Robert T. Stephens | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County

Robert T. Stephens

Durham City Council

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Robert T. Stephens
Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website:www.wearedurham.us
Occupation & employer: Director of Alumni Teacher Leadership, Teach For America
Years lived in Durham: 1

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

a. We have seen unprecedented growth in the Durham community, which is great. However, that growth is not being shared by all the neighborhoods in Durham, and that is a problem I am focused on addressing. Additionally, we have a substantial amount of people speaking for those in poverty without communicating directly with our impoverished community. We need to bridge the gap between the haves and have not’s in our community, and then we will be on the right track. I think things are on a course, whether it is the right course or not depends on whom you are talking to. If you talking to the developers and those who make a substantial amount of money, the answer is yes. If you are talking to the large proportion of our population that makes less than $25k a year the answer is no. With that being said, I would not say we are on the right course. I am in favor of creating new and unique ways to garner public input. Let’s create a community liaison seat on city council. Let’s make sure all voices are truly represented in our city.

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

a. Affordable housing is a major issue in Durham. As stated earlier, a large portion of our community earns less than $25k a year. People are housing burdened. They are spending more than 70% of their salary on housing. We have to create sustainable and affordable housing for our citizens. To achieve this goal I would:
i. Continue to support the Durham Housing Authority in their efforts to redevelop the communities they manage.
ii. We have to transition to a more sustainable method of housing our homeless, such as rapid re-housing. It is more cost-efficient and it has proven to produce results when coupled with counseling and access to additional resources.
iii. Use the publicly owned land downtown for affordable housing. To be clear, I do not mean subsidizing the individuals who make $40k-50k a year, I mean the individuals who make very little and are struggling to survive in our city.
b. Crime is a major issue in our community. I believe crime is a byproduct of poverty and systemic issues that plaque our community. To address crime I would do the following:
i. Advocate and design a plan to provide citizens with access to good paying jobs.
ii. Work with the county commissioners to further help students access vocational skills that will allow them to graduate high school with a skill or trade that affords them a living wage.
iii. I would incentivize development in various neighborhoods of Durham instead of only downtown.
iv. Strengthen workforce development programs
v. Invest in recreational centers that could serve as a deterrent to kids being on the corner.
c. Address racial profiling and police brutality in Durham.
i. Mandate implicit bias tests for all law enforcement personnel and diversity, equity and inclusivity training. Also include training on appropriate interactions with LGBTQ, mentally instable, and differently abled people.
ii. End broken window policing in Durham
iii. Strengthen the Civilian Police Review Board by:
1. establishing multiple in-person and online ways to submit, view and discuss complaints
2. being immediately notified and required to send an investigator to the scene of a police shooting or in-custody death
3. Requiring a special/independent investigator for all officer involved deaths
4. Make disciplinary and policy recommendations to Mayor
5. issue public quarterly reports analyzing complaints, demographics of complainants, status and findings of investigations and actions taken as a result
iv. Community Representation
1. Increase the number of police officers who reflect the community they serve
2. Incentivize developers to build affordable housing for public servants so our police can live in our city.
3. Use community feedback to inform police department policies and procedures
a. Institute community surveys and release the data to the public.
v. Limit use of force
1. Establish standards and reporting of police use of deadly force
2. Demilitarize the police

3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

a. I have a proven ability to build relationships and manage toward desired outcomes. I have a Master of Public Policy degree which taught me the technical aspects of running a city. I have demonstrated a heart for service and consistently stood up for issues that affect the community. I am an effective advocate for affordable housing because I grew up in poverty and my family lived in affordable housing for 2 years. My mother makes $10.00 an hour and raised 3 kids on that. I am an effective advocate for addressing racial profiling and police brutality because I have been racially profiled and brutalized by the police. When Mike Brown’s death ripped our nation apart last year I travelled to Ferguson, MO several times. I was shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed and verbally assaulted by police. When Eric Garner was murdered in New York, I travelled to New York and organized. When Freddie Gray succumbed to his injuries, I travelled to Baltimore, raised funds, and fed over 750 organizers, homeless individuals, and citizens of Baltimore because it needed to be done! I am someone who backs up what he preaches with action. That is what we need on city council!

4) Please give one specific example of something you think City Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

a. I think the $11.25 million in incentives was done wrong. The way the city council handled FADE’s recommendation and the racial profiling of people of color by the police depart.

5) 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?

a. I identify myself as a progressive freedom fighter.

6) The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

a. My service in officer will show the people of Durham that you can set a goal, work hard, and achieve it. As a 29 year old, African-American man, I am a role-model for a lot of youth in the city. Young men consistently come up to me and express wonder that I am running. This happens because we have a system of gatekeepers in this city that thwart the ambitions of younger leaders. My election will show that you do not have to succumb to the will of others. You can chart your own path and that is what a just community looks like. I will fight for the disenfranchised. I will talk to the people who seemingly have no political power because they can’t donate hundreds and thousands of dollars. That is just! I will hold myself and the rest of city council accountable to all citizens of Durham, not just the ones who live in the high income places. I will work to make sure the Bull City Connector picks up NCCU, Durham Tech and all students, not just Duke University students. That is what a just community looks like. I will get in out in communities and talk about crime, systemic racism, oppression, homophobia, transphobia, and to me, that is what a just community looks like. We need someone who is not afraid to talk about these issues and bring our community together on the things we have in common while addressing and navigating our differences. I am committed to doing that!

Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Durham:

7) Do you believe that there is a disconnect between the citizens of Durham and the city’s police force? If so, how would you go about remedying that disconnect? On a similar note, to what degree would you say you that Chief Jose Lopez has your full faith and confidence?

a. There is a strong disconnect between the citizens of Durham and the city’s police force. To address the issues I would remedy the police and community relationship by follow the steps below:
i. Mandate implicit bias tests for all law enforcement personnel and diversity, equity and inclusivity training. Also include training on appropriate interactions with LGBTQ, mentally instable, and differently abled people.
ii. End broken window policing in Durham
iii. Strengthen the Civilian Police Review Board by:
1. establishing multiple in-person and online ways to submit, view and discuss complaints
2. being immediately notified and required to send an investigator to the scene of a police shooting or in-custody death
3. Requiring a special/independent investigator for all officer involved deaths
4. Make disciplinary and policy recommendations to Mayor
5. issue public quarterly reports analyzing complaints, demographics of complainants, status and findings of investigations and actions taken as a result
iv. Community Representation
1. Increase the number of police officers who reflect the community they serve
2. Incentivize developers to build affordable housing for public servants so our police can live in our city.
3. Use community feedback to inform police department policies and procedures
a. Institute community surveys and release the data to the public.
v. Limit use of force
1. Establish standards and reporting of police use of deadly force
2. Demilitarize the police
vi. I convened a press conference almost 1 month ago demanding the resignation of Chief Lopez.

8) A report by the U.S. Department of Justice early this year concluded that black males between 15 and 34 in Durham are six times more likely to die from homicide than all other Durham residents. What steps should local government and police take to address this problem? Does the city have its priorities in order when it comes to dealing with violent crime in low-income neighborhoods, at a time when there’s so much focus on downtown development?

a. I am an African-American male between the ages of 15-34. I think about that statistic every morning. In fact, I kiss my wife and my daughters before we depart because I do not know if I will return home alive at the end of the day. That is a horrible way to live, but it is our reality. To address this problem local government has to create hope in low-income neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have to experience some of the prosperity that is occurring downtown. Jobs, restaurants, and recreational centers have to appear in places other than downtown. Local government has to venture into these neighborhoods and talk to the citizens who live there. You cannot lead people you never see. Additionally, we have to get a handle on our population living in poverty. We know why urban youth across Durham and the nation as a whole are living in poverty. We know the systems and cycles that perpetuate poverty. The question is what are we going to do about it?
b. Police have a responsibility to protect our communities and it is a not an easy job. They have to build relationships with the community use those relationships to create change not fear.
c. No, this city does not have its priorities in order when it comes to dealing with low-income neighborhoods. When you cross over Roxboro and Mangum Street you enter into a part of the city that has one of the highest poverty rates. A couple of blocks away from that section of the city are high rises. Those are two different cities. The residents that live in the high rise very seldom come face to face with the harsh realities people face two blocks away. We have to level the playing field and give everyone a shot at a better future.

9) Do you think that support for saving the old Carpenter Chevrolet Building downtown justifies the anticipated $80.9 million cost to renovate it for a new police headquarters? Do you see any alternatives that could have been explored? And do you think the city has enough substations where they’re most needed?

a. No, support for saving the old Carpenter Chevrolet Building does not justify the anticipated $80.9 million cost to renovate it. I would have to spend more time looking at numbers and other revenue streams before I proposed alternatives. In my opinion, it is not if the city has enough substations, are we using the substations that we currently have? While canvassing and talking to citizens of Durham, a common refrain is how the substations are always locked and no one is there. It serves no purpose to have substations in communities and keep them locked.

10) There’s little doubt that Durham, as a whole, is prospering. But there’s also little doubt that this prosperity is distributed unevenly. What should Council be doing to address inequality?

a. I addressed this question throughout several questions above. I will summarize my answer here:
i. Incentivize development in low-income neighborhoods
ii. In-source more jobs to city employees since we pay city employees a livable wage and cannot control contractors
iii. Strengthen transportation to provide better access to jobs
iv. Help develop a more robust workforce development program
v. Partner with county commissioners to offer better vocational and skill training for high school students.

11) In that vein, what more should the city be doing to address the need for affordable housing?

a. I laid out my plan for addressing affordable housing above. Some steps include:
i. Using public land downtown to develop TRUE affordable housing
ii. Supporting Durham Housing Authority as it redevelops its housing communities.
iii. Continuing to fund rapid-rehousing
iv. Addressing slumlords who push out low-income renters by not properly maintaining dwellings.
v. Ensure resources are available to properly staff organizations and address backlog on housing vouchers.
vi. Communicate our plans to the citizens of Durham and have them weigh in on what is working.

12) As downtown grows, some degree of gentrification seems inevitable. What steps do you believe the city should be taking to revitalize neighborhoods without having them lose their character?

a. Residents and community members know when a neighborhood is at risk for gentrification. With that being said there are a few things you can do to combat gentrification and maintain character such as:
i. Reduce or freeze property taxes to protect longtime residents
ii. Create/increase funds to help senior citizens repair homes. This will decrease the amount of senior citizens moving due to high property taxes as a result of gentrification.
iii. Prohibit large scale luxury development in low-income high risk neighborhood.

13) What role should the city play in the development or redevelopment of commercial real estate? Do you believe the city should award incentives to private developers, and under what circumstances?

a. I believe the city should do what it takes to make sure our city grows and is sustainable for all. If that means awarding incentives, so be it. However, if we award incentives, they need to be in the best interest of the taxpayers and be cash positive from the onset.

14) The Bull City Connector recently underwent route changes. Do you think the results are fair and efficient? If not, how could the Connector’s routes be changed to best serve the needs of residents most likely to use it?

a. The Bull City Connector route changes are not fair at all. When we discuss equity and leveling the playing field we have to ask ourselves why the Bull City Connector doesn’t pick up students at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and Durham Technical Community College? Are we subconsciously saying we want it easier for one set of students to come downtown and not others? We have work to do!

15) Do you believe the downtown Loop is outdated? If so, what would you like to see done with it?

a. I do believe the loop is outdated. There is room for shops which could bring additional jobs to the area, however I would like to direct the funds used to update the loop to other more pressing needs like affordable housing and body cameras.

16) What are your initial thoughts on a proposed mixed-use development in North Durham, with a shopping center to be anchored by a Publix? Do you see, as some North Durham residents have expressed, opportunities to “fix” problems in the area of Guess and Latta roads with this development? (If so, what features would you like to see in the developer’s plan?) Or are you more inclined to side with residents who believe that such a development would change the character of the neighborhood in undesirable ways?

a. My initial thoughts are I need a more information to make an educated decision. I would commission a racial equity impact assessment to determine the impact of building on surrounding families.

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