Dear INDY readers and voters, 

Welcome to our first slate of endorsements for the 2021 local election cycle. 

Early voting for Durham’s primary municipal election begins this week, and we want to bring you the resources you need to head to the polls well-informed. To make our endorsements in these races, we relied heavily on our own reporting from the past year. We also considered messages from Durham residents and community members, endorsements from local leaders and PACs, read candidate questionnaires submitted to us and other outlets, and decided, as a staff, who we truly believe will be the best representatives to lead the Bull City over the course of the next two- or four-year terms. 

First, a disclosure: we are not endorsing in the Ward III race. One of the candidates, AJ Williams, is the son of our staff writer Thomasi McDonald. (The Ward III race will not appear on primary ballots, either, as there are only two candidates in the race). But completed candidate questionnaires are available on our website for both AJ Williams and his opponent, Leonardo Williams. We’ve tried not to let AJ Williams’s candidacy influence our reporting in the three other primary races.

Finally, this year’s slate of candidates are of an extremely high caliber. Coming to our decisions was a difficult process, and we took great care to make what we believe are the best choices.  

All candidate questionnaires that were submitted are available on our website, and we’d urge you to read them in addition to these endorsements. We also have information online about early voting and voter registration. Durham’s  municipal primary Election Day is Tuesday, October 5. If you’re a Durham resident (or one of a handful living in Wake or Orange Counties who votes in the Durham municipal elections) please do your civic duty and cast your ballots in the primary, and then again in the general on Election Day on Tuesday, November 2. 

Your city needs your voice at the polls! 

Durham Mayor 

Elaine O’Neal 

Other candidates: Javiera Caballero, Rebecca Barnes, Charlitta Burruss, Sabrina “Bree” Davis, Jahnmaud Lane, Daryl Quick

The two frontrunners in the Durham mayor’s race—council member Javiera Caballero and retired judge Elaine O’Neal—are both exceptionally qualified, experienced, and pioneering public servants. 

Appointed as an at-large council member in 2018 and elected to the seat in 2019, Caballero is the first Latina to serve on Durham’s city council and a champion for the city’s growing immigrant and refugee populations. 

Not only has Caballero advocated for inclusion in city government processes, but she has achieved outcomes: she helped build a language-access program and pushed for funding for an immigrant and refugee coordinator; she helped establish an immigrant legal defense fund, and she organized community members and health care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Caballero is a solid supporter of city initiatives on affordable housing, sustainability, and community-centered policing. By all accounts, she’s an engaged, hard-working, kind, and dedicated leader. 

Elaine O’Neal has spent a 28-year-long career in the judiciary, including as the first woman elected to the county’s Superior Court. In addition to her work in the judicial system, the Durham native served as interim dean of N.C. Central University’s law school and chaired Durham’s 17-member Racial Equity Task Force, which submitted a comprehensive report last summer. 

As mayor, O’Neal will be well-positioned to implement the actionable recommendations as outlined in the report from the Racial Equity Task Force that she led. She might have to ruffle feathers to achieve measurable equity, but we think she will be bold enough to do so. 

That disruption will not be disruption for its own sake but in the service of the greater good—for O’Neal’s own stated goal of uniting Durham and its fragmented social and political factions, so that the Bull City can enjoy a future in which everyone thrives.

It’s our opinion that Durham needs both Caballero and O’Neal in leadership positions on the council. That scenario is within Durham voters’ grasp: with the election of O’Neal as mayor, Caballero will keep her seat on the council until 2023. If Caballero is elected mayor, her seat will, in all likelihood, be filled by appointment by the sitting council members. 

O’Neal is the most qualified candidate in the mayoral race. We believe she will be a transformative force for the Bull City.

Honorable mentions go to Charlitta Burruss, Sabrina “Bree” Davis, and Rebecca Barnes. We hope to bring you more coverage of these candidates in the next several weeks. 

City Council Ward I

 DeDreana Freeman (incumbent) 

Other candidates: Marion Johnson, Waldo Fenner

Marion Johnson has worked on LGBTQ+ health care policy at the national level and brought that advocacy to North Carolina in her work in opposition to Amendment One. As a budget and tax policy advocate at N.C. Justice Center, Johnson described her mission in that role as making sure North Carolina residents “feel engaged and empowered by our state’s budgeting process, and recognize their powers as constituents to hold their elected officials accountable to their values.” 

It follows, then, that as a Ward I candidate, Johnson has made inclusionary budgeting a centerpiece of her campaign. The rest of her platform is, accordingly, rigorously detailed: Johnson proposes advancing the city’s living wage policy from $15 an hour to a “thriving” wage policy of $25 an hour for municipal employees and contractors; connecting the city via sidewalks and bike lanes, and installing bus shelters; advocating for small area plans so residents have a say in development; and expanding city resources for residents facing eviction. 

A progressive candidate through and through, we have no doubt Johnson would make an excellent addition to Durham’s city leadership. 

But DeDreana Freeman has been a fine leader on the council and has done nothing—including voting against the 2019 affordable housing bond proposal and, initially, against a budget that she felt didn’t appropriately center equity initiatives—to warrant removal. Freeman has always insisted on equity as a core value and work to achieve greater equity in Durham has guided her actions and votes. 

Freeman is revered in the local community for her passion and dedication to service. Freeman deserves recognition for her efforts working with young people, including organizing summits on racism and childhood poverty; raising money for the Thriving Communities Fund to stabilize local businesses owned by women and people of color during the pandemic; implementing policies to address environmental justice; working closely with McDougald Terrace residents; and introducing the CROWN resolution to end discrimination on the basis of hair styles and textures. 

We applaud Freeman’s commitment to creating a more equitable Durham.The council shouldn’t be an echo chamber. Dissenting voices, in our view, create balance when big-picture goals align. 

We therefore endorse Freeman for another term.   

City Council Ward II

Mark-Anthony Middleton (incumbent) 

Other candidates: Sylvester Williams, Robert Curtis

Perennial candidate Sylvester Williams (he challenged mayor Steve Schewel for the seat in 2019) has some interesting ideas, especially around economic development. The pastor and former financial analyst suggests incentivizing corporations relocating to Durham to subsidize affordable housing, leveraging federal Opportunity Zones in the city, and using money from Durham’s “failed light rail project” to fund transit and infrastructure improvements.

Williams also wants a lot more police.

While Durham is experiencing significant public safety issues and a marked increase in gun violence, it’s not clear that adding more officers to the city’s police force will actually help the situation. It’s also not clear where Williams stands on the city’s newly created Community Safety Department, which we think is a good idea.

The good news is incumbent Mark-Anthony Middleton is one of the Community Safety Department’s biggest proponents, one of the first members of council to propose hiring, training, and deploying unarmed mental health professionals to respond to crises in Durham. 

Middleton has championed several other progressive ideas during his first term on council, too, including the Guaranteed Basic Income pilot program, which will begin paying out $500 to Durham’s residents most in need next month. And his ideas for the future, including his proposal for “a Marshall Plan type infusion of municipal funds into Durham’s historic legacy Black neighborhoods for the purpose of stabilization and preservation” are similarly exciting. 

Middleton is an effective, engaged, visionary candidate. We endorse him for another term representing Ward II. 

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