The Durham City Council interviewed five finalists for a vacant at-large seat Thursday night.
Each candidate was questioned for about forty-five minutes during the public meeting. The interviews gave the council an opportunity to see how the applicants perform in person, rather than in writing, and see how they interact with members who could be their colleagues as soon as next week.
The five finalists seeking the seat, which opened up when Steve Schewel was elected mayor, are Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, Kaaren Haldeman, Pierce Freelon, Javiera Caballero, and Sheila Arias.
Topics ranged from how candidates have handled embarrassing moments to their take on the diversity of the council. Jillian Johnson’s questions hinted at how the candidates would navigate the pressures and stresses of being on the council, while Vernetta Alston asked broadly about applicants’ ideas for addressing pressing issues. Charlie Reece teased out how the candidates would approach complicated, contentious zoning decisions, and DeDreana Freeman asked pointedly about bias and equity. Mark-Anthony Middleton’s questions were philosophical—whom will each applicant represent and with what approach to governance?—while Steve Schewel focused on what makes each candidate tick.
Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano, was first up. She spoke about El Centro’s work to create the Faith ID (an alternate ID for those without access to government-issued forms) and the organization’s outreach to LGBTQ Latinos. Asked about how she would address her own biases, Rocha-Goldberg said she would take her time with decisions and consult differing viewpoints. Her governing philosophy would focus on transparency and working for the common good.
Asked by Middleton why she thought no one from the Latino community had run for council, Rocha-Goldberg said, “You need to feel you have the chance to get it in some way,” and predicted there would be more Latinx candidates in two years. Middleton asked whether Rocha-Goldberg thought African Americans, who make up about 40 percent of Durham’s population, are over-represented on the council. She said no.
“Even though you come to represent a community like the Latino community, you’re representing the community in general. What you’re bringing is that perspective from that community,” she said. If appointed, Rocha-Goldberg said, “I believe we would reach more members of the community because we would be more culturally and linguistically appropriate.”
On public safety, Rocha-Goldberg said she would bring police and residents together in informal settings to get to know each other, improve cultural sensitivity in the police department, and coach residents on the law and their rights.
Haldeman spoke about her work as a longtime anti-gun violence advocate and first state director of Moms Demand Action, as well as her involvement with the Hispanic and African-American Heritage committees at Immaculata Catholic School.
Haldeman connected her anti-violence work to how she would address other issues facing the city, like housing and preemption.
Asked about implicit bias, Caballero said its part of her job to train people to leave bias out of hiring processes. She also spoke about colorism in the Latino community.
“I’m white. I don’t operate in the world as a woman of color,” she said.
On questions about city support for public schools, economic development, and homelessness prevention, Caballero responded that she needed to learn more about those topics. On affordable housing, she advocated for increasing the city’s “missing middle” housing stock (e.g., duplexes and multi-unit homes) and supporting local developers. Caballero said she would be willing to raise taxes for pre-K and light rail and advocated for mental health and de-escalation training for police.
Arias spoke frankly about her experience as an immigrant, a mother of a child with special needs, and a person who once relied on government programs. She has been in the shoes of the people she wants to represent, she said, and can draw on that to help them improve their lives. It’s something she does in her job as a parent advocate with the Department of Health and Human Services and as an advocate and outreach coordinator with MomsRising and its Spanish-language branch, MamásConPoder.