Candidates running for office in Durham were tasked Wednesday night with questions about participatory budget, living wage jobs, support for the formerly incarcerated, and cooperation between Durham police and the Israeli army. And those were just a few of the topics covered at the Durham People’s Candidate Forum.
The three-hour event includes candidates for mayor and city council. Five mayoral candidates participated – Farad Ali, Pierce Freelon, Shea Ramirez, Steve Schewel, and Sylvester Williams – as did Ward 1 candidates Brian Callaway, incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden, and DeDreana Freeman; Ward 2 candidates LeVon Barnes, DeAnna Hall, Dolly Reaves, John Rooks, and Mark-Anthony Middleton; and Ward 3 candidates Vernetta Alston, Shelia Ann Huggins, and incumbent Don Moffitt.
With Mayor Bill Bell not seeking another term, Durham voters will be elect a new mayor for the first time in sixteen years. They will also elect a new Ward 2 representative. The seat is currently held by Eddie Davis, who isn't seeking reelection. Cole-McFadden, the Ward 1 representative since 2001, and Moffitt, the Ward 3 representative since 2013, are up for reelection and face some strong challengers.
The forum was hosted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Durham for All, Raise Up for 15, the NC Black Women’s Roundtable and UE150. Much of the four-hundred capacity St. Joseph's AME Church was filled by attendees.
The occasion was Durham resident Corey Mejia Summers’ third forum this election season; she also participated in candidate interviews as CityWell United Methodist Church’s lead organizer for Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN).
Mejia Summers’ husband was deported to Honduras in December and she recently lost her job after getting injured at work. So she’s been attending forums to make sure someone asks candidates what they would do to protect vulnerable communities, including immigrants, the housing-insecure, the disabled and people of color.
“It’s really important that people don’t have to experience what we went through," she said.
This is the first year she’s gotten so involved in a local election. Mejia Summers said she’s been coming to forums partly for her own edification, but also to speak up for residents who can’t vote or face a language barrier.
“I just see local elections being important considering the state of our country and seeing people who are willing to stand up and say we’re not going to this just because you're the president is important ,” she said.
Before the forum, Mejia Summers said some candidates had been “wishy-washy” on these topics at previous events.
“There are people who are more intentional about being in community with those who are often overlooked,” she said. Candidates have stated their values, but have not shared many concrete plans, she said.
Candidates were similarly hard-pressed on Wednesday night to deliver much detail in the one minute they had to address each question. Some referred audience members to their campaign websites for more information. Many used their time declaring their values as opposed to detailing concrete solutions.
For moderator Laila Nur, with Durham for All, the night was a success because it brought out a diverse audience and drew in people not traditionally engaged in the political process.
"A lot of forums you see either it's primarily they're all black or primarily they're all white or progressive or Republican," she said. "As you can tell from the folks on stage and the response in the audience and just looking around this was such a range — racially, religiously, gender identity-wise, politics-wise."
The questions asked reflected that broad range. Organizers reached out to advocacy groups with ties to different communities in Durham, and audience members handed in questions.
"We’re not going to say we know what the right questions are for all these things. We want to tap into all the folks in our network who are experts in these things. That’s where the variety of questions came from," she said.
Freelon, Ali and Schewel have raised the most money in the mayor's race and are considered to be the most serious candidates for the job. On Wednesday', they provided the most specific answers to the eight questions posed to the mayoral candidates.
Generally, all the candidates were in agreement in their desire to see a more equal Durham. Where they differed was in the concrete solutions they offered to issues facing the city, like gentrification, income inequality, housing affordability and racial equity.
Freelon, to much applause, advocated suing the state over problematic preemption laws, like the compromise bill that replaced the anti-LGBT HB2 and "giving a police salary" to community members addressing crime in their own neighborhoods.
He also pitched a municipal jobs guarantee program, in which the city would either pay for or subsidize jobs in education, infrastructure, the arts, as well as elderly and childcare to reduce unemployment. (Freelon said he would be releasing more details on this plan and other policies in the next few days).
Ali emphasized the need for economic justice to accompany social justice. He suggested training workers for in-demand jobs in Durham, such as tech, construction and health care, and suggested housing goals incorporate how to help people get out of affordable housing, rather than just building more of it.
Schewel offered thorough answers replete with statistics on housing, drug charges, traffic stops, and incarceration. He advocated making Durham’s bus system free, redeveloping Durham Housing Authority units, building mixed-income housing, and guiding people returning to Durham from prison to entrepreneurship. (Disclosure, Schewel founded the INDY
and sold it in 2012).
Ramirez tied many of her responses back to the need to care about others, conveying more her personal stance and connections to issues than how to address them. “When we focus on people’s gifts it creates wealth," she said, drawing from her experiences owning a talent agency.
Williams suggested the city dip into its undesignated funds and “float a ten-year-bond” to address housing and poverty. He spent much of his time describing issues in the city and saying current leaders won't admit to them.
He drew some condemnation from the crowd and other candidates (namely Freelon and Ramirez) when he responded to a question about protecting LGBT residents by saying, in part: “I have talked to people who are lesbian, gay, transsexual whatever you want to call them and what I find, those people are hurting. Every single one I talked to told me he or she was abused as a child — every single one — and the same thing is happening in the African American community.”
"People are hurting because there's intolerance," Freelon said,
Another (less) awkward moment came when Ali was asked about statements by the Southern Environmental Law Center
alleging that the RDU Airport Authority board, which he chairs, had issued a request for proposal to lease land at the airport and rejected an offer to buy one of the parcels in an “unlawfully-held closed session meeting.” Ali said he couldn’t discuss some aspects of the issue because of attorney-client privileges, before giving a hard-to-follow response that didn’t really address the question, which was about how he would implement transparency if elected.
Council candidates often agreed with each other on stage and were generally supportive of investing in small businesses, the need for higher wages, and improving community-police relations. They were opposed to school resource officers interacting with students and police training with Israeli defense forces
Freeman made strong commitments to let residents’ input guide her decisions if elected, including ways spend $10 million during a ten-year period to address housing needs. “If it doesn’t come from the bottom up it isn’t something we should be doing,” she said.
Callaway pitched a plan to borrow against future revenue growth to address the city’s needs. He spoke strongly against over-policing and the presence of school resource officers. “Over-policing is happening because we are over-budgeting our police department,” he said.
Cole-McFadden, the incumbent, suggested a participatory budgeting pilot program in which youth could decide what to do with a portion of city funds. On a question about policing, she said “one thing we need to do is give our police chief a chance to change the culture of policing in Durham.”
Middleton and Rooks expanded most on common refrains about the need for policing reform, more community input and equity. On many questions, the Ward 2 candidates said they agreed with each other's statements.
Middleton described a “front-end initiative” that would tie the city’s public safety budget to measures that could reduce interaction with police. He said school resource officers should be stationed around schools, but should not interact with students. “The Police Department answers to civilians,” he said. “ … I want to order them what to do.”
Rooks pointed to a need for stronger relationships between police and the community, the kind his organization Love Over Hate NC seeks to foster. “I want to see more money put into mental health because these are the things that actually police officers are dealing with probably more on a daily basis,” he said.
Hall advocated setting aside city funds for a community project decided by residents and creating internship opportunities. Barnes stressed working with youth and broadening who has influence on city decisions. Reaves emphasized outreach to residents who are underrepresented or unable to attend city meetings.
Moffitt said the city should focus more of its development efforts on small and minority-owned businesses, rather than companies such as Amazon, which is looking for a new site. “That’s not what we need. If that were to come here it would bring a lot of high-paying jobs and further gentrification,”
Alston made strong statements about taking direction from residents and protecting marginalized groups. “We need to start from the framework that political power belongs to the people in this audience, not the people on this stage,” she said.
Huggins drew on her experiences working for the city for nine years, suggesting, for example that the public needs to be brought into the budgeting process much sooner to really have a say. On a question about school resource officers, she said issues in students' home lives, like food insecurity, should be addressed.