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.
Jillian Johnson has made a big impact on the Durham political scene in the course of a fraction of a campaign. She placed a strong second to Steve Schewel in the primary -- trailing an incumbent, past school board member, and all-around four-decade political vet by only a thousand votes or so. And if we ribbed Charlie Reece for his ubiquitous mailers, I challenge you to find a street corner in Durham that doesn't have one of her campaign signs. (Johnson told Lisa and me during an off-camera moment in our interview that her young children, unsurprisingly, delight in seeing 'mommy' everywhere they go.)
But Johnson's embryonic political history -- she's been engaged in activist movements throughout her sixteen years as a Durham resident, but has not appeared to serve on any City or County boards, and hasn't participated in broad-based civic activities outside deeply progressive movements -- also have raised questions, both about her background and about the apparently extremely well-organized engine to bring a capital-P Progressive to Council.
So in this interview, we talk with Johnson about her positions on the key issues she's raised in the campaign, including affordable housing, gentrification and policing -- but also about the politicking that may have helped earn the PA endorsement and about Johnson's previous civic work.
Note: Our camera equipment failed on the first half of the interview; Lisa, who did a great job putting these videos together, has placed the last half of the interview first with the first segment an audio-only section at the end. We did check with Johnson to make sure she was okay with this out-of-order editing. Apologies for the technical difficulties.
Johnson's Decision to Run for Council, and Past Civic Experience
Johnson centered her interest in running for office squarely around concerns she has about the impacts of Durham's rapid change since she arrived at Duke in 1999.
"I’ve been hearing, in my community and just around Durham for a long time, serious concerns about gentrification in my neighborhood and in neighborhoods all around Durham. And I think it’s something that we’ve been talking about for a long time," Johnson said.
She along with attorneys at her former employer, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice worked with the tenants of University Apartments in the West End when it was bought several years ago, and tenants saw their rent rise from $600 to $900 -- a level that she says would now be considered affordable in the neighborhood where she lived since her last year at Duke.
"So I feel like we’re at a turning point, and we have to make some tough choices about what kind of city we want to be, and making sure that our city is diverse and remains affordable and inclusive for people," Johnson said.
We asked Johnson about her non-traditional path to seeking a Council seat -- since while she has lived in Durham since the turn of the century, her resume doesn't cite any experience on any of the many civic boards and commissions, or groups like Durham's InterNeighborhood Council, that are often grooming steps ahead of elected office.
Johnson said she felt her experience focused on activist causes and social justice were her "entry into the political world."
“I think that part of the narrative of me not having that experience is really indicative of a misplaced value system," Johnson said. "I think that experience in movement building experience, on nonprofit boards and really being involved in the community is every bit as valuable and preparatory for being on City Council as some of these other, more traditional routes.”
Johnson also noted that she represented a diversity in other ways -- as a mother, as significantly younger (34) than other office-holders, and as the only woman seeking office this cycle.
And Johnson said she was committed to being a voice for those she felt did not have voice in the decisions being made in Durham.
"I think that in terms of why I chose to run for City Council with that background, is that I think that it is really important to bring all of those voices to the table, that we make our best decisions when we are really listening to our community and when we center the voices of folks who are most impacted by these issues of equity and injustice," Johnson said.
And as an organizer, I think that’s really where my skill set is, in building those broad and diverse coalitions, and bringing together, and really hearing everyone’s views, and trying to come up with solutions that work well for folks. And so I think that those skills translate really well to a City Council post.”
We asked Johnson about the uniformly left-aligned movements that she described as the foci of her experience, and asked the candidate to tell us about times when she had had to work across ideological and political divides, in the way that groups like INC or the many civic groups in town do.
Johnson, interestingly, cited her work with Occupy Durham several years back as that experience.
"Interestingly, I think the Occupy movement was actually the place where I found the most ideological diversity in the work that I’ve been doing, because that really brought together folks who were facing all these different kinds of economic issues," Johnson said.
"So we had people who were living on the street, or who were living in transitional housing, who were coming up to our Occupy encampment in our People’s Plaza downtown, who were very uncomfortable with some of our, I would say, more progressive ideas," she added.
"We got some folks who, though they were very much economically felt allied with our ideas -- around there’s too much poverty, we’re run by this system of elites that is really having a negative effect on the rest of us -- they were socially very different from us," Johnson said, "and I think we had a lot of interesting conversations around trying to figure out ways that everyone can be involved in participating in the movement."
But Johnson opined that considering Occupy as, as we asked, a non-mainstream group, may miss what she described as an emerging awareness and support for it and similar activist causes.
"We’ve got presidential candidates now talking about economic inequality on a national stage. I think that’s become a major issue," Johnson said.
"Black Lives Matter is being asked to a group of folks from the Democratic party who are not particularly involved in any of those movements, but they’re meeting with Black Lives Matter folks," Johnson noted. "And they’re coming out and they’re saying on national television, when asked, 'Do black lives matter or do all lives matter,' they say, 'Black lives matter.' So I think that what’s mainstream and what’s not is in constant flux."
"I don’t think that these are particularly radical ideas, that people should make living wages, that people shouldn’t be subjected to unduly aggressive policing. These are not radical, these are pretty basic human dignity needs and desires. I think that the work I’ve been doing is in the right space," Johnson said.
Gentrification, Neighborhood Change, and Affordable Housing
Johnson noted her decision to stay in Durham after graduating from Duke as being centered in her desire to live in a diverse, inclusive community.
"I don’t want us to lose that That’s what I really value about our city, and what I think makes it a great place to raise my two boys," Johnson said, comparing it to her childhood in a diverse community in northern Virginia.
And Johnson cited gentrification and neighborhood change as the key driver threatening Durham communities.
“I think the process is accelerating, and what we’ve been seeing in West End and Morehead Hill, where I’m in – we’re seeing even more of that in North-East Central Durham, areas in Southside just south of downtown," Johnson said. "So I feel like we’re at a turning point, and we have to make some tough choices about what kind of city we want to be, and making sure that our city is diverse and remains affordable and inclusive for people.”
Johnson cited the desire both to engage existing residents themselves in conversations about their future, and to press for improvements on affordable housing issues.
Asked about underinvestment in the Fayetteville St. corridor, Johnson described the destruction of Hayti as "one of Durham's most horrifying historical moments," describing it as a process by which a "vibrant neighborhood" with businesses owned by people of color was "wiped off the map."
But she cautioned against any city plans for revitalization occurring without deep citizen engagement, noting the legacy of "residual distrust" due to urban renewal a generation ago. She called for having community town hall meetings to understand locals' desires before any proposal moved forward.
“I’m concerned about doing anything in that neighborhood without really having a conversation with the folks that live there and what they want to see happen," Johnson said.
Johnson shared her strong enthusiasm for the affordable housing project on Jackson St. linked to Self-Help and strongly advocated for by Durham CAN, noting that she didn't share the mayor's concern over ensuring the project is mixed-income, and seemingly wondering whether the project could be less expensive by not attempting to make it a mixed-income development.
"Could we serve more people buy building a mixed-income neighborhood, rather than individual mixed income buildings, and I think that we could," Johnson said.
Asked about Rolling Hills and Southside and the multi-million dollar investment made there -- an item frequently overlooked by all sides in this year's election -- Johnson, like other candidates, focused on concerns about the recently-reported racial disparities in the ownership component of Southside on the western side of Roxboro.
She also wondered whether even the subsidized prices in Southside were too high. "I think that they were still pretty high, in the $200,000 to $220,000" range after add-ons, Johnson said. "That’s just not affordable for a lot of folks. I mean, I couldn’t afford to buy my house now, so I know that was definitely a concern as well."
Asked about the larger, 100 unit+ rental complex on the eastern side of Roxboro, Johnson noted "I've heard no criticisms of that part of the project" other than its cost in an environment with high competition for limited federal funds and tax credits for such projects.
When asked about the Catch-22 inherent in supporting disinvested neighborhoods -- namely, that increasing amenities and attractiveness can accelerate gentrification -- Johnson, singularly, called for a focus on cooperatively-owned businesses.
"I think that cooperatives are a really exciting and interesting way to do that, both worker owned and owner owned cooperative businesses," Johnson said. So really getting the folks in those communities involved in creating something that serves their own people and benefits their own people."
Johnson noted a number of local and regional efforts to grow the number of cooperative businesses.
"Also, I think it’s important to think about what do the people who are already in that community need. It’s very easy to provide services that market to more affluent people," Johnson said.
"What is happening in Durham is, we’re getting beer gardens, we’re getting fancy cupcake shops, we’re getting nice restaurants and – and I like all that stuff, my partner and I have a date to go to Mateo on Sunday, and it’s delicious and I love it – and I am very much one of those privileged folks that can afford to participate in this new downtown."
"But I think for folks who can’t, there’s serious questions of equity, and who are these businesses providing these services for," Johnson cautioned. "And I think that we are seeing a lot of displacement already in North-East Central Durham, in Cleveland-Holloway, you know, house prices have gone up by about 400% in the last ten years, and that is not sustainable for that community.
Noting that Durham has, through incentives and public policy, been "subsidizing all this development in downtown," Johnson encouraged the city to find opportunities to bring more locally-relevant businesses into other neighborhoods.
Policing and Public Safety
We asked Johnson if she wanted to expound on her views at the recent INC Forum, when she was unique among candidates in talking solely about positive opportunities to improve residents' opportunity levels and divert them from crime, versus policing strategies per se.
Johnson talked about the linkage between policing and what she framed as a widespread challenge with the impact of "mass incarceration."
She pressed for a reduction in enforcement for drug possession, noting the tremendous impact that can have on individuals' future employment, difficult re-entry to society after a prison term, and other challenges. "My ideal situation would be to focus far less on those sort of low-level misdemeanors, and particularly drug crimes of all sorts," Johnson said.
Johnson called for continuing to support and grow diversion programs, such as Drug Court, and noted that one district attorney is evaluating a mental health court.
Noting her own experience seeing a roommate in college raped after a break-in at their house -- and the perpetrator, whose DNA was on file, still on the street because of a backlog in rape kit testing -- Johnson noted the need to address funding, staffing and other challenges.
"That's a person who I think does not need to be on the street, so we need to figure out ways to investigate violent crimes, to make sure that we are intervening when necessary," Johnson noted -- with a strong reminder that "our criminal justice system is unfair, that mass incarceration is a huge problem, and that sending folks to prison doesn’t actually help them."
"We don’t have a rehabilitative prison system, we are just warehousing people that we can’t figure out what to do with," Johnson said. "And at the same time, we’re reproducing these systems of poverty and oppression that create those people.”
"So for me, it’s just not enough to have a policing strategy. For now, we need to figure that out," Johnson said.
"But long term, what are we going to do? We’re not going to arrest our way out of violent crime, we’re not going to incarcerate our way out violent crime. The only way to really keep ourselves safe is to improve our communities, to give ourselves opportunities."
And opportunities and a fair economic shake, Johnson argued, is the key to safety.
"People do the best they can with what you give them. So if you don’t give them anything, what do you expect?"
Asked about city administration in general, Johnson expressed her respect and support for city manager Tom Bonfield "and his work in really creating that managerial system that’s been really effective in governing the city over the last few years."
Yet noting her concerns over the Durham Police Department and what she described as its racial and equity biases, Johnson did express concern over the firewalling that the council-manager form of government places between the City Council and that department.
"I do have a concern that it seems like the city manager has a lot of power, and that’s an unelected position that’s appointed by the Council, and then goes on to appoint these other positions," Johnson said.
"So it seems like there’s not as much direct oversight as there could be, which may influence situations like whether to terminate the police chief, who’s widely seen as problematic in the community, that not being done as quickly as it could be."
Still, while saying there are "some tweaks" that could be made, Johnson was generally supportive of the current city leadership.
Endorsements, Elites and Elections
We asked Johnson about one of the most curious reports we've heard in this year's election cycle -- namely, that Johnson's campaign and supported worked to bring Johnson supporters into the People's Alliance as new members in order to help secure the vote.
(This has been a quiet, but contentious, point in the campaign. One longtime PA member described going to the endorsement meeting and recognizing nearly no one in the room. It's also, one can argue, evidence of an exceptionally well-organized ground game and, of course, perfectly within the PA bylaws, which require membership 30 days ahead of an endorsement meeting in order to be able to vote.)
Johnson was straightforward in acknowledging this much-discussed aspect of the campaign.
"We asked our folks to support me at the PA endorsement meeting, because we feel that PA is a really important organization in Durham," Johnson said. We wanted to give energy to the PA, and to bring new voices in, and to really have an impact on what they’re focusing on."
She noted that she had had many early supporters encourage her to run, describing her early backers as "folks who do different kinds of work in the city who really wanted someone who had a background in community work and movement organizing to bring those voices into City Council and to really be a voice for those folks."
Describing the PA's process as "very open and democratic," Johnson noted its role in providing a non-traditional candidate an avenue to elected office.
"I know that in a lot of cities, if you run for city office and you don’t have the blessing of the party, or some sort of higher-level political system, that you don’t have a chance," Johnson said. "I think here in Durham, there are ways for folks like me who have not been involved traditionally in city politics to be supported by PACs, because we believe in the same ideas and we have the same vision for Durham."
We quizzed Johnson further on that latter point. After all, we wonder, does a PAC and a campaign share the same ideas and vision, or does a membership influx instead align the PAC with the campaign? Or, as we put it, is the process of recruiting members to the PA ahead of an endorsement meeting itself a political elites activity, and something that's concerning for civic voice in Durham?
Johnson disagreed, arguing that the PA's current influence had not always been (and presumably might not always be) the same.
"In the past, in Durham, there have been other PACs, PACs that still exist today, that have in the past had a much higher level of influence in Durham on politics, on what’s going on," Johnson noted. "At this particular moment, it seems that it is just the PA’s message that is just having the most impact on folks.
And she noted that she sees her campaign as a highly-inclusive process that is drawing new voices into the room.
"When we did our precinct analysis, the precincts where I actually got the highest number of votes were not the precincts that were the highest level of PA voters," Johnson said. "So I’m drawing support from the traditional PA voters, but also from folks here in North-East Central Durham, from folks around Hayti, from people who I think are really responding to that message around gentrification and wanting the city to really focus on development in these communities that feel that they’re being neglected and left out."
Indeed, Johnson described a very -- here's that phrasing again -- activist campaign that's working to draw new voters in. Campaign workers are going door to door, riding DATA buses, helping to register and mobilize new voters.
There should be no doubt that Johnson wouldn't want it to be any other way.
"I think the campaign is already doing some of the work that I want to be doing on Council, which is really broadening that democracy, making sure that wee have everyone’s voice at the table, and that we’re really paying attention to what people in these communities that are experiencing rapid gentrification, that feel like their concerns aren’t being listened to, that their needs aren’t being met by the City, that those people are part of the process and being heard."