Durham’s two biggest political action committees released their endorsements last week, and one of the more intriguing contests in the state’s bluest city is the Ward I race between incumbent city council member DeDreana Freeman and challenger Marion Johnson.

Freeman is a special assistant at Durham Children’s Initiative, where she works with community partners to help children achieve academic success. Freeman was first elected to the council in 2017. 

Johnson works as a consultant with Frontline Solutions, a Black-owned social justice firm in Durham that supports nonprofits and foundations with an eye on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has served on the board of the People’s Alliance, including a one-year stint as co-chair. She currently serves as chair of Durham’s participatory budgeting steering committee.

It would not be improper, or inaccurate, to describe Freeman and Johnson as the “equity twins” of the upcoming municipal elections. 

Johnson on Friday told the INDY in an email that she and Freeman are both progressive candidates who both believe in equity and inclusion as critical values for Durham. 

“Where I believe we differ,” Johnson says, “is in terms of how we create a progressive vision for Durham. Councilmember Freeman’s votes against the affordable housing bond and against participatory budgeting are two examples of places where we disagree.” 

The incumbent says that although she and Johnson share similar progressive views, their strengths “don’t align.”

Freeman in an email to the INDY says that she stands for “equity as a way of life,” and that Johnson is not aware of the facts surrounding her vote against the $95 million affordable housing bond referendum, approved by nearly 80 percent of Durham residents in November of 2019, that city leaders touted as the largest in the state’s history. 

“The vote on the issues concerning the affordable housing bond was to continue the pursuit of closing the gap in funding renovations as proposed by the Durham Housing Authority,” Freeman wrote. “My ultimate decision was clearly based on the then-facts, or lack thereof. Council hastily pushed for a $95 million bond, which barely scratches the surface of an overall $544 million deficit left to our communities.”

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People PAC has endorsed Freeman. In a recent statement, the PAC said she “has proven to be steadfast in her commitment to a more equitable Durham during her time on the city council.”

“Racial equity is embedded in all of her decision-making,” the statement continued. “She has a clear handle on her job and is willing to ask tough questions.”

The People’s Alliance PAC on Thursday endorsed Johnson, calling her an “essential voice” for the city. 

“From her work opposing Amendment One to her chairing of Durham’s experiment in radical and inclusive democracy through Participatory Budgeting, Marion T. Johnson is a necessary leader for our time,” the People’s Alliance PAC announced on its website.

Both candidates have deeply loyal followers—even among city council members—in what is expected to be a close race.

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, the lone candidate to garner endorsements from both PACs, has endorsed Freeman.

“There is no more insistent voice than hers in the Durham public square calling us to the realization that the work of true racial equity is hard and at times uncomfortable,” Middleton wrote in his endorsement of Freeman on social media late last month. “She is the epitome of the Socratic gadfly and a champion of those that too often don’t get a second thought from the privileged and powerful.”

Fellow council member Jillian Johnson has planted one of Johnson’s campaign signs in the front yard of her home. 

“I’m supporting Marion Johnson because I think she’s the best candidate in the race,” Johnson, the city’s mayor pro tem, wrote in an email to the INDY. “I believe in her vision for our city, and I think she has the right combination of policy expertise, focus, and empathy to help move the city forward.”

In response to a People’s Alliance candidates’ question about the single most important issue facing the city, Freeman said leaders should focus on the issues of social, economic, and environmental justice “with an equity lens” to envision a city “where everyone can safely live, work, worship and play.

“As an elected official, I can say that the issues confronting the City and County are interrelated,” Freeman wrote. “From gun violence to housing to racism as a public health crisis, we have to tackle all of the issues in tandem with an understanding of how moving resources or support will impact another area. Equity must be at the foundation of what we do, because what we see in the other issues is a result of inequities.”

In her response, Johnson said the single most important issue the city currently faces is an economic crisis in the wake of COVID-19. She wrote that the city “still has the potential and ability to make strong progressive budgets,” and she supports a $25 an hour wage for municipal employees and contractors. She supports free public transit, prioritizing infrastructure maintenance, and repairs in low-income neighborhoods. 

Johnson added that a housing shortage, particularly with affordable housing, is a challenge for the city, a problem exacerbated by gentrification and displacement, especially of Black families. 

“COVID-19 accelerated the eviction rate, the rate at which people become homeless, and the widening wealth gap between homeowners and renters,” she wrote. “The people who are most vulnerable are people who have unstable or unofficial housing agreements, or are renting month-to-month, because they often don’t qualify for typical tenant protections.”

There’s a growing resentment among Black and Brown residents threatened with displacement by more affluent white newcomers who are purchasing homes thousands of dollars above already-inflated prices due to the housing shortage. As a consequence, some political observers say Durham is facing a new kind of existential threat. 

Now that the Bull City is prospering, who gets to live here?

Only a little less than 4 percent of the combined $160 million from the housing bond and its complementary funds will go toward home ownership, long recognized as the most effective way to build wealth in low-income communities, according to a housing policy case study from the online housing policy resource platform Local Housing Solutions. Another $4.6 million will go to fund minor repairs for low-income homeowners with code violations, bringing the total allocated for home ownership to a mere 6.8 percent. 

While addressing the issue of affordable housing in the Durham Committee’s questionnaire, Freeman said that during her 2017 campaign she “put forth ideas to equitably address displacement caused by gentrification and proposed a $100 million bond to pay for these efforts,” adding that “many of these ideas are in the 2019 housing bond referendum.”

Freeman said that addressing the challenge of affordable housing will require more than a housing plan. 

“To make affordable housing a sustainable reality and prevent homelessness, we must also address job training, entrepreneurship, small business incubation, and public health and safety concerns,” she said.

Similarly, in the Durham Committee questionnaire, Johnson said that the city’s housing crisis goes hand-in-hand with its economic crisis. 

“While our rent and our housing prices are exploding, our wages are stagnating,” she wrote. “According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s latest report, the housing wage in the Triangle is $21.81/hour. Advocating for a living wage of $15/hour isn’t sufficient anymore. We need to be advocating for a thriving wage of $25/hour—enough for people to consistently keep their heads above water and not be one missed paycheck away from disaster.”

Freeman’s and Johnson’s mutual push for equity is best reflected in their dual concerns for tenants’ rights and desires to avert a housing crisis compounded with the end of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium. 

Early last month, Freeman said she intends to introduce a resolution to protect tenants with a “Tenants’ Bill Of Rights,” currently being drafted by Bull City Tenants United, a Durham advocacy group for low-income renters.

In the People’s Alliance PAC questionnaire, Johnson praised Durham’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program as “a great example of how leadership can leverage multiple levels of support—city, county, and federal—to best serve and protect residents.” 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Bull City United’s Tenants’ Bill of Rights is not yet complete and that Council member Freeman intends to introduce the document at an upcoming Durham City Council work session. 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.