I'm doing something new this election cycle -- since tomorrow's vote is itself an unusual one in the recent history of Durham politics.
Outside of incumbent Steve Schewel, none of the other six finalists for City Council have experience in local elected office, and few have experience in the usual junior-varsity types of civic engagement. And, the depth of coverage of the usual outlets on this election has been perhaps thinner than we've seen in the past, save for the sheer number of candidate forums.
So, for the first time, I'm -- not endorsing, per se, but seeking to bring a lens of qualification. Based on candidates' answers to questionnaires, and the conversations I've gotten to have with them -- who is best prepared to serve on City Council?
I'd suggest that four candidates -- Steve Schewel, Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Mike Shiflett -- are the four who deserve your consideration tomorrow. (You are voting tomorrow, right?) More after the jump, but to summarize:
- Schewel's depth of civic experience, outstanding service in his first term, and depth of vision for Durham, make him a natural and appropriate choice.
- Reece, while lacking traditional civic board experience, has reasonable relevant experience, and articulates positions on the issues not dissimilar from the "pragmatic progressive" super-majorities on City Council in the past decade.
- Johnson also lacks traditional civic experience, and some voters will be concerned that she comes from a full-tilt activism background and the Occupy Durham wing of local politics. But, those voters who want a greater focus on social justice, equity, and the needs of Durham's disadvantaged will find her an exceptionally bright, energetic advocate, and worthy of their vote.
- Shiflett's long history of civic experience and his knowledge not just of Durham issues, but Durham neighborhoods and residents across class, racial and geographic boundaries, make him worthy for Council consideration. Those happy with Durham's current direction, and perhaps those seeking a Eugene Brown-molded replacement for the singular retiring Councilman, may prefer Shiflett to Johnson for their third slot.
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We've seen the question -- in candidate forums, in Lisa and my own questions for candidates, in the comments here -- about the impact of this change. One line of thinking would have board and commission service as a sine qua non for elected office, and indeed, a couple of PAC endorsements seem to have screened on that basis. Another school of thought argues that alternative types of experience, such as political activism and community organizing, is a perfectly appropriate way of building experience.
Personally, my bias going into this election cycle was, and still remains, that civic engagement, volunteerism, and engagement in a way that crosses polemic and partisan boundaries is crucial. We have been fortunate that local elected offices have not devolved into the sort of partisan battleground that federal, state, and even some municipalities have.
I'll concur with Mel Norton in her recent comment here that some of the traditional civic organizations may not be the most inclusive, sure. But I'm intrigued, for instance, not to hear Durham Neighborhood College -- an inclusive, local government-run academy for citizens to learn about their governments -- as preparation that candidates had gone through. (Perhaps they have, but I don't recall any of the challengers mentioning it.)
Having gone through the course, and had now-County Commissioner Fred Foster as a fellow student, I can vouch for how useful it is to have learned the inside-out of local government before running for office.
But fundamentally, endorsing service in this cycle based solely on participation in civic boards would have several effects.First, it would be a de facto screener that would provide you with, easy-peasy, just three names to select from. The problems with that are:
- First, depending on one's political lens, that may exclude one's voting for a candidate who aligns with one's perspectives on the most important issues in Durham;
- Second, in reviewing the candidates' questionnaires from various organizations and media outlets, it's by no means apparent that those candidates with the most civic experience are necessarily the best-prepared to serve on City Council.
On a personal note, I want to thank all five of the candidates who took time to meet with Lisa and me last week. Having a chance to meet with candidates, to ask them tough questions, and to be able to share the interviews with the public -- something that's not a hallmark, say, of editorial boards when they do endorsements -- was a pleasure. (I should note, since I referenced Lisa, that the musings below are mine and mine alone, so no rotten-eggs at Lisa's front door if you disagree!)
With all this ramblin' preamblin' out of the way, I would posit that, if we set aside the civic screening that I'm (somewhat reluctantly) willing to do -- four out of the six candidates are prepared or well-prepared to serve on City Council. By which I mean they appear to have enough knowledge of Durham, depth of thoughtfulness on local issues, and have formed defensible and reasonable perspectives on the issues.
Those candidates are: Steve Schewel (well-prepared), and, in alphabetical order, Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Mike Shiflett (prepared).
I don't believe that Ricky Hart or Robert Stephens currently meet the same threshold, and don't believe they are ready to be voted in to City Council.
Now, that's four names and you've got three votes. (Only two if you are planning to write in Ray Ubinger's name, natch.) I'd suggest:
- Voters who are well-satisfied with the City's direction and posture, including the current trajectory of growth and development, may find Schewel, Reece and Shiflett to be their ideal choices.
- Voters who appreciate the general path but believe a directional change towards greater consideration of social justice and equity issues is needed, may find Schewel, Johnson and Reece to be the best slate for them.
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Hart, Stephens: Not Ready for City Council
I haven't had a chance to meet Ricky Hart in person, so in full disclosure, this assessment is based on Hart's performance at the INC debate and his responses to the questionnaires that have been posted.
It's admirable that Hart has served on the Human Relations Commission and, in the 1990s, the boxing and wrestling board. And, Hart's answers to the questionnaires suggests a genuine concern over the challenges and travails of Durham's economically disadvantaged.
Still, City Council is a weighty role and requires well-prepared candidates who fully understand the issues facing Durham. And, comparing Hart's answers on the questionnaires to -- well, to all five of the other finalists -- we see Hart coming up short in his knowledge and analysis on local issues and needs.
We're inclined to want to give a benefit of the doubt that when Hart describes himself as "the Hart of Durham," he really means he would bring empathy over analysis in wrestling with issues; and, his military and community experience is admirable. But his answers on the issues don't evince a confidence in how he'd do on City Council.
Robert Stephens is charismatic and passionate about the issues for which he advocates. However, in short, there is no way to be prepared to lead a city of a quarter-million people after less than a year living here.
There's a myriad of points of concern for a voter looking at Stephens as a Council candidate. One is the outsized, significant donations from Teach For America PACs and alums, which seem more aimed at elevating T4A alums to political life than a specific interest in Durham -- though Stephens is not alone in raising big funds from outside Durham this cycle.
More concerning is local knowledge. Stephens can strongly articulate national-progressive issues, yet a weaker ability to show a wide range of knowledge on specific Durham issues, outside a few specific suggestions. Even the few minutes spent on local topics in our conversation did not inspire confidence.
At heart, I have a deep dis-ease about anyone feeling, no matter how much enthusiasm they have, that they warrant election over candidates with more actual knowledge of Durham. And while Stephens mentions ageism, we'd note that Jillian Johnson, only a few years his senior, has a much deeper grasp of local issues and concerns -- exactly as we'd expect from someone who's lived here for 16 years.
Unlike Johnson, who we'll discuss further, Stephens doesn't present a compelling knowledge of Durham and, really, a story beyond his own personal life experience. But as anyone who's interviewed candidates for a job can attest, there's a significance to behavioral interviewing -- asking folks not just their best answers to a questions, but actual relevant experiences to back up their perspectives. Stephens is not in a position to yet have those civic experiences.
We'd encourage the well-traveled Stephens to settle here, raise his kids here, get active and involved in civic activism, and make an impact on the issues he's concerned about. There's plenty of time to seek elected office. We don't think this is Stephens' time.
Schewel, Reece: Our Across-the-Ballot Recommendations
That leaves us with four candidates who, I think are well-prepared to lead Durham. The three you choose among that set, of course, will and should vary with your political proclivities.
Still, electoral math suggests that there are two of the candidates who merit a bubbled-oval on every ballot: Steve Schewel and Charlie Reece.
In recommending Schewel, there's much to like: his longtime community engagement, significantly but not merely as the publisher of the Independent Weekly. His school board service which, as many of us have liked to forget, happened at a particularly contentious and difficult time for DPS. His meritorious service on City Council, which by itself deserves a second term.
But we're also going to pick out one other thing: his positive and optimistic vision for Durham.
As I said to Steve in the interview, Durham's last quarter-century has often been a battle between optimists and pessimists on Durham's future. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which cost some electeds their job. American Tobacco incentives, which had significant skeptics in the community. The Durham Performing Arts Center, a project that attracted serious opposition -- as well as community activism in one of its earlier conceptions, something that moved the DPAC to a more successful facility. Heck, I even remember talking to one local notable who scoffed at the notion that the East End Connector would ever be built.
In general, the battle for public opinion in Durham has been one waged between Durham's optimists and its pessimists. To badly misappropriate a Wesley Snipes line, we'd suggest you always double-down on Durham.
Schewel's optimism about Durham's future is aided by his lens on the work we have ahead to keep Durham a place that brings success to all its residents, in the wake of national-level and even micro-level inequities that keep everyone from getting a fair shake. We think Schewel will continue to support Durham's progress while also pressing for social equity and justice issues.
In considering Charlie Reece's readiness for Council, I must first share a disagreement with a statement recently rolling about on social media -- attributed perhaps to Hank Scherich -- that draws what I would consider to be an undeserved comparison between Reece, Stephens, and Johnson.
The missive, which drums up support for the we're-not-the-PA slates that the Friends and Committee have endorsed, presents all three as activists without a grounding in Durham issues.
Having met all three, and having read their responses to questionnaires, I think this isn't a fair conception of their strengths and weaknesses.
While Reece is a clear progressive on many issues -- from his work on the PA's board, to his support for FADE's recommendations, to his views on the need for a greater focus on social equity -- there is a balance and universality to his responses to questions that suggests to me he will be much more closely aligned with the Schewel-Woodard-Catotti axis of "pragmatic progressive" that has predominated on City Council in recent years.
When issues of solving equity issues comes up, for instance, Reece recognizes the role that city-owned land and agreements with developers who want a zoning change can play in pressing for issues like affordable housing. Yet Reece also seems to celebrate the economic growth that downtown's revitalization has played, sees the role that our new knowledge worker job base plays in Durham's success, and recognizes that the City's power to restrict change in Durham on private-property parcels is limited.
There's been questions of Reece's out-of-town money, too; as with Stephens, and as with this race in general, we're concerned to see so much money flowing into a City Council race. I have my own theory -- City Council is a place no one wanted to be years ago, but now that the city is so much better off than it was, we're seeing "political gentrification" and everyone's movin' in to be one of success' many mothers and fathers. (More on that after the election.)
Out of the three remaining prepared candidates after Schewel, I can see Reece appealing to the widest audience -- and think he will rise beyond the current campaign positioning some have sought of the "PA candidate" to be a Council member truly seeking to represent all of Durham.
Shiflett, Johnson: Pick your politics, pick your Council member
With two choices made, the last and toughest choice would then be to select either Mike Shiflett, or Jillian Johnson, as deserving of the third nod.
Fortunately, this isn't a choice I feel the need to make.
If you pick the candidate who best matches your political worldview -- and your local Durham perspective -- I believe you will be satisfied with the outcomes you see on Council.
The concerns over Johnson's activist background will undoubtedly cost Johnson some votes; in other cases, it will win her support and votes, irrespective of local knowledge.
In Stephens' case, national-interest activism is unmatched by sufficient awareness and knowledge of local issues. In Johnson's, it is not. And having had the opportunity to have a long conversation with Johnson, I find she has the intellect, passion, energy and well-thought responses on issues of local concern to be an effective Council member.
While I appreciate Mel's arguments (and Rann's frustration) over the extra scrutiny of activism as a background, I still would have hoped to hear from Johnson, when asked to describe an ideologically-diverse experience, an answer other than the diverse perspectives encountered during her Occupy Durham efforts. It's in this area that a breadth of Durham civic volunteerism, beyond activism, would be welcome.
Yet Johnson's success in the campaign to date does not come merely from activism, or even from a get out the vote campaign that's extraordinarily well-organized. It also comes from her so successfully articulating strong, credible positions on issues of wide importance to many Durhamites.
I suspect that if elected, Johnson will prove to be a thoughtful advocate; not merely a voice for those who have been underrepresented, but also a Council member who will consider all sides of issues, bring an analytical lens to them, and vote in the best interests, as she says, of a Durham for all.
For those voters for whom progressive concerns on issues of social and racial equity predominate, a vote for Johnson will be an outstanding choice.
There are other voters in this election who may feel that Durham is on the right path for all, and that City Council will continue its in-progress work on supporting neglected neighborhoods and supporting affordable housing -- through acts like the inexplicably underdiscussed eight-figure investment in Rolling Hills affordable housing apartments, which for all the passion over Jackson St. and Southside, escapes the memory of just about everybody.
For those voters who are comfortable with the status quo, Mike Shiflett is a solid choice. While Shiflett has perhaps overextended his emphasis on civic experience -- holding up one's resume to the camera at the INC forum, or pasting it into the Chamber of Commerce questionnaire response, is a new one for us -- he's not wrong to note his long participation in Durham issues.
For all the differences in endorsements and advocacy, I don't Shiflett is that far from other candidates on the continuum when it comes to local issues/emphasis. Like the other candidates, for instance, Shiflett supports Durham's revitalization, while also wanting to see the city continue its work on affordable housing.
I haven't always agreed with Shiflett on all issues (like electronic billboards). But his good, hands-on work on affordable housing, transit, transportation, and crime issues are merit-worthy.
From a pro-/anti-development perspective, Shiflett is probably to the center/right of the four candidates we'd argue merit your vote. But that's on a Durham scale. We'd expect Shiflett to be not-dissimilar from outgoing Council member Eugene Brown on issues around development, incentives and the like.
So: that's where we stand. We'll know in about 24 hours where Durham stands.