Name as it appears on the ballot: Elaine O’Neal
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.elaineoneal.com
Occupation & employer: Retired from judicial bench, NCCU School of Law, Interim Dean 2018-2020
Years lived in Durham: 59
1) Given the direction of Durham government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
We’ve got to do more to improve the living standards and quality of life of people who are barely getting by financially. We’ve got to pay towards a brighter future, by investing in and encouraging businesses to invest in people. There are too many people who are still invisible even though they are our community members; we cannot let racial bias, access, and displacement continue to hurt our community like it is. It is deeply upsetting, for example, that our Latinx community–who have been an integral part of Durham for decades, if not longer–continues to get left behind. I am a Durham native with deep roots in the West End, and I come from a working class background; I have seen how Durham has changed but failed to ensure we all can thrive. The status quo does not serve everyone.
If elected, I will work to address this by creating a pipeline to bring young people to find jobs and participate in city life; I especially want to prioritize Black and Brown businesses and entrepreneurship. We also need better mental health resources, especially for our Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities. Real equitable engagement that uses community members instead of outside consultants will be critical moving forward. We have to involve our community members in our governance, and we have to ensure we don’t leave our most vulnerable high and dry as we seek to make changes. Everyone deserves to feel safe and welcome in Durham–regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender identity, or immigration status.
Durham is not harmonious right now. We need a mayor who can work to unite us while also understanding that the closest to the pain need to be closest to the power. Durham needs to have more listening leaders. My time as judge meant I listened to all sides and assessed it before making decisions; too many in Durham feel like those in power are not listening.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues you believe the city faces and how you believe the city should address them.
Uniting Durham is my number one priority. That is a tall order in the face of increasingly worsening outcomes for many of our community members, compounded by confusingly divisive leadership. But the battle at the state and national level demands that Durham work to become more united in order to face it; we should not be fighting each other–or fighting to survive. I am a multigenerational Durhamite, and I helped craft the Racial Equity Task Force’s report as a ‘love letter’ to Durham and a path forward. Too many Durhamites are being left behind. I will address how systems intersect and inform outcomes for our community; to do this, I will prioritize housing, safety, and economic advancement for underrepresented communities. And I will do it with love–anything less will only perpetuate the problems we’re facing.
Housing: We have to more effectively deal with a housing crisis that the pandemic has only exacerbated; there is an urgent need to confront the impending displacement of long-standing Durham communities. Strategies include using zoning and density requirements as leverage against predatory developers to ensure good and affordable housing, as well as supporting and developing alternatives to the private real estate market. Affordable, quality housing and gentrification are incredibly important for Durham to address, urgently. In today’s housing market, the demands of for-profit developers have led to “affordable housing” being built only in small numbers of homes and those largely for middle-class people. The City’s investment and collaboration with DHIC to build the Jackson Street apartments is a fine and unusual example of low-rent units being of the same quality as full market-rate ones. More of that is key. Furthermore, we need to give the power of leadership and ownership of real estate and land use decisions to Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and low-income residents, particularly those with long histories in our community and those with low and fixed income. Until we find a way to change the present system of people with power-making decisions for people with less power, this problem will persist and our neighbors will continue to feel the harm. We need to endorse and advocate for the wishes and needs stated by community members. We also need to push for community benefit agreements within new real estate developments that directly support impacted residents. And we need to negotiate shared ownership or shareholding arrangements where impacted residents can also benefit from the wealth generated by for-profit developments. The City must establish powerful and effective roles for its staff in this advocacy for resident benefit and autonomy. In order to encourage community involvement, stipends, parking, etc should be provided.
Community safety: All Durhamites deserve to feel safe and seen, regardless of their race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, faith, or immigration status. We collectively grieve the loss of young lives and the collateral consequences to our families, with the understanding that violence in our city and the county at large is inextricably linked to other pressing problems. It’s also critical to understand how different Durhamites understand and experience community safety. Our immigrant brothers and sisters have felt increasingly vulnerable, especially in the last five years, and I will be a Mayor who looks to our diverse communities to help ensure a safe and supportive environment for all of us. My work as chair of the City’s first Racial Equity Task Force and our resulting report gave me two years to revisit exactly these issues. These issues include stable, affordable, and safe housing; the widening racial wealth gap and access to well-paid jobs; access to affordable and excellent healthcare, including mental health care; and a thriving and well-cared for environment. The solutions are multilateral and must come from the communities themselves. I would begin to implement grassroots efforts and work together with community members to scale them. This will include spending time listening to community members–as I have been doing—to work out ideas and learn from them what they need most and how to make that happen. This may include supporting existing community violence interruption programs like Bull City United and also developing new approaches in partnership with impacted neighborhoods. It’s important to recognize the many community organizations that are already working on these issues. My job as Mayor will be to learn from their successes and failures in order to move forward together. Decisions about our most impacted communities must center their voices throughout the entire process, from ideas to actualizing solutions and holding power accountable over time. As Mayor, I want us all to create a new narrative in Durham, one that prioritizes solutions created in partnership and fully-funded investments in one another and our shared future.
Economic advancement for underrepresented communities: I am very invested in lifting up Black and brown businesses, including our immigrant communities, and ensuring our young people and poor families have earning and wealth-building potential. I have consistently advocated for policies and actions to address the racial wealth gap, including as Chair of the Racial Equity Task Force, and our recommendation to establish a Racial Equity Fund to support the creation of wealth in communities of color. This city and county racial equity development fund must be accountable to community oversight and bold enough to effectively address racial inequities in the various arenas that impact outcomes, like housing, economy, criminal legal, healthcare and education. The challenge of the racial wealth gap demands nothing less. And our city leadership needs to take a more bold, active role in addressing this in order to establish pipelines for leadership and entrepreneurship in communities of color. Specifically, these pipelines need to offer opportunities for our Black and brown youth, and poor families to find jobs and participate in city life. Additionally, our Latinx community faces numerous barriers, such as the alienating process of becoming a vendor in the city. The fact that participation in our city life feels impossible to so many in our community is really concerning. An authentic commitment to racial equity demands significant reallocation of resources; otherwise, we will continue to watch the racial wealth gap grow, and along with it, racialized outcomes in education, employment housing, and health. The city must address the centuries of segregationist and racialized policies that have traumatized and impoverished our Black and brown communities. Covid’s racialized impact has only heightened this need for the city– and other partners–to reallocate resources to our communities of color. We can only thrive if we foster an inclusive economy.
It is clear that these priorities all intersect. You cannot improve safety without the other two, and vice-versa, and the solutions must be rooted in directly-impacted communities. Our community’s health– emotional, mental, physical, financial–depends on us addressing these intersecting issues, and they will form the foundation of my overall goal in creating a more united Durham.
3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of the city council and as an advocate for the issues that you believe are important?
My record as a public official reflects over 24 years of experiences, including being a lawyer, a judge, a law school interim dean, and leadership on numerous boards. These experiences reflect a range of skills in service, from administrative responsibilities to leading agencies in a state of transition and disruption. I have learned how to cross cultures and understand how to bridge and bring people together for a common cause. My experiences are rooted in being from “the hood,” the bench as a judge, and as former Dean of NCCU Law School. I am able to speak the language of a diverse Durham from the language of the streets to the language of the board room. My advocacy is rooted in getting into details that make system change possible. I am a problem solver that can address the big picture while also affecting change systematically. For example, in my leadership of the City’s Racial Equity Task Force, we broke down the issues and recommendations into manageable chunks that could be operationalized to create change in Durham. As a judge, I had to be a decision-maker and a shot-caller. But I have lived advocacy my entire life as a Black woman- because that is what it is like to be a Black woman in America. That’s how I broke through these glass ceilings– you don’t become the first ever female Superior Court Judge in Durham County without this heart for advocacy, rooted in my community. It was important for me to ensure I didn’t become part of the oppressive system– I always stayed true to my roots on the West End.
4) What’s the best or most important thing the city council has done in the past year? Alternatively, name a decision you believe the council got wrong or an issue you believe the city should have handled differently. Please explain your answer.
I am very concerned there is no explicit mention of health in the city’s strategic plan. But I can help to change that. We are falling short in supporting the health of Black and Latinx residents and poor residents, especially our mothers, infants and children. It is critical to prioritize the health of these communities from a poverty and racial equity perspective. For example, Black maternal and infant health and mortality needs to be of the highest priority. That is why I will advocate for our council to declare racism a public health crisis. Our County government has done this, but our City has not, and it is critical to put health front and center in our city’s strategic plan.
Additionally, I want to underscore the lack of support for groups such as Walltown Community Association in its struggle to hold off the developers at Northgate and imagine a revitalized community.
But I do appreciate the City’s investment and collaboration with DHIC to build the Jackson Street apartments; it is a fine and unusual example of low-rent units being of the same quality as full market-rate ones. I believe creating more of that is key. Additionally, I support their initiatives toward guaranteed basic income.
5) The city has seen an uptick in gun homicides since 2018, including recent tragic deaths of children. Gun violence is obviously a multifaceted problem with no simple solution. But, in your view, what can or should the city be doing to stem the tide of violence that it isn’t doing now?
As I have written in all of my candidate questionnaires, preventing gun violence and building community safety are my top priorities as Mayor. We have survivors across the city, walking around with bullet fragments in their bodies and broken lives; mothers who continue to mourn for children and loved ones snatched from them by guns; women and men who live in fear in domestic relationships; and generations of Durhamites for whom violence is a part of their family history and present reality.
Increased violence is a function of less safe communities, lack of good economic opportunities that move families beyond survival, unequal access to mental and physical healthcare, and persistent discrimination in our systems that should be serving all of our residents equitably. We are a city in constant mourning, particularly for young Black men and too often our children. Our immigrant communities have suffered intensified trauma and terrorism during the last presidential administration and in our own city.
Gun violence is a national, and distinctly American, epidemic. According to a recent interview with Duke Trauma Center administrator Sean Gibson, there have been 900 incidents of gunfire in the City of Durham this year alone. Further, he mentions that Duke trauma sees 18-22 people per month for gunshot wounds, an uptick that coincides with the Covid-19 pandemic. There are thousands in our city who have been impacted by gun violence, affecting the economic, disability, housing, education, and health experiences of generations of Durhamites. In speaking with gun violence prevention advocates and survivors, I am hearing that our leadership has not been responsive to the needs of the community. It’s time to change that conversation and center the experiences of the most-impacted.
Duke researcher Jeff Swanson has contributed to the literature on the problem, indicating that the primary risk factor for perpetrating gun violence is not prior crime, but prior histories of violence, including domestic violence. This is where our attention must lie while we can also advocate, as a City, for policies at the state and national levels to ensure gun safety is a priority. It’s time to focus on prevention rather than reaction.
We have great community-driven and community-led resources such as violence interruption programs like Bull City United (through Durham County DPH), but it’s important to innovate in this space and to dedicate resources for this work. I will continue to support violence interruption and also support those doing that work using a trauma-informed perspective. We need to care for the people we are asking to do incredibly dangerous work.
We can learn from organizations like the Community Justice Action Fund–a BIPOC-led project whose goal is to build power in those communities with the goal of ending gun violence. I support a Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, modeled after the same in NYC, to prevent violence and build peace. This office can be a home for engagement with our most impacted residents, deploying community researchers–and paying them–to help us understand the problem across our zip codes and neighborhoods; a collaborative space with our local coding brigades for innovative technology solutions; and a place for the young people of Durham to engage in the conversation about how to help them grow into adulthood and protect their families. Our residents must see City leadership prioritize gun violence prevention beyond resolutions and mourning. We’re renowned for our innovative spirit, and this is a complex problem that requires intentional and equitable innovation to solve it.
6) Do you support transferring 15 positions from the Durham Police Department to the newly created Community Safety Department for its new pilot programs? How should the city further grow the Community Safety Department if the pilot programs are successful?
As mayor, the safety of our community members is of the highest priority for me. As a former Chief District Court Judge and Superior Court Judge, I have many years of professional experience addressing crime and criminality. Rather than policing, I would like to frame the conversation in terms of community safety. We reviewed several community-led approaches to safety in our task force report, including understanding of how different Durhamites understand and experience community safety; for example, our immigrant brothers and sisters have felt increasingly vulnerable in recent years. We also have the new Durham Community Safety and Wellness Task Force with their ear to the ground in understanding how best to keep each other safe. We need to invest in community-led and community-driven approaches, evaluate their effectiveness and continue to innovate.
I have learned a lot about safety and justice from my many years on the judicial bench here in Durham, and you cannot fix problems by running from them. You’ve got to go where the problems are, listen to the people most impacted by those problems, and work together to formulate a viable plan to bring about the changes we all wish to see. Many of our communities are organized and are already working on ways to improve safety, but too often they are doing it in isolation, without the assistance of the local government. The Braggtown Community Association (BCA) could be a model for how to organize to improve the overall quality of life in a community including addressing safety. They have regular meetings, forums, and activities that bring old and new residents together with numerous types of community advocates and agencies to assist them in upbuilding the Braggtown community. We can learn from them, and other communities who like them are already organized and working, and apply what we learn to communities that are not yet organized. But in all cases, the voices of the community members need to guide our involvement and to collaborate to interrupt violence and improve public safety.
7) Given the influx of people and money Durham has seen in recent years, and recent plans for Google and Apple to open offices in the area, gentrification has become a major concern in East Durham but also in other neighborhoods close to downtown. In what ways can or should the city intervene?
The city needs to act in multiple ways. First we need to find more ways to hold developers accountable for creating good, affordable housing. The city can make greater use of its zoning power and density requirements. And the mayor has a bully pulpit as pressure. The city also needs to actively support tenant organization in efforts to keep rents affordable, and to have repairs done in a timely manner–and not as a prelude to pushing tenants out. The City can start by establishing a public “start a co-op” educational program for tenants. Convene and support a collective of lawyers dedicating time to providing guidance to these developing co-ops. The city needs to expand current efforts to keep property taxes from getting further out of hand, as well as to support neighborhood based plans, such as those proposed by the Walltown Community Association. Finally, for the longer run, the city needs to actively support moves away from the private real estate market by providing greater support for land trusts, forms of cooperative housing, Use municipal funds, the Durham Affordable Housing Loan Fund to buy out buildings for transfer to land trusts and nonprofit tenant co-ops in 99-year leases. We can’t afford to build new apartment complexes on public dollars, but preserving affordability by paying fair market value for multifamily buildings is much more possible. And retaining public ownership can allow units to be rent-controlled while a long-term lease arrangement can keep buildings operated and managed cooperatively. Dedicate City staff and collaborating partners to review the operations of co-ops annually and support their challenges and growth, as well as ensure their rents are kept low (especially when property is still publicly-owned). Guarantee a proportion of each one that is for voucher holders. We can start to reverse the trend toward increasingly commodified housing that damages families and neighborhoods and invest our public resources in deepening community integrity, autonomy and racial equity.
8) How should the city address housing for people who currently make less than the $15/hour minimum wage? How can the city ensure more people make the current living wage?
We need to deepen our investments in and deploy local finance tools such as the Durham Affordable Housing Loan Fund to ensure private developers build as many units as possible affordable for families making less than 30% of the Durham-Chapel Hill Area Median Income (AMI). Current HUD rules set Durham’s AMI as that of Durham and Orange County combined. This means the AMI right now in 2021 is more than $86,000, more than 50% higher than Durham County’s median household income. If we build “affordable” homes at 60% or 80% of AMI we are building middle class homes. This will require coordinating a new vision with the City’s Real Estate division of General Services and a deep commitment to supporting nascent tenant organizations with public investments and staff.
We can ensure that more residents can earn a liveable wage by continuing to partner with organizations like Made in Durham, Student U, and Durham Tech training programs to connect with local corporations in our city. BULLS-Building Up Local Life Sciences is one such program. This program is being developed to guarantee a job interview at the end of training at Durham Tech. I will advocate for expansion of such programs and further innovation connecting youth and mid-life career residents to well-paid work. It’s time to develop local talent and keep our workers in Durham.
9) What are the city’s most pressing transit needs? How should the city expand bus services to reach more riders?
We want equitable outcomes for all Durhamites, but Durham’s inequitable transportation system further exacerbates disparities experienced by our low-income residents, who are often Black and brown. Additionally, low-wealth and Black and brown community members’ needs and solutions often are not included in transit planning and decision making, and too often transit plans do not address the urgent needs of our Legacy communities. Transportation, like all of the issues presented in this questionnaire, is interconnected with other systems and must be addressed using that perspective. I use racial equity as the driver for my understanding and policy framing, and approaches like the Greenlining Institute’s Mobility Equity Framework offer some guidance on bringing the decision-making power into the hands of the directly-impacted community. It is critical to prioritize and allocate funds to ensure safe streets, sidewalks, bus stops, and bus shelters in minority neighborhoods, including our immigrant communities. I am passionate about jobs, and transit directly correlates to this. We need a mayor who understands the importance of increasing the number of jobs accessible within a certain distance for our marginalized community members (including those with disabilities, low-wealth people, and Black and brown people), and affordable, sustainable transportation is key.
Transportation not only serves as a connector to communities and jobs but also to polling places. At a time when the voting rights of Black Americans are directly under attack, Durham must be at the forefront of ensuring all residents have equal access to the polls. Further, as we think about the future of Durham’s transit improvements, it concerns me that out of the 945 bus stops in Durham, more than 800 of those stops are not ADA compliant. This impacts all of us– we need to be prioritizing this. Being ADA compliant is a low bar to meet, and we have so many who would benefit– folks with disabilities, the elderly, people with children, and more. Our transit taxes fund this and should be serving all.
10) How should the council improve transit infrastructure for cyclists, who aren’t protected from traffic by physical barriers and don’t always have options for coordinated bike lanes?
Durham’s streets should be safe for everyone on them, regardless if they are driving, walking, cycling, or using public transit. I share the concerns of cyclists who worry about their safety. I am alarmed by the 2019 Durham City-County Resident Satisfaction Survey results that ranked Durham’s bicycle facilities a 38/100. It’s clear we need transformative change on land use and transportation.
Execution of services is key in improving transit infrastructure for cyclists. For starters, the city can make sure that street sweepers clean the edges of the streets. We also need to invest in equitable access to safer infrastructure; for starters, what would it look like if our bike lanes were, actually, physically protected from vehicular traffic? It is devastating that so many cyclists and pedestrians have died in Durham in recent years in crashes, and, noting that over half the deaths were people of color, the racialized outcomes are clear.
Truthfully, in upholding our status quo we are perpetuating a racist and environmentally insensitive system. I absolutely think we can and should champion land use policies that support non-automotive transportation; we have to disrupt this unsustainable and inequitable transportation system and land use being designed around the use of private cars. This results in lack of adequate access to jobs, health care, food, and services for too many of our residents. Our transportation-dependent residents–and those whose homes and neighborhoods are impacted– need to be involved in this decision-making, including efforts like ENGAGEDurham. We have to ensure as we protect cyclists we do not overreach; we want to ensure we have equitable engagement so that solutions do not create harm for others. Overall, transportation equity is a key ingredient in pursuing racial and economic justice.
11) How do you think the city’s policy of Expanding Housing Choices will work to increase density in Durham’s urban core? Will the policy work to create more mixed-income communities? Should it work this way? What more could be done to add density or relieve pressures on home values?
It’s hard to predict the future, and the progress of this initiative should definitely be monitored. EHC has some decent ideas, but I think it will have only a small effect given the scale of the problem. Density is not the end goal but inclusive density is. Unaffordable density is not desirable and affordability should be more important whatever the form it takes. If the City sees it that way, developers have to participate by including our goals to get what they want too. EHC may yield more density, sure, but doesn’t offer any guarantee of residential stability or expansion of housing affordability; it only addresses form and design. By including the goals of those most impacted, we’ll create affordable housing plans that people will want to take part in.
12) New census data shows that 19 percent of Durham’s Black residents live under the poverty line, while about 7 percent of whites and a third of Hispanic residents do. A 2020 Racial Equity Task Force report found growing wealth disparities between Black and white residents that were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. How (if it all) do you think the city should use the report’s findings to make the city a more equitable one for all residents?
I recognize a need for the city to proactively address the city’s growing racial wealth gap. To this end, we recommend that the city engage with local partners to create a Racial Equity Fund. This Racial Equity Fund must be sustainable and of such a scale as to enable the creation of wealth in communities of color over time in the broadest possible way. The fund would serve as the centerpiece of a massive, interconnected, and ongoing racial equity effort that touches all aspects of Durham life, including education, housing, health, environment, and criminal legal.
I envision city and county leaders establishing a municipal jobs guarantee to end working poverty in Durham, much in line with the proposed Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act. Along with the jobs guarantee, the city/county must invest in apprenticeship programs aimed at creating pipelines for leadership and entrepreneurship in communities of color. This vision is rooted in our task force report recommendations.
13) The city council established a Durham Workers’ Rights Commission in 2019. What do you feel it has achieved so far? What should its role and focus be, and how should it achieve its goals? Has the city supported it adequately?
First, I’d like to recognize that all our laborers, including those working in low-wage jobs, are all valuable and deserve to work with dignity. Everyone deserves to earn a living wage, and Durham has seen powerful activism to disrupt poverty wages, which we know disproportionately impact our Black and Brown communities.
The creation of the Durham Workers’ Rights Commission is cutting-edge, and we are among the first in the state to have this effort to support workers’ rights, but we need to increase visibility and engagement so more Durhamites are aware and supported.
The Workers Bill of Rights created by the Durham Workers’ Rights Commission in 2020 is a powerful directive of what we should be supporting and affirming. But many people do not know this commission and its Bill of Rights exist. I would also want to ensure that we had the right people on the Commission–those closest to the pain, closest to the power.
If the City can improve its ability to see and hear those being impacted in the community, that would also improve the trust between the City and our community- trust that, we learned, is too often absent in these relationships. More outreach and town halls like the one the Commission hosted in April 2021 are needed. Removing barriers to participation in the work of the commission is key to having the right people at the table. Resources such as paid transportation; access to Zoom; disability accommodations; and stipends for child care and food would be incredibly beneficial. Finally, with regard to financial support, I envision a Commission able to pay for the research of the problem–speaking fees; paid community consulting; food for meetings, etc.
Too many Durhamites do not receive a living wage, and many others experience unsafe working conditions, whether it is due to COVID or discimination or environmental hazards. We heard from community members during our Racial Equity Task Force community engagement that there are a lot of people that have experienced discrimination in the workplace and frustration that they could not connect with city council to express their grievances. We have an opportunity to create a line of communication between our workers and city government dedicated to listening to community experiences–like a centralized escalated management team to address resident problems when they aren’t able to get issues resolved with the City through normal departmental channels. This could also identify trends in City processes that require change. Finally, it’s key to establish trust and invite ongoing conversation in order to build relationships between the City and our residents. This can help create a supportive ecosystem where people will want to approach government when they need assistance.
14) What is the city doing currently to ensure environmental sustainability in new construction? What more could it do?
The City needs to move in the direction envisioned by the Bull City Tenants Union’s Homes Guarantee document. New apartment community developments constructed in Durham County should meet ZERO Code standards. The ZERO Code standard is an energy standard specifically developed for new commercial, institutional, and mid-level to high rise apartment buildings which requires zero-carbon offset for construction and use of these buildings. It has to do both with the procurement of materials and lower carbon impact resources, as well as requirements around renewable energy for the continual use of the building, and energy and resource efficiency of the building.
“Incremental Goals” should be Required of Existing Multi-Family Properties. Examples include requiring solar hook up, infrastructure to implement solar but not yet requiring solar, and offering incentives for companies that choose to implement solar directly on buildings such as permit fast tract.
15) If there are other issues you would like to discuss, please do so here.
As Mayor, I will work to operationalize the path laid out by the Racial Equity Task Force report- a two-year project written and researched by a group of Durham residents. I will work in collaboration with the people of Durham to envision an equitable place to call home and build on the work I have built my life on.
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