It’s a rainy, cold October day and early voting for the city council general election has kicked off with a whimper. A parking lot outside a downtown polling station is nearly empty except for a few cars and Jackie Wagstaff’s foldable, blue campaign tent.
Wagstaff, a North Carolina native and a former city council member, is running for an at-large seat on the council. A champion to some, she’s controversial to others and has starred in lots of drama in Durham politics over the years.
In 2003, Wagstaff almost lost her Durham school board seat after she acknowledged falsifying two city check requests after the city council froze funding for the nonprofit she led. Wagstaff filed a restraining order against the school board, a difficult start to a three-year term.
In an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2005, Wagstaff called for a replacement of all school board members, herself included. In 2013, leaders of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People censured Wagstaff and suspended her as chair of their political committee after accusing her of being “insubordinate, uncollaborative, and extremely impolite.”
While commending the move to reduce discord back then, Durham columnist Carl W. Kenney II also praised Wagstaff. “As controversial as she has been, Wagstaff is that rare leader in Durham. She has carried the torch for the poor and maligned for a long time. Her concerns are legitimate… ,” he wrote
Such turbulence has never deterred Wagstaff. “God never gave me the spirit of fear. So when there is a problem in my community, I’m not going to sit back and hope that it works itself out. I’m going to advocate, I’m going to be vocal about it, and I’m going to stand with the people until we get some resolve,” she said. “I have a passion for people, and if that looks like anger, I can’t help that.”
Wagstaff moved to Durham from New Rochelle, New York in 1981 after attending her youngest brother’s high school graduation here. She fell for the city’s black pride and vibrant black social and business communities, so much so that she never caught the bus back to her life in New York.
“I had no plans of living in North Carolina ever in my life again after I left. But there was something about Durham,” she said.
Wagstaff’s 2019 platform centers around principles she said she has always valued: expanding affordable housing, achieving higher wages, and reducing both homelessness and gang violence. All of these issues remain relevant to a share of Durham’s diverse black community, Wagstaff said.
“I’m not one of those people who need a dissertation to tell you what I’m about. I know because I’ve been out on these grounds, boots on the ground in this community,” she said.
Like all challengers on the City Council ballot this year, Wagstaff opposes the incumbents’ vote in June which rejected police chief C.J. Davis’ request for 18 new police officers. The council instead opted to put some of those funds toward an increase in part time worker’s wages, council member Jillian Johnson stating that the long term crime statistics do not indicate a need for more officers.
Wagstaff disagrees, claiming that whatever statistics the incumbents use to justify fewer police officers mean very little to the community members who live with persistent gunfire and often lethal, violent crimes.
She blames most crime and gang violence on economic depression in parts of Durham, and believes the best way to reduce these issues is to expand affordable housing and local jobs.
“The strategy for livable wages is simple,” Wagstaff said. The city should require all businesses to pay workers at least $15 per hour, even though state law forbids cities from raising a state-set minimum wage, she said. From there city officials could fight for the right in court, she said.
The council should also expand funding for the Parks and Recreation department, Wagstaff said, and reinstating programs like Night Flight’s Midnight Basketball program, which opens school gyms at night for teens to use. She wants to ensure youth centers are available for local young people, so disadvantaged teens who join criminal gangs can redirect their energy, she said.
Wagstaff’s other primary platform point, affordable housing, addresses the current council’s push for a $95 million Affordable Housing Bond, which supporters say will pave the way for reasonably priced housing for 15,000 people over five years. Although the City Council is planning permanently affordable units if the bond is passed, Wagstaff is not convinced that will ensure affordable units stay affordable.
Rhonda Willis, Wagstaff’s campaign treasurer, is also skeptical. “These units were not made for us,” she said of some affordable housing in Durham. Strict credit checks and criminal background checks have made it difficult for many impoverished or homeless people in Durham to take advantage of affordable housing options, she said.
In a written statement to the People’s Alliance PAC, Wagstaff took aim at the city’s recently passed Expanding Housing Choices (EHC) ordinance too. “There is a very real homeownership and wealth gap for blacks in Durham which continues to grow and EHC does not fully address the need to create affordable housing options for Durham’s poorest residents,” she said.
Wagstaff wants the City Council to use “inclusionary zoning” practices when approving future development projects. “We have to have something in place to make sure that developers honor their agreement of keeping units affordable. Inclusionary zoning would guarantee that and guarantee that they couldn’t hike the rent more than $5,” she said.
She said requiring the city to favor Durham-based contractors would be the most promising solution for creating affordable housing and local jobs. “The city needs to become their own developer,” Wagstaff said. Local developers are more likely to provide Durham residents with longterm construction positions than the out-of-city developers who bring in their own work force, she said.
Wagstaff has spent the last few weeks canvassing, campaigning at early voting sites and speaking at meet-the-candidate forums to spread the word on her positions.
A forum hosted by the Durham Business and Professional Chain on Oct 10, attracted mostly black residents. Fellow challengers Joshua Gunn and Daniel Meier attended; incumbents Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero did not.
All three challengers are on the attack against the incumbents, especially when it comes to them campaigning with a joint platform called Bull City Together. (Wagstaff calls it “Bullshit Together”.)
“If you’ve got three people that eat alike, sleep alike, think alike, and vote alike 99% of the time, why do you need all three?” she said.
In that parking lot on Oct. 16, Wagstaff was in nearly constant motion, running to her car to get change for a passing homeless person, yelling proudly after voting for herself, and encouraging others to cast their ballot.
Not necessarily for her, she said, but for themselves.
At top: Jackie Wagstaff makes a point at a recent Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidate forum at Durham City Hall. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal