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Tough to figure 

Steve Hopkins' campaign for the mayor of Durham is a study in contrasts.

At the beginning of a conversation, he says with a chuckle that he doesn't expect to win. By the end, he's changing his mind.

A longtime East Durham activist, affordable-housing advocate and general stirrer-up-of-things-political, Hopkins is running this year, he says, to "get black folks' attention." By that, he says, he means members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the political powerhouse in the Bull City, at whose endorsement meeting he was notably absent.

Given that Hopkins is scrapping with incumbent mayor Nick Tennyson and Bill Bell--a well-respected challenger with a quarter-century record in public office--not to mention two other candidates--it's pretty easy to agree Hopkins' chances of emerging from the Oct. 9 primary are slim. Still, his candidacy has provided Durham voters with an interesting sideshow in the Tennyson-Bell main event.

A vocal representative of his North-East Central Durham neighborhood and an employee of the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition, Hopkins is critical of the status quo in his hometown and its current leaders.

"I'm sick and tired of everyone who's not from Durham coming in and telling us what to do in Durham," says Hopkins, a single father and a former resident of Few Gardens public housing complex.

He slammed Bell early, publicly and with false accusations about his record on crime control, a move that went over poorly with many in Durham's political circles. And for an African-American candidate seeking office in Durham to not show up at the Durham Committee's endorsement meeting is just about unprecedented, say group leaders. The committee came out strongly for Bell earlier this month.

Though Hopkins is an active member of the People's Alliance PAC and a member of its coordinating committee, that group's mayoral endorsement nod also went to Bell.

In what seems to be a characteristic oxymoron, Hopkins declined to respond to an Independent candidate questionnaire, and then two weeks past the deadline, turned it in after all.

Asked about his goals and initiatives, he lists rent control; home ownership for low-income residents; a living-wage ordinance; cooperation among the city, county and school board; and moving the Human Relations Commission out of City Hall "to make it independent and let it do its job."

He calls race discrimination, crime and "good leadership" Durham's three most pressing problems. On the good leadership front, Hopkins--like many City Hall watchers--is quick to criticize the city's mishandling of a small-business loan program, which resulted in disappearing money and big headlines. But Hopkins goes a step further, claiming credit for blowing the whistle on the irregularities by "dropping a dime" to Herald-Sun reporter Ronnie Glassberg.

Glassberg, however, remembers it differently. "I don't recall it that way," he says. "That's not to say Steve didn't have concerns." The story broke after City Council members discussed the scandal in a closed-door session.

Hopkins presses on, through the contradictions.

"This election should be about leadership," he says, recanting his original prediction about the outcome of the race. "I really wouldn't be surprised if I won, to tell you the truth."

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