INC to host candidate forum tonight at H-S building
H-S: Scott Howell to open "Neapolitan pizzeria" in Rockwood

County Commissioner forum brings some light, little heat

Last night's INC-sponsored forum, focused on the County Commissioner candidates, was -- as Matthew Milliken noted over at the Herald-Sun -- a fairly calm event, though not without the occasional rhetorical blast from a candidate. The best of these fill the H-S story's quotes; most of the discussion, as Milliken suggests, was more prosaic than poetic.

Today, we'll tackle the candidates' opening statements, their pitches for why the public should vote for them. Over the next few days, we'll bring you the questions and answers from the debate, including questions from INC members and the general public. On many of these questions, the candidates' answers were often the same.

Still, these answers varied in their depth, with some candidates managing to eek out very articulate answers that happened to cover the exact same grounds as other BOCC hopefuls or incumbents had.

Conspicuous in his absence: Michael Page, the only candidate not to show up. Perhaps with the big-three PAC endorsements in hand, the incumbent didn't feel compelled to stop by? Too bad, especially in light of the undercurrent of concern heard in some circles that Page is not as responsive to emails and calls from constituents as other local officials are.

Not that every candidate professed across-the-board strengths. Refreshingly, Doug Wright and Brenda Howerton both admitted during questions on land use that their strengths and knowledge areas are biased towards human services (an area which is a traditional county responsibility.) On the other hand, Don Moffitt was equally up-front during a question on county services in stating that his background was primarily on the land use side.

How did the candidates perform? Despite his caveat above, Don Moffitt probably pulled off the best performance of the night, delivering the most comprehensive answer on the INC's growth-management question, and demonstrating a very deep understanding of the issues facing municipal government.

Ellen Reckhow was a close second, as you might expect for an incumbent. Reckhow frequently seemed to bristle (in that calm-veneered, smiling Ellen way) at suggestions by the challengers as to what county government should be doing differently -- often referring the audience back to points in her State of the County speech or to the work of the Joint City/County Planning Committee.

Josh Parker and Becky Heron also delivered consistently strong answers from opposite sides of the age-bracket among the candidates. Parker was quick to demonstrate his mastery of and participation in local government issues and to highlight important issues that frustrate the county by itself -- be it the need for better regional cooperation, or the need for state and federal financial support for programs -- displaying an ambition for change, though not necessarily how a BOCC perch could deliver same. Heron occasionally dipped back into the well of history, talking about past accomplishments during her nearly 30-year service on the BOCC; still, it's clear she still has passion for Durham and a depth of knowledge about how the local government operates.

I'd tend to lump three candidates -- Doug Wright, Brenda Howerton, and Fred Foster -- into the next tier of performance. Each candidate had their areas of rhetorical dazzle, from Foster's "no Creeksides on my watch" pronouncement, to Howerton's moving tale of her personal pain from youth violence, to Wright's earning chuckles over the difficulty of making sense of the UDO.

Yet none of these three candidates displayed the real depth and breadth on issues that Moffitt, Reckhow, Parker and Heron did; indeed, the three tended to repeat and echo other candidates on the forum. Wright delivered strong answers on mental health issues -- a focus of his civic activity through the Durham Center -- but treaded water on other topics. Foster outlined a broad set of goals, from implementing a mass transit system funded on user-fees immediately to passing the eatery tax to requiring "schools, roads, and fire stations" as part of new development projects, but was light on digging into specifics about how any of these elements worked.

Similarly, Howerton tended to touch on themes of her campaign (like the need to reduce crime levels) but didn't offer many specifics on how she'd accomplish them, and focused her growth-management answer on the power of neighborhood associations to stop bad development just as she and her neighbors had blocked a car wash. I was also surprised at Howerton's assertion that persons incarcerated in the Durham County Jail didn't receive any training opportunities; I got a tour of their GED classroom a couple of months back.

For their part, Joe Bowser and Victoria Peterson both presented passionate answers on a number of local issues, though both of their responses tended to be askew relative to the politically conventional or the possible. Bowser brought a fire on issues he cares deeply about, such as his complaint that what he claimed to be as much as 70% of Durham's private payroll goes to residents of other counties, but it wasn't clear how the former commissioner would actually address issues like that. The passionate but very perennial Ms. Peterson made her usual stand for the need for vocational education centers and for funding for non-profits to train ex-offenders, and though she did make several thought-provoking points that are outside the BOCC purview (such as her complaint that corporations won't hire ex-felons for non-menial jobs), Peterson failed to cover new ground in the debate.


Opinions aside, let's move on to the candidates' statements. As noted above, we'll tackle the Q&A session over the next day or two here.

Brenda Howerton
Noted that she has lived in Durham since 1986, and is a divorced mother of four children, two of whom are deceased. Highlighted her experience from serving two terms as soil and water supervisor for six years total, and for having served on Durham's Human Relations Commission, and as chair of the NAACP political action committee. Howerton noted her work as an organizer with Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), which she noted works to get people who don't benefit from income and power to the table to have a say in what their life is about. Howerton noted that her interest in becoming a County Commissioner was personal: “I could have given up on government, and I could have given up on what it means to be a public servant, after having two children being murdered," noting that two of her children were colege students who ended up being killed by other people.  “None of us are safe unless all of us are safe,” Howerton implored.  “Crime is not something we want to talk about in this community. We want to ignore it.” Closed by noting that several key issues -- schools; safe communities; great homes and affordable housing -- are prerequisites to fighting crime.

Ellen Reckhow
Notes she works hard as a County Commissioner, reading and responding to emails, researching issues, and seeking creative solutions to the issues we face. Reckhow stated she was proud of the last four years’ BOCC accomplishments, which included passing the largest bond issue in county history, mostly for schools, as well as expanding the award-winning system of care serving challenged youth in the community and others. Reckhow calculated that the dropout rate has been reduced by 20.3% in Durham during this period and is now below state average. Reckhow stated that a cooperative effort was underway with the City and Durham Public Schools to put a career center and medical clinic in the former Holton Middle School, set to open in 16 months' time. Reckhow also highlighted Durham city and county leaders' work to pass the first greenhouse gas action plan in NC.

Going forward, Reckhow noted her interest in working with community leaders and the Results-Based Accountability groups to promote community safety and to improve our criminal justice system. Reckhow also highlighted the need to "reconnect" youth so as to increase graduation rate, while needing to simultaneously attract good-paying jobs and train citizens for them. The incumbent also spoke to the need for a continued focus on sustainable development: “We’re already a leader, and we need to cont to be a leader in terms of sustainability, and green building.” 

Fred Foster, Jr.
Noted he’s worked “in the trenches,” and knows what it takes to be a citizen and leader. In order to be a leader you have to serve, Foster said, emphasizing his years of service to the community.  Foster highlighted his experience in working with residents of East Durham to get a housing policy drafted. Foster also mentioned that he had established a "limousine program" to take voters to the polls, and that he had been involved in fighting for street paving in North-East Central Durham. Foster noted that he had just completed the Durham Neighborhood College program, and mentioned in particular his class's experience in recommending an eatery tax over a sales or land transfer tax program. “I think I’m on the right track with that [the eatery tax],” Foster said. “I learned from the bottom, and I'm trying to work my way to the top.”

Don Moffitt
Moffit noted he moved to Durham in 1991 on a one-year job assignment; he fell in love with the place and didn’t want to leave, Moffitt said. Moffitt noted that he had served on the Planning Commission for the past four years, two of which as chair, along with service on the Joint City/County Planning Committee. He emphasized his experience serving for twelve years on the board of the Eno River Association, three of which as president. Moffitt also emphasized his corporate experience, including eighteen years working for Whole Foods Marker, serving as southeastern regional president at the end of his career, though he noted he had worked his way from the ground up at WF, starting by loading trucks. Moffitt noted he was currently working on his MBA at UNC-Chapel Hill, learning much more about budgets, finance, and efficient operations, and emphasizing his understanding of the need to be a good steward of both natural and financial resources.

Doug Wright
Wright noted he is a native of Durham who grew up in Bragtown, whose kids have been educated through either DPS, charter schools or homeschooling, meaning he values "choice in education." Currently chair of the mental health, development disabilities, and substance abuse committee –- the Durham Center -- noting his ten years of service, six of which have been as board chair.  “There are some real challenges locally and statewide [with mental health]," Wright said. "The good news is that in Durham, we’ve embraced reform… We’ve done a good job, we’ve truly done a good job.”  Notes the System of Care program developed for children is now evolving into an adult program as well.  Wright also emphasized his involvement on a statewide mental health committee commission.

Wright said that the County Commissioners we need to look at growth and development.  “The drought certainly got all of our attention; not so much today. We need to pay attention and learn from those lessons,” he said. Wright noted that mental health reform is still a major issue at the  state level and that the Board of County Commissioners need expertise to help walk the county through that. Wright also called on public eduction as a critical need, highlighting it is critical to reducing poverty and crime. “We need to stop assessing gangs, and we need to start addressing them,” he said.

Joe Bowser
Bowser noted he is a former County Commissioner, and called on the crowd to help re-elect him to the board. He then noted that he wanted to use much of his opening comments to talk about the foreclosure crisis facing Durham, stating that there is a tremendous need due to the pressence 2,000 homeowners in pre-foreclosure in the county. 73 neighborhoods in Durham County saw foreclosures in the first quarter, Bowser said, and many of these were from senior citizens.  “Do we wait and sit on the sideline to watch our homeowners lose their biggest investment… only to become displaced and homeless?” he asked. Bowser called on citizens to join him and several local non-profits in distributing 4,000 doorhangers to raise awareness of mortgage assistance options."

Bowser closed his comments with only a few words about the County Commission race. “We say we care about the people in the community; we say we want to reduce homelessness; we say we want to improve poverty," Bowser said. “I want government for all.” He briefly called for improvements in education, better roads and streets, and a more attractive-looking and safer community. Bowser also took a stand for tax levels, noting that “we need to reduce taxes, not increase taxes.”

Victoria Peterson

Notes she has been an activist for twenty years, and that “Durham is in trouble.” Peterson stated she had been going before the City Council and the County Commission for year sto tell public officials that we’ve got to address crime problem. “And it feel on deaf ears,” she said. Peterson highlighted her experience in starting an ex-offenders program in 2003. “And [local government] became so embarrassed that we were not doing anything with these young men and women going in and out of the County Jail” that they started their own programs. Peterson complained that 13,000 people cycle in and out of Durham's county jail each year, with 78% of them coming from Af-Am community.  “I’m not a racist, I’m not a bigot. I’m concerned about so many of our young African-American males going in and out of the county jail. And we can solve this problem.” Peterson noted the need to see old facilities like the Holloway St. school turned into vo-tech centers. “A lot of my guys that I work with, they want a second chance. But we don’t give them that," Peterson said, to the concern that local businesses won’t hire ex-felons.

Becky Heron
Notes she and Ellen were there when school merger came about, and that they both worked hard to lead that effort, a milestone she noted she was proud of. “When I came onto the board, women took a back seat. We weren’t in leadership roles. I was the first woman appointed to the planning and zoning commission for the city and county,” Heron said, and the second woman ever voted on to the County Commission. "I do think that my years in county government are very valuable," Heron said. "Experience in county government is going to be more and more crucial now than it’s ever been before because we have more challenges that we have to meet," noting that the state is pushing down mental health and education mandates and responsibilities with greater frequency.

Josh Parker
Thanked the INC for the forum, noting he had served on its executive committee for three years.  Parker, a Durham native, noted he is running because he believes Durham needs “fresh perspective” on issues and problems. “The decisions we make over the next 2-5 years will set the direction for our community for the next twenty to fifty years," he said. Parker called for the need to “optimize” local government by making it more efficient and accountable. Parker noted the need for a general focus on youth, from early childhood education to the school years. He stated that a major platform item of his is the need to "energize regional leadership," stating that the land use, water, mass transit and taxation challenges Durham faces are problems for the whole metropolitan area. "We’re not just the geographic center of the Triangle – we can take a leadership role on the issues facing the Triangle.” Parker added that he wants to address the state of the Comprehensive Plan to make sure we are growing sustainably. The challenger closed by noting that today is Earth Day as well as Equal Pay Day, and that the BOCC has a role both in protecting natural resources and in helping to ensure equity of pay for all citizens.



Woe, I'll have to read the individual write-ups in depth later when I have more time but that was a fantastic intro summary, Kevin -- nuanced, full of exactly the kind of info I was after (e.g., those who tended only to echo other's answers). I wasn't able to attend but now I feel like I was there: thank you so much for that.


Good work, Kevin. Too bad you couldn't be in two places at once, over at the Courthouse for the DA forum.


Oh, by the way, Page, Wright, and Bowser were the three candidates who neglected to show up at the Democratic party county convention last Saturday.

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