‘Grassroots democracy in action’: A look at political action committees in Durham

Oct. 2, 2023

As candidates and voters prepare for the Oct. 10 elections in Durham, another participant in the city’s politics is raising its voice. 

Durham’s political action committees (PACs) are instrumental in informing and encouraging voters to participate in this year’s general elections, where 12 candidates are running for three seats on the Durham City Council, and eight are in the race for the position of mayor.

In the 2015 and 2017 elections,  Andrea Benjamin, an associate professor at The University of Oklahoma, conducted studies of the impact of Durham’s PACs through interviews with PAC leaders, exit polls of voters and analyses of data.

Both studies revealed that Durham voters were aware of the candidates who received endorsements.

“People knew who had been endorsed, were able to correctly identify it and it was positively associated with their own vote choice,” she said.

PAC endorsements play a large role in Durham politics, according to Steve Schewel, Durham’s mayor from 2017 to 2021.

Schewel said that each PAC has a transparent endorsement process. These processes vary, but generally revolve around a committee getting to know the candidate and their position in order to make recommendations to voters based on the information they find.

The People’s Alliance (PA), a PAC founded in 1976, focuses on issues such as affordable housing, racial equity and living wages. 

The committee seeks candidates’ responses to questionnaires, conducts candidate interviews and brings their findings to members of the committee to vote for the candidates they want to endorse, according to their website. 

Another major PAC, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (DCABP), has a similar endorsement process. According to Benjamin’s study, candidates request interviews with the committee, and the general body votes by secret ballot to endorse candidates.

The DCABP was founded in 1935 with the goal of registering Black voters and supporting candidates that would best support the Black community in Durham, according to their website. The committee focuses on issues such as jobs, housing, police activity and crime. 

Durham’s third major PAC, The Friends of Durham, focuses on crime, education, taxes and race relations, according to their website. The committee emphasizes the support of law enforcement officers, the necessity of taxes and providing a variety of educational choices for students.

For their endorsements, a committee of leaders in the Friends of Durham interviews candidates and presents its findings in a public forum for member approval.

Benjamin said that the engagement of PAC members in candidate endorsements by PAC members is heartwarming and one of the most powerful pieces of the process.

“Those are the things that sort of give you faith that the process is still a good process,” she said. 

According to an announcement made on the PA’s website, over 350 members of the PAC attended the endorsement meeting for the 2023 election to decide which candidate to endorse. 

“That’s a lot of people — that’s grassroots democracy in action,” Schewel said.

He noted that PACs fill the void of information in local elections left by the lack of local news sources, making their endorsements that much more important.

“PAC endorsements are not always determinative, but they are always, in Durham elections, influential,” Schewel said. “In fact, I would say, unless you have an endorsement of at least one of the two major PACs, it’s very hard, almost impossible, to win a local election in Durham.”

In addition to endorsements, Schewel said that PACs support the candidates they endorse through advertisements and mailings on their behalf. 

Despite the influence of PACs on elections, he said that an endorsement alone is not enough to win elections.

“You have to have your own roots in the community and a lot of extra support,” Schewel said.

Edited by Ryan Christiano