The race for Raleigh mayor is on. Last week, Terrance Ruth, 37, a lecturer at N.C. State’s School of Social Work and executive director of the Justice Love Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for social justice causes, threw his hat into the race for Raleigh’s top elected office against Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. We spoke with Ruth about his reasons for running, his top priorities, and his vision for a more engaged Raleigh.
INDY: What specific policy disagreements do you have with current Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin that prompted you to run for the seat?
Terrance Ruth: My entry into this race is not about the current mayor, but because I have seen the slow dissolving of public trust in our city—from how the protest was handled, to how the Downtown South project was passed, to the removal of the CACs [Citizen Advisory Councils] with very little input from the community.
In order for us to be a healthy city and continue to be a healthy city, we have to be in touch and in proximity with, and to lean on, the people we are serving. That is most critical. All ideas sit on that public trust. All vision, all policy, all missions, all principles for the City must sit on the idea of sustaining and improving public trust. Without that foundation, it is really difficult to be successful.
You’ve laid out ways you feel the council could do better in addressing Downtown South, including providing transparency around how Opportunity Zone tax breaks could benefit nearby residents, helping to develop a community benefits agreement, and improving communication with stakeholders. Is there a scenario where you could support Downtown South?
Community engagement is something we accept in any other industry. So when we talk about human-centered design, and you see companies provide pre-products to the customer base to see if they would accept it or like it, we accept that practice. If you look at research, the best practice is a strong community engagement.
The Downtown South project is not something that is unattractive because it is the Downtown South project. What I heard in the community is, “Can we be a part of this? Can we come to agreements? Can we be included, not just in the final stages, but can we build something this size together?”
This is not a unique request. There are cities that are doing this well. Oakland’s Department of Transportation just created equity indicators, and those equity indicators drove how they planned, who they included, how they made decisions, the timetable, what was relevant and sufficient for the [city’s] needs. What I’m asking for is not even for innovation. There are best practices across the country.
Downtown South could have used an improved and strong community engagement from start to finish. That project is more of the icing on the cake than it is a project that stands alone. If you look through this first year, from protests [against the project] to the planning commission’s vote that stood in opposition to the council’s vote, to that continuous debate over what is replacing community engagement platforms, it is a culmination of disconnection between community and City leadership that would make it very hard to salvage any healthy communication.
Someone coming in with a fresh idea, a fresh way to engage community, starting with community and building trust—new leadership would have a better slate in terms of building public trust and community engagement and rebuilding that relationship between developers, investors, City leadership, businesses, and community. That is where my strengths lie. At the moment, I think it would be very difficult to walk down that road because of the social capital that has been lost throughout that year.
Over the years, council members have held differing views about the rate and scale at which Raleigh should grow. You’ve asked how we can rectify this council’s commitment to “unbridled growth” when downtown businesses are dissolving and families are living in motels. Where do you fall, ideologically, on the question of growing the city?
From my experience in engaging community, we have tough times ahead in terms of rebuilding our city and recovering from the damage of closed businesses, people out of work, people who are going to be evicted from their homes. There is something about growing as a united Raleigh.
When I sat in community meetings, I didn’t hear too much of a voice that says, “No, don’t build, don’t grow.” And for those who are building, I didn’t hear that “We don’t want to be inclusive and equitable.” I didn’t hear a purist at all on either side. What I heard in discussions [about Downtown South] was [a united] group [saying], “Let’s grow, but let’s grow with balance. Let’s grow where we have more opportunities to talk, not just with council members and the mayor, but also with each other.”
With that, there is accountability on both sides, so that we’re building with existing residents in mind and we’re growing with new residents in mind. And how do we grow and stay attractive? I heard a balanced conversation—not one side or the other, as it’s neatly placed in theoretical terms in articles. I heard a call for balance.
You’ve criticized the council for abolishing Citizen Advisory Councils [also known as CACs]. If elected, would you act to restore CACs, or are there better ways to engage residents?
The CACs, in my opinion, are symbolic of trust between the public and City leadership. I would center on what the best way is to re-establish public trust. I would do that with guiding principles: Any conversation around community engagement must have diversity, equity, and inclusion as its element. My plan is to walk in in the first 100 days with a strategy to engage the community deeply, to meet the stakeholders, and to design an approach that meets every resident—not just those who can attend a meeting at night, but also those who can only engage virtually, or those who may not be able to attend a meeting and may need to watch later.
My desire is to create a community engagement platform that takes the rich history of the CACs and also leans on the richness of the technology we have in the Triangle. The goal would be to establish equity, and the way I define that means that everyone would have what they need today, while considering how resources have been distributed in the past. And that is hard, as equity means providing what is truly needed for anyone in any situation to have access to options that allow them to live and move freely, and flourish.
For that to be accomplished, the City must know what that is for the community. We must maintain diversity. To do that, we need to have a large and representative population engage in our discussions and decisions.
So we need to ensure representation from a collection of people that represents our city—from race, to class, to religion, to abilities, to gender—to just make sure these are important and that we design community engagement with these in mind. The pillar that is most important—what will set the base of our conversation around the Downtown South project—is inclusion. It is one thing to say you are at the table. It’s another to say you actually have true decision-making power. People who make the organization more diverse should also be allowed to participate, to lead in the decision-making process. There is value in being informed by community itself.
How do you think the council will implement recommendations that come out of the ongoing community engagement study?
I am confident in the researcher. I have talked with Mickey Fearn—he is a solid thinker and innovator. This is not so much on him as it is on the leadership. When you talk about the City leadership, you also have to talk about the perception, or the public trust, that may exist to exercise this in a meaningful way. That is in question, and I think the community will provide the final answer to whether this will be successful or not.
What, if any, reforms should the City make to the police department and the way law enforcement is conducted in Raleigh?
We must first look at leadership in terms of how it is facilitating relationships with the police department itself and how it is leveraging that relationship to connect bridges between the police department and the community.
Again, this is not an area where we need innovation. There are cities and police departments that have best practices. I sat on a panel for compassionate policing, where there were police departments with amazing models that center community voice and community leaders. They hired community leaders, not in uniform, to inform the police as to what is going on in the community, and they also have compassionate police officers dressed in regular clothes who had offices embedded in the community.
We don’t have to be innovators in this conversation. We lean on existing strategies and see what would be best practice here in Raleigh. But that takes leadership— and a vision to create a strong relationship between community and policing. Raleigh has an opportunity. I can lead that conversation to create a strong relationship between the police department and the city. I’m not seeing a reluctant audience on either side.
How is the city doing on transit? If there’s room for improvement, what would you recommend?
There have been great strides in terms of the conversation around bike safety, bike transportation, walkways. We can also improve, number one, in how we are engaging those who do not have access to transportation. So where are our bus routes? Can we exist in a city that has no bus fees? There are already groups advocating for [the] removal of bus fees and reallocating the funds to support that idea.
It’s going back to those pillars of equity, diversity, and inclusion. When we are thinking about transportation and planning, do we have people who are impacted most in those meetings? Again, there are cities who are designing their decision-making, their planning, around the schedules of those most impacted and incorporating a larger group of people. There are ways we can improve in that area.
An $80 million affordable housing bond referendum passed in a landslide this fall, but most agree it will only scratch the surface in addressing affordable housing. What more can be done?
I’m organizing a group right now to look at what it means to address [those who make less than 30 percent of the area median income] with private investment, to see how we can make a difference in homelessness. COVID has left a number of people who will be impacted: Renters no longer being able to afford to rent, homeowners no longer being able to afford their homes, those who were in hotels that are now at capacity, and those who were already homeless. We are looking at a model of faith-based affordable housing. A national organization has been meeting with us to try to get private investors at the table. So we have private investors, donors, and religious leaders—a mixture of audiences.
We went that direction because we found a majority of the property owned in most cities is owned by religious institutions. There is an opportunity there to make an impact on affordable housing by partnering with religious institutions that already have property in prime locations, or buildings that could be repurposed. Also, these religious institutions are traditionally providing services to these same populations, so we are trying to have a meaningful conversation around affordable housing to really eradicate homelessness in Raleigh with dignity.
We are trying to figure out ways to supplement the $80 million. We know it will not be enough. Raleigh is a place people want to live, and it’s a wonderful place to live, but we know that is not the case for everyone. But the people who have homes, who are comfortable and are doing well—a lot of them care and would like to leverage their resources to help families in need.
A committee is currently studying proposed changes to the council, including longer term lengths, staggered elections, and making council positions full-time and paying accordingly. Would you support any of these changes?
There are pros and cons to each proposal. Obviously, the wonderful benefit of the existing model is that you are more accountable because you have to turn around and show the city you are working on its behalf in order to be elected again. The pros of longer terms is you get to work on systemic, long-term impact projects with the same team for a longer period of time. I would love to hear further discussions on where the committee is leaning in that conversation.
Are there policy decisions this council has made with which you agree?
Allowing ADUs [Accessory Dwelling Units] by right and starting the police advisory board with the individuals who were involved with organizing the protest this summer. I thought that was a good idea, so those are two areas.
Is there anything else you want Raleigh residents to know about your campaign for mayor?
I’m focused, number one, on just baseline strengthening our community engagement. It is not an easy project, but it is fundamental to launching anything else. My goals and vision start there.
After that, I want to make sure we are able to engage all of Raleigh around affordable housing. That will be a critical conversation, especially post-COVID.
The final thing is really beefing up our support for small businesses all across the city, but particularly downtown. I think we can do more in terms of an experience around shopping local in Raleigh that will drive shoppers back to downtown and back to our local shops. Small business is a reflection of our community. That is where we hire local residents, where people make their livings and invest in Raleigh. So we need a healthy small business community, and my energy will go into those three pockets.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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