Note: Bull City Rising interviewed eight of the 10 county commission candidates running in the March primary. (Fred Foster Jr. did tell us he was out of town at a conference, but then did not respond to a subsequent message requesting an interview; Glyndola Massenburg-Beasley did not respond to emails regarding an interview.)
We are posting summary stories and full audio for each candidate.
Here's what you need to know before you vote:
- Ten Democratic candidates are running in the March primary for five seats on the Durham County Commission. The top five candidates will move on to the general election in November.
- Early voting for county, state and federal offices (except U.S. House) starts Thursday, March 3; Election Day is Tuesday, March 15. Because of a federal ruling regarding the unconstitutionality of congressional maps, the U.S. House election, under new districting, is scheduled for June.
In her 10 terms on the Durham County Commission, Ellen Reckhow has helped govern during hard times: When Durham was a punchline for bad jokes about violence; when a former commissioner, Joe Bowser, led an ouster of County Manager Mike Ruffin; when the recession hit in 2008; when the 751 South development deeply — and some political observers thought, irreparably — divided the commission.
But now, as Reckhow seeks her 11th term, she is looking forward to a new era in Durham. “The board is getting along well. Things have been calm; it’s easier to govern when there is solid revenue,” she says. “We are experiencing a renaissance in downtown,” she adds. “We have a very vibrant economy now.
"Our revenues have returned and even exceeded what they were. It’s an opportune time for the city, the county, the school system and the community at-large to come together and see how we can help more of our citizens benefit — especially young people.”
All of the commission candidates have been emphasizing job creation — specifically, work for people without a bachelor’s or advanced degree. That includes using economic incentives and Durham’s newly burnished reputation as muscle to lure those companies here.
Of the 10,155 jobs created in the last three years, more than half are jobs in science, technology, engineering or math, Reckhow said. “That’s wonderful, but our young people aren’t necessarily prepared for those jobs. We need to be more active in seeking out companies that can bring in good wage jobs for people who don’t have a college degree.”
As an example, she cited the Harris Beverage company, which is expanding in on Junction Road in Northeast Durham because the county helped provide utility extensions. In addition, Reckhow says, the county could buy land around that location to create an industrial park.
“There are communities that are more actively recruiting [these types of companies],” Reckhow says. “The disadvantage is we are a geographically small county and a lot of our vacant land is in watershed areas. So we don’t have large parcels of industrial land as some counties do.”
She is advocating for a “corridor plan” to target the U.S. 70 business route through East Durham, N.C. 147 from downtown to RTP, and portions of Highway 98.
Not only does the workforce need a job, but they need safe, affordable housing.
Counties are legally limited on funding sources for affordable housing (property tax revenue if off-limits, for example, but parking fees are OK). But the county can enter into public-private partnerships on its land, such as the parcels on East Main Street near the Human Services Building and the Durham Housing Authority.
It is unlikely that free or cheap land alone would be enough to lure a developer to an affordable housing project, Reckhow says. “But if the parking were also provided in downtown setting, then you may have a situation where a developer might do a fair amount of affordable housing.”
Last year, the county contributed $20 million toward the Park Center project in RTP, which includes retail, restaurant, green space and workforce housing off N.C. 54 near I-40.
“That’s very positive for Durham,” she says. “The Park Center area is some of the most strategic real estate in Durham County, and is so underutilized. What we have now is the opportunity to create a vibrant place for people to congregate and a destination, even in the evening.”
One of the most recent controversies facing the county is the management of the Durham County jail. Although the commissioners don’t oversee the facility — that’s the purview of the sheriff — they do approve the funding and can use their position as a bully pulpit. Over the past four months, two detention officers were fired and charged with assault after roughing up an inmate, plus another inmate died, allegedly as a result of poor medical care.
The commissioners, Reckhow says, are still waiting for the results of an investigation.
A member of the Durham Crime Cabinet, Reckhow says the current jail population, roughly 480, is lower than it was in 2010, when 580 people were incarcerated. She credits a pre-trial services program, which she helped launch, that evaluates nonviolent offenders and diverts them from jail and into supervision of the pretrial staff. “They can release even more people without compromising safety at all,” she said. “Putting people in jail for nonpayment of child support; that doesn’t make sense. And the second thing is, I’m interested in diverting more mentally ill people out of the jail.”
She hopes there will be funding for a mental health court, similar to one in Orange County. A mental health court was proposed for Durham County two years ago, but at the time the state had cut funding for courts in general. There is more interest in it now, Reckhow says.
With better economic times, the county can focus on improving the criminal justice system and the public schools and mending the socio-economic fault lines that have formed since Durham’s “renaissance.” “I wanted to run again because I see a terrific opportunity at this point in time,” she says. “We’re in a good place for Durham to tackle the intractable issues we have faced.”