City’s downtown has few black-owned businesses
Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump, who called Steyer “a lunatic” last weekend.
Asked about about the jibe, Steyer chuckles.
“I have two older brothers and they have said meaner things to me,” Steyer during a stop Tuesday at Sir Walter Coffee in downtown Raleigh.
More serious than words was the pipe bomb targeted for him that was intercepted by officials last week. He wants to make sure that none of his family or staff get hurt.
Steyer, a 61-year old retired hedge fund manager, philanthropist, and environmentalist, should be used to the rough and tumble of the campaign trail by now – especially in today’s ultra-polarized environment.
Steyer has been crisscrossing the country for his two groups – NextGen America, which is organizing to register and turn out voters in the midterm elections, and Need to Impeach, which is seeking to build support for Trump’s impeachment.
He has spent more than $120 million this election cycle – the most of any Democrat – and said he has signed up 6 million people to his organization. An Atlantic magazine article published earlier this month said he had “more reach’’ than the National Rifle Association.
While he may not be as well known as other politically active billionaires such as the Koch Brothers, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, or Sheldon Adelson, there are few bigger players in national politics today.
He is hoping to have an effect on Tuesday’s elections by increasing Democratic voter turnout during a midterm election when traditionally there has been a large dropoff of voters.
He has put together a large national organization designed to turn out voters. Monday night in Greensboro, he held the last of his 32 town halls in a meeting that drew 250 people, according his campaign staff.
Has he had an impact? “We will know more in a week,” Steyer said. “But we have seen on an anecdotal basis in North Carolina, early voting has been very robust.”
The historic North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance building on Parrish Street was the center of downtown Durham’s historic Black Wall Street. Founded 120 years ago by the city’s African American leaders, it was a symbol of black economic prosperity and where W.E.B. DuBois visited before writing his essay about “Upbuilding Black Durham” in the early 20th century.
The building looks much like it did a century ago, but the rest of downtown Durham looks much different.
The Institute, previously The Institute of Minority Economic Development, owns the building now. It bought it from Mechanics & Farmers Bank, another African American historic powerhouse, in 2000. M&F, which is the secondoldest minority-owned bank in the U.S., leases ground floor space.
Farad Ali is CEO of the Institute. From his offices on the sixth floor, windows look out on downtown of 2018. City Hall out one window. The former Jack Tar Hotel, which is now Unscripted, out another. And facing Parrish Street, the city’s new skyscraper, One City Center.
“We own the history. We own the building,” said Ali. “The intent was to keep it minorityowned.”
He said he’s “blessed and honored to be the leader of an organization that has the spirit of Black Wall Street.”
Construction cranes have peppered the city skyline in the past few years since revitalization took hold. But some are concerned that the prosperity of new Durham is not shared by everyone or reflective of the city’s legacy, especially Black Wall Street. It is not reflective of the city’s population, either. Durham is 40 percent African American.
This past summer, City Council member MarkAnthony Middleton hosted a forum at his church about the new Black Wall Street, which Middleton wants to be on every corner in Durham, not just Parrish Street downtown.
But less than 4 percent of businesses downtown — and across Durham — are minority-owned, Ali said. And right now, there isn’t a big plan to change it. Not from the city, anyway.
But other downtown players have ideas and projects in the works.
‘REVITALIZATION WITH TRADEOFF’
New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver is the former chief planner of Raleigh, and plans to retire there. But since he left, what he’s hearing about Durham is different than Raleigh.
“I’m hearing great things about Durham — more so than Raleigh the past few years — because Durham is becoming the ‘it’ city,” he said.
More than 20 people are moving to Durham every day, and the city is grappling with how to deal with that growth. County taxes increased this year, but city taxes didn’t because of all the tax income from new development, primarily downtown.
Silver thinks there is very little difference between gentrification and
IF WE HAVE A HOMOGENOUS KIND OF SHINY NEW DOWNTOWN, WITHOUT HAVING THOSE INDIGENOUS GRASSROOTS LOCAL THAT MADE DURHAM WHAT IT IS – IF THEY’RE OUT OF THE EQUATION, THEN WHAT MAKES DURHAM SPECIAL?
Carl Webb, developer
While in Raleigh Tuesday he planned to visit the local food bank and meet with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
In North Carolina, his organization has concentrated its efforts in turning out voters in the Charlotte-centric 9th Congressional District where Republican Mark Harris is facing Democrat Dan McCready; and in the Triad-based 13th district where Republican incumbent Ted Budd is being challenged by Democrat Kathy Manning.
They have 38 full- or part-time staffers helping organize the state and have been working on 25 college campuses, Steyer said. The organization claims it has registered 6,000 new voters in the state.
Steyer calls it “the largest youth voter mobilization in American history” – based on the staff, volunteers and budget.
“We are a grassroots organization trying to spread broader democracy in America so more people get to vote, so more people get included, so people can’t be ignored, so we get a fairer process,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
The town halls, Steyer said, were not about Trump-bashing, but focused discussions on issues that worry people – most prominently the cost of college, health care, racial justice, and the environment.
“Obviously this is a huge referendum on this administration,” Steyer said of next Tuesday’s election. “But I think it is much more than that … We don’t go on an anti-Trump screed. We talk to young people and ask them what they care about.”
While many Democrats welcome Steyer’s organizational heft, they have been wary of his campaign to impeach President Trump, fearful that it could backfire by revving up Republican voters.
Adelson, a Las Vegas casino owner and a major Trump backer, recently began running ads warning that a vote for a Democrat is a vote to impeach the president. Even Steyer’s representative in Congress, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, disagrees with him.
But Steyer views Trump as a danger to the Constitution and the country, and he has put together a team of 54 constitutional lawyers who have laid out 10 possible impeachable offenses that include obstruction of justice, accepting fees from foreign governments, advocating violence and conspiring to commit crimes against the United States with Russia.
“He is a habitual and reckless lawbreaker who is putting the safety and health of the American people at risk,” Steyer said in an interview. “It is urgent to get him out of office before he destroys the country.”
Last week, Steyer’s group began running a Facebook ad comparing Trump with such dictators as Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, saying they have the same “malignant narcissism.” “Dictators have managed to come to power in every part of the world, and many of them rise out of democracy,” says the ad’s narrator, first reported by The Daily Caller.
The Democratic prospects of actually pushing through impeachment are close to nil. Many observers think the Democrats have a chance to win the House, but few think they will win the Senate. It would likely require 57 Senate votes to impeach – a prospect that could only occur if a broad swath of Republicans abandoned a president whom polls suggest is highly popular among GOP voters.
But Steyer says that is no reason to back off. He said he has spent no time lobbying in Congress for impeachment or thinking about legislative strategy. This is about galvanizing public opinion, he said.
He knows that some Democrats think this is tactically not smart. “But we are saying, ‘no, no. We are standing up for the Constitution and the American people’.”
Everywhere he goes, he is asked about whether he is interested in running for president in 2020. And his standard reply, which he gave again Tuesday, is that he won’t decide until after the midterm elections where he can do the most good.
But after watching Steyer on CNN Sunday, Trump had a prediction. “As bad as their field is,” the president tweeted, “if he was running for President, the Dems will eat him alive.”
NC Mutual’s second downtown building is an integral part of the Durham skyline. The building is a landmark and a historic reminder of black economic power. It was sold several years ago and is now called the Tower at Mutual Plaza, but about 50 employees of NC Mutual still work there.