Name as it appears on the ballot: Pierce Freelon
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: piercefreelon.com
Occupation & employer: Social Entrepreneur, Creative Director (Northstar Church of the Arts), Founder (Blackspace), Lecturer UNC Chapel Hill (AAADS and Music Departments) and North Carolina Central University (Political Science Department)
Years lived in North Carolina: 36 years (my whole life)
1) Identify the three most pressing issues facing the next General Assembly, and the steps you believe the state should take to address them.
First, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians lack access to the healthcare they desperately need. The General Assembly must take proactive steps to ensure that every person in NC has healthcare coverage. We can do this by expanding Medicaid and supporting efforts on the national level to provide a public healthcare option to every American. Medicaid expansion is widely popular, would create 37,200 jobs, and would provide coverage to over 600,000 North Carolinians. The state should listen to medical professionals and to North Carolinians, both urban and rural, who are suffering from closed hospitals and high premiums. The state should listen to our poor and working class folks who are one medical emergency away from being homeless. If we look at the results of Medicaid Expansion in other states, including states with Republican majorities such as Kentucky, we can see clearly that Medicaid expansion is the right choice for NC. The General Assembly must close the Medicaid Coverage Gap.
Second, access to the ballot and the power of representative democracy has been greatly eroded over the past 10 years in NC as blatant voter suppression and gerrymandering has disenfranchised NC voters. We must listen to Black communities which have been disenfranchised for centuries in North Carolina, who live in districts that have been cut to target Black voters with “surgical precision” and who desire equal protection at the polls. As we will be drawing new congressional and state legislative maps informed by the 2020 Census, it is imperative that we create a fair and transparent redistricting commission. The state should research models for fair districting to enhance trust in democracy and civic participation, and create a fair way to draw districts for the years to come.
Third, too many North Carolinians are struggling to make ends meet. Our teachers need raises–8.5% for our teachers over two years–and all public workers deserve the right to collectively bargain for a union contract. It’s also past time to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour across the state. There isn’t a single county in NC where $7.25 is enough to pay rent, let alone childcare, food, gas, and other necessities. The federal government has failed to raise the minimum wage for over 10 years, and it’s time for us to act.
There are a variety of other issues that are important, including marijuana decriminalization and renewable energy investments, but these three priorities are the most urgent. The state must summon the moral courage, common sense and political will to do what’s right. As Durham’s next state Senator I will listen, research and act on the following legislation:
★ S.B. 3 Close the Medicaid Coverage Gap
★ S.B. 291 Living Wage For NC Workers
★ S.B. 137 Economic Security Act (An Act to Provide for Automatic Adjustment of the State’s Minimum Wage Based on Increases in the Consumer Price Index)
★ S.B. 641 Fix Our Democracy (includes Modernizing the Voter Registration Process
by Establishing the Fair Elections Program)
★ S.B. 673 N.C. Citizens Redistricting Commission
★ S.B. 209 Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission
★ S.B. 692 2019 Senate Consensus Nonpartisan Map
2) If elected, what in your record as an elected official or private citizen demonstrates that you will be an effective advocate for your priorities?
My public service work demonstrates my skill at building lasting progressive change.
As Vice-Chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission (HRC), I was part of a successful effort to reform police practices in Durham, drastically reducing the number of discriminatory traffic stops and marijuana arrests in the city and securing a commitment from the Mayor of Durham to reject “militarization of our police force.” As chair of the HRC’s Public Housing Accountability Committee, I advocated for the Durham Housing Authority to enact a moratorium on evictions in December of 2019. DHA recently announced that they would not be filing evictions for “non-payment of rent for the month of January 2020 – at any of DHA’s properties” and that all residents of McDougald Terrace would also be exempt from paying rent during the month of February. As a candidate for Mayor, I worked with a coalition of concerned citizens pushing to reform the cash money bail system, lending my voice in support and endorsement of Satana Deberry who is delivering on those reforms as our DA.
As an artist, I have leveraged my role as Creative Director of Northstar Church of the Arts to hold space for the artists, activists and organizers who have radically changed the City of Durham, including the “Do It Like Durham” organizers who tore down Durham’s Confederate monument and the Durham Beyond Policing Coalition. I used my platform as MLK keynote speaker for Durham City and County employees in 2018 to call for charges against those who toppled “The Boys Who Wore Grey” statue to be dropped and for them to be honored. Also, I creatively partnered with city government, American Underground and our public schools to establish several arts programs: Poetic Justice (Durham Public Schools/Durham Crime Prevention Council), Next Level (UNC-Chapel Hill) for which I helped secure multi-million dollar funding for a cultural diplomacy program hosted by the U.S. Department of State, and Blackspace, a digital makerspace for Black youth in Durham, ending racial disparities and bridging the digital divide in tech.
As a private citizen, I was the youngest appointee to the North Carolina Arts Council Board of Directors– an honor bestowed by Governor Bev Perdue. There, I advocated for the state to invest millions of dollars in the Arts and distribute them to some of the most rural and underserved communities in North Carolina. For my interdisciplinary approaches, I have been a sought-after public speaker, for example at the American Constitution Society Southeast and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And I am always humbled to accept invitations to our schools (public, magnet/charter, and private alike) where I have met and workshopped with elementary students, climate change activists, and science and math scholars.
As a first-time candidate for the highly competitive mayoral election of 2017, I bested my friend Mayor Schewel in five precincts and brought thousands to the polls. Now I am privileged to have earned Mayor Schewel’s endorsement, as well as the endorsements of a wide cross-section of political influencers including Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, Mayor Bill Bell, Senator Mickey Michaux, City Councilperson Javiera Caballero, City Councilperson Charlie Reece, Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Equality NC and McDougald Terrace Resident Council President Ashley Canaday. As state senator, I will continue to build bridges across differences, drive civic engagement and fight for our needs (affordable housing and accessible, high quality healthcare among them).
3) The legislature and Governor Cooper were unable to reach an agreement on a budget last year, owing to disagreements over Medicaid expansion and the size of teacher raises. Whom would you say is more at fault for the stalemate: Republican leaders, the governor, or both? Why or why not?
Republicans leaders, in my opinion, are at fault for the budget stalemate. They undermined meaningful, good-faith negotiations when they surreptitiously called a vote on 9/11 last year, while their Democratic colleagues were absent. Instead of doing the hard work to engage in constructive dialogue and come to bi-partisan compromise the democratic process was manipulated because Republicans lacked votes to back their agenda. It is important to name this subterfuge as the source of our current stalemate. Governor Cooper was prepared to negotiate, but not on these unscrupulous terms.
Governor Cooper is committed to pursuing policies that help NC’s working families including raises for teachers and Medicaid expansion. Humanitarian policies should not be controversial, and yet Republicans have been willing to prevent the passage of a state budget in order to prevent the arrival of progressive policy.
School employees, among them the scores of teachers who marched in Raleigh May 2018, are also Medicaid Expansion advocates. Stakeholders who rallied around them, their students, and struggling families favored raising teachers’ salaries, bolstering schools’ wrap-around services, and expanding healthcare in NC. I know health and education are personally and collectively important to North Carolinians. I vow to protect them, and to the benefit of state-wide growth, future, and prosperity as Durham’s next State Senator.
4) Citing a growing economy and budget surpluses, Republicans have called for additional tax cuts. Democrats, including the governor, have argued that the state has other needs, particularly education. Do you believe the Republican tax cuts over the last decade have been effective in stimulating the state’s economy? If given the choice, are there any tax cuts you would rescind or any new taxes you would enact? If so, what would you put the additional revenue toward?
The tax cuts of the past decade have not been effective in stimulating the state’s economy; on the contrary, North Carolina has survived in spite of the staggering losses in potential revenue. As a direct result of these tax cuts, more wealth has been concentrated into fewer powerful hands and public services have suffered. Poor and working class North Carolinians are in a state of crisis. In the City of Durham we have million dollar condos erupting out of the concrete less than 5 minutes away from public housing communities where babies are dying and residents suffer from crumbling infrastructure and violent living conditions.
I would raise the tax rate on corporate profits, which was slashed by 2.5% in 2019. I would reinvest the revenue in education, infrastructure and the arts. It is important to grow the economy and maintain state budget surplus; however, it’s unsustainable in the long term to maintain corporate tax cuts and ignore our immediate and mounting need for public services and renewable energy investments.
I would also bring back the NC Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit because solar power is good for both our economy and environment. Solar power could save North Carolina households $500 in annual energy costs, improve air quality by reducing carbon emissions, and reduce rates of asthma and other environmental diseases. Health and increased productivity go hand in hand, and the savings on residential power bills would further stimulate the consumer economy. Finally, according to the Sierra Club, the solar industry would support more than 34,000 jobs in NC.
5) In January, a superior court judge ruled that the state was not living up to its constitutional obligation to give students a “sound, basic education.” The judge relied on a consultant’s report, which some Republicans have criticized, that called for additional per-pupil spending. Do you believe the General Assembly needs to spend more on K–12 education, even if that requires raising taxes? Broadly speaking, how much more do you think the state should spend?
Yes, we need to spend more on K-12 education and should raise taxes to do so. I support progressive taxation in which those who can most afford it shoulder the heaviest burden. In addition to raising corporate taxes, NC needs to make the individual income tax rate structure more progressive and reverse the tax cuts of the last 10 years. The rate of the top individual income earners should be raised significantly.
Per pupil spending accounts for salaries and classroom expenditures. The national average is about $12.5K. By contrast, NC is at about $8K. And, our class sizes are too big, teachers come out of pocket to stock their classrooms (and students’ basic needs) too often, and children who need medical attention, mental health specialists, social workers, and the care of other support staff go without. This was the case as recently as 2018, when 6% of Durham Public Schools’ $422M Budgeted Expenditures went to “Transfers to Charter Schools and Other Government Units.” According to Durham’s Community Early Education/Preschool Task Force, in 2019 we needed to spend $1500-2000 more per child to improve the quality and access of pre-K. Over 1,000 four-year olds did not have access last year. (That $25,654,908 earmark for charters would have gone a long way).
Republicans have proposed a 4% raise for teachers over the next two years. Cooper’s compromise suggests double that amount: about 8.5% over the next two years. I side with the governor and believe an 8.5% raise will send a powerful message to our educators that their commitment, expertise, and hard work is valued.
6) Do you believe that tax dollars should go to private schools? If so, under what circumstances? Do you support the expansion of charter schools? Why or why not?
Public dollars belong in public schools. In 2011, the 100-charter-school-cap in North Carolina was lifted, and this action has contributed to increased racial segregation and socio-economic disparity in our school systems. Over the past decade the NCGA has also expanded access to private school vouchers, sending public dollars directly to private institutions. Charter and private schools aren’t accountable to the same regulations as traditional public schools which makes them a problematic destination for our tax dollars. Furthermore, parents of public school students are rightly concerned about well-resourced private and charter schools gaining public funds while the schools their kids attend do not have foreign language teachers (Carrington Junior High School) or working photocopiers. (Notably, middle and high schools combined make up less than half of DPS (p. 388).) Such lived experiences exemplify an unlevel “playing field.” Public funds should be used to improve our public schools and make them work better for everyone. State funds should go to state projects. Taxpayers should not have to pay for others’ private projects.
7) Research suggests that schools in North Carolina are becoming more racially and economically segregated, which has significant adverse effects for low-income children and children of color. In addition, according to a 2018 report from the N.C. Justice Center, “In 72 percent of the counties with at least one charter school, charter schools increase the degree of racial segregation in the district.” What steps, if any, do you believe the General Assembly should take to address these issues?
The General Assembly should place a new cap on charter schools and conduct an impact study on how the influx of new charters over the past decade has affected the communities and the school systems in our state. Unregulated charter school expansion has the potential to deepen racial and socio-economic divides and rob the most vulnerable North Carolinians of their basic right to a quality education. The General Assembly should regulate charters to ensure diverse representation on governing boards and greater fiscal transparency. Some metrics of accessibility should be built into the rules of their licensure and operations.
I myself am an alum of Durham Public Schools but have intimate knowledge of the independent, magnet and charter school experience as a father, mentor and educator. Perhaps a way to meet in the middle–and hear all stakeholders–is to encourage charter schools such as Discovery, to leverage the public-private partnerships currently underway ($12M according to Toni Shellady, Principal, Discovery Charter School, Open House, August 22, 2019). As Karen Lewis–legendary president of the Chicago Teachers Union–concludes in Twenty-First-Century Jim Crow Schools: The Impact of Charters on Public Education, “The rationales for participation in the charter sector among leaders of independent charter schools had social and cultural significance for black and Latinx students in particular” (103). In the critical pedagogy of school choice origin, I hear the current (well-justified) demands of Black voters who’d like to see “a ‘both/and approach’ to educational options” and the rationale of Black parents who favored the NC Opportunity Scholarship. But we must make sure that growth does not undermine the resilience of our first priority: our currently underfunded public school system.
8) Gerrymandering has been the subject of debate and lawsuits in North Carolina for the last decade. Regardless of which party prevails in November, do you believe the state should establish an independent process for drawing legislative and congressional districts? If so, what would it look like?
Yes, we should establish an independent redistricting commission to ensure fair districts in NC now and in the future. Independent review of NC maps is necessary to correct the biased districts that have been created by the Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the NCGA. In the past, Democrats have also abused their power by engaging in partisan gerrymandering, and I believe we have now arrived at the point where we can all agree that neither party should not be allowed to in the future. North Carolina’s independent process should resemble that of Michigan: “The commission comprises 13 members, including four Democrats, four Republicans, and five unaffiliated voters or members of minor parties. In order for a map to be enacted, at least seven members must vote for it, including at least two Democrats, two Republicans, and two members not affiliated with either major party.” Among the unaffiliated voters are members of the general public–anyone–who can apply for this civic participation online. Durham/District 20 has had great success with civic participation such as Participatory Budgeting; I foresee we would easily rise to the challenge of facing down gerrymandering too.
9) That National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has been approved by 16 jurisdictions controlling 196 electoral votes for president; it will become effective should states with 74 additional popular votes approve it. North Carolina has 15. Last year, a bill was introduced in the state Senate to join the compact, but it has languished in committee. Do you believe North Carolina should join this effort, or do you believe the current system should remain in place?
I believe we should abolish the electoral college which a) is a vestige of slavocracy that stripped African-American political agency down to three-fifths of a (white, male) human and withheld our right to vote; and b) unfavorably awards some states power to influence election results early and more prominently than others. While the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact serves to check the influence/presence of “swing states,” its very necessity is premised in institutionalized racism. However, pending the abolition of the Electoral College, I would support NC’s entry into the Compact because it is far better than what we have now.
10) Do you think that transgender individuals should have their treatments for gender dysphoria covered under the state’s health care plan?
Absolutely. Duke University’s Student Pharmacy fills prescriptions for hormone therapy, but our state health plan does not provide comprehensive gender-confirming health care. None of us are free until all of us are free; discrimination against LGBTQ+ people destabilizes the health and survival of people in North Carolina and therefore the quality of life of our residents and the economic development of our state.
To quote radical black feminist, lesbian poet Staceyann Chin, I believe “all oppression is connected.” The intersection of racism, poverty, patriarchy, heteronormativity, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. creates a society in which those with resources and privilege benefit at the expense of others. Oppression is rooted in dehumanization. Folks outside the status quo are denied full human dignity and basic human rights. Treatment for gender dysphoria in our state’s healthcare plan is an important step towards attending to the dignity and health of our beloved trans community. I believe all humans have the right to live full lives unhindered by systems of structural repression.
Just as our oppression is connected, I also believe our liberation is connected. To quote visual artist and activist Lilla Watson, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I am a 36-year old cis-het African man whose ancestors were stolen away to the Americas centuries ago. I share solidarity and destiny with all oppressed people and will be an ally in our collective struggle for equity.
11) Later this year, provisions of HB 142, the replacement for HB 2, will expire, including sections that prohibit local governments from passing higher minimum wages and passing antidiscrimination ordinances. Do you think municipalities such as Charlotte and Raleigh should be permitted to raise the minimum wage or pass an antidiscrimination ordinance that includes protections for transgender people in public accommodations?
Yes. I believe in municipal autonomy for policy that promotes the common good including higher minimum wages, collective bargaining rights, minority contract quotas, and anti-discrimination ordinances. The state should set a floor, not a ceiling.
12) In 2018, voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring voter identification, and the General Assembly soon passed a law putting it into effect. That law has since been put on hold, at least for the primary, pending a lawsuit alleging discrimination. Do you believe in-person voter fraud is a serious threat, and the law is a reasonable way to address it? Do you believe the voter ID law should be repealed? Why or why not?
There is no evidence that in-person voter fraud is any threat to democracy, and I believe the voter ID law should be repealed. In-person voter fraud is not a systemic problem; voter repression of people of color and vulnerable or under-represented groups is the problem. Under-funding of paper ballot voting for counties whose voting machine security is compromised is the problem.
I also believe that formerly incarcerated persons should have their voting rights restored, and that persons charged for accidentally voting while on parole should have these records expunged. I would like to see automatic voter registration for all residents upon age 18, restoration of Sunday “Souls to the Polls” voting, and making Election Day a federally-recognized holiday. Everything that increases and encourages people to exercise their civil right to vote is patriotic, progressive, and necessary for democracy.
13) North Carolina’s coast has seen several major storms in recent years, and scientists say this trend is likely to continue as the effects of the climate crisis become more pronounced. What steps do you believe North Carolina should take to mitigate the damage these storms can cause?
I’m ready to put state-wide support behind our coastal mayors like Ben Cahoon who, with others along the OBX corridor, are concerned about coastal erosion due to climate change and threats of offshore drilling. His cohort should have full-state support before, during, and after their travels to Capitol Hill. When they are successful, the whole state benefits.
There are also direct ecological interventions that we can make. Coastal trees are central to mitigating storm damage in this area of the state as the root systems help maintain land, geological stability already at risk from overharvesting for the wood pellet industry and property development.
I hope to see encouraging trends continue. Activists in NC such as The Sierra Club are monitoring the wood pellet industry. University students are leveraging advanced technology and robotics to non-invasively study saltmarsh biodiversity. We even have the support of surfers from out of the state who’ve helped upcycle discarded Christmas trees into peet dunes. I am a private citizen who champions creative, political will; as senator, I will prioritize and fund it.
14) North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006, and challenges to the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty continue. Would you support the repeal of the death penalty in North Carolina? If not, do you believe the legislature should change the law to restart executions?
I support the repeal of the death penalty in North Carolina. I am unequivocally against the death penalty. There have been too many instances where folks who were on death row were exonerated because of DNA evidence. Death is not something you can come back from if the courts get it wrong– which happens all too often. Furthermore, there is evidence that shows the death sentence is pursued more often with Black folks than with white folks who have similar profiles and charges. If we know racial discrimination, implicit bias, and exonarations are commonplace in death row cases, how can we condone continuing to experiment with peoples lives knowing the unfair damage it’s wielded especially within the Black community? Furthermore, it’s not cost effective. Keeping someone on death row through decades of appeals is more expensive than imprisoning them for life. Capital punishment is simply discriminatory, racist, expensive, and wrong.
15) What other issues do you believe the General Assembly should focus on that have not been addressed in this questionnaire?
I support the passage of House Bill 99, known as the Anti-Discrimination Act of 2017 which would:
Prohibit law enforcement officers from racially profiling people;
Would require law enforcement agencies to collect homicide statistics, including data about people killed by their officers;
Would require officers to receive annual training concerning discriminatory profiling
Representative Rodney Moore filed a similar bill (H.B. 193) in 2015, but the bill never made it out of committee. The bill’s primary sponsors were Rodney Moore and Kelly Alexander Jr. of Charlotte (representing portions of Mecklenburg County) and Representatives Cecil Brockman of High Point and Amos Quick of Greensboro who first raised the bill of 2017 shortly after the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott whose family said he was shot while holding a book. This was only a few years after the killing of an unarmed Black man, Johnathan Ferrell, who was seeking help from the police following a car crash.
In Durham, discriminatory practices persist. My work as Vice Chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission has revealed the extent of the disparities in marijuana arrests and traffic stops.
Recent studies show, when it’s daytime and it’s easier for an officer to determine the race of a driver, the tendency to stop black drivers is significantly higher than when it’s night time and the officer’s vision (and consequently the race of the driver) is obscured. This quantitative data reveals systematic discrimination. It’s alarming and I will fight to make sure implicit and explicit biases are directly addressed through legislative action.
In Durham, African-Americans represent roughly 40% of the population, yet because of systemic racism, Blacks account for over 80% of marijuana arrests—even though marijuana usage is the same across the races. Why are we still arresting black youth (mostly Black boys), for a plant that is legal in a dozen other states? In 2019 there were laws proposed to criminalize legally smokable hemp because it is difficult for law enforcement to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana. This is a move in the wrong direction. Instead of criminalizing hemp, which will undoubtedly lead to the incarceration of more Black youth, we can address the same issue—and address the gross racial disparities in the Durham police department—by decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the criminal records of folks who have been criminalized by the plant.
I will also continue to support District Attorney Deberry’s efforts to move the DA’s office away from criminalizing poverty. This means expunging misdemeanors such as tickets, ending cash bail for non-violent crime, and bolstering diversion programs for youth.
Finally, I would bring to the General Assembly, District 20’s requests for parity, such as:
- ERA (S.B. 184 NC Adopt Equal Rights Amendment) Equal Pay with No Delay!
- North Carolina General Statute 95-98 (Bans public sector collective bargaining) Repeal!
- Durham-Orange Light Rail (S.B. 170 Remove Limits on Light Rail Funding)