Someone has been stealing Aja Kelleher’s campaign signs.

During a six a.m. stakeout, one of her supporters caught the culprit on video, but police have yet to ID him—the grainy footage shows a white guy in his twenties or thirties, wearing a neon yellow vest and running fast enough that he could’ve been the star of his high school cross-country team.

In some small towns, that might’ve narrowed it down. But this is Carrboro.

Kelleher’s signs were stolen last November, too, during her first bid for Carrboro Town Council. She lost that race, receiving the fewest votes of the five candidates, but when former town council member Damon Seils was elected mayor of Carrboro that month, Kelleher decided to vie for his empty seat. She’s currently running against Eliazar Posada in the upcoming special election on May 17.

The reason for the sign stealer’s spite is up for speculation, but Kelleher, who works as a senior principal engineer at Fidelity Investments, emphasizes that she’s “considered an outsider” in this election—her campaign is largely self-funded, her public service experience is minimal, and she doesn’t have ties with the town’s mayor or existing council members.

“I think people look at me as if I’m some sort of rogue,” Kelleher says.

She’s also running as an independent—which, in a town as liberal as Carrboro, is turning some heads.

“I don’t agree with everything the Democrats endorse,” Kelleher says. “But I identify more with Democrats than I do with Republicans since Trump came into office.”

Kelleher comes from a conservative family. Her father is a Korean immigrant and her mother is from Alabama, and “Southerners and foreigners tend to be more conservative,” she says. She was born and raised in Chicago, where she met her husband, an Irish national who also works in big tech. A little over a decade ago, Kelleher and her husband moved to a subdivision in Carrboro to accept job offers in RTP; after relocating, Kelleher also spent seven years at the helm of two small businesses in Carr Mill Mall: The Bead Store (now known as Firefly Carrboro) and Artizan Gifts.

“There’s a lot of Koreans that are merchants here in the States,” Kelleher says. “It’s a very entrepreneurial, self-starter-type culture. That’s one thing that makes me different from a lot of councilors on the board, because they all work for universities and public entities.”

Kelleher was a registered Republican until July 2020. Some of her fiscal stances still swing conservative, she says—for example, she’s against the town’s 203 Project, a $30 million development that will house a new library, a performance space, and a virtual justice center, among other community-based facilities.

“It’s like, whoa, you’re turning all of downtown into a social agency,” Kelleher says. “Even on a liberal level, we have to have some retail.”

Building a library doesn’t increase the town’s revenue, but it does suck up taxpayer money, she says. (Critics have countered that libraries actually do bring in additional revenue, and that the 203 Project is not projected to increase tax rates.) Kelleher also takes issue with the project’s impact on available parking, and, generally, with the town’s negligence in implementing a parking plan. Last week, when the Carrboro Business Alliance raised the need for more parking at a town council meeting, council members disregarded the alliance’s concerns and changed the subject to bike racks, Kelleher says.

“I was like, for God’s sake, we’re not talking about bicycles. We’re talking about parking cars,” Kelleher says, adding that the town’s “anti-car” rhetoric is elitist. “Can we just not talk about bicycles for five minutes?”

Affordable housing is also a priority for Kelleher. She thinks the town should use existing buildings or develop complexes downtown instead of constructing high-density housing in single-family subdivisions. The latter approach will aggravate tensions between old and new residents, she says, pointing to one proposal to construct a complex in the Fairoaks neighborhood.

“There are neighbors and residents at odds over these parcels … neighbors being labeled as ‘NIMBYs’ and others shaming people on not wanting to create a dense housing complex as being ‘anti–affordable housing,’” Kelleher wrote in her INDY questionnaire.

Building affordable housing in subdivisions may also come with environmental problems, she adds, again using the Fairoaks proposal as an example.

“Is this land, with an 18-degree slope that flows down to a drainage pond below and houses at the bottom of its ravine, even appropriate for development?”

Carrboro’s “terrible track record for stormwater management” is what initially motivated Kelleher to run for town council. She used to be neighbors with a man named Tim Carless, who spent years begging the town to do something about stormwater flooding issues in his home. The town never did anything, Kelleher says—then, last June, Carless died of esophageal cancer. She felt compelled to step up.

“He was constantly getting sick from the floods,” Kelleher says. “I theorize if that hadn’t happened to my dear neighbor, his life might have been different. He might be alive right now.”

If Kelleher doesn’t win the upcoming election, she has pledged to never run for public office again. She’s tired of having her signs stolen, being labeled a NIMBY, and receiving hateful comments on Twitter. Recent Twitter attacks have focused on her tangential involvement in an alleged racial assault at Carrboro coffee shop Present Day on Main, where a woman carrying Kelleher’s campaign materials called 911 after the shop’s owners—one of whom is Black and queer—told her to leave the premises (the shop was closed for a private event).

Despite not knowing the woman, Kelleher released a public apology after the incident, calling it “white privileged behavior.”

Kelleher, who ​​contributed to the One Orange Countywide Racial Equity Plan, emphasizes that one of her goals is to give a voice to underrepresented groups in Carrboro—communities of color, for one, but also all those who don’t exclusively adhere to progressive ideals.

“Look, the town is like 90 percent liberal,” Kelleher says. “But the 10 percent that isn’t liberal just doesn’t say anything, because it’s too divisive.”

The winner of the upcoming election will serve on the council until December 2023, when Seils’s term was supposed to end. If Kelleher succeeds in her bid for Seils’s open seat, she says she doesn’t plan to run for reelection next year—but “you never know.”

                                                                                          * * * 

Eliazar Posada’s birthplace was determined by sugarcane season.

While he was in the womb, his mother worked as both a farmworker and an itinerant labor organizer, traveling around the country to liaise between farm owners and their employees.

Posada’s late October due date happened to coincide with the start of sugarcane harvesting season in South Florida, where his mother, a bilingual immigrant, was helping secure workers’ pay, housing, and transportation—and working alongside them to support her family.

“She taught us from a very young age that community work was the key of what we were going to do,” Posada says.

Several years later, Posada’s parents settled down in Texas so that their children could have a more permanent home base. Soon after, though, his parents divorced, and his mother found herself struggling to make ends meet.

Posada and his brother started waking up at four thirty a.m. every day to peel potatoes and crack eggs, which their mother cooked into burritos and tacos and sold to neighbors for breakfast. She went with them to school, where she worked in parent engagement; then, in the afternoon, she brought them along to her restaurant job, where they helped her clean.

“I learned very quickly what it means not only to have housing insecurity but also what it means to make a dollar,” Posada says.

When Posada’s mother remarried, the family moved to Knightdale, North Carolina.

After Posada graduated from Campbell University with a degree in political science, he dove headfirst into the world of community building, landing a job as community specialist at El Centro Hispano and quickly working his way up to be the nonprofit’s youngest president and CEO.

A year ago, he left El Centro to start his own consulting firm, Posada Strategies, where he works with grassroots and nonprofit organizations to strengthen their community outreach and advocacy efforts.

Now 29, Posada has held positions on nearly 20 different boards and commissions for local government and nonprofit organizations, and he’s ready to assume a role in elected office.

Affordable housing is a chief tenet of Posada’s platform—he’s currently a renter, and his family lost their home when he was a child, so the cause is close to his heart.

“We have single-family-use zoning that is preventing people from being able to afford not just living there but also building and expanding on our affordable housing stock,” Posada says. “We want to look at changing the zoning so that it includes more people, rather than excludes.”

He’s not pushing to build massive apartment complexes in the middle of old neighborhoods, he says, “but you know, maybe a house can be turned into a duplex or a triplex without changing the aesthetic of the neighborhood.”

Posada also prioritizes transit and infrastructure, though he wants to “move away from parking”; he’s most focused on increasing and improving bus routes, bike lanes, and walkways, specifically for communities that currently don’t have easy access to the downtown area.

Unlike Kelleher, Posada thinks the passage of the 203 Project is one of Carrboro’s greatest achievements of the past year, describing it as a “huge economic boost to Carrboro.” The project will attract new people to the area, which means more traffic for local businesses; it will also encourage new development that increases the town’s housing stock and retail space, he says.

The last major component of his platform is “equality for all.” As an openly gay Latino man who earns significantly less than the median income in Orange County, Posada says he’s intimately familiar with the pressing needs of marginalized communities and wants to ensure that their views are sufficiently represented in local leadership.

“When I’m talking about representation, I’m talking about bringing in those voices, those community members who have not had the opportunity to be heard, to have a seat at the table,” Posada says.

As part of his initiative for inclusivity, Posada intends to further the work he’s done with the Reimagining Community Safety Task Force in building trust between residents and law enforcement and exploring options beyond traditional policing.

“While Carrboro is super welcoming, not everyone is 100 percent OK with changes that take power away from some of these systems of privilege,” Posada says. “It’s reflected in events like what happened at Present Day on Main. We can find better ways of addressing security.”

If he wins this race, Posada plans to run for reelection next December. In many ways, his life’s work has been leading up to this opportunity.

“I’ve always been into policy and systematic change, and I’ve learned how to do it from community building,” Posada says. “The next step for me is holding one of these seats of power and advocating from the inside rather than the outside.” 

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