Meet the City Council candidates: Steve Schewel
Meet the City Council candidates: Mike Shiflett

Meet the City Council candidates: Charlie Reece

Last week, Bull City Rising had a chance to sit down with five of the six finalists for Durham's three open City Council seats. We're bringing you our in-depth interviews with the candidates this week, ahead of early voting. We invite you to watch each and full -- and, to check out our commentary on each candidate's interview and perspectives, after the jump.

If you don't know the name Charlie Reece by now, your postal carrier does: the first-time office seeker has had a fairly ubiquitous presence via mailers, street signs and an active social media campaign. Like his fellow People's Alliance endorsees, Reece's platform includes a heavy focus on campaign themes of equity for all -- including affordable housing and preserving Durham's neighborhoods' character -- along with a focus on the importance of community policing. Reece, the general counsel for his family's contract research firm Rho, sat down with Lisa Sorg and me to talk about his candidacy and his stand on some key public policy issues.

 

Durham's Next Police Chief

Relative to the rest of the PA slate, Reece has spent more time talking about policing and community safety issues -- an area where he's focused before the race, too, given his connections to the FADE coalition that successfully lobbied Durham officials on changes to probable cause searches and other perceived inequities in justice.

Reece talked about the characteristics he wanted to see in Durham's next police chief, highlighting three:

  • Good experience with true community policing
  • Experience working in a very diverse city
  • Police-media relations expertise

While Reece didn't rule out his support for an internal candidate, he also mused that such a person might not exist, given what he described the historically out-in-front role of the chief as the seeming chief spokesperson as well, versus further developing the leadership experience of command staff. An external candidate would need help understanding the unique nature and neighborhoods of Durham, Reece said, but noted he hoped the city manager would select a person with strong management and public relations experience.

“When you look at what the chief of police does in Durham, it’s a large management challenge," Reece said. "We’re always going to be resource-constrained, we’re about to go through the process of designing and building a new police department that in and of itself is a public relations problem for the city, and you’re going to have to bring someone in who is going to hit the ground right away in terms of rebuilding that relationship of trust.”

Speaking of the city manager -- we noted some of the eyebrows raised (present company included) when Reece called for the chief's departure during the campaign, ahead of his forced retirement by the city manager.

Asked whether this was adverse to the firewall in place between Council-appointed officials and the city manager's role -- as a council-manager system, the City Council only hires/fires the manager, attorney and clerk, and city manager Tom Bonfield has been unequivocal in building a firewall on other personnel decisions -- Reece stated that he felt it was proper for him to speak out as a candidate on these issues, but that he would not have been so direct had he been an incumbent.

“I feel very strongly that the current form of government is the right one for Durham," Reece said. "I have a lot of confidence in the city manager's ability to run the city the way that he sees fit, and I don’t think the City Council should take a role in hiring or firing anyone except the three city council staff that they do directly fire and hire.”

Reece cited incumbent Steve Schewel's comments on the Jose Lopez situation before his termination -- where Schewel would say only that he had "strong opinions" on Lopez's performance, and that he had shared them with the manager -- as an example of the kind of deportment he would expect in a Council role.

Reece said that last summer he was convinced by others in the community advocating for FADE-recommended policy changes that those needed to be the focus for advocacy, not a leadership change. But Lopez's comments in some situations this year along with other DPD incidents "caused me considerable concern about his ability to create, to rebuild a relationship between the Durham Police Department and the people that they protect and serve," Reece said.

More on Reece's thoughts on policing:

 

On Neighborhoods and Gentrification

Besides policing, we spent a fair amount of time talking with Reece about the impact of Durham's growth and change on neighborhoods, and particularly how to balance seemingly opposed tensions -- the desire of many to see more investment in long-neglected neighborhoods, while also wanting to ensure neighborhood change does not result in wholesale disruption of existing residents.

Compared to policing -- a topic where Reece has certainly spent a significant amount of time on public policy issues -- Reece's thoughts in this topic tended to touch on specific areas of focus and concerns, though perhaps with slightly less-specific policy recommendations. Instead, Reece talked about thematic areas of focus, including finding affordability solutions outside transit, avoiding incentivizing outside change in neighborhoods, and trying new programs to bring non-profits or City-owned properties to bear.

Reece cited the importance of neighborhoods as one of the things that make Durham great -- "Each of them has their own rich background, people in many places that have lived there for generations." He added that Durham needs to avoid "importing things that don't have any context or character in those neighborhoods," and suggested that Durham should instead focus on "building up the current infrastructure that exists in those neighborhoods now, building support for entrepreneurs" rather than trying to draw new businesses into neighborhoods from outside Durham.

He noted that while he thought the notion that light-rail could be a "release valve" for development pressure by concentrating new residents in high-density districts near new transit stations was sound, he was concerned about the General Assembly's knee-capping of  the Durham-Orange project. "I think the planning department is starting to realize we need more solutions" than just light-rail, Reece said. 

"What else can we do in neighborhoods to revitalize existing houses, to make sure that housing that’s currently affordable remains affordable, and is also safe and healthy," Reece said.

We asked Reece to delve into specifics, citing the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood sitting immediately adjacent. (When Cleveland-Holloway starting seeing new residents and neighborhood change in the late 2000s, a number of the new residents sought to build bridges to existing residents and to avoid wholesale neighborhood change; still, as one of Reece's fellow challengers noted, housing prices have risen dramatically, doubtlessly impacting some residents' ability to stay.)

Reece was candid in noting the limits of City Council power over private development. "I think it's important to remember the City Council can do some things, and can't do some other things," Reece said, particularly noting the Council's limited power in areas where the city doesn't own land or other resources to lever against developers.

Instead, Reece endorsed an idea he attributed to Jillian Johnson of encouraging the Durham Community Land Trust's expansion into other new neighborhoods. "I’m not 100% sure what else we can do to help them aside from giving [the Land Trust] more money, and I’m not sure whether or not that’s a realistic option in the near term. But, I do think that that model makes a huge difference in the partsd of the city where they operate," Reece said.

He also cited the importance of finding ways to develop affordable housing in neighborhoods beyond the 4-to-8 story, 100+ unit model proposed for downtown. Instead, Reece suggested using existing housing stock for this purpose.

"There are ways we can use foreclosed properties, other types of city owned properties, to try to develop affordable housing projects that are smaller, less impactful to the community, but can preserve the affordability," Reece said.

And, Reece cited a more humane area of challenge -- the need for newer, often younger residents moving into neighborhoods to reach out to existing social networks -- like door-to-door connections, using flyers to advertise neighborhood events, and serving food at them to draw an all-ages crowd -- instead of focusing on listservs, Facebook and other methods that don't cross digital divides.

Not all of these methods can or should be part of the Council's legally-limited toolbox, but Reece cited the importance of "being leaders and using the soapbox we have as elected officials" to try to stem what he described as the impact of "social disaffection."

More on Reece's views on neighborhood change:

 

On Why He's Running -- And the Campaign Toll

Asked why he decided to run, Reece says he first considered running when he heard that Eugene Brown was retiring. Then, Reece said, he "got to know some of the other candidates" and, with just that seat open, didn't plan to challenge.

(Speculation, but we assume this is a reference to the well-organized progressive effort to elect a candidate to the seat, and thereby elect Jillian Johnson onto the Council. From the sounds of things, Reece wouldn't have tried to challenge with only one seat at hand.)

Yet Reece changed his mind when, in what he described as a surprise, Diane Catotti decided not to run. "Certainly the prospect of losing a real liberal champion, a really progressive hero in Durham like Diane, caused me to rethink my own situation," Reece said.

We asked Reece to name some specific issues where he disagreed or agreed with Council positions in recent years. Reece picked three, two of very-recent vintage: the debate over the Jackson St. property's use for affordable housing, and the Council's support for the work Reece and other FADE activists did on racial profiling. (The adoption last year of a half-penny for parks, spearheaded by fellow PA endorsee Steve Schewel and Don Moffitt, was the third.)

We asked Reece whether he was concerned over Self-Help's approach seeking quick action on the Jackson site, hearkening back to the challenges with NC Mutual and Larry and Denise Hester's separate failed projects on the Rolling Hills site, and the policy efforts following that led to an RFP process for the third, successful Rolling Hills implementation.

"Oh, there’s no question that it is, and I think that’s probably at the root of the concerns of many of the folks who advocated a slower approach," Reece said. Still, given Self-Help's track record perhaps, Reece argued the Jackson St. site would be hard to pass up.

"The free market isn’t very good in Durham right now at developing affordable housing. The City Council’s gonna have to take the lead, and one of the best resources we have is the city-owned property that we have to be able to leverage this kind of development," Reece said.

He noted his understanding of Mayor Bell's concern about "warehousing" poor people on the Jackson St. site, "but I do think that this is not the kind of project that the mayor – the mayor specifically referenced, I think, Cabrini Greeni in his statement at the work session. I don’t think that’s what’s envisioned here," Reece said.

Similarly, Reece noted that while he supports preserving green space and parks in Durham's core, he cautioned that city-owned land is the best chance to build affordable housing, and "it's going to take political will, it's going to take vision, and it's going to take being willing to take tough votes" to use land for parks instead.

Reece also cited the challenges recently reported on in racial balance on the Southside homes, along with the striking cost of the Rolling Hills/Southside project, as concerns on the overall "great success story" of those efforts.

More on this:

 

We also asked Reece to address the word we'd heard in some corners that he might have interest in higher office, perhaps at the state level, and whether he was fully committed to serving on Council.

Reece noted he was a long-time political animal -- he's volunteered for local and state campaigns since the late 1980s, and currently serves as treasurer of the state Democratic Party. But he cited his young children, and the toll of even the relatively straightforward local City Council campaigns, as blunting any ambitions he may have had for state offices or other aspirational roles.

"If I had any thoughts before running for City Council about running for something else, ever again, running for City Council cured it," Reece said.

"I can commit to you 100% right now, if I am fortunate enough to be elected, I will not run for anything else, except running for reelection for City Council, if I’m fortunate enough to win, within the next five years."


On the PAC Politics in the Cycle

One area that's been perhaps the least-reported this cycle is the strong effort by Durham's progressives to nominate and push forward one from their ranks to join the City Council. To this end, a number of Jillian Johnson's earliest and strongest backers helped recruit a significant number of new PA members -- we've heard it was more than a hundred -- to turn out and support her endorsement during the PA's endorsement meeting this summer.

It's certainly not the only source of Johnson's strong showing -- her high second place finish near Steve Schewel's vote totals, and the drop-off in votes for Reece, suggests an incredibly strong ground game by the Council race newcomer. Still, we wonder about the social benefit and value of electoral efforts focused on endorsement turn-outs, and whether it's good for or a distortion of the local electoral process -- particularly in a world where many voters give very high weight to PAC endorsements.

Reece said he thought this year's PA process was "fantastic," and called bringing new voices to PA meetings to support candidates a "time-honored tradition." 

"That is a great way to make sure that the people who actually show up are invested in the future of the People's Alliance," Reece said.

This year, like last year, Reece said, the PA was the "beneficiary of a new strain of politics in Durham, that is much more focused on grass-roots activism," calling the new coalition multi-racial, localized, and more progressive. 

"This year, I think in my mind, cements that the Durham People's Alliance is going to be the home for that new strain of politics in Durham," Reece said.

The new energy, Reece noted, was also helping with the political ground game. "The People's Alliance has been able to put into the field this year the kind of door-knocking operation that has traditionally been the provence of political parties, and some very popular political candidates," he said.

More broadly, Reece argued, he does believe the PAC system is good for Durham, adding that he thinks Durham is best served by them "as long as each of the three is strong, as long as each of the three has committed membership that has bought in to the values of that organization and is interested in translating those values into success at the ballot box and success in terms of public policy before the city council and the county commission.”

Reece noted that while the other two (Friends and the Durham Committee) were a a lower-point than the PA in their influence, he felt the Committee in particular "is becoming more and more interested in the kinds of grass-roots organization it takes to be an effective political organization in Durham."

Comments

Natalie

I'm going to keep saying it - the growth in Cleveland Holloway home prices was inevitable. The housing stock available for less than $75k a decade ago was not fit to live in. Huge holes open to the crawl space, lack of electrical wiring, lack of plumbing, lack of HVAC. It is utterly not fair to compare prices then and now as if it's all people being greedy and driving out poor people. As someone who both purchased housing for less than $50/sqft and at the same time displaced poor long time residents I can claim to know something about this.

Is some of the work cosmetic - sure. Did the prices jump - absolutely. Without people putting a 100k into each house to make it meet minimum housing code there would not be a thriving full neighborhood now. There would still be boarded up houses that were being held by estates, there would still be open air drug dealing.

In an area that faced systematic disinvestment from local private forces for years you can't have investment - private or public - without it changing the economics of the area. I'd say getting properties out of the hands of slum lords - who were charging more than market rents to live in houses that did not meet minimum code - did more to change the area than anything else.

Bull City Rising

@Natalie: This is what makes a conversation about gentrification hard.

If you listen to this video and to the forthcoming one (once some technical glitches are worked out) with Jillian Johnson, our question to both was, how do you bring the neighborhood revitalization that folks want without displacement?

The various candidates, including Stephens in this for a moment, include mention of programs like tax abatements or repair assistance programs for long time residents. Maybe those can help in some cases. However, I would be surprised if they would help renters very much, since they are likely to be displaced by rising property values when the owners of the homes they rent flip to owner-occupied.

I had a conversation with a BCR frequent commenter recently, over a beer. He argues that the oft-maligned Roberts family quad-plexes sitting all around Durham are a great example of market-rate affordable housing, and that no one is building/can afford to build those anymore. Their aesthetics aren't great, but if there can be a way to keep them in the rental pool, affordable, and in good/safe condition, that would be a great outcome. The ultimate question is, how do you do it.

Natalie

I'll admit to being annoyed by the video. Eleni and I knocked on every door in our neighborhood multiple times a year for a solid 3 years while organizing Cleveland + Holloway (in '07 by the way) after having lived there for five years. We sat down and held discussions with people who just moved to the hood and who had lived there for decades. We also have spent significant time trying to discuss with out of town (or in town) slum lords that they could totally fix their houses or sell them or anything but renting to dealers again. We flyer, we post sign boards, we have a blog and a listserv, we built permanent signs for the park, to have it boiled down to 'young people can't rely on facebook'.

Faye Brodwater made the comment almost a decade ago that the duplexes and small houses and infill apartments that are built all over Durham were always going to be affordable housing because people who have options aren't going to choose to live in those with those landlords. Real neighborhoods have a MIX of incomes, sizes, and people.

If anything Cleveland Holloway prices will plateau soon as there are not many houses with more than 2 bedrooms and we lack a neighborhood school (ala E.K. Powe) for the kids in the hood to attend. Currently our 29 acre neighborhood is divided up between 4 traditional calendar elementary schools.

Back to the point - I can name the 20 people who have been displaced from my neighborhood in the past 5 years. Why? Minimum housing code violations and disinvestment from the landlords.

CharlieReece

Natalie:

I apologize that my remarks in the video oversimplified an issue that you have lived for many years. It was not my intent to minimize the hard work you have done to keep your community whole since buying your home. You have done everything we could ask a new neighbor to do, and for that you should be applauded.

But I do believe that many new homeowners to some of our historic neighborhoods have not worked nearly as hard as you have to integrate themselves into the existing social networks of those neighborhoods. Your experience should be viewed as a model for such new homeowners.

Again, I am sorry that I boiled it down to "young people can't rely on facebook." In the interest of time, I oversimplified an important issue in a way that annoyed you, and you were absolutely right to be annoyed. I'll work harder in the future to make sure I don't gloss over the hard work folks like you are doing in their neighborhoods every day.

Natalie

@Charlie -
It's not you at all - I actually really enjoyed your video so much better than the 18 mailers I've received at home. made me feel like you had a more nuanced approach and had thoughtfully considered issues.

For me it's being fed up with SO MANY GREAT IDEAS that people just don't put feet or data to. I feel that gentrification and affordable housing are a lot more complicated than are currently being given attention with this election and it annoys me.

Here's my example. Sure, everyone wants affordable housing, but the arguments I see are that it's for teachers, fire fighters, restaurant workers, and the like which reeks of the 'deserving poor'. In my mind, true affordable housing means you're building a range of housing options for people who are also sometimes employed, sometimes drunk, sometimes beat their spouse. Sometimes it's affordable options for people who are on the sex offender list. Sometimes it's for the retired person who lives modestly on a fixed income. Sometimes it's for people who smoke crack on the weekends. Sometimes people need subsidies because they just suck at managing their money and can't figure out how to make it all work. All of these people live in my city and deserve clean, safe housing options spread throughout the city without reducing them to pathology or circus freaks.

Quite simply, the people I know who have been displaced in Cleveland + Holloway would likely be unwelcome anywhere else in the City of Durham because they fit all of the above descriptions. When you're talking about affordable housing, it's not for the deserving poor, it's for real people who are struggling to make it and we're not talking about creating affordable housing for them.

CharlieReece

Natalie: I absolutely agree on the "deserving poor" argument. I think it comes from wanting to make the most persuasive possible argument, but it ends up pathologizing regular folks who have all sorts of problems in their lives who nonetheless need safe, healthy housing that they can afford.

And sorry for all the mailers. I think you'll only get one more between now and Election Day! The paper we're using is very recylcable.

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