Saunders

Bell, in victory, can't outrun the crime issue

Staff WriterNovember 7, 2007 

Remember that great line from "The Godfather": Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?

Durham Mayor Bill Bell would do well to adapt that line: to heed his friends' advice, but heed his enemy's even more.

City Council member Thomas Stith's campaign to become mayor consisted of a relentless drumbeat about the crime problem in Durham, and even though it wasn't enough to unseat Bell, the mayor had better pay attention to the message.

Check this out: Any time poll workers are delayed from setting up on Election Day because a robbery suspect was fatally shot outside the polling place hours earlier, then crime is more than just a perception problem.

Jim Foster, an election volunteer at the main branch of the Durham Public Library, said, "When I got here at 5:15 this morning, they wouldn't let me near the building," he said. "We were ready at 6:30. Just made it."

Three of the four people I talked to as they left voting stations said they were unaware that police had shot a suspect there -- the young man fell right in front of the door. The one woman who knew of it said it didn't influence her decision to vote or for whom to vote.

Stith probably alienated people with his incessant, hard-edged harping on the crime issue. Had his campaign platform been more balanced and less heavy-handed, I'm guessing he'd be mayor-elect today.

He isn't, and soon he won't be a City Council member, having decided to oppose Bell rather than seek re-election.

The good news -- yes, the good news -- in the city's most contentious mayoral election in years is that voter turnout was described by poll-watchers and volunteers as "dismal" and "lousy."

Why is that good?

Because it is actually an improvement over the turnout during last month's primaries.

You would've thought election sites would be overrun, considering the way Stith pounded Bell with the issue of crime.

I know, I know. It stinks to think about the political repercussions of an incident that cost a man his life, but it's clear that had the shooting occurred a week earlier, it would have been used by Stith, and his one-note campaign theme might have resonated more.

Early in the day I spent about 30 minutes at the library, in a strongly Democratic section of the city. I saw only two people vote.

Denise Dunn, who voted at the county agricultural building, said she voted "because it's my civic duty, but I do want the mayor to pay attention to the crime we're experiencing here."

Lawrence Edmendsen, who voted at the Club Boulevard Magnet School, said, "There was not one issue" that led him to the polls, but "a multiplicity of issues. There's too much going on for me not to vote," he said. "We're always trying to encourage youngsters to vote and take part, so how could I not vote?

"If there's one issue, though, it would be the mayoral race," he said. "I'm looking for some change."

Apparently, not enough people joined him.

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2811

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