GOP falls short in board bid
By Ray Gronberg
DURHAM — City Council members thwarted a bid by Durham County Republican Party activists earlier this month to have a party precinct chairman appointed to the board of the Durham Convention Center Authority.
The GOP-backed candidate, Richard Ford, was competing for the seat on the convention center board held by the panel’s vice chairwoman, Rosemarie Kitchin.
Local GOP activists mounted an email campaign in Ford’s favor, with party members like Jack Steer — who later died — and former City Councilman Thomas Stith being among those who urged council members to vote for Ford.
“We’re just trying to do the job of the Republican Party: That’s getting conservative folks, Republican folks, into various positions,” said Ted Hicks, the party’s county chairman. “It’s not just elected office, it’s any city commissions or board, anything and everything really.”
But the council – whose members are all Democrats – on June 9 voted 5-0 to give Kitchin a second three-year term. Members Diane Catotti and Farad Ali were absent from that meeting.
The vote came a few days after Councilman Mike Woodard told colleagues the e-mails they’d been getting in support of Ford were likely the product of a concerted effort by the county GOP.
Hicks, elected chairman of the county Republicans earlier this year, has made no secret of his belief the group needs to develop the GOP’s “bench strength” in Durham.
On May 1, he published a column on the party’s Web site that said the Durham GOP’s “most significant victory” so far in his tenure was its success in getting another precinct chairman, David Smudski, appointed to the Durham Planning Commission.
The 4-1 vote for Smudski by County Commissioners late in April was important because “previously there were only three Republicans serving on the numerous boards and commissions combined throughout Durham County,” Hicks said in the column.
The move on the Convention Center Authority seat was additionally noteworthy because Kitchin, a marketing consultant, had vocally backed the joint city/county decision to replace the center’s operator.
The previous operator, Pennsylvania-based Shaner Hotels, owns the downtown Marriott. Company CEO Lance Shaner is a prominent GOP activist in its home state.
Echoing a point made by other business leaders, Kitchin argued that the convention center needed “specialized” management of its rather than oversight by a hotel company “with two priorities.”
That alluded to worries that Shaner had little incentive to go after more business than might fill the Marriott’s rooms.
The switch itself appeared to have no partisan implications, as media reports indicate that the chairman of the new operator’s parent company also has GOP ties.
And when asked whether the debate on replacing Shaner had anything to do with the county GOP’s decision to target the convention center board seat, Hicks said “absolutely not.”
Party leaders go behind Ford – a consultant and former publishing executive – because he’d signaled interest in serving on a local board and had picked the convention center’s after looking over a list of upcoming vacancies, Hicks said.
“It was not a matter of us-versus-them, nothing to do with the incumbent versus Dick,” Hicks said. “And I have been told [that Kitchin] has served that commission well.”
He added, though, that the GOP had thought it was targeting a vacant seat. “I don’t think she got her application in on time,” he said.
City Clerk Ann Gray confirmed that her staff had accepted Kitchin’s application on May 10, four days after the originally published deadline.
A May 6 application deadline for the post appeared in vacancies list city clerks distributed some two weeks before.
But on May 6, they released a new vacancies list that still included the convention center board and gave a May 20 application deadline for that post.
That extension “sure enough was a mistake,” Gray said, as on May 6 clerks already had applications in hand from Ford and another candidate, Celeste Toombs.
They had, however, been in touch with Kitchin, who told them she was indeed interested in a second term. But the clerks didn’t clearly tell her the application deadline was May 6, Gray said.
“As far as I’m concerned, our office, we didn’t do a good job with this,” Gray added. “It was miscommunication. I should have caught all this, but I just didn’t catch it.”