Trusted veterans, vocal newcomers
The engines of sprawl are also set to full-throttle in Durham. And many residents are concerned about whether and how the costs and benefits of growth will be shared. Current leaders have proposed spending millions of taxpayer dollars on subsidizing downtown parking decks for private developers, while little progress has been made in revitalizing the city’s central core. Over the outcry of residents, Southpoint mall is going up in the suburbs, while residential developments in all shapes and sizes slide through the government approval process. Longtime community activist Jackie Brown puts it this way: “Developers have figured out Durham is easy,” says Brown, who has tried to stem the tide as head of the zoning committee. “If you want to build something, go to Durham–they will let you.” The situation has many residents looking for leaders who can think through the impact of development before the first clod of dirt is turned. And there are other pressing issues facing the city: among them, the demise of Durham’s small-business loan pool, allegations of inappropriate quid pro quos in rezoning cases and growing gang violence.
In the mayoral race, Durham voters have a choice of five candidates, two of whom will face a runoff in the Nov. 6 general election. Incumbent Nick Tennyson has displayed a competent management style and has done good work on regional transportation during his two terms. Even those who disagree with him on key issues give him credit for being accessible and communicating well. But given the huge role that growth and development plays in Durham politics and its future, Tennyson’s day job as executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Durham & Orange Counties poses a conflict of interest residents shouldn’t tolerate in their top leader. We endorsed him two years ago among a different field of candidates, vowing to monitor that conflict. Since then, Tennyson has failed to make good on his promise to achieve “smarter” growth for the city. And he’s given lip service to slow-growth strategies like raising impact fees on homebuilders in Durham, while at the same time blasting elected leaders in neighboring Orange County on the very same issue while wearing his lobbyist’s hat.
No such conflicts shadow the other mayoral front-runner, William V. “Bill” Bell. A veteran of elected office, Bell’s calm intelligence and principled stands will be a positive force at City Hall. In his 26-year tenure as a Durham County Commissioner, including a dozen years as chair, Bell has proven he’s not afraid to do the right thing on controversial issues. His work on the racially charged school merger brought much-needed but difficult change for the city and the county. Bell’s experience shows he can bring city, county and school system leaders to the table to cooperate on important issues facing Durham. And his professional credentials as a retired IBM executive and a current leader of UDI, a nonprofit economic development corporation, comprise the skills needed to straighten out the kinks in city finances. Bell has also shown leadership on a key regional issue as a longtime member and current chair of the Triangle Transit Authority board. While his voting record as a county commissioner was not unfriendly to development, Bell has made it clear that he favors “well-planned, well-balanced and well-managed growth”–a claim that’s convinced slow-growth advocates he’ll be a champion for a more livable Durham.
Of the other mayoral hopefuls, incumbent council member Brenda Burnette and community leader Stephen Hopkins have both spoken up for low-income city residents. But neither has shown they can be effective in shaping policy. And perennial candidate Ralph McKinney Jr. once more fails to offer a coherent program for Durham.
Durham City Council
With the Durham City Council dropping from 12 members to six at the behest of voters, it’s more important than ever that people who care about affordable housing, a vibrant downtown and a sensible approach to crime step up to serve. Yet sadly, only two of the four council races drew enough candidates for the primary: the at-large race (a two-year term) and Ward 1 (a four-year term).
In the at-large race, seven candidates are running for three open seats. The top six vote-getters in the primary will advance to the general election. Of those, incumbent Tamra Edwards and newcomer Steven Matherly, offer the most thoughtful, progressive views. Edwards, who is finishing her first term, has been a critical thinker on growth issues and a reliable voice for neighborhoods and low-income folks. She voted against the unpopular Village Creek housing development on Sherron Road and the Renaissance Center commercial rezoning in Southwest Durham. As vice president of community development for the YMCA of Greater Durham, she’s won widespread praise for her work with youth–a group often overlooked by city government.
For someone making his first bid for public office, Matherly shows a firm grasp of key issues. His platform includes redirecting highway funds for mass transit and boosting home-ownership for low-income residents. A Durham native, he’s a lifelong political activist, a former nightclub owner and a member of the Green Party. While its members didn’t endorse Matherly, the influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People publicly praised his platform–a sign he has attracted support beyond his immediate political base.
Five other candidates running for the at-large seat offer less-than-inspiring proposals, although two incumbents–Lewis Cheek and Thomas Stith–might merit another look. While Cheek’s votes on several key development issues have come under fire from slow-growth advocates, he has proven himself to be a good listener and an accessible council member. Stith’s voting record has been even more consistently pro-development, but he has brought integrity and leadership to the council’s handling of the recent small-business loan scandal. Of the remaining candidates, incumbent Dan Hill is too conservative in his approach to crime and other issues, while longtime council member Angela Langley has been too easily swayed on crucial development votes. Perennial candidate Joe Williams hasn’t run an effective campaign or presented a clear platform.
In Ward 1, which covers the northeastern third of the city, longtime Democratic Party leader Cora Cole-McFadden is far and away the strongest candidate. Cole-McFadden faces the only crowded field in the City Council election, with one incumbent and three challengers vying for one open seat. She retired last year as director of the city’s equal opportunity and equity assurance program, where she won respect for her work with affirmative action policies and a “diversity audit” of city government. If elected, Cole-McFadden promises to strengthen existing neighborhoods, boost community policing, preserve open space and support campaign finance reform.
Incumbent Jacqueline Wagstaff’s voting record has been inconsistent, and her recent problems with paying her rent have hurt her credibility. Two challengers, Duke Park neighborhood leader Jeffery White and Libertarian Ray Ubinger, haven’t demonstrated a thorough understanding of city government, though Ubinger has successfully brought attention to civil liberties issues.