Several city and county officials are questioning the motives behind a three-page letter Durham County manager Wendell Davis wrote last week accusing Commissioner Heidi Carter of racism. 

As the INDY first reported on Tuesday, Davis’s letter accused Carter, who is white, of having an “inherent bias” not only toward him but “people of color in general.” Among other things, it asserts that racism fueled Carter’s criticism of Davis during a February 3 work session, in which Carter said that the county would have developed a funding plan for Durham Public Schools facilities sooner “were it not for the manager.”

In two statements emailed to the INDY this week, Carter said that Davis’s letter “contains misquotes and fabrications” while making “baseless claims” against her character.

Carter—who is seeking a second term on the Board of Commissioners after serving 12 years on the school board—says it wasn’t racism but frustration that fueled her comments earlier this month. She thinks Davis’s letter served two purposes: retaliation for her criticism and to influence the outcome of the March 3 primary.   

“It’s clear that even though this letter is addressed to me, it’s primary audience was the press,” Carter wrote in a statement.

This isn’t the first time Davis has been accused of retaliation. In 2017, former deputy city manager Marqueta Welton—who competed with Davis for the city manager position but says she withdrew at his request—sued Davis, the Board of Commissioners, and the county’s human resources director, alleging that Davis had retaliated against her for challenging him, demoting her and cutting her pay in half. In August 2019, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a federal district court’s ruling dismissing Welton’s case. 

Moreover, Carter is not the only one who thinks Davis has political motivations. 

On Tuesday night, school board chairman Mike Lee, who is African American, posted a lengthy note on Facebook in which he argued that Davis was using racism to obscure his real goal: getting his lucrative contract renewed next year. 

“If you really want to know why [Davis] chose to write and leak this letter at this time, look a little closer at what HE has to gain from the accusations being repeated throughout the community, and you will certainly understand why I highly doubt anything in this letter is based in fact,” Lee wrote. “The county manager is smart, strategic, and informed. I can almost bet he is hoping you are neither of those.”

On Wednesday morning, Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson, who is black, reiterated her support for Carter on Facebook as well, arguing that “unfalsifiable allegations” cheapen “the real, devastating impact of racism and white supremacy on communities of color.” 

“It’s not unusual for elected officials and their staff to have tense relationships and for the differences between them to spill over into public conversations,” Johnson wrote. “The timing of these accusations is also notable, as the county manager’s contract comes up for renewal next year and will be decided on by the county commissioners who are elected on March 3rd.”

Davis was first appointed city manager in April 2014. For the next two-and-a-half years, Davis had a bloc of commissioners who supported his conservative school budgets, Lee told the INDY on Wednesday.

“Whatever budget recommendations the county made, no matter what it was, they voted with him. No question,” Lee says. “If DPS needed $10 million [in additional funds], we got $3 million. We didn’t have a fighting chance.” 

But in March 2016, two of Davis’s allies, Fred Foster and Michael Page, lost their reelection bids. Because Durham is a Democrat-run county and commissioner seats are decided in the primary, however, there was a nine-month lame-duck board before the new commissioners took office in December. And in June, commissioners granted Davis a five-year contract worth more than $210,000 a year—guaranteed through 2021 unless he was fired for cause—plus benefits. Commissioners Wendy Jacobs and Ellen Reckhow initially opposed it, though weeks later, when it came up again in a series of budget votes, they signed off. 

The new board was going to push harder for school funding. Heidi Carter had come from the school board. Jacobs and James Hill were likely to side with her in budget fights. Now there was a bloc moving in the other direction. 

“All of a sudden,” Lee says, “without the voting bloc, the school board asked for $4 million, and you know what? We got it.”

Given this tension, Lee says, Davis likely believed Jacobs and Carter will oppose his contract renewal, so he recruited Foster and Page to try to reclaim their old seats. 

“Once his two handpicked candidates did not receive any endorsements,” Lee wrote on Facebook, “a nasty rumor started about [Jacobs] running for reelection to vote against his contract, essentially fire him (which is not true). So the community picked up on it and started to accuse her of being racist against the county manager. Score one for the county manager’s plan.”

Then Davis turned his sites on Carter, Lee continued: “So now we have two of the board members who challenge his school funding recommendations suddenly accused of racism. It seems very convenient for this to show up two weeks before the election in hopes of getting people to turn on both Wendy and Heidi.”

“Unfortunately, our community jumps behind accusations of racism very quickly,” Lee says. “I saw [African American commissioner] James Hill make the same criticism, make the same challenge as Wendy and Heidi, and no one says anything about that.”

Part of the tension boils down to disagreements over how schools should be funded. Davis, school board members say, links budgets to performance. His first year, says school board member Minnie Forte-Brown, Davis recommended against giving DPS additional money because black kids’ test scores hadn’t improved. But school officials argue that that doesn’t take into account the need to hire more teachers and improve resources so that test scores can get better. 

School board member Minnie Forte-Brown, who is black, says she’s known Davis for more than 20 years, and she’s known Carter since they were elected to the school board in 2004. They come from very different worlds, she says, and they see things from very different perspectives. 

“Heidi has been an advocate of nutrition—natural healthy foods for our children—and also adequate school buildings,” Forte-Brown says. “Wendell has pushed hard on literacy, growth, excellence, and opportunities for our children. We are talking about a relationship between a black man and a white woman. As a black woman, my relationship with Heidi would be different. I cannot comment on how he interprets what she has said to him. We look at things through different eyes.”

Commissioner Brenda Howerton, who is black, sees no ambiguity. She told the INDY earlier this week that Carter had disrespected Davis for years—and that she was surprised Davis had waited this long to write that letter. “Let’s make one thing perfectly clear here: Heidi Carter is not the victim,” Howerton said.

Lee says that he can’t speak to what Howerton has seen, but “it goes with criticizing a black man in a position of power is racist. I don’t think that’s true.”

On Wednesday, Davis told the INDY that he’s perused Lee’s post but said he didn’t want to comment on it. “At the end of the day, I’ve said what I needed to say with my letter. It’s about being treated with decency and respect,” he says. 

He hated writing it, he adds. “But this morning I woke up liberated.”

In her statements, Carter stresses that she takes issues of racial equity seriously: “I recognize that my experiences as a citizen and an elected official are shaped by white privilege, and I am committed to uncovering and addressing unconscious bias in my work,” she writes. 

Even so, she says, “In contrast to the baseless claims against my character in the county manager’s letter, my record as a commissioner and school board member has clearly demonstrated my strong commitment to racial equity. My relentless advocacy for Durham Public Schools and pre-K is because I believe this is the greatest opportunity to address racial disparities. I will continue to fight for strong public schools for the sake of our students’ futures and for racial justice in Durham.”  

Response h Carter by Jeffrey Billman on Scribd

Response to Indy 2020-02-18hc-Final by Jeffrey Billman on Scribd

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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2 replies on “After Durham’s County Manager Accused a Commissioner of Racism, Several Officials Question His Motives”

  1. Why is Erica Smith’s pic linked to this story? Subliminal messages Ie.g. the placement of certain items on a page, something advertisers do all the time, to draw an association to something that on the surface isn’t easy to make) is the trick used by propagandists to spin a particular story and shape a narrative often creating deceit and confusion. Certainly you aren’t trying to do that –or are you? I am hoping it is a mistake and will be corrected or your staff writer or page/copy designer will explain the rationale.

  2. This reads more like an op-ed. It is clear that the author is partial to one side of this story and not the other. What happened to reporting facts and leaving opinion for the reader. I do not know who I believe based on this article because it is saturated with the authors opinion and point of view.

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