Early this month, the local People’s Alliance political action committee once again displayed its influence on Durham elections.
By a wide margin, voters selected first-time candidate Alexandra Valladares, who was endorsed by the political action committee, to win an at-large seat on Durham’s Board of Education on March 3.
Valladares beat incumbent Steven Unruhe, who Mayor Steve Schewel, former Mayor Bill Bell, fellow school board members and the Durham Association of Educators all endorsed. The left-leaning People’s Alliance supported him in 2016 but not this year, despite wide appreciation for his contributions to the school board.
“He is among the finest teachers in the memory of Durham’s public school system. And he was an excellent school board member,” said Tom Miller, a coordinator for People’s Alliance.
Valladares, an educator and high-profile volunteer leader in the schools, was the better candidate partly because the school board lacked a Latinx member, Miller said. Durham Public Schools identifies more than 32% of its students as “Hispanic/Latino.”
“It is a reasonable expectation, where an excellent candidate is available, to have the school board reflect, at least in one member, that makeup of the constituency,” he said.
Valladares, a Durham Public Schools graduate and a DPS parent, has worked with BOOST, a Duke University program that encourages middle school students to pursue training in science and medicine. She has led multiple district projects as a volunteer, including convening a Superintendent-Parent Forum series for Latinx families.
A former resident of McDougald Terrace, a musician, and a Human Relations Commission member, Valladares emphasized the need for Latinx leadership during her campaign for the seat.
“Ya es Hora!,” was one of her campaign slogans. In English that means “It is time!
Unruhe, a national-award winning educator, taught at Northern and Riverside high schools over 29 years. During four years on the board, he helped revise the budget to increase funding for the construction of new two schools, among other accomplishments.
This year, the decision about who to endorse for the at-large school board seat was difficult for PAC members, Miller said.
Valladares did not comment for this article, despite multiple requests for an interview. But Unruhe was frank in his disappointment in the close nominating vote he lost. “I have serious reservations about this process because the vote in endorsing was 51% to 49%. That somehow translated in the minds of People’s Alliance organization into a 100% endorsement of my opponent,” Unruhe said.
Disagreement over who should win on March 3 bloomed on social media after the endorsement vote.
On Jan. 27, a letter posted on a Facebook account named Miel Etant Possum asked alliance members to support Unruhe, despite him losing PA’s endorsement.
“While it is rare for many of us to support a candidate outside of the PA endorsements, we feel in this case that Steve is a much stronger candidate,” the letter said. “We believe Steve represents the values that are at the heart of the PA and a progressive Durham.”
The letter, no longer public, was signed by 110 people.
On Feb. 1 Ronda Taylor Bullock, a scholar who works to reduce racism in schools, published a letter on Facebook promoting Valladares. She argued that there was a clear racial dimension to the school board race and that voting for Unruhe would support white supremacy in Durham.
“I’m arguing that from a critical whiteness lens, this is indeed an act of upholding white supremacy,” the former Hillside High School teacher wrote. “There are currently zero Latinx board members and by supporting a white male, folks are saying this is OK for a district that’s 33% Latinx.”
Her letter was signed by 167 people.
Unruhe said what he perceived as “the nastiness” of the campaign solidified his decision to not run for elected office again.
Miller acknowledged the divisiveness of the endorsement process and election in this school board race. The political landscape in Durham has shifted, he said.
“Years and years ago, we chose progressive candidates to run against candidates being promoted by conservative organizations,” he said.
The school board race, however, highlights how multiple progressive and qualified candidates are now running against each other which makes the People’s Alliance endorsement more challenging.
“To make it more difficult for our members to choose from among progressive candidates who are longstanding and effective and loved members of our own organization,” he said.
However, Miller said he envisions that unity is ahead.
“As difficult as this decision about this school board contest has been, moving forward, it’s going to be one People’s Alliance committed together to support progressive change,” he predicted.