William Durham Jr. is at the counter talking to Leonard Bell, the butcher of Dave’s Meat Market on 22nd Street. The candidate for City Council’s open Eighth District seat is excited.
Not by a rack of lamb, or a side of beef, but by the people – “contacts,” he calls them – that Leonard the butcher knows.
“That guy there has more contacts in the neighborhood than probably [anybody in] the city,” Durham says after the two exchange business cards. “And you know why? Because he feeds them.”
Durham, 55, considers relationships like this “a pass into a neighborhood.” He’s been collecting them his whole life, for one reason: “You always need to have a pass in Philadelphia and I like to have a lot of passes.”
As part of his campaign, he has visited more than 2,500 houses in the Eighth District, concentrating on the addresses where someone voted for him for as a State Democratic Committee representative. He visits those people to ask them to look for his name again May 17.
On this day, he begins at the corner of 22nd and Cambria, visiting shops and asking voters his two favorite questions. He starts by asking them to name one small change that would have a large impact on their community, and then he asks for one big change.
This allows him, he believes, to gauge how voters rank the issues. As expected, residents ask him to work on anything from cleaning up vacant housing to improving public schools to getting sanitation workers to stop throwing their garbage lids on the ground. Sometimes, concerns that seem small can end up being among the bigger challenges a Council person faces.
Later, as Durham climbs walkway steps in front of a home near Lincoln Drive, he jokes that he feels like the mailman knocking on so many doors. If the voter is not home, he leaves a card announcing his candidacy with a handwritten note saying, “Stopped by… Bill.”
Details like that, seemingly small touches that signify contact, are what fuels him. And if he is elected to City Council May 17, he wants to make those small touches into something big. What he calls a “Center City” of the Eighth District would be a place where residents could go to get all of their public service needs met in one place.
Better than that, it would be a place for residents to network and make their own contacts in pursuit of their own dreams.
“I think we need an office that can motivate them with their ideas and support those ideas,” Durham says. “There’s just so much that people want to do, and they just need someone there that’s willing to do it with them. I love new ideas and I love people that want to work.”
Durham’s contacts are not all grass roots. His long history working in the Democratic Party has given him plenty of connections among the political players of the area.
He has served as a Judge of Elections in the 22nd Ward, Committeeman in the 10th Ward, and as a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Senate Committee.
Though Durham doesn’t want to be perceived as a political insider, he does admit, “mostly every politician in this city knows Bill Durham.”
On a test call, U.S. Congressman Bob Brady knew his name right away. “Bill helped me with my campaign when I was running for mayor,” Brady said.
In addition to Brady, Durham has worked for former City Controller Jonathan Saidel, and former U.S. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel.
Edgar Howard, the Democratic leader in the 10th Ward, has known Durham for many years.
“He’s a thinker,” Howard says. “He thinks things through before he acts or speaks on them.”
He adds that Durham’s greatest attribute is his approachability. Durham likes to remind voters that every job he has ever held has been in community relations.
Each day Durham rises at 6 a.m. and drinks his first of 10 cups of black coffee for the day, then walks to work at La Salle University wearing his trademark fedora. With less than one month to go in the Council race, he tries to be omnipresent in the Olney and East Germantown community where he has worked for the past four years as the community liaison for La Salle University.
In the job, he mostly faces “town and gown” issues – smoothing relations between the university and the local community. Sometimes these are made more difficult by a lack of experience many La Salle students have with living in a city.
He empathizes with troubled La Salle students.
“In my first year at Shippensburg, I ‘studied’ freedom away from my dad,” he says. “By my third year, Shippensburg had politely asked me to leave.”
Southern Illinois University was the next stop before Durham joined the Navy upon graduation. Durham spent 17 years in the Navy, and was deployed for 11 months with the Marines in Operation Desert Storm where he was a medical corpsmen specializing in high velocity injuries.
It was here that Durham acquired the taste for black coffee.
“We didn’t have cream in the desert and you probably had to shine someone’s shoes for some sugar,” he recalls.
In his time at La Salle, he has introduced programs to start the dialogue early among longtime community residents and students. One, during freshman orientation, invites community leaders to meet with new students so they can hear what the neighborhood expects of them.
“Bill has a tremendous facility with people,” said Ed Turzanksi, La Salle’s vice president of government and community relations, on why he hired Durham. “[He] is very well known to all the political figures and community leaders.”
Some voters, La Salle’s neighbors in particular, may disapprove of Durham’s statement that “this community is transitioning to almost like a college town.”
After the controversial closing of part of 20th Street for a La Salle expansion in 2004, which Durham was not a part of, and the 2009 development of the Shoppes at La Salle strip mall on Chew Avenue, the area does seem to be slowly molding to campus needs.
“Like it or not, it’s a fact,” says Durham who points out that in his four years at La Salle the off-campus population has jumped from 150 students to 700.
Debra Roberts, director of operations at the Wister Neighborhood Advisory Council, sees Durham as a public relations spokesman for the institution and she isn’t confident of how that would translate for local residents if he won the Council seat.
“I’m not sure if he’s there to inform the community or just push La Salle’s agenda,” she says.
Roberts contends that, since Durham started at La Salle, the Wister NAC has been excluded from meetings where the school has discussed development ambitions.
In 2009 there was a series of three meetings between La Salle, SEPTA and local political and community representatives about the possibility of redeveloping the long troubled Wister Train Station to better serve La Salle students and residents. At first no neighbors were invited, but that changed for the second and third meetings, and then the project seemed to fizzle out. Roberts said that was the last time she has heard anything from La Salle, but that several years ago the school used to hold monthly meetings with community leaders.
Durham disputes the notion that La Salle has ever imposed its priorities on the community.
A graduate of La Salle herself, Roberts does not disapprove of the university’s plans, but warns that it “can’t do it on the backs of, or at the expense of the neighborhood folks.”
If there was a time in his life that galvanized Durham for public service and taught him what it was all about, it happened while working for NewCourtland Elder Services.
He was struck by the prevalence and strength of the perception – a misperception, he says – that long-term care for the elderly means “waiting to die.”
Talking to elderly black men who had been Boy Scouts in their youth, he discovered that during segregation black children were not allowed to rise to the rank of Eagle Scout. He decided to petition the Boy Scouts of America to give these 75-to-90 year old men their first chance to earn an Eagle badge.
Normally, Eagle Scouts cannot be more than 18 years old, but the Boy Scouts made a one-time exception. So at the age of 48, with a gray beard and 17 years of military service behind him, Durham began earning merit badges and eventually became a Boy Scout troop leader.
Local Boy Scouts helped the seniors, who in some cases faced limiting medical conditions, to earn their fire, police, and political badges, among others. They even camped outdoors, in tents set up outside of a NewCourtland residential facility.
In the end, each participant received a special “Golden Eagle” badge in the main ballroom at the University of Pennsylvania, in a ceremony that Durham considers “the highlight of my entire life.”
Durham grew up in a politically engaged family, with aunts and uncles who served as committee people. He saw the impact of the civil rights movement through a lens of political involvement and considers his run for the Eighth as a way to tackle what he sees as the district’s two biggest problems: improving education and the local jobs market.
He offers few specifics on how to do this, saying he would prefer instead to develop that plan with the community members around him if he gets into office. It’s a reliance on relationship building that not all at the NewsWorks voter forums seemed comfortable with. While his name garnered compliments at those events, like “people person” and “hard worker,” it also generated doubt about his motivations, level of knowledge about the issues, and commitment to the community.
But Durham keeps on keeping on.
Every morning, as he’s taking in the first of his 10 cups, Durham spends 10 minutes talking to his cat Anastasia Romanoff Kitty; at work, even during important meetings, he finds it impossible to hang up on his 5-year old granddaughter, who has just discovered the speed dial. Simple connections, but important ones for a man who collects them, and hopes that reaching out with a personal touch will win him that Eighth District seat.
Of all the candidates, “I believe that I am the most connected on every level of the community,” he says.
This is the second of seven NewsWorks profile stories for Eighth District Council candidates. NewsWorks will continue running one profile story each weekday, in alphabetical order, through April 26:
Monday, April 18 – Cindy Bass
Tuesday, April 19 – Bill Durham
Wednesday, April 20 – Andrew Lofton
Thursday, April 21 – Greg Paulmier
Friday, April 22 – Robin Tasco
Monday, April 25 – Howard Treatman
Tuesday, April 26 – Verna Tyner
On April 27 at 7 p.m, join us when all seven candidates will come together for a debate, fueled by the questions voter themselves have come up with. WHYY’s Executive Director of News and Civic Dialogue, Chris Satullo, will moderate the event at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, 35 West Chelten Avenue, 19144. (Doors open at 6 p.m.)
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified the butcher of Dave’s Meat Market. The correct name is used above.