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Follow live coverage of the 2018 midterm elections, including results and analysis. Get caught up on the latest news.

Durham Incumbents Deal With Post-Monument Political Fallout

Sheriff Mike Andrews stands and speaks to a crowd of about 30 at a forum in Durham. Opponent Clarence Birkhead looks on from his seat.
James Morrison
Oppenent Clarence Birkhead looks on as Sheriff Mike Andrews speaks at a GOP sheriff forum in April.

A legal battle over the destruction of a Confederate monument in Downtown Durham is over, but the political fallout lingers.

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews pressed hard for felony charges against the original nine suspects last August. And now he’s facing a tough battle in the May 8 Democratic primary race against opponent Clarence Birkhead – the candidate he beat in the 2014 race. 

But this time around, things are different. The city’s political action committees (PACs), who widely endorsed Andrews four years ago, are now backing Birkhead - an African American and former police chief in Hillsborough. Andrews’ hardline approach to punish the Confederate monument demonstrators could be the reason.  

A Different Tact

Durham District Attorney Roger Echols dropped the demonstrators’ felony charges to misdemeanors, and he is faring much better in the upcoming primary. He’s secured endorsements from two of the city’s three largest PACs. Andrews has no PAC endorsements. 

It is a big thing that there is no appropriate measure for citizens to ask local government or petition local government for removal of any type of historical monument. -District Attorney Roger Echols

Echols ultimately dropped all charges in the case this February after the trial failed to secure convictions for the first three defendants. Speaking recently on Durham defense attorney Greg Doucette’s podcast, “Fsck Them All”, Echols said he considered the broader societal and legal context of the case when dropping charges.

“It is a big thing that there is no appropriate measure for citizens to ask local government or petition local government for removal of any type of historical 'monument,’” Echols said.   

The May 8 Democratic primary is important for both Echols and Andrews because there are no Republicans running in either race. Whoever wins the primary keeps his job. 

And in a Democratic primary, it’s easy to find people who applaud Echols’ leniency in the case.

Support for Andrews

Durham County resident Chris Clark said he supports Andrews for his hardline approach to punish the demonstrators. He’s voting against D.A. Echols, who he believes bowed to political pressure when prosecuting the monument case.

“Echols should have prosecuted those people,” Clark said, “From what I understand Echols had the opportunity and just didn’t pursue it. I think he had other people telling him to back off just to save his job.”

Echols flatly denies these claims. 

Sheriff Mike Andrews and Clarence Birkhead
Credit James Morrison
Sheriff Andrews and Clarence Birkhead listen to questions at a recent sheriff forum in Durham.

Sheriff Andrews said he tried to do what was right by pressing for felonies against the demonstrators, and now he’s in a political minefield.

He thinks it’s possible that his handling of the Confederate monument case is the reason he’s failing to gather endorsements.   

“Because I did have people calling on me to drop the charges,” Andrews said.

These calls came from at least one city councilman, according to Andrews. Numerous community members aligned with PACs also called on the sheriff to drop the charges, according to other sources.

Durham’s Powerful Political Players 

There are powerful organizations within Durham that if you do not do what they want you do to you will be a one-term official. -Immanuel Jarvis, Durham GOP Chairman.

Durham PACs control major voting blocs and regularly hand down marching orders to elected leaders, according to Durham GOP Chairman Immanuel Jarvis. 

“There are powerful organizations within Durham that if you don’t do what they want you do to they have the ability to remove you,” Jarvis said. “And you will be a one-term official.”

But what cynics call capitulation to powerful political groups, others call responsive governance.

“That particular incident required these public officials to recognize the changing climate of our culture and attitudes of slavery and these monuments,” said Keith Bishop, the political chair of one of Durham’s largest and oldest PACs, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

Bishop said the committee is not endorsing Sheriff Andrews because Durham citizens of all races want to move away from a culture that celebrates what Confederate monuments represent. 

“And if the community is making that change, to have a sheriff look to criminalize that type of adaptation was just problematic,” said Bishop.

A Political Message

The Durham Committee just barely endorsed D.A. Echols, according to Bishop.

But another influential PAC in Durham, the People's Alliance, endorsed Echols' opponent, Satana Deberry. The People’s Alliance failed to return numerous requests to comment on their endorsements, but Bishop believes the People’s Alliance was upset with Echols for pushing too hard for a conviction in the case. 

Confederate Monuments, Charlottesville, Durham County Monument
Credit Courtesy of Barry Yeoman

The message to Echols and Andrews is clear, according to Bishop. They can’t take PAC endorsements and votes for granted.

One person who might want to heed this message is Judge Fred Battaglia.

Battaglia tried the case and has been publicly critical of the D.A. since the trial. If he runs for reelection in the fall, he will most certainly wear the political yoke of the Durham Confederate monument case when he goes seeking endorsements from the city’s powerful PACs.

James Morrison is a national award-winning broadcast reporter with more than seven years experience working in radio and podcasts. His work has been featured on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now and multiple other radio outlets and podcasts. His reporting focuses on environmental and health issues, with a focus on the opioid epidemic and sustainable food systems. He was recognized with a national award for a story he reported for NPR on locally-sourced oyster farming. He also received a national award for his daily news coverage of firefighters killed in the line of duty. A podcast he produced about the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War was accepted into the Hearsay International Audio Arts Festival.
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