In 1979, three years after the People’s Alliance was founded, Republican Harry Rodenhizer was elected mayor of Durham. Mayor Rodenhizer was central to getting the Durham freeway — which had already displaced the Hayti community — extended along the route it takes today through another historically-Black neighborhood, Crest Street. Joining Crest St. residents to block this extension was one of the PA’s first campaigns.
At times in the following decades, PA worked closely with the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and other groups to help shift Durham’s political landscape. Today, when over 80% of the county voted for Democrats in the last election, Republican candidates don’t even contest for many local offices.
However, even when so many of us vote blue, the recent conflict over Durham’s former county manager goes to show that we aren’t without our differences. In fact, without a meaningful local presence of the far right to unite against, the volume on those differences has been turned way up.
The progressive tide
Over the last few years, Durham politics has seen the rise of a new wave of progressivism and a renewed focus on racial, gender, LGBTQ+, and economic justice. We see the power of this movement reflected across our county in the election of a new district attorney, a new school board, and new county commissioners like Nida Allam. Nida’s entry into politics is a symbol of the way that immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color are breaking barriers and leveling the playing field all across the country. She has been a tireless advocate for equity and justice for Black and brown communities. With strong leadership from Black and Brown women, queer and trans people, and working people, Durham has seen a resurgence of organizing to end money bail and ICE collaboration, empty the jails of people being held only because they are poor, and bring dignity and living wages to educators and fast food workers.
The people of Durham County elected Nida and the other members of our historic, all-female Board of Commissioners to pursue progressive policy goals that are aligned with the needs and values of our community. As we’ve said, we believe this means spending public dollars for public goods like public schools, living wages, and social welfare. You can see in this article that our schools’ capital needs have long been neglected.
County administration should reflect progressive values of elected officials
Our county government deserves an administrative team that is willing to move decisively to fulfill the board’s progressive agenda. While it is true that a county manager should not take political positions or favor particular commissioners, they have discretionary power that influences how the will of the board is actually enacted. It is not an apolitical position.
We saw former manager Wendell Davis continuing to follow the fiscal and policy requests of the board that hired him, and that is why we opposed the renewal of his contract. He was hired in 2014 by a previous board of commissioners that predated the progressive wave that swept through Durham politics. That board had a fiscally-conservative orientation that prioritized cutting costs over spending on public goods. Davis reflected that board's philosophy.
We appreciate Mr. Davis’ commitment to our community, that board, and their priorities, but times have changed, and our county’s residents deserve leadership that will aggressively pursue the progressive policy solutions for which voters have long clamored. Durham residents of all races know that progressive ideas like living wages for Durham Public Schools staff, who are largely people of color, offer ways of promoting equity via the public purse that will better the lives of all who call Durham County home.
We may disagree...
While we are in strong support of the board of commissioners’ decision to part ways with Mr. Davis, we know that this was not a unanimous decision. We understand that there are those in our county, including Chair Howerton and Commissioner Burns, who strongly disagree with our sentiments.
It is important for us to acknowledge that Mr. Davis’ supporters say his removal was racially motivated. He is Black, as are the commissioners who voted to continue his employment. We do not paper over these differences and will continue to address the broader dynamics around how race is understood, how anti-Black racism manifests itself, and how racism’s destructive effects are always implicated in class oppression, sexism, homo- and transphobia, and other vectors of discrimination.
... But we can still work together
Together, we have the ability to advance justice, even when we disagree. Together we can build a Durham County committed to racial, gender, and economic justice for all its communities. We recognize that Durham’s Black and Brown communities are diverse, not monolithic, and we honor that by creating space for their voices and leadership within PA. We encourage you to write to [email protected] thanking Commissioners Allam, Carter, and Jacobs for their service and encouraging the commission to help us all to move forward together by demonstrating their ability to work together as a coalition elected by the Durham Community. Our board issued the following statement to our Commissioners:
Dear Durham Commissioners:
Thank you for the courage it took not to renew the expiring contract of Wendell Davis. Over the last few years, Durham’s politics has seen the rise of a new wave of progressivism and a renewed focus on racial and economic justice. We see the power of this movement reflected across our county in the election of a new district attorney, a new city council, and new county commissioners like Nida Allam. Nida’s entry into politics is a symbol of the way that immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color are breaking barriers and leveling the playing field all across the country. She has been a tireless advocate for equity and justice for Black and Brown communities, and we know that this advocacy informs all of her decisions as a County Commissioner. We are proud that you are taking steps to acknowledge that this new wave of progressivism requires senior management to be innovative in bringing forth LGBTQ+ protections, aggressive tax assistance programs to protect Durham residents from gentrification, and investment to improve our public schools. We thank each of you for taking a hard look at the contract as we requested in our letter and for making a decision in line with Durham’s values. We hope you remember those requests as you begin your national search.
We applaud the appointment of Claudia Hager as Interim County Manager, and we are pleased that PA board members had the chance to meet her when invited by Chair Howerton. We were impressed then by Hager’s skills and professionalism and appreciated her invitation to reach out to her about issues of common concern in moving Durham County forward. We are also impressed with the new Durham City Manager Wanda Page’s impressive presentation of next year’s budget to the Durham City Council. Its forward-looking vision illustrates what we have advocated for in city and county management. We look forward to working together with both the city and the county leadership in our shared commitments even as we respectfully debate our differences.
Thank you for your service,
Board of Directors
Durham People’s Alliance