Supporters of seven finalists for the vacant Durham City Council seat spoke on their behalf during a public input meeting Wednesday.
A public input meeting on who should fill the vacant Durham City Council seat saw two applicants withdraw their names from consideration in recognition of a tide toward appointing a Latinx council member.
The decision by Carl Rist and Shelia Ann Huggins to remove themselves from the running narrows down the field of candidates who will be interviewed by the council Thursday night to five.
"This will be a very difficult decision for this council," said Mayor Steve Schewel. "We will do our best."
The remaining applicants seeking the at-large seat that opened up when Schewel was elected mayor are Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, Javiera Caballero, Pierce Freelon, Kaaren Haldeman, and Sheila Arias. The seat carries a term expiring in 2019. (Applications and questionnaires from each applicant are posted on the city's website
During Wednesday's public input meeting, supporters spoke on behalf of each applicant, although the candidates themselves did not speak. At the top of the meeting, Schewel asked the speakers to "keep it positive" and speak only for and not against a candidate.
Friends and colleagues spoke of Arias's work with grassroots group MomsRising, advocating on behalf of children with special needs, like her daughter. Arias also owns a cleaning service and works as a parent leader at the state Department of Health and Human Services. She came to Durham at age twelve from Mexico, speaking little English, and knows first-hand what it's like to rely on and navigate government programs.
"She rises to every challenge," said Jessica Burroughs.
Caballero's supporters said while she has the trust of Durham's Latinx community, she would represent all residents. Caballero, backed by the powerful People’s Alliance PAC
, works for an education consulting firm and serves on the PTA for the Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School, where speakers said she has organized several events in support of undocumented students and students with undocumented relatives.
Rodrigo Dorfman said Caballero is not only qualified but would make the council more diverse and equitable, noting that she has the support of both the PA and Alerta Migratoria, a deportation defense group.
Freelon's supporters—who included a sixteen-year-old, two small business owners, an artist, and a founder of Durham's Partners Against Crime— also said he would represent all of Durham's residents. Freelon, a musician, professor, and entrepreneur, ran for mayor in 2016 but didn't get past the primary.
"Unlike most adults, he understands kids aren't the problem but the solution," said a Northern High School student who works with Freelon at Blackspace, the Afrofuturist youth center he founded.
Supporters made emotional pleas on behalf of Haldeman, an activist and community organizer who advocates for stronger gun policy and is active at Immaculata Catholic School. Haldeman was director of Moms Demand Action NC, which aims to reduce gun violence.
"She walked the walk with me. She knows how we feel," said Jocelyn Sims, who said Haldeman was by her side after her son's murder and has helped other victims of gun violence. Creedmoor mayor Darryl Moss also spoke on Haldeman's behalf, calling her "unafraid" and "motivated."
Rocha-Goldberg was touted for her work as president and CEO of El Centro Hispano. Supporters said she is a role model for young people, gives the immigrant community a sense of security, and inspires those around her. She can bring people together and turn passion into tangible results, said one El Centro colleague.
Steve Toler noted Rocha-Goldberg hasn't been endorsed by one of Durham's major PACs, which he said isn't a bad thing. (All but one of the current council members has been endorsed by People's Alliance).
"I think having diverse thought in our leadership is a good thing," he said.
Mayor Steve Schewel speaks to city council applicants after a public input meeting.
Matt Kopac spoke on Rist's behalf, first highlighting his accomplishments with the Durham Living Wage Project, the People's Alliance Economic Inequality Team, and Prosperity Now. He then read a statement from Rist rescinding his candidacy and throwing his support behind Caballero, the PA’s pick.
Rist said that as the son of an immigrant, he sees the value in giving that community a voice on the council and that Caballero is the best candidate to fill that role. The "winds of change" indicate Durham wants to appoint a Latinx council member, and he wants to be a part of that, he said.
Huggins, who worked for the city for nine years and ran for the Ward 3 seat in the 2017 municipal election, says unity was behind her decision to withdraw. One person, Huggins' sixteen-year-old daughter, spoke on her behalf.
"Tonight I stand here to remind you that sometimes service to others means that you stand for unity. It means you stand for inclusion. It means that you stand in support of other not just by your words but by your deeds," she said.
Huggins said comments made in support of appointing a Latinx applicant to the seat have been "misconstrued." On Tuesday, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, which endorsed Huggins in the Ward 3 race, sent a letter to Schewel
condemning reports that he had "expressed a preference for the appointment of a Hispanic or Latino applicant."
Schewel told the Herald-Sun
in November that "What I hope is we will get some Latino applicants, as we haven’t had a Latino office-holder. But I’m not promising I’ll vote for any particular person.” Other news reports
have said he "hoped" the seat could be filled by a Latino applicant.
Although about 13 percent of Durham's population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, neither the city council, Durham County Board of Commissioners, nor Durham Public Schools board has a Latinx member.
"Durham is a diverse community, in large part due to the historic and on-going commitment of organizations such as the Durham Committee," DCABP Political Committee chair Keith Bishop told the INDY
in an email. "We believe that maintaining the gains we have achieved over the years requires us to pursue policies that do not arbitrarily disregard qualified applicants simply because the preference is to elevate one racial or ethnic group over another. The preference should never have been expressed and this community would have been satisfied knowing that the choice of the City Council was based on policy and qualification rather than one’s Latino heritage. We should not be allocating Council Seats simply because a cultural group has achieved a 13% population count. That is a quota system, no matter how you label it."