Our Take-Along Voting Guide for Durham

Durham City Council

Ten candidates are running for three at-large seats in the Durham City Council race; the Oct. 9 primary will narrow the field to six, who will face off in the Nov. 6 general election. The race is officially nonpartisan, but three Republican candidates are trumpeting their party affiliation, hoping that the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate will support their opposition party after several high-profile bungles by the city administration. (Republican Thomas Stith III, who is relinquishing his council seat to challenge incumbent Mayor Bill Bell in November, is making the same bet.)

Like many citizens, conservative critics decry the way the administration misled the public about lead levels in the drinking water, dragged out the renovation of the downtown streetscape, and discovered that a city dump was operating without a permitonly after it spontaneously burst into flames. Although the rate is down from 2006, violent crime still haunts the headlines, and the police investigation into the Duke lacrosse case has raised questions regarding department protocol.

But the conservative push comes with the risk of unmitigated real-estate development, draconian crime initiatives and budget cuts to the city’s softer services, which the current leadership has worked hard to fight. Durham still needs progressive leaders who will control growth and work with community groups to revitalize neighborhoods. Perhaps most important, the city needs leaders who will honor transparency in government. We renew our support for incumbents DIANE CATOTTI and EUGENE BROWN, and endorse longtime neighborhood organizer DAVID HARRIS.

Catotti leads the pack this year. The 46-year-old health policy consultant and veteran of the liberal People’s Alliance developed a reputation on the council as a smart and independent thinker. In her first term, she followed through on many of her 2003 campaign promises. She pushed for the creation of the Neighborhood Improvement Fund to support the revitalization of blighted downtown neighborhoods. She supported funding for new after-school programs and other youth-oriented activities, and she has been a constant advocate for smart growth. By all accounts, Catotti has been a hard worker who spends time in the community and comes to meetings and work sessions prepared to grapple with issues.

In seeking a second four-year term, Catotti continues to support affordable housing, youth programs and job training, and improving Durham’s tattered infrastructure.

Brown deserves to remain on the council. With several departments in the administration under new direction, Durham needs council members who already know the administration’s inner workings and can hit the ground running. While not as sharp on the issues as Catotti, Brown votes with progressives on most issues. The 63-year-old real estate developer specializing in historic properties even tends to vote with liberals on development and environmental issues, and he also supports the real estate transfer tax, unlike many of his professional colleagues. Brown is a pragmatic policymaker who seems to cherish his role as watchdog on the council. He often offers common-sense criticism of the administration when other council members have been reluctantthat’s a welcome attribute given recent city failures. He chided the administration over how it handled the trash fire and the levels of lead in the water. But Brown should be careful not to grandstand, as he has in the past. There’s a difference between being a smart critic and demoralizing the staff.

Brown’s campaign promises are vague this yearcontinue progress, overcome challengesbut you can count on him to work through the issues in a practical way.

Harris, 58, has been a grassroots community organizer for 35 years. Currently the chairman of the InterNeighborhood Council, Harris has presided over two neighborhood associations and has been active with the Citizens Observer Patrol and his local Partners Against Crime group. He graduated from the Durham Neighborhood College and the Citizens Police Academy, and has served on several citizen committee groups working with city and county departments. This behind-the-scenes activist will be a great asset to the council; his knowledge of community policing alone will help council members work toward creative solutions to the city’s crime problem. He’s not as comfortable behind the podium as some other candidates, but the council doesn’t need another mouthpiece. We expect Harris to learn the ins and outs of the council quickly and be a reliable vote for progressive issues.

Three challengersSteve Monks, Melodie Parrish and Laney Funderburkare running as a Republican slate to give voters a conservative option on the ballot. Parrish is the chairwoman of the Durham County Republican Party. Funderburk is the vice chair. Steve Monks, who ran as a write-in candidate against Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong in the 2006 general election, is the former chairman. They support tougher crime policies, lower taxes and better management of the public purse.

This is Farad Ali’s first run for public office, but he is a natural politician. The charismatic former banker has gathered broad-based support for his campaign priorities: parity in investment in Durham’s neighborhoods and developing the city’s most blighted areas along with the revitalization in the Tobacco District. As the vice president of the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development and a board member at the Center for Community Self-Help, 40-year-old Ali knows how to make that happen. And his contacts and background in finance would be an asset to the council. We endorsed Harris because he shows a greater mastery of the issues and has more experience in the community. But a vote for Ali is not a wasted one.

Victoria Peterson, known most recently for her very vocal support of former district attorney Mike Nifong, is an omnipresent community activist who passionately advocates for Durham’s poor black citizens. This is her third run for council. Peterson wants to shift public spending away from big-ticket projects and toward job training facilities in underprivileged minority neighborhoods.

Joe Williams is also a veteran of city council campaigns. This is his seventh run for council. He supports youth mentoring.

David Thompson, an auto mechanic, has not run an active campaign or participated in forums.