Who Wants to Be a City Council Member? Durham Is Currently Taking Applications. | Durham County | Indy Week
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Who Wants to Be a City Council Member? Durham Is Currently Taking Applications. 

The Durham City Council bid farewell on Monday to longtime mayor Bill Bell and three members—Cora Cole-McFadden, Eddie Davis, and Don Moffitt—as new officials were welcomed to each of their seats.

DeDreana Freeman was sworn in to the Ward 1 seat, Mark-Anthony Middleton for Ward 2, Vernetta Alston for Ward 3, and Steve Schewel took the mayor's seat, opening up the at-large position he has held on the council since 2011. The new council is expected to quickly set about filling Schewel's position through an application-and-interview process.

At least five people have made it known that they are interested in the job.

Pierce Freelon announced first.

The 4,059 votes Freelon won in the primary election for mayor weren't enough to advance to the general but still constituted a respectable showing for a political newcomer. Freelon ran a grassroots and social-media-focused campaign for mayor and has continued to do the same in his bid for a council seat, encouraging supporters to email the council.

Freelon met with city manager Tom Bonfield and police chief C.J. Davis while working on his mayoral platform, which included a jobs guarantee, ending cash bail, and encouraging co-ops and entrepreneurship. He thinks he'd be a natural fit among the council members he spent many nights with during pre-election forums and would make an already progressive council even more so.

"We've been to different corners of Duham together, we've been on stages together and been scrutinized," he says. "We've been through some stuff."

Three women are also hoping to represent the Latinx community on the council: Javiera Caballero, Sheila Arias, and Yesenia Polanco-Galdamez. All decided to apply at the urging of their communities. They were connected recently through mutual friends and are supporting one another's candidacies with a larger goal of making Durham's elected bodies more representative of the people they serve. That said, they're aware they may be tokenized, and hope to be supported for their qualifications rather than their identities. (The city council hasn't had a Hispanic member in recent memory. If one of them is appointed, the council will have a majority of women.)

Caballero, who moved to Durham in 2010, is the program coordinator for an educational consulting firm and a former teacher. A mother of three, she's served on the Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School PTA, including two years as president, and also on the school improvement team. She sits on the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission.

Caballero grew up in a political home. Her family came to the United States when she was two from Chile, where her father's career as a math professor was being stymied in the anti-academic dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

If appointed, Caballero wants the council get more involved with Durham Public Schools and make city government more accessible to the Hispanic community. The city website should be available in multiple languages and interpreters should be available at meetings, she says.

"The immigrant community is rather invisible at large," she says. "It's a growing population. Are we actually doing the work in local government to make sure we're including these people?"

She wants to invest more in affordable housing, create incentives for worker cooperatives, and be more transparent about how Durham police interact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We know that Durham police are not doing checkpoints, but they have to do things in collaboration with the sheriff's department and state troopers, so I think we have to be clear in our messaging," she says.

Arias came to Durham twenty years ago, at age twelve, from Mexico. She says she knows firsthand what it's like for non-English-speaking immigrants to try to navigate Durham; there was no ESL program at her school when she arrived.

She works as a parent advocate with the state Department of Health and Human Services, works part-time with grassroots group MomsRising, operates a cleaning business, and is studying psychology at Durham Tech.

Arias has two children, including a daughter with special needs. Through MomsRising, she's advocated for expanding health care for children with special needs, and more recently she started doing outreach with the organization's Spanish-language branch, MamásConPoder.

Arias also wants more clarity from the police department on immigration enforcement. "People here in Durham are living under fear and don't know who to trust," she says.

And she too would like to expand language access to city government, with an emphasis on "meeting people where they are" by participating in community events. "There's so many other nationalities in Durham, and we need to give them a voice and include them in our city," she says.

Polanco-Galdamez practices immigration law and criminal defense, and is the principal attorney at Polanco Law.

"To me," she says, "families are important, and when I think of families, I think of issues around housing, I think of a fair, affordable, and inclusive plan to make sure our communities aren't displaced from their homes."

Polanco-Galdamez was born in El Salvador and moved to Durham when she was in the fifth grade. She says she became an activist "as soon as I learned how to drive," organizing around the DREAM Act, sex education, and other issues affecting her peers at Southern High School, where she was student body president. She worked as a youth organizer at El Centro and decided to go to law school "to acquire more skills to be a better advocate in the community," she says.

Polanco-Galdamez says she wants to see the at-large seat filled by the most qualified candidate and the best fit for the council.

"I'm a people person. I'm a great listener and advocate," she says. "One of my strengths, I think, is strategic planning, planning in ways that are inclusive and responsible and honor the many individuals involved. I do this on a day-to-day basis in my job for the last nine years."

Carl Rist, a white man, concedes that he wouldn't bring diversity to the council, but he says he would bring experience and deep Durham roots.

"I think someone with a little more experience who has been around twenty-five years would be a good addition to the new, exciting members we have," he says.

Rist has a master's degree in public policy and has worked for twenty-five years with a D.C. think tank on issues of economic inequality and wealth building in low-income communities. He helped launch the People's Alliance economic inequality team and the Durham Living Wage Project, which encourages employers to pay at least $13.35 per hour as of 2017. He has twice been president of the People's Alliance board and works on the finance task force of the city's poverty reduction initiative. Through those experiences, he says he has gotten to know most of the council well.

If appointed, Rist says he would look carefully at the tax incentives the city extends to developers, advocate for taxes rather than fees to raise city funding, and look for "wise and strategic" ways to accomplish the city's goals in spite of preemptive state laws.

An online petition is asking the council to appoint John Rooks Jr. to the seat. Rooks, who ran for the Ward 2 seat but lost to Middleton, says he wasn't behind the petition, but he hasn't ruled out applying.

swillets@indyweek.com

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Sounds like vigilantism to me. But at least it should take any supporter out of consideration for Steve Schewel's seat. …

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People's tribunal?

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