Durham mayoral candidates answer community questions at forum

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The six candidates running to become Durham’s next mayor addressed community questions and concerns last Thursday night in the N.C. Central University’s H.M. Michaux, Jr. School of Education auditorium.

The event, hosted by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, was co-sponsored by NCCU’s history and political science departments. Junior history major Paul McAllister and sophomore history and English double-major Jada Gannaway served as co-moderators representing their respective departments.

All active candidates—Farad Ali, Kershemia “Shea” Ramirez, Pierce Freelon, Steve Schewel, Sylvester Williams and Tracy Drinker—were in attendance. A seventh candidate, Michael Johnson, is on the ballot but has stopped campaigning.

The first person to ask their question of the candidates was former Durham school board member Jacqueline Wagstaff, who asked the same question to the mayoral candidates that she asked of the city council candidates at a different forum held the night before.

“Gentrification has become a problem in Durham. There has been removal of affordable housing in the West End, Walltown, Southside and other public housing units around the city,” Wagstaff said in a lengthy inquiry about the future of the J.J. Henderson Housing Center on South Duke Street. “Do you support this initiative that leads to the displacement of Durham residents?”

Candidate Steve Schewel, who serves as a city council liaison to the Durham Housing Authority, told Wagstaff that there is no plan to “sell, knock down, give away, or do anything else” to the city’s public housing units.

Schewel then used this question as a platform to speak about what he considered to be the larger problem at hand: redevelopment, of which he said there is “nothing more important in Durham right now.”

Durham resident Megan Noor, a freshman at Elon University, asked the candidates their opinions on what should be done with the Confederate statue that was removed by protesters earlier that week and if those arrested for the statue’s removal should continue to have charges pressed against them.

“You’re asking what should be done with the statue?” candidate Farad Ali, a former city councilman, asked. “It’s trash now, right?”

Ali continued to say that though he believes no new statue should be constructed in its place, the issue of the protestors is one that concerns the courts, not the city council.

“I don’t think they should be charged with anything,” candidate Pierce Freelon, who has taught at NCCU, countered. “I repudiate bigotry, hatred, racism and white supremacy in all of its forms and I’m glad the statue came down.”

Candidates Shea Ramirez, Sylvester Williams and Tracy Drinker all agreed with Ali’s opinion, but Ramirez alone believes that it is not enough.

“I do believe that all the (Confederate) monuments need to come down, but unfortunately, it is history,” Ramirez said. “I believe that without history, no one can grow. We have to have that hard conversation, address that elephant in the room, about racism being alive and well.”

Other topics brought up by community members included poverty reduction, Durham youth engagement, the candidates’ hopeful mayoral impact and police transparency.

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People publicly endorsed Farad Ali for mayor on Saturday. The top two finishers in the Oct. 10 municipal primary will face off against each other again on the ballot in the Nov. 7 general election.

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