It's weird. One minute you're reading an interesting column on an important public policy issue, and the next thing you know it's down the rabbit hole into Art Pope's Civitas Creepshow, filled with creatures with unimaginable views representing the so-called freedom movement.
Enough has been written by and about one of those creatures to fill a book, but lest you think Mad Max is an anomaly, consider another standard-bearer of the Creepshow, Mr. Thomas Stith, candidate for mayor in the City of Durham. Stith is apparently no longer at Civitas, having resigned from that role to spend time campaigning for the Big Job. I suppose that's how Jack Hawke freed up the cash to hire his new hit man, Max - but that's another story. In any case, the most insightful analysis of the Stith can be found in North Carolina's best newspaper: the Independent.
The differences between Stith's public persona and private political maneuverings point to a curious duality: When he speaks on the council, he sounds like he's offering a reasonable, measured parsing of the issues; yet his campaign strategies are risky, even offensive, attacks torn from the dirty-politics playbook. In addition to the push polls, a campaign mailer showcases photos of Bell's contorted face, and automated "robo-calls" claimed Durham intentionally harbors undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, Stith is evasive when questioned about these tactics, his own spotty record on council, and $108,000 in campaign contributions, primarily from wealthy business owners. Instead he hammers on his issues and emphasizes that in the nonpartisan race, strong leadership on issues of crime and government accountability outweigh political philosophy and party affiliation. But make no mistake: Stith is conservative and so are his issues. And he is seen as part of a Republican effort to upend Democratic leadership, a strategy that has led to a backlash from Durham's considerable liberal majority that calls Stith's campaign divisive.
Though there's nothing inherently wrong with political conservatism, it must be said that it often comes with a deep and abiding hatred for government. Which perhaps explains why folks like Tom Stith (and Fred Smith) so easily rationalize their failures to perform in government service.
Stith has been unsuccessful in dedicating the same amount of time to his council duties as his colleagues. A list of the council members' committee, subcommittee and liaison appointments shows that Stith serves on just one council subcommittee, which considers minority contracting issues and has met once in the past four years. Bell serves on 15. Cora Cole-McFadden serves on 22; Howard Clement sits on 18; Diane Catotti and Mike Woodard work on 12; Eugene Brown, nine.
Stith has missed more council meetings, work sessions and special meetings since the 2005 election than any member, with 11 absences, three of them unexcused.
Stith justifies his absences and lack of committee appointments by citing his professional career. "I'm the one that works," Stith says, tongue-in-cheek. (Several councilmembers work, including Eugene Brown, who's the head of Distinctive Properties Real Estate.) Stith recently resigned from his vice president position at the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a conservative public policy organization, where he earned $116,365.
"I'm trying to balance between trying to provide a home for my family and also serving the people of Durham," Stith says. "I will be involved in those committees, but I also believe colleagues have served very strongly, so I can't say what number that would be."
There is a number, however, that Stith can talk about: the number of dollars he's received from Art Pope and his minions.
Stith contends Civitas hasn't participated in his campaign. However, Stith acknowledges Art Pope contributed $4,000 to his election coffers. Stith's campaign bank account is flush: He has secured $108,000 in contributions, mostly from business and development interests. Developer Gary Hock, his family and an associate contributed $21,000 to Stith's campaign, nearly as much as the $27,000 Bell has raised from all his donors.
If you want to understand the political culture that pervades the Civitas Institute and the Puppetshow in general, be sure you read the Independent's excellent article on Thomas Stith. They take comments, so please let them know you appreciate their work.
PS The photos in this story are fantastic, and were taken by one of my son's very best friends, Jeremy Lange. Here's a sample:
"If boiling people alive best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral." Max Borders, loyal Civitas employee