Durham County

There’s an open Durham City Council seat. Here’s who wants it.

New Mayor Steve Schewel’s former at-large Durham City Council seat will be filled by one of several applicants. Council is expected to vote in its newest member in January.
New Mayor Steve Schewel’s former at-large Durham City Council seat will be filled by one of several applicants. Council is expected to vote in its newest member in January. bthomas@heraldsun.com

Twenty-three people have applied for the Durham City Council’s open seat, including former candidates, a former school board member, and several who say they will represent the Latino community.

The council will appoint a new member in January to serve the remaining two years on Mayor Steve Schewel’s former at-large council seat.

“This is a huge decision,” said City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who was elected to the Ward 2 seat in November. “We are approaching this with sobriety, and we’re taking it very seriously.”

Here are the applicants:

  • Sheila Arias Abonza, owner of Jas Cleaning Services and a campaign associate of MomsRising who moved here from Mexico as a child.
  • Nida Allam, third vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
  • Sammy Banawan, a psychologist who grew up in the Charlotte Muslim community and created a mental health app.
  • Solomon Burnette, a member of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Masjid Ar-Razaaq.
  • Javiera Caballero, a member of the Durham Open Spaces and Trails Commission.
  • Ricardo Correa, pastor of United Nations Worship Center/Centro de Alabanza Naciones Unidas and a member of the Durham Human Relations Commission.
  • Dwyian N. Davis, a Vietnam veteran who was an early participant in the desegregation of Durham Public Schools.
  • Fredrick A. Davis, pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church and a former Durham Public Schools school board member from 2006 to 2014.
  • Pierce Freelon, founder of Blackspace and a former mayoral candidate.
  • Andrew N. George, a graduate student at Duke University.
  • Tyrell Golden, who is disqualified for not being registered to vote, according to the city clerk’s office.
  • Kaaren Haldeman, a community organizer.
  • Shelia Ann Huggins, an attorney and former council candidate.
  • Michael Levine, a chemist who serves on his homeowners’ association board.
  • Humberto Mercado, an Easter Seals case manager.
  • Nicole Netzel, who works for Lutheran Services Carolinas’ refugees resettlement program.
  • Yesenia Polanco-Galdamez, an attorney who works with the Latino and immigrant communities.
  • Kyle Reece, who served on the BECOMING program youth advisory council.
  • Rebecca Reyes, a retired social worker who is on the Durham Recreation Advisory Commission.
  • Carl Rist, who works at Prosperity Now and has been active in the People’s Alliance.
  • Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano.
  • Ann-Drea Small, a fourth-generation Durhamite who is an IT consultant for UNICEF.
  • John Tarantino Jr., a frequent political candidate who sings satirical songs at government meetings during the public comment time.

Freelon, who lost in the primary, announced his interest the day after Schewel was elected. Freelon is the founder of Blackspace, a digital maker space in downtown Durham.

Shelia Ann Huggins, a former council candidate, is applying for the vacant Durham City Council at-large seat. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Huggins, who lost in the general election, is an attorney who also worked for the city for nine years in the General Services Department, Neighborhood Improvement Services and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Rocha-Goldberg is one of multiple applicants who say they would represent the Latino community. Durham’s population is 13.4 percent Hispanic/Latino, but there is not a Latino council member. El Centro Hispano is a nonprofit in Durham and Carrboro that serves the Hispanic/Latino community.

Rocha-Goldberg, 49, came to Durham in 2004 from Colombia to work at Duke University with the Latino community. She sees Durham’s major issues as balancing growth with community needs, affordable housing, transportation, the environment and how to make the city safer.

“We are lucky to be in a welcoming city for immigrants in general in Durham,” she said. “We acknowledge the immigrants are here. We have to give the community the right tools to integrate.”

“If we’re talking about adult Latinos, the language is still the main barrier. If you talk about youth, the majority speak English, so how can we help them with higher education? And of course immigration is a big issue,” Rocha-Goldberg said.

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, who has applied for the vacant Durham City Council at-large seat. submitted photo

Both Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson have encouraged Latino applicants for the open seat.

Caballero, 39, moved to Durham from Chicago in 2010.

“Right now there isn’t a perspective for the immigrant community and Latinx community, and I think there’s a gap,” she said. Issues include affordable housing, policing and fear in the immigrant community. Caballero is a project coordinator for Chicago-based Alma Advisory Group. She is also a mother of three and is in her second year as PTA president at Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary School. At the school, she has been active in outreach to Latinx families, she said.

“I’m an immigrant. I came when I was really little from Chile,” Caballero said. “To me, that’s something that’s near and dear to my heart.” She said the 2016 presidential election elevated the conversation about immigration.

Correa, 41, moved to the Triangle in 1997 from Puerto Rico, and to Durham in 2000. He said he was inspired to seek the at-large council seat after hearing Schewel encouraged Latinos to apply.

“I want to emphasize this: I will be a voice of the Latino community, but I am representing the entire community, anyone who is a resident of the city,” Correa said. “I hope they don’t feel pity because it’s a Latino but that we are actually qualified. Our job is for the entire community,” he said.

Polanco-Galdamez, 34, has lived in Durham since she was 10, when her family moved from Los Angeles.

“I think I’d be a really good representative of what Durham is and where we want it to go. I’ve been through public school in Durham. I’ve also become a working professional. I’m a small business owner – I own a law firm. I work hard and I’m active in the community – in the Latino community and issues around organizing for many years,” Polanco-Galdamez said.

Supporters of Rist, Freelon, Rocha-Goldberg and Allam have been emailing council members urging them to appoint their choice for the council seat.

Nida Allam, one of the applicants for the open Durham City Council at-large seat. submitted photo

Allam worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 as a political director and field director. Supporters have noted her political work, particularly connecting with Millennial voters. In her application, Allam wrote about becoming politically aware after the murder of her best friend, Yusor Abu-Salha, one of the three Muslim students killed in Chapel Hill in 2015. Allam co-founded the American Muslim Policy Advocates.

Rist, 55, has been president of the People’s Alliance, which has an influential political action committee, and chairs the PA’s economic inequality team. He said he has known Schewel for a long time and shares his values, especially regarding affordable housing and tax fairness. Prosperity Now is a research and policy think tank, and Rist works on strategies to help lower income households build wealth.

“I think I’ve got a lot of experience. The council is dynamic, younger, certainly a progressive group ... it’s fun and exciting work, and they’re an impressive bunch I’d love to work with,” Rist said.

Fredrick Davis, who served on the school board, said the idea that a council member would need to be Latino or African-American is divisive. It should be about choosing someone who makes appropriate decisions for the city, he said.

“I just want to be offered as a servant to the Durham community, versus these various political PACs and endorsements,” said Davis, 61, who is African-American. He said his experience in elected office, the community and on national boards gives him a better understanding of governance than others.

Applicants must be a city resident, up to date on city and county taxes, a registered voter and at least 21 years old. On Thursday, the council will narrow the applicant list to those who fit the criteria and then give them a longer application questionnaire to complete by Jan. 2.

Then the council will narrow that group down to three to seven candidates on Jan. 4, hold public interviews on Jan. 11, and then vote on the new member that same night or on Jan. 16 before its regular meeting. The new council member will be sworn in on Jan. 16. All the meetings are public.

The last time the council needed to fill a vacancy, it was the former seat of N.C. Sen. Mike Woodard, who was elected to the General Assembly in 2012. There were just five applicants, four of whom qualified. Don Moffitt was appointed to that seat and served until earlier this month.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan