Two years ago, when Pat Bocckino and her neighbors began to question plans for a new mega-mall in Southwest Durham, they sought help from their elected officials.
Cynthia Brown, then a Durham City Council member, was the only one who responded in person. Brown walked through the neighborhood talking to people on doorsteps and porches, listening to their concerns about the mall.
“When I saw that, I was super-impressed,” says Bocckino, who helped form Citizens Against Urban Sprawl Everywhere (CAUSE) in response to the Streets at Southpoint, now under construction.
The anti-mall campaign, which involved a whirlwind of organizing, e-mail, media attention and public hearings, was Bocckino’s first dip into local politics. This month, Brown’s campaign for the U.S. Senate became her second.
As Brown’s choice for campaign treasurer, Bocckino embodies the candidate’s grassroots approach. “In Washington, they’ve lost touch with people out here,” Bocckino says. “We need Cynthia, who is in touch.”
A Durham Democrat and lifelong progressive activist, Brown is joining the increasingly crowded race to fill the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. She mailed her first fundraising letter to 600 potential supporters on Sept. 4, and plans to file officially in November.
She’s plotting a word-of-mouth, coffee-with-your-neighbors kind of campaign. Undaunted by detractors who say big politics takes big money, Brown has set up campaign headquarters in the spare bedroom of her house, which sits on a gravel road in the Lakewood neighborhood south of downtown.
Surrounded by her laptop and a pile of notes, mailings, and position papers, Brown laments the loss of her cordless phone. Its recent demise has her tethered to a six-foot radius around an old-fashioned phone–which rings frequently, usually with people wanting to talk politics on the other end.
For Brown, running for a U.S. Senate seat is a fight against what she considers a major breakdown in government: People without large bank accounts and those disillusioned by the influence of money on politics have dropped out of the political process, leaving them no voice among either Republicans or Democrats in Washington.
“People who understand these issues because they’ve been activists and because they’ve been working-class and poor should be in a position to make policy,” says Brown, 42, who served on Durham’s City Council from 1995 to 1999.
She counts herself among that group. Brown’s father died when she was young, leaving her mother to raise six children on a textile-worker’s salary. After graduating from Bennett College in Greensboro, Brown ran shelters for battered women and children in Greensboro and High Point, and chaired the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. From 1986 to 1990, she worked with the Southeast Women’s Employment Coalition in Kentucky, then spent a decade at the Durham-based Southerners for Economic Justice–including four years as its executive director. Since January, Brown has done consulting for nonprofits.
Her work on the front lines of poverty, domestic violence and women’s issues has earned Brown the respect of progressive leaders throughout the South.
“I have always been impressed with her commitment, her warmth and her genuine concern for people,” says Bob Hall, who founded Southern Exposure magazine, published by the Institute for Southern Studies. “She can communicate her passion very well, which comes from her own experience and seeing things up close.”
During her tenure on Durham City Council, Brown’s hands-on approach–like her trip to Bocckino’s neighborhood–won praise from people engaged in core progressive issues like a livable wage, environmental justice, and bridging racial divides.
But not all of her actions garnered support. Consistent with her long-held belief that access to public office should not depend on personal finances, Brown backed a proposal to raise council members’ pay by 37 percent–a controversial plan that sparked public ire. She also drew criticism for spending $1,700 on two taxpayer-funded trips during her last five months in office.
As she sets out on her statewide campaign, Brown acknowledges that the influence of money on politics is powerful. Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards spent $8 million to unseat Republican Lauch Faircloth in 1998, $6 million of which came out of Edwards’ pocket. Other Democrats already campaigning for Helms’ seat include statewide heavy-hitters like former state House Speaker Dan Blue and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.
For Brown, the biggest obstacle in her way is not a lack of funding, but a lack of faith that grassroots campaigns can be successful.
“I’m wrestling with how to build an organization of like-minded people for the long haul, not just for the 2002 election,” she says. “I’m trusting that people who want to see change will concentrate on raising money wherever