Dependable Erection

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Election dissection

For starters, Kevin's got a good crunching of the numbers up at BCR. If you're interested in Durham politics, you should bookmark it.

I'm going to eventually disagree with some of his conclusions because if i didn't, well, i'd have nothing to say, right?

The Easy Races

Dianne Catotti and Eugene Brown were the only council candidates to be named on over 50% of the ballots. That makes sense. They both enjoyed broad support from across the political spectrum, they're both incumbents whose tenure on the council has been commendable. The council race was always going to be about who landed the third seat, and we'll talk about that more later.

The bond issues were similarly supported and all passed by wide margins, the Life and Science Museum bond the only one failing to attract 70% support. That probably reflects a lack of familiarity with the museum among parts of the population. Basically, if you don't have kids or grandchildren under the age of twelve, the Museum is probably not even on your radar.

I want to also add my .02 about the city's road repair bond.

Durham has not, in the time i've lived here, had any difficulty in getting bond issues passed. (The stadium bond/COPs plan was just before my time.) The problem has been actually spending that money. Much of the 1996 park bond monies weren't spent until 2001 or later, and i think it was Kevin who pointed out that some of the 96 money was still being spent. Unfortunately, the longer you wait to spend bond funds, the less you can buy with them. This is especially true when it comes to construction, as prices for steel and concrete have increased at rates much higher than overall inflation the past decade. It's also a problem that so much of the revenue raised in Durham bond issues goes to maintenance and repair. Infrastructure maintenance, repair, and even incremental upgrades to systems are items that should be budgeted for out of general revenues. Borrowing needs to be confined to capital investment and new infrastructure. If Durham continues to fund repairs by borrowing, two things will eventually happen. First, voters will stop rubberstamping new bonds. And second, new projects will be put on hold even longer than they are now, increasing citizen dissatisfaction with the government. This isn't inevitable, but the city really needs to shift gears with the way it deals with bond monies.

The Harder Races

The two contested races, for mayor and for the third council seat, especially the latter, were where all the action was. Let's start there.

Here's the primary results for the candidates who finished third through sixth:
Farad Ali . . . . . . . . . . 4,962 13.74
Laney Funderburk . . . . . . . . 3,775 10.45
David Harris . . . . . . . . . 3,414 9.45
Steve Monks. . . . . . . . . . 3,225 8.93

Ali's strong showing in the primary was the result, i think, of his early backing by key members of the progressive community who were, to a greater or lesser extent, affiliated with the Democratic Party. Steve Schewel, former publisher of the Independent Weekly comes to mind as one of the most prominent. David Harris, on the other hand, had to wait until after the primary reduced the field to three Democrats before he was able to benefit from party GOTV efforts.*

The order of the primary finish, in which Republican Laney Funderburk actually edged ahead of Harris for fourth place, created a dilemma in the minds of some voters, namely that if progressives split their votes between Harris and Ali, would that create an opening for Funderburk to sneak in and grab a seat on council? One local activist sent an email out yesterday alluding to precisely that scenario in encouraging votes for Ali:
I prefer David Harris for that third seat. I've seen a candidate forum and talked to folks and I remain lukewarm on Ali. Since Harris and Ali are in direct competition for that third seat, I considered voting ONLY for Catotti and Harris. However, Funderburk is also a serious contender. He's a conservative with no real strong sense of city functioning -- it's basically a protest campaign and he's running so that Stith will have some conservatives on council.
So withholding my vote for Ali (to help Harris) might contribute to Funderburk getting in, and I don't want that.

Finally, toward the end of the campaign, Ali started picking up financial support from some of Thomas Stith's backers, and there were rumors that Stith himself was encouraging his supporters to vote for Ali.

Kevin is of the opinion that Farad Ali's endorsement by the Durham Comittee on the Affairs of Black People, and their lack of endorsement of David Harris, was the contributing factor in determining the outcome of the race. Here's where we disagree. I think that Ali's early progressive backing and strong showing in the primary were significant contributing factors. Without those, i don't think the Committee's endorsement alone would have been enough to put Ali on the Council.

The question now, for Ali, is having won a seat, what will he bring to the table? Will he show why so many progressives backed him early, or will he lean towards those conservatives who contributed heavily to his campaign in the stretch run?

The other contested race on yesterday's ballot was the mayor's race. Incumbent Bill Bell ended up with a solid 58 - 42 victory over Councilman Thomas Stith, whose Republican star would appear to be fading. There are two ways to look at this race. One is that despite a 1-4 disadvantage in voter registration, the Republican Stith managed to achieve a respectable showing. I don't think that's a serious analysis though, for a couple of reasons. First is that Stith essentially ran away from his Republican base. He didn't trumpet his conservative bona fides on the campaign trail, especially after his initial foray into conservative hot-button issues like illegal immigration blew up in his face. I think he achieved his 42% by denying his affiliation, not embracing it. That's not going to be a model for Republicans to run on in future elections, especially those in which partisanship actually counts. The second reason is that when all the receipts are finally tallied up, we'll find that Stith outspent Bell by somewhere around 5-1. He ran an extremely well financed campaign, and raised the bar for Durham elections in years to come. And still only attracted 42% of the vote. So maybe not so respectable after all.

The other way to look at the race is that Bill Bell faced his strongest challenger since defeating Nick Tennyson by a relative handful of votes 6 years ago, and put together a winning coalition. Thomas Stith raised serious issues of Durham's problems, and attempted to lay them at the feet of the incumbent. A majority of Durham's voters understand that our problems are community based, and that one man or woman can neither bring them to pass nor solve them by force of will. These election results show that at least a strong segment of the citizenry is willing to work together to fix our problems, rather than cast about for a scapegoat to blame. That's good news, as far as i'm concerned.

Finally, what Durham voters did last night was swap Thomas Stith for Farad Ali on the city council. While i would have preferred that David Harris would be sitting in that seat come December, i'm hopeful that the trade will at least prove an upgrade.


* One of the consequences of a "non-partisan" municpal election is that the political parties do not hold primaries, and therefore cannot run official candidates. There were four registered Democrats in the council primary, and the Democratic Party would have been unable to endorse only three of them had all four survived the primary. The Republicans, on the other hand, essentially ran a slate of three candidates (remember those red signs with "Funderburk, Parrish, Monks?" That was the Republican slate.) Makes you wonder exactly why Victoria Peterson changed her registration from Republican to Democrat earlier this year.

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  • While the DCABP and local progressives' endorsements of Ali were certainly important factors in his victory, I think a larger factor was the timing and scope of his campaign.

    After all, Ali garnered a lot of support where neither the Committee nor the progressive cognoscenti holds much sway. How many votes would a guy named Farad Ali have won without those first-in-the-race signs with the smiling portrait? Ali advertized in ALL the papers, again with the same smilng face.

    Even in Durham, old-fashioned campaigning is important.

    By Anonymous steve bocckino, at 2:49 PM  

  • That's a fair point, Steve. Let's see who learns that lesson for the future.

    By Blogger Barry Ragin, at 3:13 PM  

  • You have to have money to stage a citywide recognition campaign, guys! A LOT of money. And not many local candidates can afford that kind of cash. Remember that Farad Ali raised move $30,000 -- and that was just the show money. He probably spent more than that.

    That was more than any other City Council candidate and six times what Harris raised.

    A lot of that money came from developers -- and not everyone is willing to take that money from developers.

    Nor are all that many local voters willing or able to give money to local candidates. In other words, that may be what it takes and people may remember it, but they aren't going to be able to do it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:09 PM  

  • You don't need $30 K.

    What you need is money for stamps, stationery, PO Box, filing fee and about $2K for signs to start with. Visibility and a begging letter bring in $ if your message resonates.

    Granted, not everyone can raise $2-3K, but that is probably the first realistic barometer of support. Asking for money is painful, but so are many aspects of being on council, so pain tolerance is important.

    By Anonymous steve bocckino, at 5:22 PM  

  • While I think it's a good point he had a head start in standing out from the crowd, Farad Ali did not win because of smiling yard signs put up early. He won because he spent a large amount of money on three major mailings, billboards, print ads, web advertising -- and because he was a very good campaigner who was there at virtually every gathering of the black community over the past five months talking, talking and talking some more with a great deal of excitement (until he began to flag at the end). He worked it. Plus he was willing to cut a deal with the Durham Committee, and he and Bill Bell clearly campaigned together in the black community constantly. I'd be interested to know how much he "contributed" to the Durham Committee for their hand-outs, and whatever other GOTV efforts they were able to muster.

    But do not underestimate the power of his war chest. Based on current bulk mail pricing, discounted, he paid $2,800 in postage each time he sent a mailing out to 10,000 people. If he was hitting Republican, Dem and Unaffiliated voters, then he easily spent $11,2000 each on three mailings to 40,000 people each time. That is $33,000 right there. Even if you shave that number in half for more targeted mailing, he still had to have spend $20k on direct mailing... plus the billboards and the huge banners draped across train trestles, etc. in black neighborhoods, his half page ads in black-targeted magazines ($200 to $800 each) and who knows what he did on radio (which is $40 to $150 a pop, depending on time aired). He also spent $700 to $900 a month for banner ads on the Herald Sun website (more for the N&O), and about $4,000 to $5,000 to pay for printing up the postcards he mailed and handed out (all of which he did do.

    The guy bought that name recognition, which is what you are supposed to do, and certainly have to do if you are Unaffiliated.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:31 PM  

  • "...our problems are community based, and that one man or woman can neither bring them to pass nor solve them by force of will."

    This part, by force or will, I agree. However, a great leader will bring to pass and solve such problems by inspiring, invigorating and empowering the citizens he/she represents to improve their community.

    Bill Bell is not that person. He, unfortunately, cannot and will not be able to achieve this simply by virtue of his own personality limitations.

    By Anonymous DavidL, at 9:42 PM  

  • I agree---Ali raised a lot of money and spent it, too. He ran an aggressive, positive campaign and apparently he did just what he needed to do, since he won by about 1000 votes.

    My point is that you don't need $30K to run an aggressive and competent campaign, but you do need to hit the ground running and early money is essential to do that.

    I'm still sticking to my early signs for unknown candidates recommendation.

    By Anonymous steve bocckino, at 10:28 PM  

  • Ali won by just 1,000 votes. Lots of folks analyze the election by how candidates fared with a PAC or neighborhood. I'm curious about the apathetic-but-persistent voter, and there's got to be lots of those. As a former ABP voter myself, I would've been quite impressed by the colorful, "smiling Ali" signs and apathetic regarding the rather dull blue and white David Harris signs.

    So...if you switch the designs of the two signs, and David Harris is the smiling and presumably affable and confident David Harris, and Farad Ali is just a name on a sign, how many votes does that get for Harris?

    And if the answer is "none", then clearly no one should ever produce colorful, photogenic signs.

    By Blogger toastie, at 8:33 PM  

  • A comment on the Harris/Ali race (which is really what the council race was to me):

    I had a problem with this election that I'd never had before: A surplus of good candidates. I wanted Catotti, Brown, Ali and Harris all to win, which was clearly impossible. I suppose it's a nice problem to have, much better than voting for the lesser evil, which was often what I was faced with when I lived in Raleigh.

    But I hope Harris runs again in the next council elections. He'd be a great councilman.

    By Anonymous David McMullen, at 9:50 AM  

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