In a Crowded Field Where Everyone Agrees on Almost Everything, How Do Durham Candidates Distinguish Themselves? | Durham County | Indy Week
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In a Crowded Field Where Everyone Agrees on Almost Everything, How Do Durham Candidates Distinguish Themselves? 

If you've been following the municipal elections in Durham, you've likely picked up on some reoccurring themes: affordable housing, policing reform, responsible development.

That candidates for office in the Bull City see these as priority issues is a given.

Durham touts itself as a progressive city, with a legacy of activism and a new fervor for local politics under the Trump administration. It's no wonder this year's municipal elections have engendered so much engagement: voters will not only elect the city's first new mayor since 2001, but their choices for Ward 1, 2, and 3 representatives could reorient the city council.

For the most part, the contenders in this year's election speak from a baseline of shared values. What varies is how they arrived at those values, how they live those values, and what plans they have to actualize them as a city official.

Candidates have been tasked with setting themselves apart in crowded fields where everyone pretty much agrees on the issues. (It's even been a challenge to write about. Introducing one candidate means bringing up at least two others, not to mention teasing out the nuances of their platforms in a sentence or two.)

In the mayor's race, Pierce Freelon has pitched the most unconventional solutions, like a jobs guarantee in which the city would pay for or subsidize wages. Steve Schewel, a sitting council member, has drawn on deep knowledge of the city's housing landscape and existing initiatives. Farad Ali has emphasized job creation and is seen as the most pro-development candidate. Sylvester Williams, a pastor, has made strong statements about institutional racism, but some of his responses on LGBTQ and immigrant rights have been tone-deaf. Shea Ramirez, who owns a modeling agency, centers her platform on an authentic love for people but has shared few policy suggestions. Tracy Drinker, a retired police officer, is emphasizing mental health care but has not been as present in the race as other candidates.

Incumbents in Ward 1 and Ward 3 are facing challengers in their reelection bids. Six people are vying for the Ward 2 seat. Each race has serious, qualified contenders, but the mayoral contest—a referendum on what sort of city Durham wants to be post-Bill Bell—has garnered the most attention.

Throughout the summer, candidates have crowded on stages (dozens of forums have been held), filled out questionnaires, conducted interviews with press and PACs, and held court at meet-and-greets. At forums, they've used much of their time (usually about a minute per question) to convey their values. This sends a clear message of how they fit into Durham's identity, but it doesn't leave much room for specific plans and strategies.

Heather Cook, who has partnered with online media outlet Clarion Content to organize Mayor Up, a series of mayoral forums centered on specific issues, including policing and affordable housing, has seen this play out over the past few months.

"The first one was really challenging because of the questions," she says. "When you're talking about people's lives and safety, policing seemed particularly sensitive and heavy, and people wanted to be sure their answers conveyed the compassion they had for the question itself. It's difficult to get straight to the point and show how compassionate you are. You don't want to seem like you're just logistical."

Council member Charlie Reece says it was the same when he was running in 2015. Development, housing, and policing were the central topics then too, although there weren't as many forums (for which he's glad). Running against nine others for three at-large seats, he tried to distinguish himself by talking about his upbringing.

"The problem I think with the sixty-to-ninety-second answer is that you really only have time to talk about values and aspirations. You really don't have time to talk about how you get there," he says. "They want to make sure the listeners understand that we share the same values, we want to get to the same place."

Over the course of the Mayor Up, Cook says one of the most telling moments was when candidates were asked how their upbringing informs their understanding of housing issues. Through their answers, candidates were able to show how they have lived the values they claim on stage. Freelon and Schewel both "owned" the privileges of their respective upbringings, while Ali talked about coming out of poverty.

But a value statement is also easier to make than offering concrete plans, and, as Reece notes, it "effectively inoculates a candidate against the dangers of specificity." But, for candidates, skipping such statements can be risky. In Durham, you don't want voters wondering where you stand on LGBTQ rights, cooperation with ICE, living wages, or gentrification.

"For the most part, there is general agreement on the nature of the problems, the end state we're trying to reach," Reece says. "The issue is how do we get there? That is rightly where the conversation sits in Durham."

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