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.
Mike Shiflett is making his second bid for a City Council seat; in 1999, he came in fourth in the primary and couldn't get enough votes to make the top three in the general election. It's 16 years later, and Shiflett came in - fourth in the primary, again. This time, he's doubtlessly hoping for a different general election outcome. Interestingly, in that 1999 race, People's Alliance president Diane Catotti publicly backed Shiflett, their nominee, while the now-defunct centrist-left Durham Voter's Alliance considered swapping their support to Thomas Stith after the primary when Shiflett said he wanted to see all the City-County merger details before giving the idea his unqualified support.
(Psssst, hey, all you kids with stars in your eyes and Instagram on those shiny phones of yours: Back before we had smartphones; hell, before anyone but realtors and doctors had cell phones; we used to talk about merging the governments. Oh, and how broken local government was, something the nouveau Durhamites have truly not experienced, you lucky dogs, you.)
In 2015, Shiflett didn't get the PA endorsement, but earned conservative and Durham Committee support he never would have garnered that cycle. Will it be enough to lead to a different outcome?
On Affordable Housing and Gentrification
In his comments on housing prices and the impact of gentrification, Shiflett's comments seem to look for a balance between concern for ensuring the presence of safe, affordable housing in Durham, while also celebrating the community improvements and investments that have led to some housing price increases in the first place.
"Affordable housing is a big issue right now," Shiflett said. "And for me, it's the history that I have in Durham," he added, noting his work with former city councilwoman and Durham housing advocate Lorisa Seibel in the 1990s on affordable housing issues, and more recently his volunteer work for groups pressing to include affordable housing in the planning around transit stations.
Shiflett also noted his many years' experience on Durham's quasi-judicial housing appeals board as an operational strength others don't bring, noting in particular the balancing act of keeping housing both affordable and safe through code compliance, and the unique statutory role that City Councils have to enforce building and housing codes.
"One of the benefits I think [of] the eight year I was on the board was to stop thinking about demolishing sub-standard housing and working for compliance," Shiflett said. "The housing stock is pretty unique here; to be able to renovate it, and fix it back up, and require landlords and propert owners to fix the property back up."
"There's a lot of affordable housing in Durham, it's just not as decent as what it needs to be," Shiflett added.
Yet Shiflett, in contrast to many of his fellow candidates, also talks of the benefits of Durham's upward trajectory in neighborhoods.
Asked about his being the beneficiary of a fundraiser by developer Bob Chapman -- and the optics of same given the lightning-rod attention Chapman, like most developer, draws in Durham's circles today -- Shiflett noted he had known Chapman for fifteen years, and praised the new urbanist's work redeveloping the Trinity Heights blocks off Markham Ave. as an example of stimulating a neighborhood that had been "blighted and neglected."
Shiflett acknowledged the impact that gentrification has had in such neighborhoods, but distinguished between its negative impact on renters versus what he described as a positive impact for homeowners whose annual property tax increases were outweighed by gains in their net worth.
(Interestingly, Shiflett at Monday night's CAN meeting noted that he had seen rising house prices in his own former neighborhood of Watts-Hillandale -- and had long decamped to the much more affordable Northgate Park.)
Shiflett also noted that Chapman's work in renovating buildings in the DIY district, including the homes of Geer Street Garden and other local businesses, laid the groundwork for efforts like the downtown co-housing complex and new homes on North St., "which would have never taken off had that initial investment by somebody who's a resident of Durham, been a developer, a local developer, hadn't taken his time and money to invest in a blighted area," Shiflett said.
"So there are some benefits filtering past just what he has done, into the neighborhoods," he added.
Still, while praising the level of new development happening in and around downtown, Shiflett said he recognized the need for public policy steps to ensure affordable housing appeared in the same districts.
"Now I'm very much aware that a lot of these projects are market rate," Shiflett said. "We need to address that as a City Council." Shiflett noted that he thought incentives to developers, providing a profit motive versus regulatory burden, was the most appropriate way to accomplish that.
And Shiflett stated his strong support for the Jackson St. affordable housing complex, siding with Mayor Bell's model of the project.
"I think we need to have mixed income housing," Shiflett said. "I think one of the connotations that people have with affordable housing is a negative connotation. If we can have an example of how to do it right, what a perfect place to put it," he noted, pointing out the Amtrak, bus, and future light-rail and commuter rail tie-ins.
More on Shiflett's views on developers and affordable housing:
Creating Opportunity in Education
We asked Shiflett his views on the job gap in Durham, or what Mayor Bell refers to as the need to not just create resources for the poor, but to reduce poverty. Specifically, how does Shiflett feel the City Council should be addressing the gaps between having so many high-wage, well-paying jobs for knowledge workers, versus the gaps apparent with those without college or graduate degrees.
Shiflett noted his childhood in Akron, and the opportunity to get marketable skills through shop, home economics and business classes providing "employable skills" -- and citing the not-insignificant number of his high school classmates who had been able to go into industrial jobs after getting their diplomas
"Those positions, those jobs, manufacturing mega-employers have gone away, and we need to realize that as a society, we need to realize that as an educational system, that we need to start focusing our children on employable skills after high school," Shiflett said.
He particularly praised Durham's City of Medicine Academy as providing hands-on skills in phlebotomy, radiology and other skills useful in a city and region renowned for its hospitals and physicians. "Those are great quality jobs that they get the basic skills in high school, but they can then apply and move on in a career later on," Shiflett said, also citing the work Durham Tech does in basic education.
He also noted the work that Gwen Silver and others in the east Durham community -- including the districts that are at the center of the mayor's poverty reduction initiative -- are doing in order to increase the level of utilization of Durham's Holton Center vocational learning center.
Shiflett called for Parks & Recreation, PAC1 and other groups to work together more closely to get these programs more widely used by nearby residents. He added that downtown's senior center had similar complaints of underutilization when it opened in the mid-2000s, but that work to get programs opened in the building and efforts to add a DATA bus stop adjacent to the center helped to grow its vitality.
On the Candidates' Generations and Worldviews
In an election cycle where there is a seemingly high amount of dis-ease about Durham's direction -- from an economic equity perspective, and in examining challenges with local policing that are closely intertwined with national conversations on race and policing -- does Shiflett believe he has a challenge relating, especially on a Council that is comprised largely of members in their senior years?
"It has been a Council, as have a lot of [city] councils throughout the United States, [with] a lot of grey-hairs," Shiflett said. "And there is an advantage to have somebody with maturity, and older, experienced -- you get to know how the system works."
And Shiflett drew a sharp distinction particularly to candidates who had only recently moved to Durham, noting that there was exposure, knowledge and "trust" one earns after having been in Durham for a while.
"For someone who comes in that's only lived here for maybe a year, three years, five years, even ten years, they barely know the neighborhoods, they barely know how to get from one side of town" to the other, he added.
Shiflett was quick to acknowledge the level of national and local discourse on policing; social media and the kind of short clips that can spread virally on these networks "has raised a lot of awareness for things that need to change," Shiflett said.
He cited the attention to policing as a positive for awakening his own awareness on racial disparities on policing, while cautioning that he at times found protests against police to sometimes be a "negative with things not in the best interest of Durham." Shiflett also cited his work in his Partners Against Crime district and as a member and leader of Durham Businesses Against Crime.
Shiflett also noted what he described as a value in keeping in plain sight the positive things happening in Durham as well, sighting the DPAC, new Bulls ballpark, American Tobacco and Bimbe Festival as examples.
"These are great things that have happened so far in the last ten or fifteen years, and I believe those are things that we can focus on," Shiflett said. "They shouldn't be the only focus, we need to pay attention to the negative things that we can improve upon. But I think just remembering there's a balance, and I think that's what I'm trying to bring to the community and this campaign, is there are a lot of great things happening."
On PACs and Fundraising
We asked Shiflett about one of the questions that The Durham News brought up in recent days about candidates' donations to the PACs that endorsed them -- including, in his case, a large ($2,500) donation from Shiflett's campaign to the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
It's not an illegal practice, as the N&O's biweekly notes, but it is one that raises scrutiny about what one might call a do ut des. It's also a common practice -- as the N&O's reporting notes, all of the five candidates receiving endorsements from the Committee and the People's Alliance gave money to the PACs.
(Shiflett's was also not the largest check written -- that honor goes to Charlie Reece's $3,000 to the PA.)
Shiflett said he was "surprised and humbled" to get the Friends' endorsement, and "even more humbled" to get the Committee's nod.
"When I got the endorsement from the Committee, I know that their background is in poll workers and in having a well oiled campaign support team, and I wanted to show them that appreciation."
Shiflett emphasized that the contribution to the Committee did not take place before the Committee's endorsement, but took place "at least a week after."
"I think I did the right thing," he said. "I think it's my intention to continue to support the People's Alliance, even though I was not the candidate that they endorsed, I will continue to do the work that they believe in, along with Durham CAN."
Shiflett noted the breadth of endorsements he received, including from the Sheriff-Police Alliance and the Republican Party, which he placed in the context of his long time in Durham and his familiarity to voters.
"It's not what a person says or does... when they're in front of the camera. It's what they have done in the past," Shiflett said.
"It's the history that they have. Are they positive, are they negative, are they contributing, are they doing something that you can count on when they become an elected official?"