Mark-Anthony Middleton | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County

Mark-Anthony Middleton

Durham City Council (Ward 2)

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Mark-Anthony Middleton
Website: middleton4durham.com
Occupation: Minister/CEO/Radio Talk Show Host
Phone Number: 919-597-8953
Email Address: middleton4durham@gmail.com
Years Lived in Durham: 23


1) Durham residents, from the new group Durham for All to the demonstrators who tore down the Confederate monument on Main Street, are calling for more power to be placed in the hands of the people. In what ways do you think Durham can improve public participation in local government? How would you make room for that in city government?

For years I’ve been a part of the leadership of our city’s largest, most diverse, non-partisan, non-endorsing, grassroots organization – Durham CAN. I can’t remember an issue or campaign that I was involved in that did not put us in the same room with several other citizen groups that were dialed in to the same issue.

Is it really surprising that this is a city in which sisters pull down confederate statues in broad daylight? The statue came down as a matter of activism, the reason why we knew THAT particular one needed to come down was a matter of education.

The first thing we can do as a city is to commit to closing the achievement gap in our schools for children of color and economic disadvantage. The only way the “experiment” of self-governance and shared common spaces can work is with an educated (not necessarily formally) and informed population. We need to know what to take down and what to leave up.

My Ready Durham jobs initiative includes a plank that calls for a fully functional computer lab at every public housing facility in our city to give all of our children access to the information that will shape them into citizens that know what needs to be deconstructed.

As a councilor, I would also be open to exploring the implementation of participatory budgeting.

Years ago, as a student activist on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University I found myself engaged in a perpetual debate on what to do about “student apathy”. It was the buzzword in the circle of us engaged folk. From low turnout at our voter registration rallies to the same handful of students taking over the Chancellor’s conference room during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle we ruminated on what was it that kept the masses away. This question reminds me of those heady days. Was/Is the issue apathy or access? Were my fellow aggies really disconnected or was the culture of our clique not very welcoming of newcomers particularly at the level of movement leadership?

With respect to improving “public participation in local government” I’d like to offer a brief homage to representative democracy in general, and to Durham’s civic culture in particular. Some would argue that one person, one vote is the ultimate power center in a democracy. How do you “improve” on franchise? I am of course aware of the context of voter suppression practices, creative district line drawing, and intimidation but did any of these factors contribute to Durham’s low voter turnout in our last municipal election? Is Durham’s problem apathy or access? On the other hand, I believe Durham has one of the most socially, and politically engaged body politic in our nation.


2) Because of state law, municipalities have a number of restrictions placed on them by the legislature: they can’t, for instance, be a sanctuary city, impose a city-wide minimum wage, enforce inclusionary zoning, or remove Confederate monuments. Under what circumstances should elected officials push back against the legislature?

The residents of Durham will and should expect councilors to unapologetically and rigorously present Durham as a city that will not countenance hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, worker exploitation, homophobia, transphobia, or any other practice that has the effect of minimizing, erasing, silencing, terrorizing, or exploiting any segment of our community. This must be as much a part of our brand as a completed gleaming One City Center will be.

Any circumstance that runs counter to our brand be it created by the state legislature or the federal government should meet with “push back” from our elected brand ambassadors. When push back cannot occur with the legal weight of an ordinance, then our elected officials should use the moral weight of their platform to assuage constituents, and to challenge offenders.

I will also engage my fellow councilors to find legally creative work-arounds to the dictates of the state legislature. The strategic use of tax incentives is one possible way to facilitate viable work-arounds.

And I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal to use a curtain to cover up confederate monuments that are still standing. I think they did that in Birmingham.

As a Durham City Councilor, I will view myself and each of my colleagues as a de facto brand ambassador for our city. This means that we should exploit every platform and opportunity we’re afforded to trumpet Durham as America’s premiere city to relocate, start a business, raise a family, get an education, work, play, and retire. We should also be prepared to use our mini bully pulpits to promulgate our brand as a city that is open and welcoming to all people. Our council manager form of government leaves the responsibility of what we do each day to the city manager, but the matter of who we are should be clearly defined by the people we elect to represent us.


3) Given the inflamed racial tensions after the recent events in Charlottesville, what steps should Durham take to position itself as a guardian of social justice? How would you characterize city leaders’ relationship with Durham’s communities of color, and what should be done to improve that relationship going forward?

The relationship of our city’s leaders with Durham’s communities of color is complicated.

One of the greatest honors of my life was to serve on the assessment team that examined the candidate pool that provided Durham with our new police chief. What I learned is that to improve that relationship we must be intentional about vesting power in individuals that are not only professionally competent but who also understand and embrace the totality of Bull City values and our brand.

Thanks to the persistent work of organizations like FADE and Southern Coalition for Social Justice our police department was identified, both scientifically and anecdotally, as having highly racialized outcomes in traffic stop data, vehicular searches, and minor drug offense arrests.

I believe the former chief’s response to community calls for reform, evidence notwithstanding, was often defensive and dismissive and thereby exacerbated relations with our city’s communities of color. In my capacity, as one of the leaders of Durham CAN, I had a well-documented, somewhat contentious public relationship with a former Durham police chief.

Durham can also elect councilors (guardians) with proven records that demonstrate a commitment to social justice.


4) Durham’s public housing stock is aging, and there is limited money to redevelop units. What are your ideas for keeping residents of public housing in quality, affordable homes?

There is, by definition, limited money to do anything. This is a matter of priorities and political will.

And when the phrase “affordable housing” is bandied about, what is actually often meant is workforce housing for teachers, police officers, firefighters, etc. In too many cases residents that live in low-income housing aren’t part of the equation or discussion. There are roughly 12,000 of our fellow Durhamites that live in low-income housing that is in need of massive renovations.

First, as a city councilor, I will under no circumstances support any plan that permanently relocates or displaces residents of public housing who desire to stay where they are. I believe that federal law would actually buttress this position.

Second, I would explore the feasibility of a phased renovation of our public housing complexes that does not require the wholesale relocation of residents while work is underway.

Third, I would explore the possibilities of transforming our low-income housing facilities into mixed income complexes with the non-negotiable guarantee that all low-income residents that wish to stay will be able to at pre-renovation costs to them.

Finally, I would be prepared to utilize our penny for housing funding source to subsidize temporary relocation of residents if required by ongoing renovation work.

At the moment, I lead an organization that has intimately involved itself in the lives of residents of the Oxford Manor housing complex and one of the issues that has occupied our attention is the condition of that community’s playground. I would be willing to raise taxes if that’s what it took to improve parks for low income residents.


5) While much of Durham has seen a renaissance during Mayor Bell’s tenure, the city’s poverty rate has also increased. What are your ideas for lowering Durham’s poverty rate, other than providing affordable housing? How can Durham’s renaissance be spread more equitably throughout the city?

If I serve as an elected official charged with actual governance, I know I will not have the luxury of lobbing platitudes about inclusion and fairness at our most vulnerable and economically challenged residents. One of the ways we can spread equity is to honestly address the issue of preparedness to participate in this renaissance.

My “Our Voice Our Durham” campaign platform (middleton4durham.com) contains two initiatives that I am very excited about proposing and getting to work on as a Durham city councilor.

1) The “Front-End” initiative is a proposal to establish a budgetary culture that links public safety (policing) funding levels to funding for things that lessen the likelihood of law enforcement contact such as education, job training and other goals.

2) The “Ready Durham” initiative is an attempt to ground the discussion of job creation and upward mobility in reality.

Durham’s tax base isn’t large enough to engage in wholesale wealth redistribution to eradicate poverty. Even if it were I’m not sure that the political will exists to do that even in a city as reputedly progressive as Durham. So, what’s left? My “Ready Durham” initiative proposes a partnership between the city, educational institutions, and exceptional corporate citizens to prepare our low-income, educationally challenged, and unemployed residents for participation in our renaissance above and beyond housekeeping, food service, and other low wage jobs.

Progressives in Durham must have a serious and unflinching conversation about what it looks like operationally and policy wise to “spread more equitably” the effects of a renaissance within the context of a culture that shows no signs of abandoning the tenets of capitalism, nor the dynamics of market forces anytime soon.


6) The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project has moved into the engineering phase, although the Trump administration seems reticent to fund it. What are your thoughts on light rail? If completed, do you believe the project will be worth the community’s investment? Why or why not?

I grew up on public transportation. My early life was shaped by the egalitarian nature of the buses and trains of the NYC public transportation system. An affordable, accessible, and wide reaching public transportation matrix is the nervous system of a thriving metropolis.

I believe Durham is a growing world-class city deserving of an integrated public transportation system. My support of rail-based transit is a matter of public record. I have been involved for several years through my work with Durham CAN in public advocacy for a system that serves the economically disadvantaged, provides employment opportunities to Durham residents, and has significant clusters of affordable housing within close proximity to proposed station sights.

The impact of the growth of our region absolutely requires our planning for a rail system now or we must radically rethink the expansion of our traditional surface transportation system. This could possibly involve dedicated HOV lanes for a significantly larger bus fleet and ride sharing in private vehicles.

As a councilor, I would be committed to exploring the feasibility of fleet modernization and route expansion with an eye towards diversifying the profile of ridership. This is consistent with my belief that current growth pattern forecasting necessitates a strategic plan for an integrated surface transportation network consisting of both rail and bus that is accessible and affordable for all citizens.


7) Given the current direction of Durham city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific changes will you advocate if elected?

Generally speaking I would say that things are on the right course with respect to Durham city government. Even with this assessment, there are some specific initiatives and policies that I have outlined in my Our Voice Our Durham platform (middleton4durham.com) that I intend on pursuing as a city councilor.

We’re a competently managed city in terms of service delivery and money in the bank. I have no major concerns about our garbage being picked up, our potholes being repaired, and our water remaining safe.

This election, in my opinion, is not so much about service delivery as it is about the philosophical underpinnings of who we are becoming as a city. I believe that the city council must engage in rigorous and collegial debate about the issues of our city’s identity, and then set our collective trajectory accordingly.


8) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

Job Readiness:
My Our Voice Our Durham platform recognizes the incomplete and ultimately harmful conversation that often swirls around economic development. Many proponents will extol the virtues of job creation and hiring locally without a direct and honest treatment of the dynamic and evolving nature of the modern job market. In other words, many of our citizens simply are not prepared to assume the jobs of today’s economy. In light of this I have proposed a “Ready Durham” initiative that enters the city into long term partnerships with local universities, our community college, and exceptional corporate citizens to train and equip low-income and educationally challenged residents of Durham for the realities of today’s economy.

Police/Community Relations and Crime Reduction:
The belief that all citizens stand equal in the eyes of their government is the bedrock of our democracy. Perhaps the most immediate and dramatic representation of equal treatment comes in the manner in which agents of the state, namely the police, treat citizens. Durham has a wonderful group of men and women that wear our badge. However, we have empirically substantiated issues that have strained trust between police and the community.

If elected I will seek to require residency of DPD officers within city limits as a means to establishing a reservoir of relational capital with the community they serve. Additionally, I will seek to make non-enforcement related contacts with the public a part of the review process for promotion and advancement.

The stigma of crime on a city can have a chilling effect on continued growth and development. If elected I will seek to enact policies that combat the causes of crime (read about my Front-End initiative a middleton4durham.com), and also seek the purchase and deployment of acoustical based (Shot Spotter) gunshot detection technology around the city.


Neighborhood Stabilization:
Concerns about gentrification have dominated Durham’s public discussion. I recognize the outcomes attributed to gentrification as germane to the normal functioning of capitalistic markets. The way in which we respond to the outcomes, however, is a matter of political will.

There are homeowners in Durham who have been able to afford their mortgages, or in some cases paid them off, for years. Economic development has caused property taxes to rise to unaffordable rates for many of these homeowners. If elected I will ask my council colleagues to view the preservation of long standing homeowners with the same veneration that many view the facades of buildings that have captured their imagination. Accordingly, I will seek the adoption of a long-term strategy to stabilize qualifying homeowners citywide notwithstanding the level of property tax increases. It should be stated that work in this vein is already ongoing on the council.


9) What in your public or professional career shows your ability to be an effective member of the city council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to deal with them?

My long history of building relationships across racial, cultural, religious, and political lines has afforded me a deep reservoir of trust and goodwill that will greatly aid me in successful governance. In Durham’s council/manager form of government it takes agreement by 4 duly elected city councilors to get anything done. In this context, even the most passionate advocate for a cause would still need to convince 3 other people to acquiesce.

Additionally, my skills as a radio talk show host and public orator afford me the ability to convey ideas in a coherent and well-reasoned manner, which will be crucial in communicating with both government colleagues and constituents. I have had the honor of serving as a part of the leadership team of Durham CAN. In that capacity, along with my involvement with various other organizations and causes, I have been involved in public square discussions and policy formation in the following areas:

Police reform and improvement of police/community relations:
- Served on the city’s official assessment team that examined the candidate pool that provided Durham’s new police chief.
- Served on an official city delegation that traveled to Boston, MA to observe and report back on strategies used to improve police/community relations and lessen youth related crime.
- Served on the Durham County Sheriff’s Department official assessment team that vetted and hired the new Detention Center Director.
- Coordinated and led Durham CAN’s participation in a coalition that successfully led to the adoption of FADE (Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement) recommendations on changes in the city’s policing culture including written consent for non-reasonable cause searches.

Affordable Housing:
- Co-led negotiations between Durham CAN and the city which led to an agreement for an 80/20 split between market priced and affordable housing residential units at the city owned Jackson street location
- Co-led negotiations between Durham CAN and the city which led to a 4 million dollar plus commitment to reacquire the Fayette Place property from the Campus Apartments corporation.

The Immigrant Community
- Participated in negotiations with city leaders to recognize Faith IDs.
- Lobbied state legislature to issue and recognize provisional driver licenses.


10) Please give an example of an action by the city council in the past year that went wrong or should have been handled differently. Also, what was the city’s biggest accomplishment during that period?

I sat in the city council chamber and witnessed the vote to provide grants to residents of the Southside Rolling Hills development who were experiencing financial challenges due to increased property tax rates. It was a good faith effort on the part of the city to address the effects of gentrification actually fueled by municipal activity as opposed to a private developer. While I embraced and supported the spirit of the vote I believe that not extending the assistance to the residents of Northeast Central Durham as well was a mistake.

I believe the council’s approval of a 4 million dollar plus disbursement to regain control of the Fayette Place property, (formerly Fayetteville Street Projects”), was a major accomplishment. In the interest of full disclosure, I am particularly excited about this council accomplishment because I was blessed to work alongside community leaders like Bishop Clarence Laney, Reverend William Lucas, Rev. Pebbles Lindsay-Lucas, Rev. Dr. Jerome Washington, Rev. Dr. Herbert Davis, and scores of others to organize the campaign that ultimately led to the reacquisition of this historically rich property that bespeaks the greatness of the Hayti community.


11) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I am a scion of black liberation theology possessed of a hip hop hermeneutic seeking to reconcile my DuBoisian double consciousness and negotiate and redefine the chaos, absurdity, and violence of the American context through the use of the improvisational tools of the radically democratic jazz aesthetic. (I’m a progressive democrat). Let me anchor this by sharing which presidential, gubernatorial and US Senate candidates I voted for in recent elections. In 2012, I voted for Barack Obama for POTUS and Walter Dalton for NC Governor. In 2016, I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election for POTUS, and Roy Cooper for NC Governor. In 2014, I voted for Kay Hagan for the US Senate.


12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

Durham has one of the most vibrant civic cultures in the United States. Voter turnout rates do not adequately depict the level of engagement of our citizenry. Throughout the course of my participation in Durham’s public square I have consistently witnessed multiple citizen groups engage in the democratic process of petitioning and lobbying our local government concerning a host of issues. I believe that this culture should be bolstered by an additional tool to scrutinize those who seek to represent us in leadership positions.

Candidate forums are helpful but time constraints and large fields often prevent the probative and deep dive conversations that Durham voters deserve in making such a critical decision for the future of our city. Therefore, I am calling on all of my fellow candidates to join me in endorsing the proposition of post primary debates between the remaining 2 candidates in each race prior to the general election.

I believe that the municipal election debates should become a fixture in Durham’s political culture in perpetuity. Media outlets in partnership with PACS and local educational institutions should consider sponsoring, hosting, and moderating these debates. As a city councilor, I would be committed to working with community partners to explore the creation of a non-partisan, non-endorsing, Durham Municipal Debate Society similar to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

When I entered this race, I was fully prepared to have my record and ideas examined and challenged. I would expect no less if I become a city councilor. I committed to my fellow candidates to run a campaign based upon the issues and to never resort to negativity nor the politics of personal destruction. I still stand by that commitment.

One of the low points of this campaign has been the generation and circulation of a canard regarding an organization that strives to make this city a place of opportunity for all of our residents. It has been alleged that I, working on behalf of Durham CAN, invited members of law enforcement to the funeral services of Jesus Huerta against his family’s wishes. This is an outright falsehood.

Moreover, when the perpetrators of this lie were presented with the facts, rather than retract and apologize they decided to double down on this vicious smear. The most disturbing element of all of this is that a heartbreakingly catastrophic moment in a family’s life has been appropriated and exploited for political purposes.

I am voluntarily seeking this office and therefore am personally willing to endure the scrutiny that comes with such an endeavor. I will not, however, allow the reputation of an organization that loves Durham and has literally changed the course of policy direction in this city to be slandered for political purposes without response. Durham CAN is simply out of the league of the purveyors of such garbage. I call on all my fellow candidates to renounce and repudiate this deliberate peddling of lies, and pledge to keep Durham’s political culture worthy of our great city.

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