A return to the Chicken Hut? | News Feature | Indy Week
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The identical endorsements of the Durham Committee and the People's Alliance are a political breakthrough that were the result of behind-the-scenes maneuvering

A return to the Chicken Hut? 

The identical endorsements of the Durham Committee and the People's Alliance are a political breakthrough that were the result of behind-the-scenes maneuvering

On Sept. 11, Durham's People's Alliance, a progressive grassroots political action committee with about 300 members, endorsed three candidates for city council: Diane Catotti, a longtime PA member and former group president, who is white; Warren Herndon, a retired Duke administrator and political newcomer, who is black; and Diane Wright, another longtime PA member, and a former council member, who is also black.

Two days later, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a powerful African-American PAC that counts all black citizens of Durham among its members, voted to endorse the exact same slate.

To many, it was a sign of burgeoning racial unity in the Bull City, a return to the days of the alliance between white progressives and black activists that ended more than a decade ago, leaving city, county and school board politics harshly divided along color lines.

The Independent has learned that the dual endorsements were the result of orchestrated efforts by leaders of both groups that each side describes as some sorely needed bridge-building.

"What we wanted was relationship-building, which has been hard to do, because the committee has had a track record of endorsing all black candidates," says Milo Pyne, who co-chairs the PA's political committee. "Maybe now we're dividing along political lines instead of along racial ones."

But the political deal-making has left some--particularly the supporters of candidates who didn't get either group's endorsement--complaining that politics went before principles. For instance, judging by the PA's internal candidate interview notes, it was surprising that Herndon got the endorsement over candidate Eugene Brown.

The Durham Committee's support for Catotti marked the first time in recent elections that group has endorsed a white candidate over a black one, leaving incumbent Thomas Stith out in the cold in his re-election bid.

A conservative who leads the field in fund-raising--thanks to his development-friendly stances--Stith received the committee's endorsement in both his previous races in 1999 and 2001, as part of the all-black slates that have marked their recent endorsements. But this year, the group ditched him for Catotti, a progressive white candidate making her first run for elected office.

"I fully believe I was endorsed on my merits," says Catotti, who has reached out to the black community throughout her many years as an activist. "I felt like it was an affirmation."

Catotti's candidacy presented an opportunity to talk about growth, housing, education and other key progressive issues, says Larry Holt, the second vice chair of the Durham Committee and a long-time PA member.

"We were trying to determine where there could be some common threads," Holt says. "We thought maybe there was a way we could leverage our strengths to get some focus on these common issues."

In a race with 14 candidates vying for three at-large seats, endorsements from the PA, the Durham Committee and the conservative Friends of Durham PAC weigh heavily, especially in the wake of the city's fourth powerful PAC, the Durham Voters Alliance, disbanding in 2002.

Progressives are seeking to elect council members who will support incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden, a black progressive who is not up for re-election this year, and incumbent Mayor Bill Bell, who faces two unknown, inexperienced challengers in what should be an easy re-election campaign. At the same time, conservatives and business interests are looking to return Stith to office and fill at least one of the remaining seats with a like-minded candidate, giving them a 4-3 majority with incumbents Howard Clement and John Best Jr., who are not up for re-election. An Oct. 7 primary will narrow the field to six; winners will go on to the Nov. 4 general election.

When the filing period closed in August, progressives took a long look at the long list of conservative and moderate candidates seeking seats, and saw an opportunity to re-ignite the black/progressive coalition to boost the chances of Catotti and Wright, their two favored candidates.

Enter Jackie Brown, a long-time neighborhood activist and PA member who convinced Bell to run for mayor two years ago. She and Durham Committee Chairwoman Lavonia Allison both serve on the city-county planning commission. Brown approached Allison with the idea of the two groups working together several weeks ago, she says. Allison agreed to bring two other Durham Committee leaders to a meeting with Pyne, the People's Alliance political committee co-chair, and former PA co-chair Carl Rist.

It was a throwback back to the late '80s, when PA and Durham Committee leaders met regularly at a Fayetteville Street restaurant to compare agendas and shore each other up on common ground. They called them "the Chicken-Hut meetings."

"I thought it was time that this happen in Durham again--it's been way too long," says Brown.

Racial harmony is a hard thing to argue against. But some political observers say the cost to the PA for supporting Herndon and to the Durham Committee for supporting Catotti was high--especially considering these two facts: Stith has such strong support among the white business community, the Friends of Durham PAC (who endorsed him) and some segments of the black community that he's likely to get re-elected with or without the committee's or the PA's support; and that while Herndon's politics may occasionally align with the PA's initiatives, he is far from an established progressive.

Herndon has a track record of helping lead the Durham Professional and Business Chain and a campaign platform that names "economic opportunities" and job creation his number one priority--a seeming contradiction to PA's controlled-growth agenda. Herndon did, however, receive the PA's endorsement in his failed bid for a county commissioner's seat last fall, sparking heated debate among PA folks when a long-time member brought forth damaging information about Herndon's career at Duke and urged the group to rescind its support (it declined).

PA's interview committee report on Herndon this year is not flattering. The write-up called him "difficult to pin down on any point," and some of his statements "just silly." The group also noted his lack of ideas in addressing some of the city's pressing problems, such as negligent landlords and his lack of knowledge about key city initiatives, such as the unified development ordinance, a land-use planning tool in the works.

By contrast, the PA issued a much more positive report on Eugene Brown, a white, moderate liberal. Brown helped found and for many years chaired the disbanded Durham Voters Alliance, a left-leaning but less progressive group than the PA. In its written summary of the in-person group interviews, the PA committee said, "Brown is clearly one of the best-informed candidates running. He is intelligent and a perceptive observer. He has done his homework." The commentary does go on to note that Brown's interpersonal style includes "an annoying tendency to self-satisfaction," a criticism even his biggest supporters acknowledge makes him a difficult sell to some voters.

Holt, a leader in both groups, says Brown's endorsement by the Friends of Durham and his record of supporting former Mayor Nick Tennyson, a Republican with a pro-growth agenda, makes Herndon a more palatable candidate than Brown to many progressives, despite his downsides.

"Warren could be the weak link in getting through the primary, and he's got some work to do," Holt says.

Pyne, the political committee co-chair, says it's still too early to judge how effective the unified front his group and the Durham Committee are putting up.

"It's one thing to endorse the same candidates," Pyne says. "It's another thing to get these people elected to the city council." EndBlock

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