All smiles, Venita Peyton strides into a coffee shop in Raleigh’s Oakwood one sunny weekday morning and gives a cheerful greeting to the African-American proprietor. “I like to give the sister some business,” she’d said earlier when choosing a place to meet.

In the few minutes it takes for the steam to dissipate from her coffee, Peyton, who lives in Southeast Raleigh, has made two things perfectly clear: She loves the Lord, and she wants to serve her community. “You’ll never see Venita against her own people,” she declares solemnly.

At one time, most folks believed that about Peyton. Nowadays, however, her statement would be subject to interpretation.

When Peyton ran for Raleigh mayor in 1997, it was a daring move made easier by the fact that no other Democrats had the guts to run against Republican Tom Fetzer, a two-term incumbent with strong ties to wealthy business interests. When Peyton stepped up to bat, she knew she’d get the Democratic vote from her largely black, Southeast Raleigh district. But in order to win, she’d have to gain the support of voters citywide. Long on civic involvement but short on political experience, Peyton’s task was large.

She managed to gain voters’ ears, but not their wallets–raising a measly $4,000 compared with Fetzer’s war chest of more than $355,000. Still Peyton surprised most observers by garnering 40 percent of the vote citywide. While she’d lost her bid for mayor, Peyton had won a lot of people’s confidence in her leadership potential. With a commanding presence, she’d demonstrated an ability to articulate citizens’ concerns about unchecked development, better schools and congested traffic–and she’d come across as a voice of the people.

For the next two years, Peyton bided her political time, working for the state Department of Public Instruction. Then last year, with Fetzer stepping aside, she threw her hat into the ring for mayor again–and found herself just one among a field of viable (and deeper-pocketed) Democratic candidates. Peyton ended up with only 8 percent of the votes in the mayoral primary–“too low to register on the Richter scale,” she says.

But to the shock and dismay of many supporters and admirers, Peyton did not bow out of the race quietly. Instead, she did the unthinkable: She crossed party lines to endorse Paul Coble, a staunch Republican and City Council cohort of her former nemesis, Fetzer. Peyton expressed reservations about Democratic candidate Stephanie Fanjul’s “indecisiveness” as a member of the City Council. But that didn’t help explain her support of Coble, a man who’d declared U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (Coble’s uncle by marriage) his political hero.

“I did what I had to do for change,” Peyton says without demonstrating a shred of remorse. To her, the decision was both logical and strategic. For one thing, Peyton believed Coble would defeat Fanjul–which he did, but by a mere 364 votes after a recount. Another reason Peyton says she switched camps is because Coble indicated during talks with her that he’d make economic development in Southeast Raleigh a priority, with more affordable and mixed-income housing, rezonings for new commercial outlets, and jobs for area residents.

“The reason I’ve gone to the lengths I have is because we’ve only had one vote,” Peyton explains further. For years, Brad Thompson, former District C councilman (for Southeast Raleigh) had been the lone and stalwart voice of the region. Peyton says she believed Coble would broaden that support base, though he regularly disagreed with Thompson on Council matters.

Whatever her beliefs and intentions, the tactic placed Peyton at odds with loyal Democrats all over the city–many of whom believe her Coble endorsement helped swing the close election. Peyton disagrees. “I only had 8 percent [of the vote] to start with,” she says, “but still I’m the one who’s taken the heat.” Indeed, precinct reports from Peyton’s home base in the Southeast district show a landslide in favor of Fanjul, not Coble.

While she didn’t swing a lot of their votes, many African Americans still felt especially betrayed that Peyton had cozied up to a conservative like Coble. Among them, there’s speculation that her political future is all but dead.

“Venita took a big risk by endorsing Coble,” says one Southeast Raleigh resident who asked not to be named. “And people are waiting to see what will happen, especially those who were hurt by her decision. If Coble doesn’t do right by black folk, that’s it for Venita. The end.” At stake, says this observer, isn’t just Peyton’s potential future in public office, but also her standing as a leader within the black community. “Nowadays, a lot of people think she’s become what you’d call ‘taboo.’ ”

Mayor Coble doesn’t see it that way, of course. And while he doesn’t talk about owing Peyton anything, Coble readily admits that Peyton’s endorsement cost her plenty. “She lost her job because of it,” he said during the City Council’s recent retreat.

For reasons that “are still too painful to talk about,” Peyton doesn’t go into details about why her contract with the Department of Public Instruction was terminated just after the election, but she seconds Coble’s statement. “Those were my friends,” she whispers of superiors who, she says, were also staunch Democrats.

Michael Thornton, director of human resources for the Department of Public Instruction, strongly denies Coble and Peyton’s allegation. “Ms. Peyton was never on a contract,” says Thornton. Instead, he says Peyton had a temporary position to write television scripts for the department. Her job expired in late November, after she was “through with the project. There’s no connection whatsoever with any political or personal activity on the part of Ms. Peyton,” says Thornton.

“I consider Venita a friend and I have great respect for her,” Coble says. “She’s a voice that needs to be heard.” He hasn’t appointed her to any city commissions so far, but doesn’t rule it out, saying that the city’s Southeast Raleigh Planning Commission “probably will develop a task force and there will be the ability for new voices and existing ones to be part of it.” Indeed, that commission will likely have more work than ever before, as Southeast Raleigh is poised on the brink of unprecedented growth. After all, where else in Raleigh can you find 19 square miles flush with undeveloped land?

Even without a political platform, Coble says there’ll be room for Peyton’s leadership–as well that of James West, newly-elected District C councilor whose strong ties to the region’s black political establishment helped him win.

“After I was elected, I told them two things,” says Coble. “I said, ‘Venita, I want you to gather your voices and bring those ideas to me.’ Then, I said to Mr. West, ‘You are the representative of Southeast Raleigh and you have the lead voice.’ I wanted to be clear that I’m not trying to circumvent James West’s election, but everybody will have an opportunity to be heard–and included.”

You get the impression that’s why Peyton was invited to attend the City Council’s retreat at the N.C. Museum of Art–though not as an active participant or presenter. For two long days, she sat across the room from the Council’s conference table, in one of the few chairs not taken up by the city’s top brass. She listened attentively to long-winded reports on proposed parking decks, gazed intently at on-screen projections of new affordable housing sites. She smiled when Coble acknowledged her presence during vague discussions about the process of Southeast Raleigh development. And during breaks, she mingled.

Despite her political ups and downs, Peyton remains undeterred, saying she’s determined to serve the community she loves. But in order to stay (or some would say become) afloat, she’s got to stabilize her image and regain the trust of people within and outside her community. Apparently, though, she’s not going to do that by backing away from conservatives. In fact, Peyton has recently met with organizations like the John Locke Foundation and has been a guest speaker for The Wake County Young Republicans.

That might come as a surprise to some folks–but it shouldn’t. Long before Peyton’s first bid for mayor in ’97, she worked for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia as a production assistant. Moreover, she was once a registered Republican herself, changing her political affiliation to Democrat after former President George Bush named Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. The appointment, Peyton said, was simply to “assuage” the black community, not to honor it.

Today, Peyton says she’s been talking with conservatives “because we’ve got to, because there’s more than one opinion on the issues and we’ve been excluding people instead of including them. How can we let people choose who we talk to?”

Indeed, there’s lots of talk lately about being inclusive when holding discussions about the future development and economic prospects of Southeast Raleigh–discussions that eager (read: almost salivating) commercial and residential developers are bound to join. But so far there’s been no consensus among black leaders as to who among them should be at the table to promote citizens’ interests.

Well known for both his strong community ties and his political diplomacy, former District C councilman Brad Thompson says that new leaders must recognize that diverse interests will arise as a natural part of growth and development. While sanctioning things like tax credits to incoming companies (a bailiwick of conservatives), Thompson also says the vision for Southeast Raleigh must include “input from the community. It’s not a matter of who has the money, but who has the strongest desire to do the most good. Partnership is good,” Thompson says, referring to outsiders who are becoming interested in the region, “but participation is essential.”

So far, however, “participation” has been more arbitrary than broad-based. For example, in the two days before the City Council retreat, both Peyton and West held separate meetings with citizens to talk about concerns over area development and creating a unified vision for the region. While both meetings were theoretically open to the public, notification was done by invitation.

Eleven people, including four reporters, attended Peyton’s meeting in a Southeast Raleigh community center. They were white and black, native residents and newcomers, city employees and self-employed. “I didn’t ask you here to try and drag you into anything,” Peyton told the group before asking their opinions on what a new vision for the area should include. Normally quite vocal, Peyton didn’t dominate during the talks, choosing instead the role of a moderator who occasionally posed questions.

At times, the conversation grew animated–but not heated–as people talked about the history of segregation in land ownership, the fear of gentrification and the need to dismantle stereotypes about crime and racism. These social and economic problems, one white resident said, can only be overcome “if we change the image by laying out the welcome mat for the rest of Raleigh. And I have discerned a reluctance by the old guard to open up the door.”

West, who represents that “old guard,” met with 30 or so local church and business leaders, excluding the press (though he relented with The News & Observer) because he “wanted people to think creatively and the media can be a distraction.” Also absent from West’s invitation list were community leaders like Peyton and Octavia Rainey, a grassroots activist whom he defeated in the District C election.

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” West said during the City Council retreat. “Venita and I had been talking about strategies for engaging people and agreed [separate meetings] would be the best approach in order to get greater diversity and input. Then, we can start working toward common goals.” Still, skeptics think West has been staking out his council territory by excluding other leaders. “Look,” he responds, “it’s not about egos and I’m not playing any kind of game.” Well aware of the controversy surrounding Peyton’s leadership, West says that while “not all of us agree, we can come together on those things that are good for our people.”

Rainey puts it more succinctly: “One thing we can agree on is that we will disagree. Still, we must prepare for new leadership because that’s a part of growth and a part of change–and change is coming.” An activist who’s fought against the profusion of beer and wine stores cropping up in the Idlewald section of Southeast Raleigh, Rainey says lots of people, including minorities, “are looking to become investors and developers” in the region. Now more than ever, she says, “we have to come together at the table with understanding.”

Meanwhile, Peyton hopes she’s reserved a seat at the table. And while she knows people remain skittish after her embrace of conservatives, her shoulders are squared. “I can’t answer everybody’s questions,” Peyton says of skeptics. “All I can do is be the best Venita I can be. I tell people all the time, don’t fear me, fear the One I came from.” EndBlock