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Former mayor looks to future

Former Durham mayor Nick Tennyson has a simple response about how he spends his time these days.

"I go home," he said.

Tennyson says he has seen his home and his family a lot more since he concluded his four years in office and after losing a reelection bid for a third term to current Mayor Bill Bell in 2001.

But as Bell passes his halfway point in office and another mayoral election approaches in November, Tennyson, Trinity '72, said he has not yet decided whether to challenge Bell in a rematch. Although he said he will likely run again for political office, he did not say when or for which office.

"It certainly is one of those things that has to be evaluated on a very short time horizon," he said. "I don't have any specific plan."

While Tennyson appears to be undecided, Asa Spaulding, current chair of the Durham County Republican Party, said Tennyson hinted he is against a run. "It is my impression, from recent conversations with Mr. Tennyson, that he will not be challenging Mayor Bell," Spaulding said, citing Tennyson's desire to spend more time with his young children.

Since leaving political office, Tennyson returned to his job as executive vice president of the Homebuilders' Association of Durham and Orange Counties. Tennyson also teaches a political science course in American government at Durham Technical Community College.

Several City Council members said Tennyson would remain a credible and popular contender against Bell.

"I would support Tennyson based on my awareness of how he conducted his office," said Howard Clement, council member and mayor pro tempore during Tennyson's term. Clement remembered Tennyson as supportive of "good growth," or any growth that would facilitate expansion of the tax base at a reasonable cost, with the appropriate infrastructure and resources in place.

Council member and current mayor pro tempore Lewis Cheek called Tennyson a "popular mayor" who could run again as a "very, very competitive" opponent against Bell.

Cheek acknowledged, however, that the issues both Tennyson and Bell stressed are similar, including crime reduction and downtown development, and that their voting records on issues are reasonably similar. Cheek added, however, that popular conceptions of the two are more skewed.

"[Voter polls] would tell you that Nick was more developer-friendly than Bill," Cheek said.

Cheek and Clement agreed that leadership style is the most distinguishing difference between the two.

"Bill Bell approaches his assignment [through] a more hands-on approach, while Tennyson wanted it done through cajoling and a bully-pulpit approach," Clement said, adding that both approaches have been effective.

Cheek said Bell has acted more like a messenger to the council, while Tennyson used the position more actively to complete tasks. "The meetings [during Tennyson's terms] were conducted in a little bit less formal way, [but] Nick was very knowledgeable," Cheek said.

Tennyson's accomplishments as mayor included funding projects to pair the government with business for redevelopment efforts, such as a parking deck in downtown Durham, and instituting measures aimed at reducing crime, such as quarterly updates to the council.

"I set out... to make sure we had a much more aggressive approach on the issue of crime in Durham," he said.

In spring 1999, before Tennyson's reelection to a second term, then-police chief Teresa Chambers announced the city's largest drop in crime since 1971, when the city began keeping computerized statistics. The drop followed a national trend.

Although he has remained on the sidelines of city government and Durham issues, Tennyson noted that the recent audit of several contracts awarded by City Manager Marcia Conner has left many questioning Durham's current city government.

"Both Bill and Marcia had the disadvantage of a different person being in the mayor's seat when she was hired," said Tennyson, whose council hired Conner in 2001. "But there've been some things that seem inexplicable [and] are not consistent with the person I believe we hired."

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