Bell's 2006 campaign contributions to former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong.
The differences between Stith's public persona and private political maneuverings point to a curious duality: When he speaks on the council, he sounds like he's offering a reasonable, measured parsing of the issues; yet his campaign strategies are risky, even offensive, attacks torn from the dirty-politics playbook. In addition to the push polls, a campaign mailer showcases photos of Bell's contorted face, and automated "robo-calls" claimed Durham intentionally harbors undocumented immigrants.
"On one level, he tried to stir up raw emotion about illegal immigrants," says Kevin Farmer, Durham County Democratic Party chairman. "On another level, he's saying, 'I'm just asking for clarification of a policy.' He was appealing to baser emotion on a certain segment of the population."
Meanwhile, Stith is evasive when questioned about these tactics, his own spotty record on council, and $108,000 in campaign contributions, primarily from wealthy business owners. Instead he hammers on his issues and emphasizes that in the nonpartisan race, strong leadership on issues of crime and government accountability outweigh political philosophy and party affiliation. But make no mistake: Stith is conservative and so are his issues. And he is seen as part of a Republican effort to upend Democratic leadership, a strategy that has led to a backlash from Durham's considerable liberal majority that calls Stith's campaign divisive.
"I didn't think he was the type to be ugly," says Tamra Edwards, a former city councilwoman who says she was Stith's friend. "Maybe he has lost sight of some things because of so many people in his ear."
A representative of Ballard Everett & Associates, campaign strategists whom Stith paid nearly $54,000, according to the Oct. 2 campaign finance report, didn't return a phone call seeking comment. Stith denies that he's bending to the will of his handlers. "I don't think they're divisive," he says of his tactics. "I think they're hard-hitting. I think they get your attention. There are very significant issues that they are addressing."
Stith first won election to the council in 1999, garnering 21 percent of the vote in a field of six. Since, he has staked out a position in the council's conservative minority, espousing pro-business views like his late father, David Stith, who worked in the Nixon administration. Despite being African American, David Stith supported Sen. Jesse Helms, notorious for his backward views on race relations. "You look at somebody like Jesse Helms," Thomas Stith says. "He used race as a political tool. But he helped black business owners and farmers down east. There's a lot of gray in politics." Stith says of his father: "He was one that signified to me what it meant to stand on principle and stand on beliefs even when it may have been unpopular." But whether Stith has moved beyond standing on principle to taking action is disputable. Bell and other critics assert that during Stith's eight years as a councilman, he's accomplished little. "I don't recall during the whole time I've been on the council when we've had conversations about crime that he's offered any proposals," Bell says.
But Stith says he can list his anti-crime initiatives. "In 2001, before the mayor was on council, I was the one to talk about looking at loitering ordinances," Stith says. "I've been the one to talk about enhancing our relationships with the federal agencies."
He says he has proposed new policies but that his ideas have been ignored—and Durham is suffering. "We're seeing the results of that now," he says. His ability to build consensus—which so far, has been ineffective—would be tested if he were elected; Democrats will likely hold a council majority. Nonetheless, Stith says that as mayor he would offer strong leadership.
"It's a little disingenuous to say we're just one of seven," Stith says. "I think the mayor tries to be one of seven when things aren't as good as they can be, and he tries to be the mayor when we have successes."
Stith has been unsuccessful in dedicating the same amount of time to his council duties as his colleagues. A list of the council members' committee, subcommittee and liaison appointments shows that Stith serves on just one council subcommittee, which considers minority contracting issues and has met once in the past four years. Bell serves on 15. Cora Cole-McFadden serves on 22; Howard Clement sits on 18; Diane Catotti and Mike Woodard work on 12; Eugene Brown, nine.
Stith has missed more council meetings, work sessions and special meetings since the 2005 election than any member, with 11 absences, three of them unexcused.
Stith justifies his absences and lack of committee appointments by citing his professional career. "I'm the one that works," Stith says, tongue-in-cheek. (Several councilmembers work, including Eugene Brown, who's the head of Distinctive Properties Real Estate.) Stith recently resigned from his vice president position at the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a conservative public policy organization, where he earned $116,365. He is the principal owner of the Michael Thomas Group, a government relations and consulting firm (N.C. Mutual Insurance is among its clients), that he operates out of his home.
"I'm trying to balance between trying to provide a home for my family and also serving the people of Durham," Stith says. "I will be involved in those committees, but I also believe colleagues have served very strongly, so I can't say what number that would be."
There are spots on Stith's professional résumé, too. Stith supporters decry Bell's leadership as board chairman of Mutual Community Savings Bank, which federal and state regulators charged with inadequate management, capital and supervision. But in December 2004, the N.C. Department of Revenue suspended the Michael Thomas Group for failing to comply with a state law governing how corporations file and pay taxes. The revenue department lifted the suspension in January 2006. "They didn't have a copy of the return and we just had to resubmit," Stith says.
Stith has juggled several private entrepreneurial ventures. In 2005, he co-founded the John Pope Civitas Institute, a public policy organization under the Art Pope empire, which includes the John Locke Foundation. As Civitas vice president, Stith oversaw the institute's daily operations and helped coordinate its leadership institute. The organization's Web site no longer mentions Stith, but a YouTube video shows him discussing the Civitas Leadership Institute and embracing his conservative background, which he has downplayed on the campaign trail.
"Conservatives throughout North Carolina are looking for some of the opportunities that we offer during the course of our conference," Stith says in the video. "We're going to have forums on everything from education, to healthcare, to illegal immigration, to polling, to how to get your conservative message out."
Stith contends Civitas hasn't participated in his campaign. However, Stith acknowledges Art Pope contributed $4,000 to his election coffers. Stith's campaign bank account is flush: He has secured $108,000 in contributions, mostly from business and development interests. Developer Gary Hock, his family and an associate contributed $21,000 to Stith's campaign, nearly as much as the $27,000 Bell has raised from all his donors.
Stith fundraiser David Beischer, a real estate developer, says the big war chest indicates that Durham voters are responding to Stith's message. "I think it was a little bit out in left field," Beischer says about the immigration robo-call. "I was surprised by it. But I haven't run into anybody that said 'I'm not going to give you money because of that issue...'."
Stith has avoided mentioning his connection to the Republican Party, despite the fact that city council candidates Laney Funderburk, Steve Monks and Melodie Parrish, former or current officers in the county GOP, entered the race to support him.
"I don't think the issues here are liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican," Stith says. "They are issues that cut across our entire community. When you talk about crime and public safety, when you talk about efficient and effective government, when you talk about strong leadership, I don't think they have labels."
Many former colleagues who disagree with Stith on policy still praise his intellect and dedication to his beliefs, although some question whether he is using his mayoral campaign as a gateway to higher office.
Stith unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2004, promising he would use the office to protect conservative values. His campaign literature discussed how he had fought "the big tax and spend liberal special interests" in Durham and stood alone "against an establishment determined to increase the size of government and the tax burden on taxpayers." Stith raised $73,000 to run for the state's second-highest office, $30,000 less than he's collected for the mayoral race.
It's uncertain whether Stith's money and political connections will trump his reputation as a divider. While Stith's criticisms of city government are valid, he has yet to offer broad-based solutions.
"I believe that Thomas is the type of person who is passionate about what he believes in," says Democratic Durham state senator and former city council member Floyd McKissick. "But at the same time, to be effective you have to build coalitions. I view Thomas in many instances as a lone ranger."