The passing of state Sen. Jeanne Lucas last month left her seat vacant. Now the Durham Democratic Party is charged with selecting a candidate to represent District 20, which covers most of Durham County except for the southwest corner between RTP and Orange County. Those stepping up to fill her shoes include party faithful—and more than one party official.
Lucas' successor will be chosen on Monday, April 9, at a meeting of the party's executive committee. A candidate must earn at least 50 percent of the vote plus one in order to win. The outcome will be reported to the governor, who is expected to appoint the selected candidate.
A forum on March 31 sponsored by the Durham Democratic Women and the Young Democrats of Durham County attracted six candidates for the seat. They included one who didn't formally announce his candidacy until the start of the forum: attorney and former Durham City Council member Floyd McKissick Jr., who's also chair of the Durham Democratic Party and was in charge of the process to fill the seat.
McKissick had been running an informal campaign for the seat while managing the process, raising eyebrows among some Democratic Party leaders.
The other candidates are:
Lucas was the Senate Majority Whip when she died on March 9 after a long battle with breast cancer. Appointed to the office in 1993, she became the first African-American woman to serve in the state senate. Lucas' pioneering legacy and the fact that District 20, which covers 70 percent of Durham County's voting precincts, has more black than white residents, has led some to believe that an African-American woman is most likely to win the seat. The four black female candidates are Black, Burnette, Cole-McFadden and Johnson.
McKissick is also considered a strong candidate. With a master's degree in public administration from Harvard and a law degree from Duke, he has an impressive resume of accomplishments. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People endorsed McKissick on Monday.
McKissick's candidacy is controversial, however. According to working minutes of a March 20 executive committee meeting of the Durham Democratic Party, McKissick was asked if he was a candidate for the open seat. He said he was considering running, and that if he did run, he would recuse himself from running the election.
Only official candidates were invited to participate in the March 31 forum. As it began, McKissick officially declared his candidacy. By that time, he had organized and announced the time and place of the vote.
McKissick says he has asked the party's Second Vice Chair Kevin Farmer to run the meeting and has retained an experienced parliamentarian to preside over the vote. McKissick also says he spoke with state party chairman Jerry Meek, who told McKissick that his running posted no conflict of interest under party rules.
Asked about the conflict of interest issue during the forum, McKissick replied that nothing in the party's plan of organization precludes his candidacy. "It would logically occur to me that regardless of who was chair of this party ... why would they be disallowed for consideration? Why would it somehow be a disqualification if they have 33 years of experience in the party, served eight years on council, served in a number of other boards and commissions over the years? That it's a disqualification, it's almost inconceivable," he said. "One might logically think that would be the very first person you would look to, not the last! It's a strange type of logic that would allow us to conceive of something other than that."
Katy Munger, president of Durham Democratic Women, says McKissick asked her before the forum not to release to declared candidates a list of names of those 98 party members eligible to vote for the District 20 seat—elected officials who live in the district, the chairs and vice chairs of the 39 precincts in the district, and chairs and vice chairs in the four precincts that are partially in the district if those officials live in the district themselves.
"At first he asked me to refer anyone who wanted the list to him, including other candidates," Munger says. "When I protested, he said I could give the list to anyone who asked but I had to let him know who asked for it. This is theoretically a public document."
McKissick says he was concerned about maintaining the privacy of voting members, who might not want their e-mail addresses and home phone numbers widely circulated. "Apparently there could have been a miscommunication," he says. "It was freely circulated to anyone who requested it from Kevin Farmer or myself. All the candidates received it, to my knowledge, who requested it. She talked about posting it on the Web site, but I said these people might not want to be inundated."
David Seidman, who as vice chair of Precinct 2 is on that list, says he received a campaign call from McKissick about a week before the forum. Seidman says he's uncomfortable with McKissick's role as both candidate and party chairman, and he was dissatisfied with McKissick's response to the question of conflict of interest during the forum. "He seemed very defiant, not even giving any impression that he understood where this concern was coming from. It just made me very uneasy."
But Barry Ragin, Precinct 19 chair, says he's not concerned. "I was OK with the conflict of interest question," Ragin says. "I think being chair of the county party should not preclude Floyd from running. It should preclude him from making any decisions on how the election is to be conducted." He added that there are four candidates he could support—Black , Cole-McFadden, Johnson and McKissick—who he thinks are "capable of doing a fine job representing Durham in the state Senate."
Education was a theme of the March 31 forum. Lucas was a schoolteacher before her legislative career. Black, also a former teacher, said her background in education, health and human services made those issues high priorities. Burnette spoke of mentoring a young man to help him finish high school and plan for college. Cole-McFadden said that improving elementary and secondary education is one of the most effective means for promoting economic development and reducing poverty. Johnson described herself as a "teacher/student advocate" and expressed her support for higher teacher pay, access to higher education and an information technology initiative to connect the state's public schools.
Other questions covered issues currently before the legislature: Would the candidates support Lucas' effort to repeal the felony murder rule, which allows those involved in a felony when a murder is committed to be tried for murder? All agreed except McKissick, who said he would amend the rule to remove capital punishment from the felony murder sentencing guidelines. Would they support or oppose an amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage? Black, Cole-McFadden and Johnson said they would oppose it; Pollard said she had not decided; Burnette said she did not support same-sex marriage; and McKissick said he supports civil unions. All except Burnette said they would support legislation protecting a woman's right to choose. All six candidates said they support same-day voter registration and the inclusion of African-American history in the state's public education curriculum.