The field of Durham City Council candidates, narrowed down after last Tuesday’s primary, gave a glimpse of how they’d work together as a council during a recent forum.
It’s down to just weeks until the municipal general election on Nov. 7 that will change half of the Durham City Council. Only one incumbent made it through the primary, so there will be at least two, and perhaps three new city council members this fall. Durham will elect a new mayor, too – either Farad Ali or Steve Schewel.
Five of the six city council candidates made their first group appearance post-primary at a sparcely attended forum at City Hall sponsored by the InterNeighborhood Council on Oct. 12.
Incumbent Ward 1 candidate Cora Cole-McFadden pointed out that she sits up in a council seat two Mondays a month, as she has for the past 16 years. Her opponent for the Ward 1 seat, DeDreana Freeman, who is on the Durham Planning Commission, said she and Cole-McFadden agree on issues but their difference is in style.
“I wil continue to work in my community because that’s just what I’m called to do,” Freeman said.
In Ward 2, Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton and John Rooks Jr. were friendly to each other and Rooks fist-bumped Middleton, sitting next to him, before saying why he was the better candidate. Rooks talked about his work with the Love Over Hate NC community group.
Middleton in turn praised Rooks before talking about his own involvement in the community as a leader in Durham Congregations, Neighborhoods and Associations.
Ward 3 candidate Shelia Ann Huggins, who is running against Vernetta Alston, who was unable to attend the forum, highlighted previous experience working for the city in multiple departments. Huggins is an attorney in private practice now. She also noted that both her parents have served in local government elected office.
Development, gentrification and downtown came up multiple times during the forum.
“We understand how market forces work,” Middleton said. “I’m not against development, but we have to do it smartly, and in a way that folk are included.”
Rooks doesn’t think the city should be putting any more money into downtown Durham right now.
“It’s unfair one part is prospering,” Rooks said.
Both Huggins and Cole-McFadden noted the departure of African American-owned businesses downtown.
Candidates were asked how they’d vote if an expansion of the Cleveland-Holloway historic district comes before the new council.
For Middleton, people are more important than buildings, he said, and that the historic Hayti area is a draw because of the people.
Rooks, however, would want to revisit the issue, and said that newcomers to Durham come because they like the culture and history.
“They don’t come in hopes that Durham is going to one day look like Charlotte. They come for the history, they come for the culture,” Rooks said.
Cole-McFadden said she remembers when there were few African-American men in leadership positions in the city, and that has changed along with women in leadership.
“I hear very few complaints about the city except for sidewalks and equitable distribution of trails and parks ... and some other things,” Cole-McFadden said.
Freeman said diversity in the city workforce means the inclusion of LGBT and Latino or Latinx employees, too.
Durham’s PACs were mentioned throughout the forum, with the final question for Middleton, Rooks and Huggins the most pointed – what if anything those endorsed by PACs owe the PACs for those endorsements.
Middleton, who was endorsed by local PACs the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham, said he doesn’t owe them anything.
Rooks, whose People’s Alliance PAC endorsement resulted in a new wave of support, said he doesn’t owe the PA PAC anything, either.
“I’m probably one of the only candidates up here that may have only received actually one endorsement, and that wasn’t because they were looking for someone to fit their mold,” Rooks said.
Huggins said her only endorsement was from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
“Last time I checked I was born black and will die black. I don’t owe anybody anything,” Huggins said.
At its peak, only 28 people were in the audience of the forum. Huggins said that when she stood outside 10 minutes before it started, she realized that city council candidates are not as loved as mayoral candidates.