Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Election is instructive on the state of Durham's political future

There were no surprises coming from yesterday’s election. As expected, Mayor Bill Bell pounded challenger Sylvester Williams with 81.9 percent of the vote. Incumbents Diane Catoti and Eugene Brown and former school board member Steve Schewel firmly outpaced the competition.

The lack of stun factor serves as the underpinning for a deeper conversation involving the state of Durham’s local political scene. The three challengers, all African American, showed poorly in this election. The support of Victoria Peterson with 11 percent, Donald Hughes with 8.6 and Solomon Burnette with 6.2 percent of the votes is highly instructive for a variety of reasons.

Most significant in critiquing the results is the state of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. This election speaks to the inability, on the part of the Durham Committee, to locate and groom candidates that the public can take seriously. This year’s slate of candidates came from the remnant of the once powerful organization. They were embraced by the few who continue to fight to reclaim the dignity and respect the Committee once held in Durham.

Each candidate suffered image flows that hindered success at the polls.

Victoria Peterson has been a polarizing force for years. A former Republican, she alienated African Americans with her staunch support of Jesse Helms. Her political views shifted after she discovered unwillingness on the part of her former party to support her previous bids for office. Others find it difficult to concede her conservative Christian views. Her pro-life and anti-gay agenda has pitted her against a city council seeking to support the rights of all its citizens-despite sexual orientation.

She has clashed with many voters due to her support of Michael Peterson during his murder case, Crystal Mangum in the Duke Lacrosse mess and Mike Nifong when he faced being disbarred as Durham’s District Attorney. Her antics at his hearing were enough to get her kicked out. Peterson has developed a reputation as a conspiracy theorist. She is one of the many serial office seekers in Durham. Despite all of that, she received the most votes among those who lost.

Donald Hughes endures the task of overcoming something beyond his control-his mother. Voters disqualify him because his mother is Jackie Wagstaff, former member of both the City Council and School Board. Wagstaff’s name conjures memories of heated discord on the school board. Meetings became the source of shame throughout the region and resulted in a commentary in the Greensboro News & Record that labeled Durham North Carolina’s black sheep.

Like Peterson, Hughes has run for office before. Unlike Peterson, Hughes is, in my opinion, one of the youth to watch in Durham. Sadly, his problem with voters has nothing to do with his strengths, but with his mother. If Hughes could discover a way to distance himself from his mother he could go far as a politician. How does a person break from the ways of mom, and is it reasonable for us to expect that distancing? It is distressing that Hughes has lost again, making it difficult for him to be regarded as a credible candidate in future elections.

Hughes is faced with a dilemma that is informative in dialogue involving the impact parental ways have on their progeny. The same could be said about Solomon Burnette who placed last in the election. He is the son of Brenda Burnette who served four years on the city council and ran against Bill Bell and former Mayor Nick Tennyson for mayor in 2001.

The younger Burnette’s problems were not connected to the issues with his mother, but had more to do with his overcoming the concerns from his past. When he was 17, Burnette was arrested for an armed robbery of two Duke University students. He was later accused of domestic violence and was later connected with a friend suspected of an East Duke Campus robbery in 1999.

Burnette became the center of controversy for an editorial he wrote in the Campus Echo, the student newspaper at North Carolina Central University. “White people still murder us with impunity. White people still beat us with impunity,” he wrote in response to the Duke Lacrosse fiasco. “White people still rape us and get away with it. The only deterrent to these legally, socially and economically validated supremacist actions is the fear of physical retribution. Black men, stand up. Black women, stand up. Black children, stand up. We have been at war here with these same white people for 500 years. The time to fight, whether intellectually, artistically or physically, has always been now.”

James Ammons, former Chancellor at NCCU, publicly distanced the university from Burnette’s comments. “We are aware of the fact that Mr. Burnette has a right to express his opinion, but we also know that the freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to be fair and accountable,” Ammons said in a statement.

Kristin Butler, a Duke University graduate, later wrote a guest column for the Duke Chronicle where she criticized NCCU for awarding Crystal Mangum and Solomon Burnette a diploma. "Because of the university's blatant refusal to enforce its own rules, I will never again take an NCCU degree seriously," she writes in the May 15, 2008 piece “Summa cum loony”. “Because it no longer guarantees good character, and it's just too hard to tell the thugs and liars apart from the high-performing majority."

The Chronicle, unlike Ammons at NCCU, stood by the decision to run the column. "At The Chronicle, we value the right to free speech, and I don't think that whether I agree with the views in a column is necessarily relevant to making editorial decisions," said Chelsea Allison, editor at the Chronicle. "'Summa cum loony' has sparked a very passionate dialogue, and we have published and plan to continue to publish responses from NCCU alums and others with interest in the issue."

To his credit, Burnette is an example of what it means to transcend the mistakes of youth. He has a Bachelor’s degree in European History from North Carolina Central University and has studied the Arabic language at Duke. In addition, he has worked with Latino immigrants, students, gang members, people incarcerated and the homeless. He is also a performing artist.

Peterson, Hughes and Burnette prove the burden of the past in pursuing political office. Sometimes that past belongs to someone else. Sometimes it’s the past that one has created for themselves. Durham is an unforgiving city. It is hard to rise above the blunders of the past when people hold in their hand the vote that determines your future.

Two questions emerge from a discussion regarding those who lost. Is this the best the Durham Committee could offer? Where are those devoid of the skeletons waiting to be exposed? And, what does it take for a person to overcome those missteps from the past? That’s three questions. Heck, I’m sure there are more.

Lesson learned.

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