Durham mayoral candidate Thomas Stith | Q&A | Indy Week
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Durham mayoral candidate Thomas Stith 

A conservative critic in a liberal landscape

Editor's Note: This is the first of two question-and-answer features with Durham mayoral candidates. Next week, the Indy will feature incumbent Bill Bell.

click to enlarge Thomas Stith
  • Thomas Stith

It's clear to anyone who walks through downtown Durham's clouds of dust and construction clamor that developers and city crews are in the process of recreating the city center. Downtown will soon be a modern, polished hub of brick and glass—the new face of a city known for its universities and hospitals—a place, as Durham's slogan promises, "where great things happen."

The other manufacturers of Durham's image are perhaps the gangsters running in the streets on the East Side, and the leaders in City Hall, who in the past several years have presided over one bungle after another. The police department botched the investigation of the Duke lacrosse case, the extent to which we should learn soon when an investigating panel releases its report. Officials at the water department concealed information about lead and other contaminants in our drinking water. And a city dump, operating without a permit, spontaneously burst into flames, spewing a smoky haze that lingered in the sky for days.

When City Council member Thomas Stith declared his mayoral candidacy in July, we were guaranteed a campaign in which Durham's best and worst would be placed in stark relief. Stith, a conservative (he resigned as vice president of the John Pope Civitas Institute before declaring his candidacy) on a mostly liberal council, is known for his outspoken criticism of local government. He called for an outside audit of city administration in March. And not much has changed since.

You often hear Durham politicians talk about the city's image problem. How much of what we see happening in Durham is related to image and how much is incompetence on the part of public officials?

It's a combination of both. Clearly there are some challenges within the city administration. If you look over the past year, we've had several issues that resulted in my calling for an independent performance audit. You look at our yard waste facility operating [without a license] for two years and then burning for several weeks. You look at our ability to respond to the threat of lead in our water in our homes and not properly notifying the citizens. Look at our crime issue.

Murders drive the perception of crime, but crime is actually down this year. If not for some high profile murders, would you be able to rally citizens?

High profile is just symptomatic of what people are dealing with every day. There are communities in Durham where elders can't sit out on the front porch because they are afraid. That's not a perception. That's a reality. They hear the gunshots. They see the gang members in their neighborhood. That impacts our whole community when we have citizens that have to live under those conditions. While we've been blessed to have a reduction in the murder rate, we had a 32 percent increase in violent crime last year. It's just a matter of time before we see some of that serious violent crime this year. We've had three children under 21 that have been murdered this year.

What do you want to do about it?

The first step is to enhance your enforcement. We need additional presence in our community. We need police, certainly not violating people's rights, but being aggressive in the community whether it's with drug sales or gang members hanging out on the corners. I've talked about enhancing our relationships with federal agencies and taking a serious look at using RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] statutes against the gang activity. The other component is to ensure that we are providing outlets for our at-risk youth.

Durham has a weak-mayor system in which the mayor has one vote on the council like the other council members, and the city manager runs the administration. How do you think mayors in the past have handled this relationship, and how would you like to do things differently?

While there is only one vote, I look at the mayor's position differently than the incumbent. It needs to be a strong leadership position. Citizens look to the mayor to be the top leader of the city. From an accountability point of view, we only have three employees report to us—the manager, the clerk and the attorney—but those are key positions, in particular the manager's position. I think the mayor's position will have a strong bully pulpit if it is utilized.

But you're a contrarian—one who's often on the losing end of votes. How would you get anything accomplished as mayor?

I've been very successful in collaborating not only in the community, but in the professional sector, too. And while I have been on the end of some 6-to-1 votes, I think the key thing will be that vote in November. People want accountability in city government and that's what I've stood for.

It's easy to talk about accountability, but are there certain systems that you plan to put in place that will make the city manager, for example, more accountable than he already is, or is it just a matter of being a stronger voice?

It's being a stronger voice and building the consensus to do it. While it may be easy to talk about accountability when you have a lack of it, bring that to the administration and look at some of our major areas that we have consistent concerns about from the citizens. When I talk about independent performance audits, that's a way to have accountability before we have some of the fiascos that we've seen over the past year.

Do you foresee any immediate personnel changes in the positions that the council does have power over?

I think the first step will be to bring a sense of accountability to the council level. I certainly wouldn't sit here and try to evaluate personnel. It would be, obviously, a council function. I think the mayor's role is to bring that sense of accountability and bring some consensus around some of the things to measure accountability.

What are some of the city's strengths?

You start with the universities that are located here. In one area of town you have N.C. Central, in another area, Duke University. You have the community college. We have a thriving business community. Clearly the revitalization and turnaround of downtown. We have businesses that are interested in expanding and coming to Durham. That clearly helps with the job picture and business opportunities for local businesses. And also, our most valuable resource is the people of Durham. We have a diverse community. The strength of our community is based on the diversity of thought and the diversity of people that choose to live in Durham.

Has Mayor Bill Bell done anything right?

I'll let Bill answer that question.

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