The Durham City Council interviewed five finalists for a vacant at-large seat Thursday night.
Each candidate was questioned for about forty-five minutes during the public meeting. The interviews gave the council an opportunity to see how the applicants perform in person, rather than in writing, and see how they interact with members who could be their colleagues as soon as next week.
The five finalists seeking the seat, which opened up when Steve Schewel was elected mayor, are Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, Kaaren Haldeman, Pierce Freelon, Javiera Caballero, and Sheila Arias.
Topics ranged from how candidates have handled embarrassing moments to their take on the diversity of the council. Jillian Johnson’s questions hinted at how the candidates would navigate the pressures and stresses of being on the council, while Vernetta Alston asked broadly about applicants’ ideas for addressing pressing issues. Charlie Reece teased out how the candidates would approach complicated, contentious zoning decisions, and DeDreana Freeman asked pointedly about bias and equity. Mark-Anthony Middleton’s questions were philosophical—whom will each applicant represent and with what approach to governance?—while Steve Schewel focused on what makes each candidate tick.
Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano, was first up. She spoke about El Centro’s work to create the Faith ID (an alternate ID for those without access to government-issued forms) and the organization’s outreach to LGBTQ Latinos. Asked about how she would address her own biases, Rocha-Goldberg said she would take her time with decisions and consult differing viewpoints. Her governing philosophy would focus on transparency and working for the common good.
Asked by Middleton why she thought no one from the Latino community had run for council, Rocha-Goldberg said, “You need to feel you have the chance to get it in some way,” and predicted there would be more Latinx candidates in two years. Middleton asked whether Rocha-Goldberg thought African Americans, who make up about 40 percent of Durham’s population, are over-represented on the council. She said no.
“Even though you come to represent a community like the Latino community, you’re representing the community in general. What you’re bringing is that perspective from that community,” she said. If appointed, Rocha-Goldberg said, “I believe we would reach more members of the community because we would be more culturally and linguistically appropriate.”
On public safety, Rocha-Goldberg said she would bring police and residents together in informal settings to get to know each other, improve cultural sensitivity in the police department, and coach residents on the law and their rights.
Haldeman spoke about her work as a longtime anti-gun violence advocate and first state director of Moms Demand Action, as well as her involvement with the Hispanic and African-American Heritage committees at Immaculata Catholic School.
Haldeman connected her anti-violence work to how she would address other issues facing the city, like housing and preemption.
“I see a lot of things through a lens of violence,” she replied to a question about housing affordability. “ … When I think of affordable housing, I think of stable homes. I think of secure homes. I would love to see a shift in philosophy from affordable housing to affordable homes,” she said.
She said the council should consider how zoning has historically “destroyed communities” and understand that just the word carries negative connotations for some residents.
Asked what she would add to the council, Haldeman said she has often lobbied state lawmakers, with whom she admits she has little in common politically, and would be “loud at the state level.”
“Activism is an essential part of governing,” she said.
She also spoke frankly about recognizing implicit bias, as a white woman from the North who works primarily in Southern communities of color, and drawing on shared experiences to reach across racial lines.
“I believe in consistent and meaningful conversation and participation in each others’ lives,” she said.
Like the testimony of her supporters during a public input meeting earlier this week, Haldeman’s interview was emotional at times, like when she explained how the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting motivated her to advocate for stronger gun policies. She had a child in first grade at the time.
Freelon reiterated a message delivered during his recent campaign for mayor that Durham can and should be more progressive—for example, through a jobs guarantee, participatory budgeting, reallocating funds for policing to addressing poverty, and implementing strong protections for the LGBTQ community. His approach to governance would center on “the intersections of oppression.”
He had a comfortable rapport with the council members, most of whom he appeared alongside during a long, forum-packed municipal campaign.
Asked how he would check his biases, Freelon said he would first acknowledge his own privilege and counter biases through research, listening, and empathy.
“There’s no way we can ever truly eliminate it. That’s not going to happen. You can only constantly be building the muscles to be able to recognize it when it flares up and to address it with all the tools that you have,” he said.
Referring to suggestions that the council take the “historic opportunity” to appoint a Latinx member, Middleton asked what opportunity Freelon thought he represented.
“I think I bring some nuanced energy and some intergenerational dialogue,” he said. “There’s a lot of people I think that will have a seat at the table through my joining the council, including black and Latinx youth.”
Cabellero spoke of creating a safe environment for immigrant families at Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School and her desire to help young people in every facet of their lives, from improving their housing to alleviating fears of deportation or police violence.
“I’m a working, PTA, minivan-driving mom. I’m also an immigrant. I’m also an activist,” she said. Her governing philosophy would be “democratic with a small ‘D’ and consensus-based,” she said.
Asked about implicit bias, Caballero said its part of her job to train people to leave bias out of hiring processes. She also spoke about colorism in the Latino community.
“I’m white. I don’t operate in the world as a woman of color,” she said.
On questions about city support for public schools, economic development, and homelessness prevention, Caballero responded that she needed to learn more about those topics. On affordable housing, she advocated for increasing the city’s “missing middle” housing stock (e.g., duplexes and multi-unit homes) and supporting local developers. Caballero said she would be willing to raise taxes for pre-K and light rail and advocated for mental health and de-escalation training for police.
Arias spoke frankly about her experience as an immigrant, a mother of a child with special needs, and a person who once relied on government programs. She has been in the shoes of the people she wants to represent, she said, and can draw on that to help them improve their lives. It’s something she does in her job as a parent advocate with the Department of Health and Human Services and as an advocate and outreach coordinator with MomsRising and its Spanish-language branch, MamásConPoder.
“The Hispanic community knows me as the woman that screams outside the Governor’s Mansion because I do a lot of that lately,” she said.
She pointed out a lack of language access in city government, the struggle immigrants without IDs face in finding affordable housing, and the lack of a clear, consistent policy regarding cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement,
The appointment represents a unique opportunity—many of her supporters and the people she wants to give a voice on the council could not vote for her in an election. She said she knows what it’s like “to cross a river” and to drive in fear of arrest without a license. She also knows what it’s like to be on food stamps, and work to get off of them.
“Me being here would definitely bring more diversity, but would also allow for you guys to hear the city, to hear what they really want,” she said. ”They want to see a face they feel strong about, that they feel they can trust, that they can understand, but also a face that has been in the situation they are in now.”
You can listen to the interviews here and read applications and questionnaires from each applicant here.
The council plans to vote on and swear in a new member on Tuesday.