In the 2005 mayoral election, Durham Mayor Bill Bell coasted to a record third term, rolling over political newcomer Jonathan Alston, ex-convict Vincent Brown and firebrand Jackie Wagstaff, who failed to win over voters with her "gangsta" campaign. But this fall, Bell will face one of his own. Durham City Councilman Thomas Stith, who has worked alongside Bell during the mayor's tenure, entered the race in July with claims that Bell hasn't done nearly enough to fight crime in the streets and incompetence in City Hall. (Read our Aug. 22 Q&A with Stith.)
Meanwhile, Stith is riding a wave of public resentment over recent administration bungles: Officials at the water department concealed information about lead and other contaminants in Durham's drinking water. And the city operated a yard waste facility for two years without a permit, until one day it burst into flames.
But Bell, with deep roots in Durham politics—he served more than 25 years on the county commission before he became mayor—stands by his record. He counts the revitalization of Barnes Avenue and the downtown Tobacco District among the successes he helped usher to completion. Violent crime is down 11 percent over last year. And Bell says he has led strong-willed council members to agree to many of his policy initiatives, including his push to develop programs for at-risk youth. He questions the sincerity of Stith's campaign and wonders why a councilman who's served eight years suddenly decided to make a change.
How do you think your vision for the city differs from that of Councilman Stith?
I don't know what his vision is. And I'm not being facetious when I say that. Councilman Stith has been on the council longer than I have. It appears that he's talking about reducing crime. I don't recall during the whole time I've been on the council when we've had conversations about crime that he's offered any proposals.
I've advocated from the start that we have a greater police presence in those areas that are experiencing high crime. You can't have a policeman in every corner. But in those neighborhoods where you have more crime, you have more visibility. We're going to roll out prototypes [of security cameras] at the end of September to see how that works. It gives us another level of surveillance that will hopefully serve as a deterrent.
What are the priorities in your campaign?
Pretty much what I laid out during my State of the City address—to continue to focus on the reduction of crime and move more to redeveloping our inner-city neighborhoods. We're not abandoning the downtown Durham development that's going on. I just feel like it's at a point now that it has a certain momentum.
When I became mayor, I urged the council to begin looking at downtown city neighborhoods, particularly Barnes Avenue near Eastway Elementary School. We did that. It gave us a model for doing the same with other neighborhoods. The problems basically were blight. It was drug infested. You probably had only four or five homeowners, and the rest were rental units. We pretty much bought up that whole block. We tore them down. We now have affordable housing, home ownernership—a combination of single family homes and condominiums from market to below market prices. We're now looking at neighborhoods in Northeast Central Durham, in Southside/Rolling Hills, and in West Durham near Gattis Street.
The other part is trying to find programs and jobs for our young people.
The mayor leads the council meetings, but other than that, he has the same power as any councilperson. What kinds of things can you really accomplish?
It's all about leadership. The mayor is probably first among equals on the council, but he has only one vote just like everybody else. What it gets around to is the question of leadership: Can you provide the vision where you move the council to a point where you want them to be and then will they act on it? The ultimate decision rests with the council as to whether they want to support you. We have a council that is very intelligent. They think for themselves.
Stith says that you have not done enough to make the city administration accountable to the council. How would you respond?
The only people that report to the council are the city manager, city clerk and city attorney. Without getting into any personnel issues, I can tell you that the manager was called on the carpet by the council, relative to what happened with the yard waste.
When you're running a city the size of Durham, mistakes are going to be made. My concern is, Were they truly mistakes or was something done deliberately? In terms of the lead in the water, there's no question in my mind the lead in the water wasn't done deliberately. The yard waste to me wasn't deliberate but it was a case where we should not have been operating as long as we were without a license. The person I held accountable for it was the city manager [Patrick Baker].
I don't recall councilman Stith recommending anything specifically in terms of personnel action. If he thought somebody should have been fired, he never suggested it.
Any city can make mistakes, but is that part of the culture in the Durham administration?
I think we need to look at where we are and what point in time we are. When I came to the mayor's office, I came in with a manager that had been in that department two years. I was dealing with something that was there, nothing that I caused to be there.
We brought Patrick Baker in with no managerial experience at all. He was on a learning curve and, to a certain extent, he still is. But he reached a point where, in my opinion, the honeymoon was over. The result is that he is being held much more accountable for some of the things that are happening on his watch.
Is Stith overstating the lack of accountability?
In my opinion he's overstating it because he never proposed anything himself. It's not unexpected that he would say that. If you're running for an office, you have to have some reason to run. If things are going well, the question is, Why are you running? He thinks he can do better on the question of crime. If he hasn't done it in eight years, why I am to believe that he suddenly has this magic bullet?
The last time you ran for mayor, you won more than 80 percent of the vote. Do you expect to win so decisively this fall?
I'm not forecasting. I expect to win.