In a meeting described as “revolutionary,” a record number of Durham People’s Alliance members handed down endorsements Tuesday for Durham’s upcoming municipal election.
The last of three major PACs to announce endorsements ahead of the October 10 primary, the PA endorsed Steve Schewel for mayor, DeDreana Freeman for the city council Ward 1 seat, John Rooks for the Ward 2 seat, and Vernetta Alston for the Ward 3 seat.
The meeting last nearly five hours, with an additional hour spent signing up new members and renewing existing members’ lapsed membership. Prior to the vote, which was closed to the public, candidates mixed with PA members, doling out fliers and handshakes. If T-shirts in the crowd were any indication, Alston and Rooks had it in the bag all along.
While it had been expected that Schewel, a current city councilman, would win the PA endorsement, the decision does break with that of the city’s two other main PACs, the Durham Committee for the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham, who both endorsed former city council member Farad Ali.
Ultimately, Schewel’s experience as a Durham official beat out Ali and Pierce Freelon, a musician and entrepreneur looking to bring a fresh perspective to the mayoral seat.
“The focus was that Steve has been truly invested in the community for decades,” says Nana Asante, one of the PAC’s political action coordinators. “He understands the complexities and challenges that Durham uniquely faces.”
With the Ward 1 and 3 endorsements, PA members chose challengers over incumbents.
Cora Cole-McFadden has held the Ward 1 seat since 2001 and was endorsed by both the DCABP and Friends of Durham earlier this month. Freeman is a Durham planning commission member and special assistant to the president of the East Durham Children’s Initiative.
Don Moffitt has represented Ward 3 since 2013, when both he and Cole-McFadden were endorsed by the PA. This year, Friends of Durham backed Moffitt, while the DCABP chose former city employee Shelia Ann Huggins. The winner of the PA endorsement, Alston, is an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
In Ward 2, PA members went against the interview committee’s recommended candidate after hearing impassioned stories from residents who have been helped by Rooks. The interview committee had picked Mark-Anthony Middleton, a pastor and strong voice for affordable housing and policing reform who had been endorsed by the other two PACs.
Asante says discussions about Wards 2 and 3 were particularly robust. In Ward 2, that debate was enough to win over members who had come to the meeting undecided.
“There were a lot of outspoken people in the room, particularly the moms of McDougald Terrace, who spoke passionately and meaningfully on [Rooks’s] behalf,” Asante says.
Rooks is cofounder of Love Over Hate N.C., an organization that works to end violence by addressing its root causes. The group, which organizes “Community, Cops, Coffee, and Conversation,” was recently presented with the Durham police chief’s award for distinguished community service. He’s also CEO of a youth mentoring program called R.E.A.L. Kids United. Speakers said Rooks had worked in their communities without recognition and would continue to show up after he’s done campaigning.
“I think anyone would be remiss if we oversimplified what happened as just being a result of good organizing,” Asante says.
The Ward 3 vote, Asante adds, showed a “push against the status quo,” even more so than the Ward 1 decision.
Although she also has ties to the PA, Alston was able to overtake an incumbent with a strong relationship to the group, which is unusual.
“Don is a well-known, well-respected member not just of the Durham community but the PA community,” Asante says. Members questioned, however, if Moffitt’s voting record was entirely in line with PA values. Alston says she wants to help Durham set the standard for bold, progressive cities and would work to address systemic inequality by uplifting LGBTQ, immigrant, impoverished, and overpoliced communities.
For Ward 1, PA members said Freeman has proven her “commitment to the community,” Asante says, and has an “institutional knowledge of Durham’s political landscape.” Freeman is a former PA board member and president of Durham’s InterNeighborhood Council.
Asante says Schewel, Freeman, and Alston all won the endorsements by significant margins. PAC coordinator Tom Miller said “well over four hundred people” were polled for the mayoral endorsement and that early estimates indicate about a hundred people joined or renewed their PA membership Tuesday.
Tuesday’s meeting drew several hundred of PA’s nearly twelve hundred members—the biggest crowd “by a damn long shot” since at least 2001, says coordinator Milo Pyne. Many waiting in line to head into the closed meeting had been inspired to join PA after realizing the importance of political involvement after the 2016 presidential election. Others were longtime members who hadn’t attended an endorsement meeting before. None of the members who spoke to the INDY before the vote had their mind made up about all four races.
Pyne attributed the large turnout to several factors: recent demonstrations in Durham that have forced a conversation about institutional racism, the administration of President Trump, the current debate over redrawing General Assembly districts, and the fact that there is a “broad range of qualified candidates” for every seat. It’s unusual to have such strong candidates challenging incumbents, he says, particularly for the Ward 1 seat.
Michael Brandon, who recently joined PA, was undecided between Freelon and Schewel while he waited in line. Brandon said he was most concerned about institutional racism in Durham and how it is now manifesting in gentrification. While the large-scale change required to address that calls for a major shakeup, like Freelon’s election would represent, it also takes experience like Schewel’s, he said.
For Ralph Griesenbeck, a first-time PA voter, the mayor’s race was the only contest in which he had chosen a candidate to support: Schewel. “He’s practical, he’s got long-term experience in Durham.” Griesenbeck said he is most concerned about ensuring Durham workers earn a living wage. He also said local elections are an initial step in changing politics on a larger scale.
“If we’re going to change our politics, the minor league has to change, too,” he said.
Longtime Durham residents Donna Hicks and Sue Gutpill also attended Tuesday’s meeting out of a desire to effect change at the local level. Hicks has been a PA member for several years, but Tuesday was her first endorsement meeting. Gutpill joined this year.
“I think organizations such as the People’s Alliance are going to be our salvation,” Hicks said.
Both considered systemic racism, affordable housing, and policing the top issues of this election. Hicks said she wanted to “get the temperature of the wider community” and hear about candidates besides those who had already won endorsements. Gutpill said she wanted to hear how candidates would position Durham as an equitable, welcoming community.
Nikki Cross, a new member who wasn’t eligible to vote, was looking for something less tangible. She came to the meeting supporting Rooks, whom she has worked with through AEffect Change, an organization that advocates for the homeless. But in other races, no candidate had fully convinced her.
“I want to look them in the eyes and see what their passion is,” she said.
Responses to questionnaires sent to each candidate by the People’s Alliance can be found here. The organization will also post its endorsements and reasoning on its website.