Two weeks before the general election, John Rooks Jr. spent the afternoon outside the Durham Board of Elections office downtown.
The BOE is one of four early-voting locations for the election that will determine the next mayor and three City Council seats. Rooks is running for the Ward 2 seat against the Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton. Middleton got 42 percent of the primary vote; Rooks, 31 percent.
Moving South for school
Rooks sat under a tent in the parking lot with former council member Jackie Wagstaff and other supporters,. Rooks, 48, grew up in south New Jersey, he said, and moved here to attend N.C. Central University. He studied accounting and finance for three years, but didn’t graduate.
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“My family wasn’t rich at all. I put myself through school,” said Rooks, who is an IT contractor. He worked as an accounting clerk before moving into IT.
Middleton, 49, also grew up in the Northeast. He moved to North Carolina from Brooklyn to attend N.C. A&T State University. After graduation, he moved back to New York for a few years and then back down for good to attend Duke Divinity School. Middleton is the pastor of Abundant Hope Christian Church, which is nondenominational.
Middleton had a speech impediment as a kid, and his mom lobbied to get him into a different New York City public school. Both his parents modeled activism, he said.
As part of the clergy caucus of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, known as Durham CAN, Middleton was an activist for police reform in Durham. He was in the group that vetted now Police Chief C.J. Davis, he said, and thinks she was a great hire. He left his role in Durham CAN when he ran for office. While CAN does not endorse candidates, it does bring them out to delegates assemblies to say whether or not they support CAN’s agenda.
Rooks started a grassroots initiative called Love Over Hate NC about a year ago to bridge the gap between the community and police, he said.
“It’s solely about trying to build a relationship, not necessarily addressing all issues,” Rooks said. “It’s just two people sitting down having a conversation.” Love Over Hate NC plans events every month in places like McDougald Terrace public housing.
“McDougald is my community, is your community. I think we have to uplift all our communities,” he said. Rooks said “people hurting” is the biggest issue in Durham. Depending on where you go in Durham, that could mean about a job or feeling safe, he said.
“Everyone has things most concerning to them. That’s why I believe you can’t just sit on City Council and represent these areas without going to them, finding out what bothers them the most, and bring that back,” Rooks said.
Incentives in Durham
Rooks thinks incentives should go to local businesses rather than developers.
“If a company wants to come here and build downtown, that’s fine, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of displacing people,” he said.
Rooks said he backs Fight for $15, which advocates a minimum $15 per hour wage, but he doesn’t think that amount is enough.
“I definitely want to clear up the misconception that I don’t want any development. I just want everybody at the table and their concerns are addressed,” he said.
Middleton thinks Durham’s big issue is inclusion in the boom. He said affordable housing means both working-class folks and thousands of people in low- income housing in Durham.
“The market’s going to take care of downtown. We need to use our incentive powers on affordable housing,” Middleton said.
“Mark is an extremely articulate, bright and smart person, he really is,” Rooks said. “The only thing that separates us is he’s one of those gentlemen thinking more top down and I’m thinking bottom up.”
Rooks didn’t vote in previous municipal elections. He said the 2016 election of Donald Trump has raised awareness in a lot of people. “If a person doesn’t wake up now and understand how important local elections are, they’ll never wake up,” he said.
Rooks apologized for answers to an Equality NC questionnaire that he says a friend submitted with responses Rooks said he doesn’t believe. Rooks said it was a mistake and that as a council member, he would “definitely fight to make sure everyone has the equality they deserve.”
For Middleton, he decided to run after being asked by members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the NAACP.
“Part of being a servant means responding to the requests of others,” he said. Middleton also praised Rooks, whom he called an honorable man of integrity.
“I want to encourage people to get out and vote. If you don’t vote, you will get exactly what you deserve,” Middleton said.
Early voting continues through Saturday. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.