Pocketbooks and Neighborhoods

Tom Campbell on the campaign trail

Southern Exposure

Woman holding poster with child beside her

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 2, "Stepping Stones." Find more from that issue here.

Perhaps 50 of us strained to hear the words coming from the radio. Tom’s opponent’s acceptance speech. She looked forward to being back on the job the next morning. She appreciated the support of the voters who had put her back on the council. She hoped they’d be seeing a lot of Tom Campbell downtown in the future. He’d run a good race.

Many of us had spent several exhausting months working on Tom Campbell’s city council campaign and coordinating our efforts with those of the other progressive candidates. Some of us were too dazed from the last hours of the campaign to feel anything. Some shushed children so we could hear the last gracious lines of a gracious speech. Some sipped beer in silence. The 1979 city elections had brought on a profound collective depression we were only just throwing off; now it appeared that the forces of racial division had triumphed in Durham once again.

Then the disc jockey said it: a mistake. A 1,000-vote mistake. In another 10 minutes, the 50 defeated campaigners had mushroomed into 100 raucous partyers. Soon 150 ecstatic leafletters, pollworkers, phone-callers, contributors and friends were exploding into our election-night gathering place above a local beer hall. The final precinct totals buzzed from the radio underneath the din of victory — rare, cherished, clean, sweet victory.

Up the stairs and into the midst of our mostly young white crowd flew our jubilant allies from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (known to most as the Durham Committee). Then our new mayor-elect, Charles Markham, rose to speak, then Tom, then our other candidates, black and white. Those of us with any energy left roared approval. Those too tired just smiled, tried to clap, felt disbelief.

We had won an election. We had put in a good candidate who could speak for the progressive community, who lived among us, who shared our politics. With him we swept into office, against all predictions, a biracial coalition of city council members.

Durham, North Carolina, is in significant ways typical of many of the South’s older cities. Downtown Durham — once thriving — has gradually decayed along with the nearby remnants of James B. Duke’s tobacco empire that long ago put the city on the international map as the home of “Bull Durham.” The city’s economic nexus has shifted to the enormous Duke University and Hospital complex employing over 10,000 people. Ten miles down the interstate to the southeast, the Research Triangle Park employs thousands of researchers in government and private think-tanks and the high-tech laboratories of industries like IBM, Hercules and Burroughs Wellcome. This is Durham County’s real boom town, the place where industry locates while the tax base of the city of Durham shrinks.

In the first half of this century an alternative economy grew up in Durham’s black community centered on several financial institutions, including Mechanics and Farmers Bank and North Carolina Mutual, the world’s largest black-owned insurance company. Durham is ringed with white suburbs just outside the city school district; the city itself is now 47 percent black (35 percent of the registered voters). The black community has long had a powerful political organization, but only recently has it had numerous allies among the city’s white voters.

Until 1977, the 13-member Durham city council was almost exclusively composed of white men from the city’s white business establishment with two or three blacks and women. This council held great power over the lives of Durham’s citizens, and it wielded that power for the benefit of commercial developers. The city poured millions of urban renewal dollars into the razing of black neighborhoods and the displacement of 100 small black-owned businesses in the city’s historic Hayti section. The council allocated federal and city tax dollars in a disastrous attempt to revitalize a dying downtown retail district through cosmetic changes and parking garage construction. At the same time, ironically, the city and state slammed through the first legs of the East-West Expressway, displacing thousands of black residents who formerly shopped downtown and forcing them into housing projects far from downtown stores.

In the early ’70s, Durham had over 60 miles of unpaved roads in residential areas, near the top of the national list for a city its size. Recreation programs were minimal. Slightly under half of the city’s housing was rental property, much of it deteriorating under lax city housing code enforcement. Despite the obvious needs of the city’s neighborhoods, the city council continued to concentrate its community development spending on revving up commercial development. Even the more affluent in-town neighborhoods felt the sting of strip commercial zoning along their borders.

The city council elections of 1977, however, unexpectedly turned local politics inside-out. In that year progressive candidates ran for six council seats and the mayor’s office. White neighborhood organizations, fed up with suburban development interests and the assault on in-town neighborhoods, joined with the highly organized black voters of the Durham Committee to elect five new council members, creating a slim progressive majority of seven on the council. The new council majority started slowly, but before too long it had passed the city’s first affirmative action hiring program. Then came housing code enforcement with teeth in it, the paving of dirt roads in neighborhoods, the diversion of federal funds from public works boondoggles to neighborhood reconstruction and attempts to improve the city’s public transportation service furnished under an electricity franchise agreement with Duke Power Company.

The city’s business establishment looked on with disapproval, but not until February 12, 1979, did that disapproval turn to shock and that shock to calculated, frenetic action. On that night, after months of pressure from dozens of community groups, the city council majority of four blacks and three whites won a 7-to-5 vote to halt further construction of the East-West Expressway and to provide one million dollars in Community Development funds to the Crest Street community directly threatened by those construction plans. This victory clearly pitted the developers’ interests against those of the city’s neighborhoods and its progressive community.

The East-West Expressway has been the pet project of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce and the North Carolina Department of Transportation for two decades. At each step of its construction, black neighborhood groups in its way have risen up in angry protest before finding themselves removed to federal housing projects. But the resistance of the Crest Street community has taken on a different dimension.

Crest Street is a community of 200 homes huddled around a small, proud brick church called New Bethel. It sits at the end of the expressway shotgun, out the back door of the mammoth Duke University Medical Center complex where most of the adults in the neighborhood walk to work. Crest Street’s residents are black. They are mostly low-income working people, many of whom cultivate gardens in vacant lots near their homes to provide a portion of their food. Over 80 percent of their homes are rented, and many of them are in poor exterior condition. For 20 years the city neglected even the most basic road repairs in Crest Street and denied the community a park. After all, wouldn’t these just be wasted improvements when the expressway came through? Landlords, encouraged by the city’s laxity in housing code enforcement, took the same attitude.

Crest Street is an unusually cohesive community; many of its residents were born there. The church is not only the spiritual center of Crest Street, but a civic and educational center as well, the base for clean-up campaigns and afternoon tutoring sessions. For the last 10 years Crest Street residents have been fighting to keep the expressway from taking their church, which sits on the proposed site of an enormous cloverleaf. Betty Johnson, an officer of the Crest Street Community Council, once told the city council, “Like the song says, folks: we shall not be moved. And we mean it.”

In early 1978, immediately after the new city council’s progressive majority began flexing its muscles, the Crest Street community got some new allies. The Durham chapter of the North Carolina People’s Alliance (PA) consists mostly of young, white college-educated people who knew that the expressway would hurt more than one small neighborhood. In their efforts to focus public attention on this issue, PA members organized around city-wide concerns about the road: potential air and noise pollution damage to several city neighborhoods; the $30 million cost for two miles of pavement; the possible creation of a virtual interstate highway through downtown Durham; the tendency of expressways to shrink city tax bases as they augment suburban sprawl; and the availability of cheaper public and paratransit alternatives (carpooling, vanpooling, bicycles, etc.).

Crest Street residents and PA members worked closely together, jamming state and city hearing rooms, lobbying city council members, publishing studies of alternatives to the expressway, holding press conferences, marches, fundraisers and petition drives. Other consumer, religious, environmental and neighborhood groups joined them to create the Coalition for Expressway Alternatives, which soon included the liberals in the Durham Voters Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. By February 12, 1979, that coalition’s strength had come to bear full-force on the city council, and, in a chamber packed with hundreds of anxious citizens, the council voted that night to stop the expressway.

The next six months — leading up to the November, 1979, city council elections — were filled with intense local politicking of a sort Durham hadn’t seen in recent times. The two local dailies (owned by the same company) and the Chamber of Commerce screamed for a council that would make a new decision on the expressway. The newspapers effectively portrayed the expressway issue as one of progress versus the obstructiveness of a few young white transients and a small, run-down black neighborhood which would do itself a favor to accept public housing. Business interests fielded a slate of seven white male candidates under the aegis of Voters for Durham’s Future and bankrolled them heavily.

On the other side, the biracial coalition campaigned hard, fielding six candidates representing several neighborhood constituencies. On Election Day 18,000 voters showed up at the polls — 3,000 more than in 1977. The Voters for Durham’s Future called its constituents out to vote through a phone bank operating out of several local banks and real estate offices. Their representatives also distributed sample ballots at the polls showing the business interests’ all-white slate. The results reflected the successful efforts of the expressway proponents to fuel the fires of racial division. All seven Voters for Durham’s Future candidates won fairly narrow victories. The biracial slate got 95 percent of the black votes cast but only one in every five white votes. The newspapers had successfully made the expressway a symbolic black/white issue submerging all other issues and dividing the city along racial lines. There were more whites than blacks voting in Durham, and a pro-expressway, pro-big-business majority once more reigned at City Hall. Five minutes after the new majority members were installed, they voted to get the road rolling again.

So much effort spent. Six solid progressive candidates in the field; six candidates defeated. The biracial slate was outspent by 3-to-l. That was 1979. Many of us believed that 1981 could be different if a candidate stepped forth from Durham’s growing community of young white progressives to help convince more white voters to support a biracial slate representing neighborhood interests. The Durham Committee was already doing a fine job getting out black voters; now it was time for progressive white organizers to take a similar role, so that progressive candidates from both races might have a chance to win. Clearly the big developers also saw the ’81 elections as crucial and clearly they would outspend us again. This meant we needed at least one candidate who could motivate lots of volunteers to work the streets, particularly of white neighborhoods, for a progressive biracial slate.

Shortly before the filing deadline, Tom Campbell declared his candidacy for the seat held by conservative council incumbent Judy Harward. Campbell, 33, is co-manager of the Regulator Bookshop, an intellectual and cultural center for Durham’s artistic and progressive political community in Durham’s reviving Ninth Street shopping area. A former editor of the Duke Chronicle during the early ’70s, Campbell holds a Masters degree in Environmental Management. He was, in short, just the candidate we needed — he had founded a successful small business, held the proper academic credentials to attract the liberal voters clustered around Duke University, and could inspire the loyalty of Durham’s young political activists who had thrown themselves so forcefully into the expressway battle and the 1979 city elections. Furthermore, Campbell wanted to run an issue-oriented campaign that would appeal to people of low and moderate incomes across racial lines. Julia Borbely-Brown, president of the Durham Voters Alliance, said, “It’s great to have someone to work for that you can trust on the issues,” and many other Durham political activists, who had known and worked with Tom for years, shared her feelings.

The biracial slate included other popular and effective council candidates as well. Four are black. Maceo Sloan is a young lawyer from a family long prominent in Durham’s black community. Chester Jenkins is a telephone company employee active in the precinct organization of the Durham Committee. Johnny “Red” Williams, the only progressive to lose in November, is an energetic young state government accountant. Ralph Hunt, a two-term incumbent, ran with token opposition.

Two other progressive whites ran as well. Sylvia Kerchoff is a teacher and League of Women Voters activist. At the top of our ticket was the mayoral candidate, Charles Markham, defeated by one percent of the vote for a council seat in 1979 after a bitter campaign. Markham is a law professor and a former Assistant Secretary of HUD. From an old Durham family, he lives in the house where he was born. He campaigned vigorously, but it was the Campbell campaign which catalyzed the work of Durham’s white progressives for the biracial slate.

Campbell’s campaign took enormous energy from hundreds of people over two months. It took lots of money. It required thousands of words of ad copy, thousands of phone calls, thousands of brochures (handed out in door-to-door canvassing) and hundreds of posters. Every local civic organization from the League of Women Voters to the National Council of Senior Citizens had candidate nights for Tom to attend, questions or candidate interviews to be completed. The details of the campaign defy brief description, but some vignettes can help tell the story.

In the midst of the campaign, we had the gaffe. Reporter Bill Gilkeson of the Durham Morning Herald called Tom one evening at home and began asking him questions. What was his educational background? His connection to various local civic and political organizations? His marital status? Tom handled the questions calmly and reported the conversation to us later with only slight trepidation: Gilkeson had asked him about his local church affiliation, and he had said that he had none. How would the newspaper play it? Some of us believed that Gilkeson would simply omit any mention of Tom’s church affiliation. Instead, smack on the front page of the local section of the Herald appeared a comparison of some personal data about Tom Campbell and Judy Harward. As for Tom, Gilkeson wrote, “Church Affiliation: None.” None! What would the city’s church-goers make of this contrast? Although Tom is a person of religious principles, and made this point in subsequent forums, it was too late.

Canvassing door-to-door in her neighborhood, Campbell campaign worker Sharon Whitmore had an encounter that illustrated to us the potential extent of the damage done. Whitmore gave her pitch about Tom to an elderly woman who then asked if he was a Democrat. Whitmore said yes, and the woman asked a second question: “Well, I’m a Methodist Democrat. Is he a Methodist Democrat?”

Judy Harward attempted to capitalize on just this kind of sentiment and the Herald report by publishing enormous ads in the newspapers comparing her own local church participation to Tom’s “none.” She continued in that vein, attempting to portray Tom as a newcomer (of 15 years!) to Durham and as a dabbler in civic affairs, especially when compared to her Durham-born virtues. Harward’s ads mentioned nary an issue, depicting her rather in strictly personal terms designed to appeal to those voters looking for traditional conservative traits in the Moral Majority style: hard worker, lifelong local resident, church-goer, family person.

On the day before the election Tom ran a large newspaper ad to try to counteract Harward’s attempts to portray him as the villain in a family morality play. Amidst quotes from business associates and friends about Tom’s contributions to the life of the city appeared a large photograph of Tom and his wife Marci Kramish holding their two-year-old son, Ewan. The church and family problem was, we hoped, at least partially defused. Of course we weren’t sure until the returns were in.

The campaign also experienced a few internal battles on the issues. Some we all agreed upon, and Tom hammered these home with great effectiveness in personal appearances, leaflets and newspaper advertisements. These were the pocketbook and neighborhood issues which the People’s Alliance and other groups had been advocating at City Hall for the past two years, issues with specific appeal to low- and moderate-income voters. One of Tom’s ads consisted of “straight talk” on neighborhoods, calling for “strong” housing code enforcement, “strict zoning standards to block commercial intrusion into residential areas” and “aggressive support of neighborhood self-renewal programs” such as Durham’s Neighborhood Housing Services program. In his “straight talk” on pocketbook issues he called for formal city intervention against Duke Power’s rate hikes and equalization of water and sewer rates to end small-user subsidies of the system.

These issues were the easy ones for all of us working on the campaign — they were basic to the kinds of neighborhood and economic justice politics we practiced and were also issues on which we felt most voters agreed with us in opposition to current city policy. Tom was the only council candidate to speak in specific detail on these issues; he attempted (successfully) to raise the campaign above the level of a personality contest.

Then there were the tough ones; and the toughest of all was crime. Political polls repeatedly cite crime as the most pressing concern of many urban people. Elderly people, especially, often see crime as a severe impingement on their freedom of movement and sense of security in their homes. People want crime stopped. Yet for many of us in the campaign the daily cries reported in the media for tougher law enforcement and longer prison terms promised false solutions to crime. We know that crime is largely an indirect product of poverty, discrimination and social dislocation, and also that longer prison terms will not stop crime or address its causes. But should we — as progressives so often do — leave the serious issue of crime to the law-and-order conservatives?

After some soul-searching debates among ourselves, and discussions with several Durham public safety officers, we reached a compromise. Tom’s newspaper ad offered “straight talk” on crime. Some of his agenda emphasized Neighborhood Watch programs, community-strengthening crime deterrents we could all support. Other items were more difficult for some of us to swallow — the “more cops on the beat” part of his program. Generally, however, Tom played down the crime issue throughout the campaign. The Campbell campaign does not offer a model of how a progressive candidate should deal with the crime problem, but in Durham we at least began to give it some serious thought.

The solid organization of Tom’s hardworking opponent and the difficulty of issues like crime were not nearly as worrisome as the possibility that the newspapers would clobber Tom. The two intensely conservative dailies are the only regular means of local political information for much of the electorate. In 1979 they did a masterful hatchet job on the anti-expressway candidates, labeling all expressway opponents as enemies of Durham’s future. In the lead article on the morning of Election Day in 1979, the Herald branded Carolina Action, an established statewide neighborhood organization supporting the biracial coalition, as a “radical” group. Likewise, the papers have historically delighted in emphasizing the endorsements of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, noting the power of the “bloc” vote. We feared this kind of treatment again in 1981.

We tried to maneuver skillfully along a media tightrope, and fate offered us some unforeseen assistance. On the morning after the local primary in early October, the Herald reported the results with its usual emphasis on the heavy weight of the Durham Committee’s endorsements (all its candidates came through the primary with ease). But coverage of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination dominated the headlines of that edition, overshadowing the local election news. Consequently the white electorate was less aware of the committee’s endorsements than in 1979, and the potential for white backlash in the general election was reduced.

The newspapers were not so kind when it came to other sensitive subjects. A reporter for Durham’s afternoon Sun got wind of what he called in print “some rather embarrassing rumors” about Tom, checked them out himself and found them to be untrue — but published them anyway, in a lead story just five days before the election. One rumor insinuated that Tom had not paid his taxes in his former Orange County residence; another involved what the reporter described as “some finger pointing at Campbell as being connected with the Communist Worker’s Party [CWP].” As the reporter himself discovered, and stated in the article, Tom’s tax record was impeccable and he had no connection with the CWP. Yet the rumor mill had succeeded where publication of the facts could not. By printing these rumors about Tom, the Sun had given them unwarranted credence. We were furious, but could do little except hope that the last-minute stories would not hurt Tom too badly. Their side owned the media.

At noon on Election Day, November 3, 1981, I drove up to the Friends Meeting House, the polling place for Precinct Five, which included the Crest Street Community as well as many young recent Duke graduates. Mildred Booth, a resident of Crest Street, sat outside the poll in a folding chair as she had sat year-in and year-out on Election Day. She was passing out the sample ballots of the Durham Committee (identical to our slate) to her friends and neighbors as they came to the polls. She left briefly in the middle of the day for home kidney dialysis, but then this mother of several grown children was back with a carload of voters who needed transportation. Mildred Booth knew how to work her neighborhood. She had cajoled the young to register; she asked the pastor at New Bethel to announce the election in his Sunday sermon; she reminded the forgetful to vote; and she remained for long hours at her polling place — sample ballots in her hand, a white carnation in her lapel, dignity in her bearing, determination and a looming expressway on her mind.

Elisa Wolper was at the Friends Meeting House too, working with Mildred Booth. Wolper, 24, is a member of the People’s Alliance and has been active in the organization since she came to North Carolina to work after graduating from college in Massachusetts in 1979. Like many PA members, she has strong organizing skills. She has spoken at North Carolina Utilities Commission hearings, organized petition drives door-to-door on environmental issues and raised funds at the grassroots level. During the campaign she put that experience to work for Tom Campbell and the rest of the biracial coalition, organizing among the young white voters in Precinct Five, many of whom had registered to vote in the 1980 presidential election but knew little of local politics. Wolper and Mildred Booth cooperated closely during the ’81 council campaign, sharing literature and working jointly on voter turnout in Crest Street. At Precinct Five the biracial coalition had real meaning.

Another poll worker was at the Friends Meeting House that noon hour, working on behalf of the conservative slate offered by the Voters for Durham’s Future. He asked me in a joking undertone — out of earshot of Mildred Booth — if Tom was paying the Durham Committee a thousand dollars for Election Day “fried chicken and bus drivers” to get blacks to the polls. That question made victory all the sweeter.

Today, the expressway still threatens Crest Street. The Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce is preparing a whirlwind campaign to support city subsidies of a grandiose downtown convention center, and a slim majority still exists on the city council in support of that kind of public spending. But now there is hope in Durham for something better. Local electoral campaigns on the part of progressives in Durham grow naturally from issue organizing; electoral coalitions evolve from issue coalitions. Tom’s campaign — issue-oriented and fueled by hundreds of dedicated volunteers — served as the key to attracting the white votes necessary to complement the Durham Committee’s strong organizing.

As the results came in on election night, 1981, it became clear that Tom Campbell and the other progressive candidates had done well in many white working-class precincts where we had long been laying the groundwork for neighborhood and pocketbook issue appeals. That fact made the victory of our slate doubly sweet. It meant that we might now win some long-sought victories in city policy. And it meant that in Durham, North Carolina, a Southern city, black and white progressive candidates could defeat a strong conservative business slate through attracting votes across racial lines. The years ahead will tell whether or not racial divisiveness will continue to characterize Durham politics, but at least in 1981 a significant number of white voters rejected the racial voting of the recent past in favor of their pocketbooks and their neighborhoods.