In an election marked by tension between elements in Durham’s black and brown political communities—Rodrigo Dorfman’s incendiary email accusing black activists of conspiring against council member Javiera Caballero; failed council candidate Victoria Peterson’s spurious challenge to Caballero’s citizenship and ballot eligibility—a forum focused on immigrant rights and communities of color seemed likely to produce fireworks.  

And right away, Peterson, who’d staked out a front-row seat at the Wednesday night event, got in Caballero’s face and demanded to know if she was a citizen, though she’s been a registered and active voter in North Carolina since at least 1996. The question prompted groans from the East Durham audience.

Undeterred, Peterson later asked all of the candidates if they were “naturalized to be able to vote in North Carolina.” That drew boos, too. The five candidates present—all except Charlie Reece—didn’t bother to answer. 

The message was clear: Intolerance would not be tolerated. 

But that doesn’t mean this was a friendly audience for Caballero and her council allies. Indeed, the feeling that pervaded the forum wasn’t animosity but rather skepticism of the three incumbents—Caballero, Reece, and Jillian Johnson—who are campaigning under the Bull City Together slate and have been backed by Mayor Steve Schewel and the People’s Alliance PAC (and the INDY). 

This forum was being held at Maureen Joy Charter School, which sits just across the street from the Shepherd’s House church lawn. There, a day earlier, the police had found the body of a black teenager who’d been gunned down in a drive-by, one of four shootings in a twenty-four-hour period

Here and at forums across the city, there’s an undercurrent of discontent, a feeling that council members are “arrogant,” “condescending,” and “ideology-ridden.”

“The city council members filter out any viewpoints that aren’t aligned with what they think,” says Antonio Jones, a Duke University financial management analyst who made an unsuccessful bid for the Durham school board in 2018. 

Jones didn’t attend Wednesday’s forum, though he watched it on Facebook Live and has attended several others. He says he laughed along with the forum audience when Johnson said one of the biggest challenges Durham faces is climate change.

“They’re out of touch, and they’re dismissive,” Jones says. “The incumbents rely on reports instead of listening to people in the community. They say crime is down. Tell that to the woman who is going to bury her son tomorrow. Tell that to [Z’yon Person’s] mother. The gang members will tell you, ‘Go call the police. It’ll take them an hour to get here. I have been living here for twenty years. I’ve been on these streets. The gang members will tell, it’s a free-for-all in Durham right now. They are shooting in broad daylight. Think about that.”

Moya Hawkins, a clinical researcher says the incumbents don’t listen to the community.

“They need to figure out what the community needs instead of telling us what our needs are. They need to do some research,” she says. “There are literally bodies lying in our streets.”

She intends to vote for the challengers: Joshua Gunn, Daniel Meier, and Jackie Wagstaff. 

“It’s because the incumbents don’t talk to or relate to the community,” Meier told the INDY. “One of the incumbents was asked, ‘What’s the most important issue facing Durham right now?’ She said, ‘Climate change.’ Climate change is an important national issue, but it’s not the most important issue in Durham right now. Six hours before the forum there were shootings.”

It’s not clear how widespread this sentiment is—and won’t be until Tuesday, when the votes come in. The evidence so far, however, suggests that the incumbents are popular. Johnson, Reece, and Caballero swept the top three positions in the October primary by a comfortable margin, with Gunn in fourth place, with Wagstaff and Meier much further back.  

But the general election also includes a controversial $95 million affordable housing bond, the largest in the state’s history, and the recent spate of gun violence has kept front and center the council’s decision earlier this year not to hire the additional officers police chief CJ Davis requested. 

“I won’t put my own personal ideology above the citizens’ concerns,” Meier told the forum. 

“The [incumbents] are standing on ideology instead of focusing on local, everyday issues that impact our lives,” Gunn echoed. “Three out of seven council members standing on the same platform—that’s not democracy.”

Durham has seen thirty-four homicides so far this year, more than all of 2018 and on pace to exceed 2016. Johnson told the forum audience that there’s no evidence that an increase in police officers leads to an increase in safety. She also noted that nationally, communities of color are disproportionately targeted by police.

“Don’t take a national problem and apply it to Durham,” Meier countered. “We have a progressive police chief. Give her the resources we need to rebuild trust. … Stop nationalizing our issues.”

Wagstaff, a former school board member and city council member, agreed. “Listen to the community, fund the police chief,” she said. 

The bond is also a big bone of contention, despite the city’s evident housing crisis. Some longtime residents are wary of officials’ plans, pointing to the broken promises of so-called urban renewal, a federal program that a half-century ago displaced thousands of families and businesses in the same businesses that would be most affected by the affordable housing bond.

Gunn, who supports the bond, also pointed to the 2003 Few Gardens Hope VI grant, which led to the demolition of the Few Gardens public housing neighborhood and displaced hundreds of residents. He said the grant’s language is “eerily similar to the language of the affordable housing bond.” 

Bond supporters say point out that, while Durham Housing Authority developments will be renovated, no one will be permanently forced out. Instead, over the next five years, aging buildings at five downtown DHA properties will be retrofitted. 

Johnson, who garnered the most votes in the primary, described the bond as “a huge and important investment,” assuring the audience that “there’s a system in place” for DHA residents to “relocate on-site” or move to other DHA locations during renovations. 

Those residents, Johnson explained, “will have the first right to move back into the communities” when the redevelopments are completed. That’s not just the city saying so—it’s a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requirement for these types of public housing renovations. 

But for some residents with memories long enough to remember how urban renewal decimated Hayti, there’s a trust deficit the city has yet to overcome. Wagstaff, for instance, calls the bond “hocus-pocus politics” replete with “sleight of hand” tactics.

“The numbers don’t add up to what they’re trying to do,” she says. “At Liberty Street and Oldham Towers, the rents will be lower over the next five years, and then boom! The people who live there won’t be able to live there no more.”

The three top vote-getters in Tuesday’s at-large election will win four-year terms on the city council. In the October primary, Johnson took 21 percent of the vote; Reece, 20 percent; and Caballero, 19 percent. Gunn appeared to be within striking distance at 14 percent, while Wagstaff earned less than 8 percent and Meier garnered 6 percent. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at

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3 replies on “In East Durham, Some Residents Voice Skepticism of “Condescending” Council Incumbents”

  1. OMG…”Climate Change is Durhams most imporant issue!”….shows you how out of touch Johnson and her crew are. Ideology driven and an ideology that makes the community less safe. Durham has great potential and Johnson, Caballero and Reece are doing a great job of screwing it up.

  2. “the community,” really? You talked to two upper-class people (financial analyst and researcher) and political opponents. People are getting wise to this media game.

  3. Another bond, another waste of taxpayer money!! I live in the county but will still be effected by this boondoggle and can’t vote on it since it is a city bond. Typical Durham ripoff of the voters.

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