Political action committee endorsements in Durham have a reputation for making and breaking the careers of politicians. Durham’s recent Democratic primaries for county commissioner, district attorney, sheriff and clerk of court revealed a lot about that power. In fact, in my almost 15 years of looking at election results, this year’s tally provides the most clearly drawn power map we’ve had in years.
In this election, four organizations and one newspaper issued endorsements with a measureable punch. In terms of candidates, nine brave souls ran for the five county commission seats and seven for the other three seats: attorney, clerk and sheriff.
But wait. Let’s pause for a moment to commend them, regardless of their views and track records. Engaging in campaigns that can be draining on families, and aspiring for jobs that are demanding, thankless and that often pay less than the private sector, is something that few of us will attempt.
OK, enough commendation, on to the dissection.
Judging from vote totals of past primaries in years without the big draw of presidential candidates, it’s not uncommon for candidates with only an endorsement from the Friends of Durham to receive about 10,000 votes. Interestingly, the same goes for a candidate who only receives an endorsement from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, often referred to as the Durham Committee. It’s also not uncommon for candidates whose only endorsements are from progressive organizations to get about 5,000 votes in similar races.
So how did this year shape up?
Two candidates received no endorsements whatsoever and gained 1,571 and 2,168 votes out of over 26,000 cast. Three candidates received a single endorsement from the Durham Committee. Their totals revealed a rather tight pattern of 10,907, 10,341 and 9,942 for Larry Hall (clerk of court), Mark Simeon (district attorney) and Tony Butler (sheriff), respectively. One candidate, Arnold Spell running for county commissioner, also received a single endorsement, but from the Friends of Durham. His total was 10,405. None of these six candidates was successful in their races.
Of the winners in the races for county commissioner, district attorney and sheriff, five candidates received totals that reveal another rather tight pattern: 15,808, 15,753, 15,582, 15,119 and 14,629. As individuals these candidates ran the socio-political gamut from progressive, African-American, former union member Joe Bowser (15,119), running for county commissioner to white, conservative, former police officer Worth Hill (15,753) running for sheriff. But all five had in common a coalition of support: either blacks and whites together or conservatives and progressives combined. Each of these candidates had an endorsement from either the Durham Committee (Bowser, Cousin) or the white, conservative Friends of Durham (Hardin, Hill, Reckhow) that gained them a base of about 10,000 voters. Endorsements from a collection of smaller, mostly white, progressive organizations put them over the top with an additional 5,000 or so votes.
The tallies from the remaining five candidates, both winners and losers, all offer interesting stories of their own, one with a potentially dismal climax. But before we get to that, a little about the players behind the endorsements.
The Durham Committee, an exclusively black organization, formed almost 70 years ago in response to widespread racism. The city of Durham’s population has been half black going back to the early part of the last century. But with low voter turnout in the wake of the Jim Crow laws, the Committee only found steady electoral success starting 20 years ago when it joined forces with white progressives. The Friends of Durham, on the other hand is an overwhelmingly white organization, formed in the early ’90s.
The oldest of the mostly white progressive organizations, the Durham Voters Alliance, started as a spin-off of the McGovern for President campaign in 1972. A few years later, a group of younger Durham activists started the People’s Alliance. These two organizations, with a small overlap in membership, formed an active coalition with the Committee in the ’80s. Called simply “The Coalition,” their mutually favorable endorsements determined the majority of seats in Durham through much of the ’80s and early ’90s. The fifth group with a measurable impact on endorsements is The Independent Weekly. Begun by progressives in 1983, the Indy has seen some growth in the impact of its endorsements over the years.
All of the white organizations–the Friends, Voters Alliance and the People’s Alliance–have seen various degrees of growth in black participation in their decision-making in recent years.
The five remaining candidates are Archie Smith (12,399), who won the clerk of court race; Mary Jacobs (17,634) and Becky Heron (14,102), who won county commission slots; and Preston Edwards (12,597) and Warren Herndon (11,206), who lost their races for county commission slots on the November ballot. All of these candidates offer examples of voters ignoring the endorsements of groups with which they may be aligned because of personal loyalty to a candidate, because a PAC didn’t endorse in every race, or simply because of race.
Smith, who received endorsements from the Friends of Durham and progressive organizations, could have totaled about 15,000. His two opponents, Hall and Richard Boyd, apparently could count on some loyalty from voters in the progressive camp. If we assume Smith gained about 10,000 votes from white conservatives supporting the Friends and about 2,400 from progressives, and we add the almost 1,600 votes that former city council member Boyd gained and the 900 votes that Hall gained beyond the 10,000 or so Committee votes he received, you get a total of 14,900.
Heron won her race for a place on the November ballot without an endorsement from either the Friends or the Committee. Historically, a Friends endorsement for Heron is an on-again, off-again thing. With open support only from the progressive organizations, she still pulled over 14,000 votes to come in fifth. As a long-term incumbent with a strong platform that is pro-environment and anti-tax increase, Heron manages to pull votes from sometimes opposing camps. My guess is that most white conservative voters cast their ballots for Heron in spite of the four-candidate slate endorsed by the Friends.
Herndon ran for county commissioner with endorsements from the Committee, the DVA and the People’s Alliance. The Indy, however, declined to endorse Herndon. Judging by precinct tallies, a little less than 10,000 votes came from his Committee endorsement, meaning he only picked up about 1,500 progressives due to the split in the progressive vote.
Which brings us to county commissioner candidates Edwards and Jacobs. Both received endorsements from the Friends and the Committee. If voters merely followed endorsements–which clearly they don’t always do–they each would each have upward of 20,000 votes rather than 12,597 and 17,634, respectively. What happened?
Looking at the precincts, Jacobs and Edwards did as well as other Committee-endorsed candidates in the predominantly black precincts of Durham and less well in white precincts than other Friends’ endorsees. If you subtract 10,000 Committee votes from each, you find Edwards only gaining about 2,600 votes from “color blind” white conservatives and moderates. I take this to mean that only about a quarter of the Friends voters were willing to cross the color line for Edwards. As for Jacobs, precinct tallies suggest that the 3,500 or so progressives who abandoned Herndon threw their votes to her–meaning Jacobs gained only about 4,000 votes from Friends voters. This is consistent with what Jacobs’ precinct tallies show and is roughly what Committee-endorsed city council candidate Thomas Stith gained from his Friends endorsement. It means that about 60 percent of the Friends voters will still balk at voting for a candidate who shares their views but has a black face. It also means that Jacobs could have won a place on the ballot even without the support of progressive voters.
Now the good news and the bad news. In this case they’re the same thing. Some conservatives are now endorsing and voting for black candidates as well as white ones. As one longtime civil rights activist told me, “Hey, we won!”
The bad news is that this could indicate the beginning of what progressive activists in the ’80s called the nightmare scenario: What happens when white conservatives and moderates get over their fear of voting for black candidates who support their pro-development, anti-tax, homophobic agenda? I don’t think all these negatives apply to any candidate this go ’round, but there’s always the future to look forward to. And that would make an interesting power map indeed.
Frank Hyman is a former Durham City Council member and has been a member of the People’s Alliance since the mid-1980s.