In most state and federal elections, the donations that the Democratic and Republican parties receive have a huge influence in the election’s outcome as the parties use this money to fuel their preferred candidates’ campaigns. Under this partisan system candidates from third parties rarely come close to capturing victory.
To most, this large-scale partisan battle for election-day dominance is painfully familiar, but what about all of those local elections without major partisan ties? Who sways those outcomes? In Durham’s nonpartisan municipal elections, the answer is political action committees (PACs). Candidates for local elections vie for the endorsement of Durham’s three main PACs—the People’s Alliance (PA), the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, and Friends of Durham—without which, it is almost impossible to win.
For decades, the most influential PAC in Durham has been the People’s Alliance. With their mission of making Durham work for everyone, the PA has helped to elect progressive candidates and has held their representatives accountable for over 40 years, and it now hosts more than 1,000 members. To gain their endorsement, candidates must submit a questionnaire and then conduct an interview before a PA committee. This committee reports their findings and candidate recommendations to the PA general body meeting, at which, in true direct-democratic form, all the members of the PA are welcome to attend and vote for which candidate will be endorsed. Once a candidate is selected, the PA sends out information sheets and presents them at election polls with the names of their endorsements.
Not since 2009 has a candidate backed by the People’s Alliance lost in Durham’s municipal elections. The last time that the PA did not support all three city council victors was in 2007 when one of their candidates lost to Farad Ali–a man who is currently running in opposition to the PA’s mayoral endorsement, Steve Schewel. This presents the possibility of a shocking repeat of the 2007 election if Ali defeats Schewel.
A PA political action coordinator, Nana Asante, explained the reason for giving Schewel the endorsement: “The focus was that Steve has been truly invested in the community for decades. He understands the complexities and challenges that Durham uniquely faces.” Given that the endorsement of a reputable institution with the power to bring out 10,000 voters, could be vital to winning the election, Schewel boasts an undoubted advantage.
Despite lacking the PA’s historically triumphant endorsement, Ali’s chances may not be so slim. Ali is supported by the other big two PACs in Durham, which can perhaps garner more support than the PA can alone. With regards to who has a financial advantage, during the last municipal election the People’s Alliance raised about $30,000–twice as much as Durham Committee and Friends–thus giving Schewel the upper hand here if similar fiscal trends follow in this election. However, with regards to individual finances, this is one of the most expensive local elections that Durham has seen to date, with Farad Ali raising over $100,000 and Steve Schewel bringing in about $75,000, with much of the money for both candidates coming from outside of Durham. In this respect, the campaign budgets are close enough that the result may actually come down to the policies and personalities of the candidates: voters may want more experience with a candidate like Schewel or they may look for hope in a young leader for a young city through Ali. The election could also be determined by the impact of the third mayoral candidate, Pierce Freelon, who will almost assuredly split the vote. Whose potential votes will he carry?
Ali, a young candidate born and raised in Durham, has spent his life trying to unify the community. He has extensive experience as a businessman, having been the CEO and President of The Institute, in addition to his civil service experience, having worked as a leader in the White House African American Leadership in Action conference as well as having served for four-years on Durham’s City Council. Steve Schewel’s campaign is focused on his lengthy time serving in Durham’s civic and political life. His long list of civic engagement includes founding The Independent, teaching at Duke University, co-founding a music festival in Raleigh, serving on Durham’s Board of Education, and working on Durham’s City Council. The only candidate without support of any major Durham PAC, Pierce Freelon has run a campaign looking to build a unified future for Durham. He is the founder of Blackspace, a place where young people in Durham can learn about things like coding, film, and music. Additionally, he has taught at both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at North Carolina Central University, and he is the youngest person to be appointed to the North Carolina Arts Council Board.
Whether or not this mayoral race could end the PA’s six year-long winning streak will come down to whether the People’s Alliance can continue to get enough voters out there to defeat the Friends and Durham Committee. Thus far, the PA endorsement has been unquestionably important, but the results of this election may determine if it is essential.
The monopoly that the Durham People’s Alliance has held over municipal elections sheds an interesting light on democracy in Durham. While the Durham People’s Alliance is certainly democratic with its direct one-man, one-vote method of endorsement, this selection process by an exclusive, independent body has effectively become Durham’s defining election. And so, it seems that only those who are members of the Durham People’s Alliance ultimately have their voices heard. PA members pick the candidate to support and, thereby, pick the winner simply by garnering community support through name recognition. Of course, voters in Durham can still vote for any candidate they choose; however, as past trends have shown, the PA’s visibility and resources have an indubitable impact on public opinion. Perhaps this is still a form of democracy in that the PA is using fair, get-out-the-vote tactics and influence peddling to garner an electoral majority, but the process of relegating the outcome of an election to a room of 1000 predetermined voters seems to mute the voices of the Durham’s minority political factions, especially the conservatives who find no representation amidst the three big, progressive PACs.