The five finalists for the vacant Durham City Council seat were interviewed by five council members and the mayor on Thursday night, with questions revealing more about the candidates’ convictions and lives.
Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, Kaaren Haldeman, Pierce Freelon, Javiera Caballero and Sheila Arias each spent 45 minutes standing before the City Council members talking about themselves, the council’s priorities and what they would bring to the table.
Council member DeDreana Freeman asked the candidates about implicit bias and how they’d address their own biases in decision-making. From Caballero and Arias, it drew out comments on internal bias and bias within the Hispanic/Latino community.
“Oh my God, I love that question,” said Arias. “How do Mexicans look? Cause I don’t look Mexican. How am I supposed to look?” She said she has family members who are light skinned and dark skinned. “But I am a true Mexican, I was born in Mexico,” Arias said. Implicit bias is part of being human, she said, but you can learn and take time before making a statement.
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Caballero also talked about colorism in the Latino community. “I’m white,” she said. She moved here from Chile when her father was in graduate school. She said that the colorism shows up in people’s responses to immigration: “I got here this way, so I’m better than,” Caballero said.
While the City Council does not have any control over the Durham Public Schools budget – that’s the county’s jurisdiction – education came up multiple times in the candidates’ responses. All five are parents and mentioned their kids.
“As a parent I chose public school because it is an equalizer. Everyone can go to public school,” Caballero said. She is a former Montessori school teacher and is now PTA president of Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary School, a DPS school.
Haldeman talked about her volunteer work in her children’s schools, both public and private. She is involved in social justice issues at Immaculata Catholic School and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, where she is a parishioner.
Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson asked the candidates the kind of questions that brought out personal anecdotes, like a time they did something they were not proud of, and a time they achieved something but didn’t get credit for it.
Freelon said he has a more reckless parenting style than his wife, and told a story his daughter brings up as his most embarrassing moment. They were outside playing and pulling vines off a tree – vines that gave his daughter full body poison ivy that lasted for months.
Rocha-Goldberg talked about how she handled not getting credit for her work when she moved here from Colombia to work at Duke University. She was told by her boss that credit for her work as a nutritionist writing a paper would go primarily to a physician, not her, she said.
Council member Charlie Reece let candidates know ahead of time that he’d be asking them about something that comes before the council often: zoning.
Multiple candidates mentioned the North Durham rezoning for a Publix grocery store, which has been denied. They agreed with the council, but also acknowledged residents who wanted economic development in North Durham.
Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wanted to know about each candidate’s governing and leadership philosophy.
“I believe that activism is an essential part of governance ... actually walking the walk,” Haldeman said. “I see that in every council member’s work here.”
For Freelon, he said he believes in “the intersections of oppression and making sure marginalized voices have a seat at the table.”
For Arias, it’s about meeting people where they are. She said she wants everyone in Durham to have somewhere to live. “$750 a month is not affordable for a lot of our families, even $600,” Arias said.
Middleton also asked the candidates if and for what they’d raise taxes. Everyone said they would, tempering it with looking at the impact of the tax and what the tax would fund.
Freelon said the city spends too much money in its budget on policing, and that he would look at creative ways to address public safety and poverty with some of that budget.
Caballero said there are different levels of “community policing.” On the surface, to her it means de-escalation, bias training and mental health services. Caballero also said they need to look at policing in general and try to get to a place that we aren’t so policed.
Rocha-Goldberg was the first to bring up LGBT issues, citing the program at El Centro Hispano, where she is director, as something she is proud of.
Council member Vernetta Alston also asked some of the candidates about how they would work on LGBT issues.
Freelon said that Durham likes to think of itself as a progressive city, but there’s still a lot of work to be done so that LGBT youth feel welcome.
Carl Rist and Shelia Ann Huggins were among seven finalists picked by council at a previous special meeting, but Rist and Huggins dropped out Wednesday night. Rist threw his support behind Caballero, who was endorsed by the People’s Alliance political action committee. Rist said he bowed out because the People’s Alliance, his political home, wanted Caballero to be the council’s first Latina member.