Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Political Courage

The current debate over how to overhaul health insurance is probably going to come down to two things: elected leadership with a plan and willingness to take bold action. I guess that could be part of the definition of a leader.

It reminds me of the leadership Bill Bell showed during an equally contentious debate over merging Durham public schools. The issue had been on the table many times since desegregation. Even though Durham Public Schools had long been desegregated, there remained two systems. One covered the majority of the City and County. The other, a smaller system, was called City Schools but covered only some neighborhoods in the urban core.

The smaller system meant a great deal to people. While it was a vestige left over from segregation, people took great ownership in their own school system. But the evidence clearly demonstrated that merger would eliminate duplication while providing improved resources and facilities.

In the 1990’s, even the Durham Chamber came around under the leadership of Marvin Barnes. Everyone seemed to agree something needed to be done but there were polarized alternatives.

Bill Bell was Chairman of the Durham Board of County Commissioners then, and had been on the Commission for about two decades. He, with a few others, forged a plan and courageously led adoption to merge the schools. No good or courageous deed goes unpunished though, as the saying goes. And he lost the subsequent election.

He paid a steep price but got the job done. We need that with healthcare reform.

Leaders willing to take strong steps can take note that Bill dropped below the radar for a year or two, then successfully ran for election again to the Board of County Commissioners and then went on to what is now an unprecedented 4 consecutive terms as Mayor of Durham.

But I’ll bet even if he hadn’t been eventually re-elected, Bill wouldn’t trade that for the successful merger of Durham Public Schools.

While elected leaders may sacrifice re-election in the near term, achieving health insurance reform will be a lasting legacy.


Unknown said...

I am writing an essay on political courage, and after searching for some courageous politicians in North Carolina, I came across your blog entry on Bill Bell. I have spent some time looking for information on what Bell did to make the Durham school system merger happen in 1992, but I have had little success. Any information that I do find has unhelpful citations, or none at all, including the Wikipedia article, which mentions the merger but gives no sources for the information. I have also tried the Herald-Sun, but the archives only go back to 1995. The reason I am looking for more information on Bell is because I have read several webpages (including your blog entry) which talk about how there was a lot of opposition for the consolidation of the school systems, yet Bell pushed it through anyway, knowing that it would be the best for the community. This forms the perfect premise for my essay, and since you seem to be knowledgeable about Durham in general (based on your position in Durham and your blog), I thought it might be a good idea to ask for your help. If you can give me any information about Bell and the merger, or where I can find reputable information, I would be very grateful.

(This message was also sent in an email.)

Reyn said...

Elaina - I have info for you. But you're email didn't come through and I don't know how to reach you. Please contact me a the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.