DURHAM – Minutes after taking office, County Commissioners in a surprise decision elected new member and first-time officeholder Fred Foster to serve as their chair.
The decision came on a 3-2 vote that saw Foster join with holdover members Brenda Howerton and Michael Page. The same three also voted to make Howerton, who’s starting her second term, the board’s vice chairwoman.
Afterward, Foster acknowledged the support he received from fellow Democrats Howerton and Page was a surprise given that they’d favored unaffiliated petition candidate Omar Beasley during the fall campaign.
“Those guys can’t stand me,” Foster said. “We had a terrible election. They did everything but throw me under the bus.”
But he said they evidently preferred him as chair to the only other option suggested on Monday, 11-term Commissioner Ellen Reckhow.
Howerton and Page “must have felt they had a better chance going in with me than they did with Ellen,” Foster said, alluding to the longstanding rift between the holdover members.
Aside from her own vote, Reckhow got backing only from new Commissioner Wendy Jacobs. They and Foster ran as allies in the fall, all having voiced opposition to the controversial 751 South real estate project.
Howerton and Page have supported 751 South.
Reckhow shrugged off the decision, telling Monday’s audience that she hopes the commissioners “put any of the divisions that surfaced during the campaign behind us.”
Monday’s swearing-in ceremony came little more than four months after Howerton, Page and Reckhow, in defiance of a recommendation from county Democratic Party leaders, passed over Foster for an interim appointment to the board.
The three at the time said they needed an experienced hand to fill the unexpected mid-term vacancy created by former Commissioner Joe Bowser’s May resignation. They gave the appointment to former Commissioner Phil Cousin.
Jacobs endorsed Foster’s bid for the mid-term appointment.
Local officials had been expecting a Reckhow/Foster pairing for chair and vice chair, respectively, to emerge from Monday’s vote.
But Foster said he thought the vice chair’s slot, should Reckhow win the vote for chair, would have gone to Howerton or Page by way of “extend[ing] an olive branch to the other side.”
He also said Jacobs “was not going to go along” with a Reckhow/Foster slate because she’d been the highest voter-getter in the Nov. 6 general election.
Jacobs received 84 more votes than second-place finisher Howerton in an election that saw the five Democrats swamp Beasley.
“In the beginning, I was supposed to be sitting on the sidelines altogether,” Foster said. “I’d be crazy not to vote for myself after I knew [Reckhow and Jacobs] weren’t going to vote for me anyway,” Foster said.
Jacobs denied that she’d been angling for one of the board’s two leadership slots.
“I was really honored to be the top vote-getter, but I was not putting that forward as the reason for me to be in a leadership position,” Jacobs said, adding that she hopes
the board “will all be able to pull together.”
Foster’s commission candidacy drew opposition over the summer from the Durham County Republican Party.
GOP leaders called for him to abandon the campaign because he’d resigned a Department of Social Services post in 1990 in lieu of being fired for on-the-job misconduct.
Durham Republican Chairman Ted Hicks on Monday said his group stands by its previous criticism of Foster, and also believes the new chairman has a conflict of interest because he remains president of the Durham NAACP.
Apprised that the vote for chair had come to down a choice between Foster and Reckhow, Hicks speaking for himself said he respects Reckhow, despite her political leanings, because among the commissioners she “seems to be the one who takes her role the most seriously.”