As voters walked across the hot asphalt toward the Mt. Calvary Lighthouse of Faith polling place yesterday, Charles Leslie called out to them from the shade and handed them a list of mostly black candidates endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
People like 63-year-old David Burnette, a first-time voter full of enthusiasm for presidential candidate Barack Obama, were unfamiliar with candidates in local races, and relied on the handbill from Leslie to guide their votes in the down-ballot contests. Even as Obama has downplayed the significance of race in his presidential campaign, local candidates have taken advantage of the new wave of black voters—some with surprising success.
The biggest surprises were in the races for the Durham Board of Education and the Durham County Commission, in which candidates who didnt raise much money nonetheless bested top fundraisers with broad-based support. In the race for the five open seats on the County Commission, incumbents Michael Page, Becky Heron and Ellen Reckhow won reelection, as most observers expected, with 15.5 percent, 13.5 percent and 13.2 percent of the vote, respectively.
But Joe Bowser, a former commissioner damaged by allegations of cronyism, finished first among challengers, with 10.8 percent of the vote. Bowser, who did not raise the minimum $3,000 required to file a campaign finance report, could not be reached for comment. One of his opponents weighed in on the victory. It is in large part because of the Committee endorsement, said Don Moffitt, an unsuccessful white candidate with broad-based support who raised more money than any commission candidate. The Committee had a lot of financial support from statewide candidates. They were able to send out 60,000 mailers.
In fact, Citizens to Elect David Young, a white Democratic state treasurer candidate who lives in Buncombe County 200 miles away, contributed $4,000 to the Committee April 16, according to campaign finance reports. Although Young lost to Janet Cowell statewide, he won Durham County handily with 47 percent of the vote.
Candidate Brenda Howerton, also a black candidate, won the fifth commission seat with 10 percent of the vote, but without the committees endorsement. Fred Foster finished sixth with 9.7 percent of the vote, followed by Victoria Peterson with 8.2 percent, Moffitt with 8.1 percent, Josh Parker with 7 percent, and Doug Wright with 4 percent.
In the race for Durham School Board, Jonathan Alston, who did not raise the minimum $3,000 required to file a campaign finance report, was the top vote-getter with 23,474 supporters, or 36 percent of the vote. He finished slightly ahead of top fundraiser Leigh Bordley, who won 22,550 ballots cast in her favor, or 34.5 percent of the vote. Bordley plans to request a runoff election, since Alston did not win 40 percent of the vote. That contest would be held June 24.Nancy Cox finished third with 18,818 votes, or 28.8 percent.
I have people like the Durham Committee—Dr. Allison and Chester Jenkins, Alston said, explaining his victory. I had Jackie Wagstaff and some of her people. We just went out and pushed.
Bordley also attributes the victory to the Durham Committee. Given that he campaigned very little, obviously the endorsement of the Durham Committee this year was very important, she said.
Assistant District Attorney Tracey Cline bested former assistant prosecutor Freda Black in the race for Durham District Attorney. Cline, who will become Durhams first African-American and female district attorney, won 46.4 percent of the vote, with 29,810 ballots cast in her favor. Her victory came despite allegations from her opponents—Black, Keith Bishop and Mitchell Garrell—that she was involved in the prosecution of the Duke Lacrosse case.
Cline won endorsements from the Durham Committee, the Peoples Alliance, the Indy and the Herald-Sun. Black won 34 percent of the vote, with 21,834 ballots cast in her favor. Bishop finished third with 8,095 votes, or 12.6 percent of the vote. Garrell garnered 4,504 votes, or 7 percent of the vote.