The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People is calling on the City Council not to favor one racial or ethnic group over others when appointing a new council member.
The Durham Committee, a political action committee founded in 1935, is chaired by Omar Beasley. Keith Bishop is the political committee chair. Both signed a letter to Mayor Steve Schewel this week saying they are “very disappointed” that Schewel “has expressed a preference for the appointment of a Hispanic or Latino applicant to the city council.”
Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson have encouraged the Latino community to apply for the vacant seat. Durham has a Hispanic/Latino population of 13.4 percent but no Latino council member.
The Committee’s letter congratulated the council on age, gender and ethnic diversity of the seven finalists. It also said that expressing a preference for one racial or ethnic group over others is inappropriate and “quota-based.”
At a council meeting about the vacant seat in December, City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton raised the issue, too.
Middleton said he wanted to make a statement about protecting the integrity of the process. He said, particularly on social media, “there seems to be a perception among a number of our residents that we have made a determination already, and if not a particular person, on a particular ethnicity of a person.”
Of the 23 people who applied for the vacant seat who identified their race/ethnicity on their applications, seven identified as Hispanic/Latino, six as African-American, six as white, one as Asian, one as “other” and one as “multi.”
The council narrowed the field of applicants to seven candidates at a special meeting on Thursday. The seven finalists are Sheila Arias Abonza, Javiera Caballero, Pierce Freelon, Kaaren Haldeman, Shelia Ann Huggins, Pilar Rocha-Golberg and Carl Rist.
Huggins and Freelon are African-American. Arias Abonza, Caballero and Rocha-Golberg are Latina. Haldeman and Rist are white. The Durham Committee endorsed Huggins in her campaign for the Ward 3 City Council seat, which she lost in the general election to Vernetta Alston. The Committee also endorsed Middleton for the Ward 2 council seat, which he won.
Middleton, who is African-American, said at the December meeting that he didn’t want council members artificially weighting candidates based upon preferences.
Johnson, who is African-American, said she had read many job applications that encourage women and people of color to apply to add diversity to an applicant pool.
“I think we as elected officials just have to make sure the process doesn’t have the appearance of any type of undue placing the thumb on the scale ... This is Durham. You know, I’ll just leave it at that,” Middleton said.
The Durham Committee’s letter to Schewel and the council comes the same week that Durham’s other big political action committee, the People’s Alliance, endorsed an applicant for the vacant seat. The People’s Alliance PAC endorsed Caballero.