Local political groups adapt to changing voter tendencies

In Durham politics, community organizations have always played a significant role in rallying support for candidates that share their organization’s principles and views.

Community organizations and political action committees like the Durham People’s Alliance, Friends of Durham and the Committee on the Affairs of Black People all issue consequential endorsements during local, state and national elections.

The DPA, a grassroots organization focusing on economic and social justice, has a thorough endorsement process. Candidates are interviewed by the DPA’s political action committee and then voted on by the entire organization.

“We develop questions in a way that distinguishes among candidates,” said Milo Payne, a member of the DPA Coordinating Committee, which is responsible for managing the entire organization. “You can’t just say you’re for apple pie. You have to say how you would propose apple pie reform.”

DPA releases its endorsements to the press, in addition to a mass mailing and advertising campaign. Despite a history of group endorsements having power, officials are split on how much they still matter.

Durham City Council member Eugene Brown said with the growing number of people moving into Durham and the “Obama phenomenon”—in which people who usually do not vote came to the polls in record numbers during the 2008 election—the electoral system is now less endorsement driven.

“Durham has been called an endorsement town and they’re important,” Brown said. “But Durham has changed over the years and I don’t think they’re as important as they used to be. We have a lot of independent voters… and because people are more independently minded, those that go [to the polls] already know about the candidates.”

Frank Hyman, a former member of the City Council, has turned the endorsement process into a type of science.

Hyman and Council member Diane Catotti stressed the importance of receiving at least two endorsements from different types of groups.  

“My rule of thumb, being conservative, is that 80 percent of voters are using the endorsements for 80 percent of their choices,” Hyman said. “Candidates who preach to their choirs—they get one or no endorsements and loose. Endorsements play a positive role in screening out the most narrow minded candidates.”

In the past year, turnout in city elections has been minimal. Last October, only 4.36 percent of citizens voted in the Durham elections primary and only 8.1 percent voted in the general election in November, according to data posted on the Durham County Board of Elections Web site.

Receiving endorsements is important for politicians seeking office, because members of community groups are often the main voters driving the elections, said City Council member Mike Woodard, Trinity ’81.

“When it’s a smaller turnout the political groups have more influence because their membership and the people they reach are more engaged in the process,” he said. “They are going to turn out to vote and that’s why their influence is still very important.”


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