There seems to be a palpable sense among candidates that this fall’s municipal elections in Durham have the potential to be a pivotal point in this growing city’s trajectory. Equity, managing growth and giving a voice to the voiceless are common refrains.
There is the opportunity to change the fabric of Durham’s leadership. One of it’s longest serving members, Mayor Bill Bell, is not seeking another term after sixteen years as the face of this city. The other, Cora Cole-McFadden, who was first elected to the council in 2001, is running for re-election to her Ward 1 seat against three competitors.
Six people are vying for the Ward 2 seat Eddie Davis has held since 2013 and Don Moffitt, who has represented Ward 3 since the same year, will face three opponents in his re-election bid.
Steve Schewel, the council’s longest serving member after Cole-McFadden, will retain the at-large seat he has held since 2011 if he is not successful in his bid for mayor. The remaining members of the council, Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece, were elected in 2015.
This means that, come December’s swearing in ceremonies, the body will have at least three members with two years or less of experience on the council (not a detriment), and a new mayor, who could potentially be new to politics.
Two of seven people eyeing Bell’s seat come with experience on the council: Schewel and Farad Ali, who served from 2007-11. Pierce Freelon is an activist, musician and founder of Black Space, a digital media and entrepreneurship hub for black youth. (Check out our previous coverage of their campaigns).
The other contenders are also political newcomers. Shea Ramirez, a tax preparer, also runs a talent agency. Sylvester Williams, who ran against Bell in 2011 and 2013, is a pastor and financial analyst. Tracy Drinker is a retired police officer (with Durham Police Department and NYPD) and a board member of the state and local chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Michael Johnson is a retired cab driver and self-described investigator.
Far and away, affordable housing was the issue candidates brought up most in interviews with the INDY. The city has studied its housing needs, crafted five-year goals and recently doubled the property tax revenue it will dedicate to addressing them. So, that means this next council will play a big role in how the city puts that all to use. Among major housing projects underway are Fayette Place and a proposed development next to Durham Station.
More broadly, candidates have stressed equity, the need for all Durham residents to share in its bustling growth, avoid displacement and have a seat at the table as decisions about the city’s future are made. Reducing crime, improving police-community relations, bolstering de-escalation training for law enforcement, and promoting job training and living wage jobs were also priorities for candidates across races.
Schewel serves on the city’s Audit Services Oversight Committee and Durham Open Space and Trails Committee, among other appointments. He is the council’s liaison to the Durham Housing Authority and offers detailed thoughts on how to address the city’s housing needs, including support for the DHA and use of city-owned land. (Read ideas from Schewel, Ali, Freelon and Ramirez on affordable housing and homelessness via the Unlocking Doors Initiative).
Schewel’s platform also calls for police reform (he says he supports what Chief C.J. has done to implement de-escalation and racial equity training), expanded bus service, more bicycle boulevards and equitable distribution of trees. (Disclosure: Schewel founded this paper and sold it in 2012).
Ali is president and CEO of The Institute, a management consulting firm focused on promoting diversity. He has served as the chairman of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport Authority, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce.
Ali says he wants to form a community cabinet to guide the city, reduce crime and build trust with law enforcement, and bolster home ownership and affordable housing. In a recent interview with the INDY, Ali stressed the need for housing solutions for the homeless and the elderly.
Freelon has taught at UNC and N.C. Central, is the front man of jazz/hip-hop group The Beast and has served as a member of the Nasher Museum and N.C. Arts Council boards. He also has the backing of the Collective PAC, which is working to build black political power across the country. Freelon’s platform emphasizes a bottom-up approach to governance, taking cues from community organizations. He has said he would like to expand the Poverty Reduction Initiative Bell started in 2013 incorporating more community input.
Ramirez is running a campaign focused on accountability and Durham’s youth.
“I come from a proud family and I want to work for you. We need to create more living wage jobs, improve our schools, and make public safety — especially getting guns off the streets, a top priority. I know what it takes to find solutions and navigate the complicated governmental agencies, and get things done,”her campaign website reads.
Sylvester wants more resources allocated to fighting crime and substance abuse, providing affordable housing and incentivizing businesses to locate in struggling neighborhoods. He also has concerns about the construction of the East End Connector linking N.C. 147 and U.S. 70 disproportionately affecting African-Americans.
“The reason I’m running is because some of the problems I think we have with institutional racism,” he said.
A twenty-three year law enforcement officer, Drinker says “the greatest city in North Carolina” has grown and flourished under Bell’s leadership.
“However, I believe that the people of Durham are in need of someone who cares about the needs of the many who feel they have been left out in the cold when it comes to affordable housing and the continued climb of mental health and quality of life issues that have been or appear to be overlooked,” he said.
Johnson’s campaign focuses on rooting out what he calls corruption in the Durham Police Department. He also wants to see improvements to the city’s parks and recreation facilities and a less rigorous schedule for Durham police officers. Johnson said he doesn’t plan to put up campaign signs.
“I’m running for the people and everybody knows me,” he said. “I want that stated — Michael Johnson, icon.”
Johnson also acknowledged criticism that he has filed for bankruptcy and owes property taxes. He said he is “going to take care of that” and doesn’t believe those factors preclude him from serving the city.
“My focus is to clean up the city,” he said.
Cole-McFadden had planned to run for Bell’s seat, but surprising her colleagues at an April 3 council meeting, announced she would be seeking another term as Ward 1’s representative. A former director of Durham’s equity assurance office, she was the city’s first black female department head. She always has an eye toward minority and women-run businesses and opportunities for Durham’s youth. (Cole-McFadden couldn’t be reached in time for this story).
DeDreana Freeman, a planning commission member and president of Durham’s InterNeighborhood Council, is pushing a platform of a “socially, economically and environmentally just Durham” that includes land banks, permanently affordable housing and more support for city staff who impact planning decisions.
With so many candidates pushing for a more bottom-up approach to governance, Freeman is one of those who may have the community connections to pull it off.
“I would try to find ways to honor what she’s done,” she said of the incumbent, “but it’s time to find ways to move on to more creative equitable visioning.”
Brian Callaway, the coordinator of energy and sustainability for Durham Public Schools, wants to help low-income Durham residents remain in their homes by making them more energy efficient and by exploring ways to make city taxes less regressive. He is also proposing that the Durham Police Department take over county-wide patrol duties. Callaway, in a February email describing his experience with a Durham County Sheriff’s Office checkpoint, stirred a conversation on local immigration enforcement policies.
“The sheriff has shown himself to be very evasive about his law enforcement tactics and patrolling strategy with the people of Durham,” Callaway told the INDY. “That is, frankly, undemocratic.”
If you’ve attended City Council meetings before, you may be aware of John Tarantino, a Libertarian who has run for Durham council before and serenades elected officials with satirical songs. Tarantino says the “crux” of his campaign is to stop the $3 billion Durham Orange Light Rail Line, which he says will only benefit a handful of politicians, investors and engineers, and instead improve local bus service. He’s also proposing a “dormitory-style” option to deliver on the city’s affordable housing needs.
Tarantino acknowledges he’s the “the long-shot, dark horse candidate,” but says he wants to be a “voice of sanity” on the council.
Defeating Cole-McFadden won’t be easy; in 2013, she was unopposed for re-election and still got 14,980 people to the polls to vote for her.
Especially in a crowded field, name recognition counts. Of the six people running for Davis’ Ward 2 seat, Mark-Anthony Middleton likely has the most.
A pastor, Middleton has been involved with Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN) for about twenty years and has been a strong voice in conversations about housing and police reform in Durham. He was on a committee to select the city’s police chief and was part of a delegation on community-police relations.
Middleton said he would “instigate” debate on the city council about requiring officers to live in city limits, tying public safety expenditures to efforts that could reduce police interaction, creating job opportunities for teens at City Hall and employing ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology.
“I think there are some things we can do for ourselves as a community that have nothing to do with a vote in the city chamber but can be aided by a city council person,” he said.
Dolly Reaves is a mother of three, who at age twenty-two, escaped an abusive relationship and found herself homeless for five months. She experienced first-hand the challenges of getting back on one’s feet. She started volunteering for nonprofits and got a degree in political science.
“I decided to run for office so I could be the change I want to see,” said Reaves, who wants to expand access to affordable child care and housing and focus job creation in green fields.
Another political newcomer, Robert Fluet, who works in client development, decided to run for office following the 2016 presidential election at the suggestion of his nine-year-old daughter. Fluet, who is running a self-funded campaign, is stressing de-escalation training for Durham police, the use of taxes over fees to generate revenue, and creative use of tax revenue from major developments and tax breaks to create affordable housing and living wage jobs.
“As opposed to legislating at I want to legislate with,” Fluet said.
An IT business analyst “during the day,” DeAnna Hall is also a bicycle and pedestrian advocate. Hall, an avid cyclist herself, serves on the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. She says that experience — reviewing site plans, communicating with developers and making recommendations to City Council — have prepared her for the Ward 2 seat.
“Doing that sort of gave me a birds-eye view of what’s going on in Durham and I wanted to be a bigger part of that,” she said.
A Durham Democratic Party precinct chair and P.E. teacher, LeVon Barnes says he has experienced the need for affordable housing and decent-paying jobs. He also sees the effect of these issues on his students at The School for Creative Studies and their parents. Barnes started a mentoring and community service program called Young Male Achievers. He implemented it at his school four years ago and says participants have since logged eighty-five hundred service hours. He would like to see the city partner with Triangle businesses to encourage investment in job training, living wage jobs and internships for Durham youth.
“Affordable housing is important and needed but without a job it doesn’t matter how much affordable housing you have,” he said.
John Rooks Jr. is a data engineer for the federal government and new member of the Durham Human Relations Commission. He serves on the boards of Love over Hate N.C., which advocates for better police relations and safer communities, and R.E.A.L Kids United, a mentorship program. (Rooks couldn’t be reached for this story).
Incumbent Don Moffitt says he wants to continue efforts to leverage city-owned land for affordable housing, use tax relief and repair programs to help residents stay in homes with rising values, and seek more transparency and equity in policing.
“How do we transition the police department to a new way of policing that’s more equitable?” Moffitt said. “I think that’s an issue that I’ve been pretty deeply involved in and one where we’re not close to saying we’re done.” Moffitt is also calling for an inventory of publicly owned land and how it can be put to use meeting the city’s needs.
Lenny Kovalick is a pediatric nurse practitioner who is running a self-funded campaign focused on sensible growth, support for first responders and growing communitions trust for police. This entails more training, more resources and “(allowing) police to do their jobs.”
“I think we’re relying on all the change to come from law enforcement officers as opposed to the community,” he said. “I think there’s a two-way street there.”
Vernetta Alston is an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and a queer woman of color who wants to see Durham set the bar for progressive cities by standing up for immigrants, the LGBTQ community and over-policed communities.
“We can push it further. We can be bolder,” she said. Through her work, Alston frequently interacts with people who have come contact in with law enforcement. She says she wants to address the root causes of those interactions.
“The bigger mission for me or for anyone in respect to those concerns is creating a Durham where safety is a word that includes everyone in this city. Budget aside, it’s about a philosophy around safety and not treating or communities of color and immigrant communities as needing to be feared or disproportionately policed in the way that they are.”
Also an attorney, Shelia Ann Huggins worked for the city for nine years in general services, community engagement and economic development. In addition to affordable housing, her platform calls for community budgeting and what she calls “compassionate governance.”
“I’ve worked through the budget process. I’ve worked on a strategic plan. I’ve hired and fired people but I think most importantly I understand the challenge of trying to do a lot with limited resources,” Huggins said. “I recognize that government can’t do everything and we need to have strategic partners in the community to help get things accomplished.”
A primary on October 10 will narrow down each race before the November 7 general election.