Skip to content Skip to footer

Durham Election Reflections: What Does It Mean to be Progressive?

Article published:
Diverse group of young people stand in a horseshoe with arms around each others’ shoulders. They’re casually dressed in jeans and sweats. Most wear a black T-shirt printed with “Durham for All” in white letters. “Durham for All” is painted on the wall behind them.

Durham for All worked to distinguish—and defend—their politics in a community with ‘a robust spectrum of progressive forces.’

In many respects, Durham’s Nov. 2 municipal elections resembled other elections that took place this fall. In cities that lean heavily Democratic, younger, left-progressive candidates faced off against progressive or moderate candidates. The viability of reallocating some resources from police to the community loomed large over the elections—as did the urgency of projecting a path forward with gentrification on the rise, economic inequality heightened, and gun violence increasing. As in some other cities, we saw left-progressive-backed candidates lose to progressive or moderate candidates.

Since Durham for All was established in 2016, we successfully established a governing alliance that made up the majority (5-2) of the City Council (including the Mayor). In this year’s municipal elections, we endorsed three candidates, one for mayor and two for City Council. We aimed to, at minimum, maintain the majority by helping two of the three candidates win their races. All three were new candidates for the seats they ran for. We supported them as candidates who would build on the victories of our governing alliance, which included the passage of a $95 million municipal housing bond and the establishment of a participatory budgeting process. We also believed they would be creative on initiatives for community safety, affordable housing, and a thriving wage ($25/hour). Each of the candidates ran good, hard races but in the end, they all lost, one by only 635 votes.

This election cycle will bring many lessons and questions for left progressives over time. Three rise to the top right now. We learned a lot about how to engage in the public messaging battle on the issue of policing. We understood more deeply the challenges and opportunities of being in a robust progressive landscape, and confronted the complexities of building the broad front with various Black community and political institutions.

‘Community care and safety’ vs ‘Defund the police

Early on in 2021, Durham for All made the decision to use the narrative framing of “community care and safety,” rather than “defund or abolish the police,” to talk about the issue of reallocating resources from law enforcement and investing them in the community. The issues of policing and Black, Brown, and other oppressed communities’ relationship to law enforcement are complex and contradictory for historic and current reasons, and “law enforcement equals safety” is the dominant belief we were up against when it came to communities and decision-makers. Therefore, we hypothesized that we would not be able to build a broad enough coalition to fight for the demand we linked to the community care and safety narrative: the reallocation of 60 armed positions in law enforcement to 60 unarmed professional positions in a new Community Safety Department that would respond to things like mental health crises. We worked to bring this demand into a campaign on the city budget as well as bringing the spirit of the demand into the fall election.

Your inbox needs more left. Sign up for our newsletter.

A couple of competing political forces that did not endorse or support our candidates came out very aggressively with digital ads, mailers, and TV ads that were pro-law-and-order and said our candidates were going to put communities at risk because we wanted to get rid of police at a time when they are needed the most because of the rise in gun violence. With the winds at their backs from the widely held beliefs about police, and the amount of resources they put into misrepresenting the stance of the left-progressive candidates, they won the public messaging battle during the election on the issue.

Nevertheless, we noticed two important things in talking with more than 1,800 people by phone over the course of the year. The first is that the use of “community care and safety” didn’t pigeonhole us into only talking about law enforcement issues. At the beginning of 2021 we were using them synonymously. But as we had extended discussions with registered voters, “community care and safety” became a framing to talk about the host of community needs that are not sufficiently met, but would allow people to feel a sense of security and stability.

Some of these unmet needs included affordable and accessible housing, jobs with good pay and benefits, and ways to stop economic development that excludes and pushes out poorer residents. The second thing we noticed is that when we talked about the specific policy we were pushing for—having unarmed, trained professionals respond to incidents like mental health crises instead of police—people wholeheartedly agreed. And they agreed even if they generally supported police and felt they were necessary to take care of other issues. The ability to have something tangible to accompany the abstract framing we were using was critical in demonstrating that an alternative to what we are used to is possible.

Standing out in a progressive landscape

Durham has a robust spectrum of progressive political forces involved and most visible in the electoral and legislative arena. These forces include but aren’t limited to Black or Black-led political organizations that are largely rooted among professional-class Black folks and some professional-class white people; a few unions, notably the teachers’ union; Durham for All as a multi-racial, grassroots political organization; and Latinx-led immigrants’ rights organizations. One challenge that we faced was helping voters distinguish between the left-progressive candidates that groups like ours supported and the progressive candidates supported by our competition (especially in a polarizing environment that has some left progressive groups and some progressive groups pitted against one another). While there are important ideological differences, electeds, whether progressive or left progressive, largely vote together on a wide range of issues. Additionally, both general camps talk about and use the terminology of racial justice, social justice, systemic racism, the right of birthing people’s bodily autonomy, the need to address climate change, and holding corporations more accountable. And most of the candidates are people of color, usually but not exclusively Black.

The existing ideological distinctions between the two groups can be seen in their ideas on the role of government and organization, the paths to upward mobility, and approaches to policing.

Left progressives generally:

– See an increased role for government to play in the social well-being of residents

– Promote efforts to collectivize and socialize work that would result in collective wealth building, e.g., worker co-ops

– Are eager to experiment with new models that can be alternatives to policing and surveillance of oppressed communities

– See and talk about the need for organization to make social change

Progressives generally

– Put a bit more emphasis on public/private partnerships

– Put more emphasis on individual’s upward mobility through small businesses

– Want the more police or the same amount, and are supportive of initiatives like Shot Spotter (technology that detects gunshots and notifies police)

– Can be anti-organization (especially in relation to those with opposing views and agendas) and can stress the need for “independent thinkers.”

This election displayed the challenge of left-progressive groups trying to persuade voters to support left-progressive candidates without there being ways to go beyond the abstractions/ideologies. It is important to draw out the ideological distinctions and think of ways through legislation/governance/co-governance, campaigns, and messaging to adequately expose fault lines that exist.

Tensions in the broad front

Durham for All and other left-progressive organizations in North Carolina have begun to observe some tension with competing forces, particularly in the Black community. Once left progressives start winning some elections and becoming a known quantity, these community forces that had maybe been declining or not well-organized start seeing groups like Durham for All as interlopers that need to be put down. The legacy groups then begin to re-organize, consolidate, and strengthen themselves by doing things like increasing their funds, fortifying alliances with Black institutions like churches, and stepping up the breadth and depth of their electoral field programs. This raises two challenges. They have some institutional power (e.g., some media) and voter power (e.g., a core of Black and some white likely municipal voters) in their favor. And as this election showed, they are currently out-organizing left progressive groups like Durham for All for the Black electorate both in the fight against the right and for a brand of progressivism that we are promoting and fighting for.

To date, we have contested with Black establishment political forces for governing power at the local level; we haven’t yet tried to unite with them at the state and federal level in the fight against the right, although we know that’s important. Now we are finding that this is not a sustainable, textured, and nuanced enough orientation. We need to understand the right-sized relationship between organizations like Durham for All that represent multi-racial pro-democracy movement building through the electoral arena, and Black political forces that are historically and politically key to that process.

Whitney Maxey leads work with Durham for All, a grassroots political organization in Durham, North Carolina. The views represented here are her own and not necessarily positions formally held by Durham for All as an organization.


Referenced Organizations

About the Author