Durham County

Can ‘Bull City Together’ incumbents hold their seats in Durham City Council race?

Challengers say the three incumbent Durham City Council members running together as a team are out of step with city residents.

Jackie Wagstaff, Victoria Peterson and Joshua Gunn criticized the incumbents’ “Bull City Together” bloc during a candidates forum Saturday. The bloc consists of Councilman Charlie Reece and Councilwomen Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero, who are running under a joint platform.

Wagstaff, a former council member, questioned the need to have all three incumbents remain on the City Council if they think and vote alike.

“I’m not happy with the leadership that we have now,” she said. “I’m running as an individual. I’m not running as a team because I believe that if you have three people who say they eat alike, think alike and sleep alike, you don’t need all three of them to get that one thing done. You take the one you can tolerate.”

Gunn, who is a vice president of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, criticized the incumbents for supporting a failed transportation policy, which included the Durham-Orange light-rail project. It was supposed to connect Durham and Chapel Hill by way of a 17-mile rail route. Regional transportation officials are regrouping and working on a new plan that may include bus rapid transit.

“Everyone has egg on their face because of the light rail,” Gunn said. “Practical solutions like bus rapid transit weren’t being pursued by our city government. They were pursuing things because of the political agendas attached to them rather than for what makes sense for the city of Durham.”

Challenger Ricardo Correa said he would be an independent voice who represents a growing Latino population in the city.

“I will bring a diverse opinion to the City Council,” he said.

The candidates spoke during a forum Saturday at the Campus Hills Recreation Center where about 100 people attended. The forum was held by Partners Against Crime Districts 3 and 4, neighborhood groups that work with the Police Department and other public safety agencies in the city.

Candidates working together

Reece, Johnson and Caballero decided in the spring to run under the banner of “Bull City Together.”

Their collaboration — a man, an African American woman and a Latina — demonstrates diversity in a city that champions that cause, they say.

They’ve staked out five policy priorities: community engagement, inclusive economic development, housing affordability, community safety and sustainability.

Reece and Johnson, who serves as mayor pro-tem, were elected in 2015. Caballero was appointed in 2018 to fill Steve Schewel’s unexpired council term after he was elected mayor in 2017.

“We don’t agree about everything,” Johnson said. “It took us months to write our platform. It’s only the things we could agree about moving forward. I do think it is important for us to move those things forward that we can agree on.”

Reece gave his vision for Durham the forum.

“I want to make sure that everyone can afford to live and work and raise their kids here no matter how much money you make or what part of our city you call home,” he said. “I am so proud of the work that this city council has done over the last four years. We’ve made a series of unprecedented investments in our police department, we have added more affordable housing, we have added more living-wage jobs, this city is safer than it was four years ago.”

Critics have questioned their public safety commitment after they helped redirect money that City Manager Tom Bonfield had proposed be used to add 18 police officers in this year’s budget. Police Chief C.J. Davis had requested 72 officers be added during the next four years. The money was used instead to raise the minimum pay for city workers to $15 per hour.

Critics say the city has enough money to pay for both. The city has an unassigned fund balance of about $47.7 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year budget.

Caballero said working together, they avoided public pettiness.

“If you look at other cities like Raleigh, both the City Council and county commissioners, there has been a lot of public fighting,” Caballero said. “I hear what people are saying about needing a different perspective, but at the end of the day you still need four votes. If people want to see where our differences are, look at our zoning votes. That’s where you’re going to see the most difference.”

Reece, Johnson and Caballero recently secured endorsements from the People’s Alliance and the Durham Association of Educators.

Other candidates who participated in Saturday’s forum included Charlitta Burrus, John Tarantino and Daniel Meier and and candidate for mayor Sylvester Williams.

What’s next

Ten candidates are competing in the municipal primary election for three at-large seats on the City Council. Early voting begins Wednesday and runs through Oct. 4. Primary election day is Oct. 8 and the top six finishers will advance to the municipal general election Nov. 5.

The race for mayor between incumbent Steve Schewel and challenge Sylvester Williams will be settled in the general election, as will the $95 million bond referendum for affordable housing.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.