There's a palpable sense among candidates that this fall's Durham municipal elections could be a pivotal point in the city's trajectory, though the underlying tension points remain much the same as they've been for years now: equity, affordable housing, managing growth, and giving a voice to the voiceless are common refrains.
At the top, an opportunity exists to change the fabric of Durham's leadership. The long-serving Mayor Bill Bell is not seeking another term after sixteen years. Another council veteran, Cora Cole-McFadden, who was first elected in 2001, is seeking reelection to her Ward 1 seat against three competitors.
Meanwhile, six people are vying for the Ward 2 seat Eddie Davis is giving up after four years, and Don Moffitt, who has represented Ward 3 since 2013, will face three opponents.
Steve Schewel, the council's longest-serving member after Cole-McFadden (and the founder of The Independent Weekly), will retain the at-large seat he has held since 2011 even if he's not successful in his bid for mayor. The remaining council members, Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece, were elected in 2015 and are serving four-year terms.
This means that, come December's swearing-in ceremonies, the body will have at least three members with two years or less of experience on the council, as well as a new mayor who could potentially be new to politics.
Indeed, only two of the seven people eying Bell's seat come with experience on the council: Schewel and Farad Ali, who served from 2007–11. In addition, there's Pierce Freelon, an activist, musician, and founder of Black Space, a digital media and entrepreneurship hub for black youth; Shea Ramirez, a tax preparer who runs a talent agency; Sylvester Williams, a pastor and financial analyst who ran against Bell in 2011 and 2013; retired Durham and New York City police officer Tracy Drinker; and retired cab driver and self-described investigator Michael Johnson.
There's no room here to dive into the platforms of all fourteen candidates for the three council seats on the ballot. (Visit indyweek.com for more details on the candidates' positions.) But far and away, affordable housing was the issue candidates brought up most in interviews with the INDY. More broadly, candidates have stressed equity, the need for all Durham residents to share in the city's bustling growth, avoid displacement, and have a seat at the table as decisions are made. Reducing crime, improving police-community relations, bolstering de-escalation training for law enforcement, and promoting job training and living wage jobs were also priorities.
A primary on October 10 will narrow down each race to two finalists before the November 7 general election.
Cole-McFadden had planned to run for Bell's seat, but she surprised her colleagues at an April 3 council meeting by announcing that she would instead seek another term as Ward 1's representative. She was the city's first black female department head (in equity assurance) and is a voice for minority- and women-run businesses and youth programs.
Joining her on the ballot are DeDreana Freeman, a planning commission member and president of Durham's InterNeighborhood Council, who says her priority is a more equitable Durham; Brian Callaway, the coordinator of energy and sustainability for Durham Public Schools, who favors energy initiatives to help residents stay in their homes and wants to see all county patrol duties transferred to the Durham Police Department; and John Tarantino, a perennial candidate for council known for serenading elected officials with satirical songs whose platform focuses on stopping the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project and improving local buses.
In this crowded field, pastor Mark-Anthony Middleton, a leader in Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN) and a police reform advocate, is likely the best-known candidate. Middleton says he would "instigate" debate about requiring officers to live in city limits, tying public safety expenditures to efforts that could reduce police interaction, creating job opportunities for teens at City Hall, and employing ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology.
Dolly Reaves is a mother of three who found a passion for politics after lifting herself and her family out of homelessness. She wants to bolster resources such as day care and affordable housing for those in similar positions. Robert Fluet, who works in client development, is running a self-funded campaign, stressing de-escalation training for Durham police and the creative use of tax breaks to develop affordable housing and generate living-wage jobs. An IT business analyst, DeAnna Hall is an avid cyclist who serves on the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
LeVon Barnes, a Durham Democratic Party precinct chair and PE teacher at The School for Creative Studies, would like to see the city partner with Triangle businesses to encourage investment in job training, living-wage jobs, and internships for Durham youth. Finally, John Rooks Jr. is a data engineer for the federal government and a new member of the Durham Human Relations Commission. He serves on the boards of Love Over Hate NC, which advocates for better police relations and safer communities, and R.E.A.L. Kids United, a mentorship program.
Incumbent Don Moffitt says he wants to continue working to leverage city-owned land for affordable housing, use tax relief and repair programs to help residents stay in homes with rising values, and seek more transparency in policing.
Challenger Lenny Kovalick is a pediatric nurse practitioner who is running a self-funded campaign focused on support for first responders and sensible growth. Vernetta Alston is an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and a queer woman of color who wants to see Durham set the bar for progressive cities by standing up for immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and overpoliced communities. Lastly, there's Shelia Ann Huggins, an attorney who worked for the city for nine years in general services, community engagement, and economic development. Her platform calls for community budgeting and what she calls "compassionate governance."