Name as it appears on the ballot: John Owens

Full legal name, if different: John Richard Ream Owens

Date of birth: 11/29/1986

Campaign Web site:

Occupation & employer: Challenger for County Commissioner


Download John Owen’s Candidate Questionnaire PDF to read his answers to questionnaires from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the People’s Alliance as well.

1. Describe your past leadership roles, both in career and community. How will these experiences help you serve on the Board of Commissioners? Please be specific about how these roles correspond to a commissioner’s responsibilities.

Okay. Now that I’ve got the letter out of the way [editor’s note: see below and/or PDF], what’s next?

Oh, right, the “leadership” question. I’ve found this question is usually a proxy for the age question and/or the establishment test.

It’s also a false positive, a bad predictor. All five sitting commissioners are, by definition, our County leaders. They can all list long impressive sounding lists of their leadership roles and their experiences. In fact, by definition, our current five commissioners are the most experienced possible choices for commissioner.

(But we can all agree that we don’t want all five of them back next year, hence, false positive.)

And it’s worth noting that the emphasis placed on prior involvement government or community leadership is completely out of step with what voters care about. The top traits voters are looking for, in every poll, are creativity, honesty, integrity, and ideological similarity. Way down in the bottom 20-30 most important traits are “experienced” and “leadership,” (about as important as “attractive”).

( For the record: My leadership working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and managing other campaigns, has taught me how to motivate workers based on the incentive of doing good for the world, and not just good for themselves.

I’ve learned how to scaffold the leadership potential of my employees; in fact, several former employees and interns first started politics on one of my campaigns, and now work for Mayors, State Senators, and U.S. Senators.

I’ve learned how to build complicated and diverse partnerships between large communities with separate interests. That’s how you win campaignsthe Democratic Party is both diverse and fragmented. Putting those pieces together with community buy-in is what I’ve done politically, and it will help me serve a city like Durham.

There, I’ve answered the question. –J )

But really, you shouldn’t ask the leadership/experience question. None of the good answers will be especially credible. The only group of candidates who will give bad answers (and who wouldn’t disqualify themselves in some other way) are young leaders with less experience than I have. It’s another structural barrier to youth in politics, and we have enough of those as is.

If I sound a little disappointed, I apologize. But I am.

Honestly, I’m disappointed with this entire endorsement process. This entire questionnaire reeks of the small-bore minutia of a planning commission meeting, plus a popcorn assortment of the questions you ask when hiring junior-level management at a large corporation.

None of that is how you find a good commissioner.

While running for commissioner, I’ve realized how to spot the good ones and weed out the bad. It’s actually easy. You corner a candidate for 15 minutes, and make them tell you exactly what they want to dono platitudes, no generalities, no personal heliography. It becomes obvious 5 minutes in which ones have substance or spark. (*Note, this test doesn’t always work for incumbents. Some can talk for hours without saying anything).

If you can’t the test in person, you can do the same thing in just three written questions:

  • Write 3 pages about the biggest problem facing Durham.
  • Write 3 pages about what you propose to do to work on this problem, and your long-range plan to fix it.
  • Write 2 pages about who you are, and why you are a good leader to tackle this issue.

Any other issue-position questions (like 751 or the Amendment) can be rattled of in a page of yes/no or “1-to-5” answers. You’ll learn much more that way.

But with these 11 Indy questions, the only options for candidates are:

  • Fill them out completely and thoroughly, which should take at least 20-30 pages. The reporters who have to read it usually look down on this type of answer, and establishment political leaders find it impertinent and unserious.
  • Ignore them. One-sentence answers. I’ve noticed this answer-strategy is popular with most candidates when outside friendly territory.
  • Gloss over the questions with a paragraph each. This approach is far-and-away the most popular. The 1-or-2 paragraph answer tells the reader basically the same as the one-sentence version would have. The difference is that the extra stuff makes it look credible. No extra substance, but a bunch of extra fluff. Somehow this approach often garners endorsements (because endorsements have so little to do with actual questions or answers).

Anyway, I’ve already written 20 page questionnaires for the People’s Alliance and for the Durham Committee. I’m attaching those questionnaires to the end of this one. If you want nuance, look there. For most of the other 10 Indy questions, I’m going with the short-answer approach.

Early voting starts in 12 days. I’ve got volunteer calls to return, a major fundraiser host committee to coordinate, $2,000 to raise, and 4,000 pieces of lit to get into the mail… before Tuesday. Sadly, I have no more time for substance.

If there is a question I didn’t answer, seriously, give me a call. I’m always happy to talk to a reporter about something substantive.

2. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I am a Liberal, and a Progressive.

Liberal has been, since the time of Locke, a political philosophy anchored with the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. The Progressive movement is a much more recent social movement that unites disparate groups that would benefit from liberal changes, and unites them against powerful entrenched interests.

Both of these are essential parts of who I am, what I’ve done, and what I intend to do as a commissioner.

All these traits are practically stamped all over my platform, and the platforms of almost every candidate and nonprofit I’ve worked for in my life.

3. List the three most important issues facing Durham, in order of priority. If elected, how will you address these issues? Please be specific.


Education (as it relates to poverty)

Social Services & Human Welfare (especially as it relates to poverty)

Housing (as it relates to the arts, and to poverty, and quality of life)

Crime (as it relates to poverty)

Transit (poverty, economy, environmental impact)


4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected, that you know would cost you popularity points with voters.

Good ideas aren’t always popular. I have no problem bucking the trend. And with four years to explain myself to the voters, I have faith that Durham will come around if my principled stand was the right one.

For example, people love love love free parking. But offering free parking is incredibly expensive, economically inefficient, and hard on businesses. It usually kills foot traffic, and the asphalt is terrible for the environment. I will consistently push that we have only as much parking as market forces demand (in 95% of circumstances). This will push up the cost of parking, but be good for Durham in practically every way.

5. Please describe how you handled a difficult decision in your community leadership experience or career. What were the possible consequences of the decision you made? Looking back, please explain whether you are still comfortable with how you handled the situation, or how you would change your actions.

Deciding to step out of politics, in order to take care of my daughter, was very hard. In 2008, I was a top-flight campaign manager, with a national network, and eight years of experience. But politics is a fast moving world. If I hadn’t been drafted to run for Commissioner, I would be running a State Senate campaign now, instead of a major state-wide race.

No doubt in my mind; I made the right choice. My daughter is much more important than my career.

6. Last fall, voters approved new sales taxes to generate new revenue for the Durham Public Schools and for mass transit in the county. Did you vote for or against these measures? Please explain why.

I voted for both of them.

We needed both sets of revenue.

The County Commission immediately implemented the “schools tax,” because they had assumed it would pass. They had effectively borrowed against that assumption, and they needed to implement the tax in order to backfill the budget.

They have not yet implemented the transit tax (which passed by a much higher margin). The main goal of the tax is to implement a Triangle-wide rail line. But, in the meantime, we could be upgrading our existing transit system to be more in line with Orange and Wake.

It’s astonishing to me that we aren’t doing that yet, even thought the people want it, the County needs it, and the voters approved it.

7. The newly adopted Durham County Strategic Plan identifies the need in Durham County to expand residents’ access to technology. As a commissioner, how would you work toward this goal and how would you finance the efforts?

We’re living in a brave new world of technology, a world that is changing at an exponential rate. The amazing changes that have taken place in the last four years (the birth of both Twitter and the iPhone) will be dwarfed by the changes that take place in the next four.

For instance, it would be cheaper today to buy every person in Durham a Kindle, than to continue operating our public libraries.

That doesn’t mean we should get rid of libraries, but it does mean we should rethink how and why and where we invest these resources.

I think the Strategic plan is well intentioned. I think the broad idea of technology access is a good one. But I think it was written by people who know little about technology, or little about technology usage among lower-class Durham resident, or both. It’s also more than a little paternalistic.

Even among the subpopulations in Durham in the most extreme poverty, almost everyone has a cell phone, and through their cellphone almost everyone uses Twitter. If you walk into Durham Tech and look around at the computers, you see a hundred screens all on Face, Twitter, or YouTube. Again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But I think the fundamental assumptions of what “technology access” is, and why it’s important, are mistaken.

The real issue is technology integration. What can our citizens do with the technology they have? Not technology access for technology’s sake. What is the missing link that takes their existing capability and makes it into a better life?

For some this will be tutoring on how to use computers, connecting a fixed-income grandmother to her grandchildren in a different city. For some this will be fiber-optic networks, allowing a bedroom programmer to use cloud processing and use that to innovate. For some people it will be simple WiFi hotspots. For others, loaning them a Kindle really would be a good idea.

No more time for this question, but you get the gist.

8. What are the pros and cons of the county’s economic incentives program? How would you amend it? What oversight mechanisms are in place to ensure companies adhere to the policy? Are those oversight mechanisms sufficient?

Most economic incentives are a travesty. They’re extortion at worst, and a market distortion at best. They’re a race to the bottom, but they’re what we have to live with in the modern world.

As long as we’re distorting the market though, we should be getting a lot out of it. We should offer generous incentives, but they should come with riders attached. See my answer about Cengenta & anti-recidivism programs in the Durham Committee questionnaire.

If we require much more from the companies, the oversight scheme will need to be reworked. But, with more resources at each company, thorough oversight should be easier to accomplish, with no companies slipping through the cracks or shirking their compliance.

9. What incentives would be appropriate in persuading the commercial and industrial sectors to cut their greenhouse gas emissions? The residential sector? Durham County in 2007 adopted a Greenhouse Gas Emissions plan, but at what point will Durham need to take more aggressive steps in emissions reductions?

Let’s start with incentives we offer for people to increase their greenhouse emissions.

The 2007 plan, and the ’12 Comprehensive plan, call for reduced car usage.

But several of the largest capital projects the county completed since 2007 included massive parking decks, parking lots, and other parking subsidies.

One of the largest projects in our 2012 Capital Improvement Plan is another giant downtown parking deck.

Subsidized parking is an incentive to increase emissions. Obviously, subsidized mass transit would be an incentive to decrease emissions. But I covered that under the transit tax section.

But the biggest effect on our greenhouse gas emissions is our electricity consumption. To the extent we can, we should push Duke Energy to increase their electricity prices, at a tiered rate.

The electricity rates should rise to a point higher than almost anyone can afford, and then we should rebate most of that money right back to the residents as cash. This is an efficient way to change consumer behavior.

They can use the cash to pay for their electricity, or more likely, they will reduce consumption and keep the surplus.

Note: This plan would require unprecedented coordination with Duke Energy. It would probably never happen. But since we don’t control their rates, it’s the best proposal I can offer.

Finally, we should transition to a per-bag trash collection system. It’s astounding that in most of Durham, trash collection is every week but recycling every-other. We need to flip that dynamic. If recycling is free, and trash costs money, people will change habits quickly.

We already have some long-term waste management contracts. But as we adopt plans for 5 and 10 years down the line, a per-bag charge is a no-brainer policy we should be adopting.

10. Crime and safety is a large component of county government. What are your priorities for improvements in pre- and post-conviction services, such as prisoner re-entry programs and diversion programs for juveniles? How will you fund those priorities? How will you measure the success of those programs?

I cover this pretty extensively in the Durham Committee questionnaire.

The gun-crimes-bond plan is unconstitutional, and for good reason.

We should rethink how and where we house inmates.

We should learn from TROSA.

Juveniles in need of a diversion program are almost certainly past the point of no return. We need early-childhood ed.

11. Among the most controversial issues to test the commissioners in recent years is development. Please explain the philosophy that will guide your decisions on development while serving as a county commissioner, and also share your definition of smart growth.

Smart growth is whatever you want it to mean. That’s why we use the phrase so much. I’ve heard it used by the 751-Development’s top lawyer. Almost every candidate at the last Commissioner’s forum used it. It basically means “growth I am in favor of.”

That being said, the growth I am in favor of, is denser. It’s environmentally sustainable, and it’s mixed use whenever possible. It’s neighborhood-character focused, but it increasing housing units faster than the growth rate. I think that’s a smart philosophy. But in the past week I’ve decided to stop using the phrase smart growth. I’m pro growth. I’m anti-stupid growth. That should be enough to differentiate me.

An Open Letter to Durham.

Dear Durham,

I love you Durham. You are an amazing city, a wondrous county. You are the only place I have ever called home.

I love your downtown indie/folk/hipster/queer/grunge-scene. I love your hip-hop/jazz/blues/urban-renewal. I love your parks and forests and your rivers and lakes. I love you North and South. I cheer your Devils, Bulls, your Eagles. I love you Durham, your history and your future.

But Durham, I have bad news.

Of all big Southern cities, you are the youngest (avg. age ~31).

But your elected leaders are the oldest (avg. ~66).

In yours politics, Durham, the label “Outsider” is a death knell. It’s worse than when a Congressman is tagged as an “insider.”

Durham, you’ve stayed the same too long, politically. “Newcomer” has taken on a humorous Orwellian meaning. The only “newcomers” with you are decade-long veterans of city/county appointed-committees. Your change-agents, Durham, are upper-middle class, in their 50s, and on a first-name basis with everyone currently in office.

That’s what counts for a fresh face, in Bull City politics these days.

You have a decades-old system of nepotism and influence peddling, self-aggrandizement, and ossification. It hasn’t been malevolent, or caused by individual persons. But the system is still keeping you down.

Durham, did you know you don’t have any Latinos in government? 15% of your population, but no one in office.

And where are your Gays, your Lesbians in government, Durham?

Where is the representation for your LGBTQ?

75% of your people are under the age of 50 Durham, but none of your leaders.

Do you think any of them step foot in the Pinhook?

Have they heard Kooley High, or The Beast? Or even 9th Wonder?

Durham, why are you like this? How can you change?

The insiders all tell me that it’s your big PACs. “The Big 3,” they say, the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the African-Americans. Most people haven’t heard of these PACs. But in political circles their mythology is unavoidable.

[ Formally, they are the “Durham People’s Alliance,” “The Friends of Durham,” and “The Committee On The Affairs Of Black People.” ]

Everyone agrees that a candidate must have the anointment of one of these PACs for you to elect them, Durham. And therein lies the problem.

Depending on who tells the story, things will get better only when one of the three PACs overwhelms/defeats the others, or some sort of grand-bargain is struck between the Liberals and the African-Americans.

And once they win, your incumbents tend to stay in office for decades. Put all that together Durham, and it’s easy to see what went wrong. When a political culture doesn’t see enough change, the long running problems get ignored.

I love you Durham, but lovers tell each other the truth. And the truth is that you’ve got problems. You’ve got problems beyond your politics.

You know what I’m talking about. 60% of your high schools are effectively racially segregated. Your black/white achievement gap is 55% worse than the rest of NC. A quarter of your children live in poverty. Nearly a third of your households are at risk of homelessness, or live in homes that lack refrigerators, showers, or other basic requirements.

Durham, you have neighborhoods with intergenerational poverty, neighborhoods where no one can be expected to break free. Your poverty rate has gone down over time, but not the number of people in poverty. Your crime rate has gone down, but the number of crimes in poor neighborhoods hasn’t followed.

In short, Durham, you’re not spreading the prosperity around. And you’re not even dealing with it. In your State of the County Address, Durham, you spent 17 pages talking about your successes, and only a half page talking about your failures.

I’m telling you this because I love you. You have to change. Durham, you’re at the peak of a nice long high. You’re growing, but that growth is creating sprawl and congestion. You’re getting richer, but that wealth is making segregation permanent. Your arts scene is booming. But the cheap housing that fueled that boom is quickly getting too expensive for the artists.

It doesn’t heave to be this way. Durham, you are unique. You have the technological, educational, nonprofit, business, historic, activist, and cultural resources to transform yourself.

Your changes have to start with your political leaders. And right now, they’re not ready for change.

One of them told me, one of the sitting Commissioners: “you shouldn’t run. You need to wait your turn. There are lots of other people ahead of you in line, and they’ve been waiting a long time.”

Another one told me, straight out, that I would be a good commissioner. But, they wouldn’t support me because of Big-3-PAC dynamics. They couldn’t risk offending anyone. I should come back, they said, in 8 years, after spending a decade on some County appointed committee.

Durham, we can’t afford to wait in line. We don’t have eight years. We are at a crossroads in 2012. We can become the vision of Durham we aspire to be, or we can sink back into mediocrity.

Don’t worry Durham; I have good news.

Change is possible. The Big-3-PAC story is a lie. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s not the truth. Our polling says that on a tiny fraction of primary voters care about PAC endorsements. And it says that they overwhelmingly think it’s time for a change on our County Commission.

Durham, we have an election in which the County Commission will see it’s greatest change in decades. Will that be a radical change for the better? Or will it be a change that is more of the same?

Dear Durham, please choose wisely. Do your research. I know you will.

With much love,

-John Owens