A moderate but engaged crowd of Durhamites turned out for last night's City Council candidates' debate at the Hayti Heritage Center -- a crowd that State Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr. wished in his opening remarks had been larger, alluding to the challenges in ever getting citizens engaged and interested in civic life.
(One of McKissick's other introductory comments, intriguingly, admonished attendees to focus on candidates' skill set at the technocratic and deliberative that makes up City government, from understanding planning and zoning rules to a careful understanding of finances and budgets. My read on it was, vote for the people who can do the job and have the experience, not the people who're saying just what appeals to you.)
Ray Gronberg has a solid wrap-up of the forum in today's Herald-Sun that provides a very good overview of the event. This morning at BCR, we'll look at how the candidates did overall, along with the themes each introduced in their opening statements. Later this week, we'll have summaries of the candidates' positions, along with some highs and low points for each candidate during the discussion.
Next Wednesday through Friday, we'll go through all the questions raised during the debate, and provide a summary of each candidate's responses. N.B., my notes are a typed summary, not (in most cases) word-for-word verbatim, so any candidates with clarifications or corrections should feel free to email me. Also, if any of the candidates who could not attend wish to add responses to these questions, those are welcome as well. (Catotti had a health emergency in her family, Funderburk and Monks a prior engagement according to Parrish. David Thompson was also absent.)
Overall: How did the candidates do, regardless of philosophy or political view? Farad Ali and Eugene Brown consistently had the most nuanced, thoughtful, and on-point answers to questions, and both proved capable of answering a wide range of questions on different topics. Ali, a newcomer to the races for elected office around these parts, was to my mind the genuine surprise of the night in terms of the depth and eloquence with which he answered questions. Brown demonstrated the mastery of issues you'd expect from the incumbent and former Alliance leader, plus the wry humor and capability of re-deflecting complaints about the current Council with the deftness of someone who actually has to sit through four Council sessions a month.
Melodie Parrish, Victoria Peterson, and David Harris all provided complete answers to most questions, though each seemed to stumble on their understanding of at least one question. All three of them did tend to focus more on points of generality and themes -- good government and fiscal accountability for Parrish, redirecting city dollars from downtown projects to vo-tech and to work for African-American males for Peterson, improving communication for Harris. I was actually a bit surprised by Harris' answers in particular, as he occasionally seemed further out of his depth in answering questions than his experience and background would have suggested.
Joe Williams, to be blunt, did nothing to demonstrate competence for any elected office. If video of some of his answers were ever posted to YouTube, the Jon Stewarts/Stephen Colberts would have a field day, not to mention the Bill O'Reillys of the world who remain forever convinced that Durham is a political backwater.
Now, on to the opening statements.
Ali: Ali noted this is his first time running for City Council, but mentioned his experience in business and non-profit economic development in Durham. (Ali is a former banker and now leads the N.C. Institute for Minority Economic Development.) Discussed a platform of understanding Durham's neighborhoods and wanting to see them all revitalized, including interest in more parity in how all neighborhoods are revitalized. Ali also mentioned an interest in greater responsibility and accountability in government, including how government's resources are distributed. Ali expressed an interest in what he deemed responsible economic development; noting that downtown and Southpoint had been major areas for development and revitalization recently, he described the need for the City to work to bring more parity to investment across the City and county.
Brown: After ceding a fair portion of his time to note Diane Catotti's absence, Brown put in a plug for her as being a "terrific councilperson." Brown noted he wanted to continue the progress he felt had been made on his four years on Council. Brown reminded the crowd he was a Durham native, raised in Duke Park, where his mother still lives, and was educated at UNC. Brown agreed that challenges still faced Durham without question, but he focused on a few areas of particular progress to highlight: 134 housing units at Eastway Village in North-East Central Durham, Hope VI in East Durham, thirty new police officers plus higher salaries to help keep them, and the passage of a $110 million bond for street, sidewalk, parks & rec, and water/sewer infrastructure.
Harris: Stated he is running for Council to help improve the quality of life in Durham. Reminded the crowd of his experience as InterNeighborhood Council president, past co-facilitator of PAC2, District 2 captain of the Community Observer Patrol with D.P.D., and a member of the Community Emergency Response Team. Harris then focused on the issues of communication he sees; he noted he doesn't have problems getting answers from City agencies in his role working with them, but that interdepartmental communication within the City and communication between City and County were both in need of help. Claimed that crime was one of his "pet peeves," and mentioned a goal in educating citizens to reduce the number of crimes of opportunity so that police could focus on more significant crime without needing further increase in resources. Also noted the 40%+ growth expected in Durham in the next 25 years and the need for solid planning to be ready for it.
Parrish: Noted that she is part of a 'team,' along with Steve Monks and Larry Funderburk, who are jointly seeking office. Described three major prongs of her platform: (1) A safe environment, which she stated was broader than crime and included issues like lead in the water and landfill fires (a reference to City missteps this year), as well as safety in public parks and other safe basic services. (2) Fiscal accountability, where Parrish raised concerns about recent contract overruns as well as about the need to have people in place to help spend the $110 million bond money appropriately. (3) Improving the City image, where Parrish noted that she was a former REALTOR who had chosen to live in Durham and loved it here, and that government officials should be doing more to share the good things about Durham, which she noted crossed neighborhood and ethnic boundaries.
Peterson: Opened her comments by giving her thanks to the NAACP for also helping to organize the debate, followed by a request for confirmation from the moderator that they did, along with the NCCU student government and Young Dems. (The moderator noted that the NAACP did not.) Peterson went on to note that she has been a political activist in Durham for years. She stated that while everyone talks about crime, no one does anything about it, and she decried picking up the Herald-Sun or turning on ABC 11 and seeing African-American males getting in trouble with the law. She described this as a major problem and called for more vo-tech centers to serve the community and to provide an outlet for people who might otherwise drop out of school. Peterson introduced a major theme of the night for her -- if Durham can spend millions on ballparks, parking garages, and theaters, why can't it find money to turn old schools into vocational centers? She expressed concern of more money being allocated for entertainment. She mentioned she lives in the inner city and knows what it is like to do so and witness crime.
Williams: Stated that he has been "in training" for seven years to be on Council, and that people should train before they run for any position, and should know something about what they're talking about. Noted his concern about crime, and focused on "trust," which he described as a major issue for him. He stated that residents must trust the Durham P.D., without a doubt, and asked them to please not get "discouraged" about all the crime that has happened. He stated that most of the crime was occurring not due to drugs, but due to young men walking up and down the street "with their pants hanging down," and because of young men and women consorting. He promised that on Council, he'd stand up and be a role model for troubled youth in the City, and would go to these kids and try to teach them something positive. He stated that the police do know who is responsible for the crime in Durham, but that police are waiting to see if they get into any more trouble first.