Cora Cole-McFadden Has Been a Durham Political Institution. That Could End This Week. | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Cora Cole-McFadden Has Been a Durham Political Institution. That Could End This Week. 

Cora Cole-McFadden

Cora Cole-McFadden

Each race on the November 7 ballot for Durham's municipal elections is competitive. Durhamites are engaged—early voting for the October 10 primary brought out about 60 percent more eligible voters than in 2015, although turnout was still just 13 percent—and the candidates are sharp. But the Ward 1 race is the closest.

In the primary, DeDreana Freeman led incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden by 1,301 votes—a slim margin that is surprising given Cole-McFadden's track record in primaries past. She was unopposed in 2013, won 69 percent of the vote in 2009, 72 percent in 2005, and 58 percent in 2001, when she first joined the council.

It's also the only race with an incumbent still in the running, pitting a seventy-two-year-old lifelong Bull City resident and longtime fixture of Durham politics against a forty-year-old who moved to Durham ten years ago and seems to be everywhere and involved in everything.

As a teenager, Cole-McFadden was one of four students who helped desegregate Durham High School. She was the first African-American woman to lead a city department and the first black woman to serve as the council's mayor pro tem.

Freeman is special assistant to the president of the East Durham Children's Initiative. She has served as president of Durham's InterNeighborhood Council and chairwoman of the Northeast Central Durham Leadership Council. She is a city-county planning commissioner and chairs a Durham Democratic Party precinct.

Both candidates identify inequities experienced by Durham residents in wealth, housing, and health as the most pressing issues facing the city. Cole-McFadden emphasizes her Durham roots and the importance of institutional knowledge, while Freeman speaks about the need for more community participation and more investment in marginalized communities.

Freeman sees herself as a grassroots candidate and Cole-McFadden as "of the establishment." Both agree that they vary more in approach than in policy.

Freeman thinks voters want change, and Durham can do more to live up to the progressive label it gives itself. That means listening to communities from which she feels Cole-McFadden is disconnected.

"I don't have to say how progressive I am. I think the last ten years of my life show how progressive I am, and I think if you look at the last sixteen years of her being in office, you would see how not progressive she was," Freeman says.

Asked for specifics, Freeman says Cole-McFadden hasn't pushed for innovative solutions to the city's affordable housing crisis and voted to spend $1.4 million on body cameras with little means for the public to access the footage, though a state law passed last year forbids the release of body-cam footage without a court order.

But Cole-McFadden says the sacrifices she's made as a council member, city employee, and someone who helped advance racial equality make her worthy of another term. She knows Durham, she says, and knows the realities of working in local government, particularly under a preemptive state legislature—which she suggests her competitor may not.

(While Cole-McFadden touts her institutional knowledge, on Monday the INDY reported that Cole-McFadden copied portions of her responses to a People's Alliance candidate questionnaire word for word from internet sources. Cole-McFadden says she was in a hurry and unintentionally left out citations.)

"We are at a crossroads in the city of Durham. We can either choose to continue progress we've made or we can go backwards. I know there are people in Durham who would dare not let that happen," Cole-McFadden says. "The vote is going to be much better in the general because people now understand what's at stake."

It is a thorny-enough decision that at Durham CAN's delegates' assembly Thursday—where candidates in all four city races were asked to commit to the influential group's agenda on housing and jobs—ten of eleven people the INDY asked for their thoughts said they didn't know enough about the candidates or didn't have strong opinions either way. A few even visibly took a step back when asked about the Ward 1 race.

The eleventh person, Matt Kopac, says he also suspects people are hesitant to publicly take a side because of their connections to the candidates. It's a tight race because each candidate has rightly earned the respect of the community, he says. Kopac supports Freeman. Serving on the council isn't the only way to gain relevant experience for the job, he says.

"Cora is very deserving of a hard look at another term, but she's up against someone with a great track record herself of community involvement," he says.

When Freeman decided to run, Cole-McFadden was planning a run for mayor. The challenger says she didn't recalibrate her campaign strategy when Cole-McFadden announced she would instead seek reelection to the Ward 1 seat—and thinks she'd have a stronger lead now if she had.

At the county Board of Elections on Friday, one voter, a family friend of Cole-McFadden, said he wasn't aware that anyone was running against her. Shelia Thompson, also a friend of the incumbent, said she would have supported her for another term no matter who her opponent was. "Her heart is in what she does," Thompson said.

Durham's PACs are split, although that isn't unusual. Freeman has the endorsement of the People's Alliance, while Cole-McFadden is backed by the Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham.

Durham CAN doesn't make endorsements, but each candidate on Thursday agreed in front of more than six hundred people to meet its agenda—preventing displacement and evictions, investing more in land banking, creating more summer jobs for youth and job opportunities for ex-offenders—if elected.

All the candidates on the November ballot are "exceptional," Kopac says. "I think Durham will be just fine."

Correction: The original version of this story said DeDreana Freeman was chairwoman of the Durham Democratic Party. This is incorrect. She is a precinct chair for the party. We regret the error.

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