On Monday, March 8, the People’s Alliance Board of Directors issued a statement regarding our vision for Durham’s city and county managers. These roles have tremendous influence in Durham’s governance. With City Manager Tom Bonfield retiring last year and County Manager Wendell Davis’ contract due to expire in June, we called for our elected city and county officials to consider this an opportunity to affirm that city and county staff leadership align with our progressive values.
We know politics in Durham has been especially toxic and divisive the past year. Unsurprisingly, the response to this statement has ranged from strong echoes of support to condemnation.
INDY Week reporter Thomasi McDonald reached out for comment from PA on the story he was writing specifically about the negative responses to the statement. His only questions to our co-president were, “[C]an you respond to Mr. Davis’s supporters who claim the PA statement was/is racially motivated? Is it you just don’t like the man?”
We believe this narrow line of questioning from Mr. McDonald and the historic context he offers in his story represent the false choice being posed to Durham about what it means to be progressive.
By focusing on the relationships between particular county commissioners and the county manager, we neglect the reality that the manager has often stood in the way of progressive change in the community on a range of policy issues from public school funding and living wages to tax fairness and LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination. Reducing this story to a simple racialized narrative obscures the fact that there are people of all races with all sorts of opinions about how the city and county are run. It also eliminates any space for accountability of the staff that our elected officials hire to do the people’s business.
As one example, the multi-racial, cross-class Durham Association of Educators and its partners pushed county leaders for years to raise the wages of DPS’s janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and more — disproportionately Black folks, Brown folks, and women — to $15 an hour. Yet the raise had not been included in a county budget proposal year after year. Only when it was clear this year that the elected commission had the votes to approve the minimum wage increase did county staff leadership reverse.
We want Durham to choose senior staff that reflect a commitment to justice for all people, especially those most impacted by racism, capitalism, and patriarchy. No one is owed a position in city or county government. The People’s Alliance espouses spending dollars for public goods like public schools, living wages, and social welfare. The current county manager is a self-described “fiscal conservative” who prefers high surpluses and low government spending for human needs but not for police.
This fiscal conservatism took deep root in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s administration — with Reagan’s belief that government did not solve problems, it WAS the problem. “Reaganomics” set about to “starve the beast” of social welfare — housing, healthcare, job training, public education — in favor of tax cuts to the rich and to corporations. Their new wealth was supposed to “trickle down,” but it instead accumulated at the top as the US prison population grew to grotesque proportions. This week’s passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill reverses the Reagan Revolution to provide direct aid to working and poor people who need it most, and to the governments who actually can help them. This historic reversal could cut child poverty by half! And 70% of American people support this shift away from conservative fiscal policy. Surely, these different approaches in fiscal policy in a county or city manager are worth public discussion and debate, especially after a year that illustrates so many dangers on so many fronts — with anti-Black racism acute among them?
We have no personal animosity for Manager Davis nor any city or county leader. Nor do we believe that People’s Alliance is the only organization in Durham that advocates for progressive policies and has had transformative impact. In a year when white supremacist and anti-government militias stormed the US Capitol with a Confederate flag in the rotunda and a gallows on the steps, we commit ourselves to both principled critique and to accountability to other individuals and organizations who work within and across differences for Durham's welfare.
We, PA's board of directors, are four Black members, one Asian member, one Latinx member, and six white members. We want our members — and all of Durham — to know that we are under no delusions about the need to combat racism and white supremacy, including among ourselves. We are clear about the need to live into our vision as a multiracial, cross-class organization. And we will continue to speak up for and work toward a government that brings the most benefits for the most people, honoring those who need help the most — a progressive vision for this town we love.