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.
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 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
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.
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.