The election night celebration at 106 Main ended in cheers, hugs and excitement as unofficial vote tallies had City Council members Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero keeping their seats.
Johnson and Reece, who maintained fairly steady leads throughout the night, expressed gratitude for getting the chance to continue to represent Durham residents.
They also addressed the discontent that some community members voiced throughout the election cycle.
“Tonight’s election shows us that there is strong public support for the Bull City Together Platform, but also that there are people in this city who don’t feel heard by our current political structure,” Reece said.
Both incumbents spoke about the importance of direct community engagement in the next four years to address concerns brought up in the last few months. Reece made clear he knows plenty of work awaits.
“I ran for re-election not because we had fixed everything in four years but because we were making great progress and we wanted to keep doing this work,” Reece said.
Probably loudest among the criticism in recent months was disappointment by some that the incumbents who won Tuesday had opposed hiring more police officers this year. “We can do a lot more and there are a lot of good reasons for us to invest more in community engagement, I think it makes for a stronger democracy,” Johnson said.
But first it was time to enjoy a victory.
“I definitely feel relieved, it feels good to have it all over with,” Johnson said.
At yet another Durham City Council candidate forum, three very vocal challengers were questioning the competency of three incumbent City Council members.
Among the targets was Jillian Johnson, Durham’s mayor pro tem and council member since 2015. The challenger candidates, often joined by supporters in the audience, huffed skeptically when Johnson dug into policy and community engagement plans like her “Beyond Policing” conflict resolution solution to gun violence in Durham.
Johnson remained calm, unemotional and confident. “I have tried very hard to focus on the issues and to not publicly criticize other candidates positions during the campaign. We just have different policies,” she said after the October forum.
Johnson is running for re-election for an at-large City Council seat. A big theme of her campaign is collaborative leadership, a commitment made concrete by her joint “Bull City Together” platform with fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.
Johnson moved from Virginia to Durham in 1999, an 18-year-old Duke University freshman drawn to public policy and community activism. Four years later, she stayed, eager to put her newly earned degree to work for the city.
“Durham just felt like home. It felt like a place where I could do the kind of work I wanted to do, have the kind of community I was looking for, and have my kids in a diverse and fun city,” she said.
Though cool and often reserved in the council chambers, the one-term councilwoman has sparked controversy with her unashamed, leftist takes on gun violence and policing.
In 2016, she posted on Facebook that “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.” In an interview with The News & Observer after that, she was quoted saying she believes that “the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling, and Islamophobia.” Critics called for an apology; some wanted her to resign. But Johnson carried on.
Johnson’s 20-year history in Durham is deeply rooted in activism and the nonprofit sector. She co-foundedDurham for All, a grassroots organization that works to mobilize people of all races and socio-economic status to support progressive candidates and causes.
She is the former director of operations and a current board member for the nonprofit, Southern Visions Alliance. The group supports teenagers and young adults working on social justice issues in the South.
While on the City Council, Johnson was a primary proponent of the raise in minimum wage for part-time Durham workers in 2018. She’s also the council representative for the Durham Housing Authority, Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, and the Race/Equity Task Force.
The Bull City Together platform points that are most important to Johnson are promoting public safety and community facilitated conflict resolution, increasing eco-friendly infrastructure, and increasing affordable housing opportunities for residents, she said.
During a council budget working session in June, Johnson was one of four council members who rejected Police Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for additional police officers. The money was better spent on wages, they concluded.
Three challengersvying for council seats criticize that move. Although violent crime dropped in Durham in recent years, the city is seeing a spike in gun violence this year. That unwelcome shift was made especially stark this week, when several shootings, including drive by assaults, killed two people and injured eight. A 17-year-old was among the murdered.
At an Oct. 17 council candidate forum, Johnson said intervention and prevention are the keys to reducing violent crime in Durham’s inner city. “Unfortunately, in North Carolina we can’t stop people from carrying their guns around, but given that, it’s very important for people to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way,” Johnson said.
Intervention means engaging people at risk of committing gun violence on a peer-to-peer level, Johnson said. She likes gang-intervention programs likeProject BUILDandBull City United, which hires community members to try to diffuse conflicts before violence can occur.
Prevention consists of implementing conflict resolution training, providing workshops on bystander training and de-escalating anger tactics, Johnson said. She hopes to expand on Durham Local Reentry Council’s effort to support and help re-integrate people recently released from jail or prison.
In her campaign, Johnson also emphasizes expanding renewable energy use in Durham. Arenewable energy resolutionthe council passed on March 25 commits Durham to switching to 80% renewable energy sources in all city operations by 2030 and to 100% renewables by 2050.
The city recently invested in a couple of electric buses, some hybrid police cars, and solar panels on Durham Fire Station 17, Johnson said. And it will useenergy efficiencyinfrastructure in the affordable housing council members hope to build.
“Everyone who believes in science and cares about the future is concerned about climate change,” Johnson said.
Investing in sustainability and renewable energy infrastructure in Durham is not just an environmental issue, it’s an environmental justice issue, Johnson said.
“We have a history of not having the same level of environmental amenities in places like east Durham,” she said, referring to the now gentrifying part of the city that for years was home to many low-income households.
Johnson’s “Housing First” philosophy depends upon passage of the $95 million Housing Bond, also on the ballot next week. “We have a $160 million five-year plan and the $95 million closes the funding gap between the money that the city gets from state and federal resources,” she said.
The money would help the city provide housing for over 15,000 Durham residents, primarily in permanently affordable units, supporters say. In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority, the council would use the money to build more multi-family rental housing like theWillard Street apartment project, which includes 80 units of permanently affordable housing for people at or below 60% of the area’s median income, Johnson said.
City Council candidate Jackie Wagstaff has been skeptical that the City Council will create permanent affordable housing. But Housing Authority housing is by its nature permanently affordable, Johnson noted. The city needs private developers to help expand affordable housing too, even though the units would likely remain affordable for a limited time: 15 to 20 years, Johnson said. “People need housing now, and so we might build housing with a 15 or 20 year affordability period knowing we’re not getting the permanent affordability that we really want because the trade off is we can get people into housing now,” she said.
Johnson, Caballero, and Reece’s joint platform has not been embraced by all. Challengers accuse the incumbents of being interchangeable. Where others see weakness, Johnson sees strength.
“You can’t do anything on council on your own. I think the idea that this sort of collaboration is anti-democratic is misguided. We have to work together, we have to collaborate, we have to have a shared vision, and shared policies in order to make anything happen in the city,” she said.
At top: Jillian Johnson sits outside the Durham Co-op Market on West , the city’s food coop on West Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Cameron Beach
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
Every fall, Michael Shiflett tugs on sturdy waders and protective gloves, treks into Ellerbe Creek and extracts plastic bottles, abandoned basketballs and any other floating garbage he sees.
Shiflett is a regular in the Big Sweep Clean Up, an annual multi-month event where volunteers pick up trash abandoned in Durham’s parks, creeks, and other green spaces.
Organized over several days in September and October, Big Sweep is not a one-time, good-deed outing. Thirty years of effort have turned what started as a statewide endeavor into a reliable way to recruit locals to help clean up Durham. Durham’s Ellerbe Creek watershed has been Shiflett’s clean-up pet project since the 1990s. Winding through several city parks, its waters eventually reach Falls and Jordanlakes, Raleigh’s primary drinking water sources. That motivates Shiflett to keep it clean.
“We’re very fortunate because we’re at the top of the watershed. No one pees in our streams, so we get fresh water. But everything we flush from our washing machines and our toilets goes downstream into Raleigh,” said Shiflett, a retired medical technician.
Established in 1989, the clean up is now co-hosted by Keep Durham Beautiful, the Durham Public Works Department and the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation. With other initiatives, the outings help Durham stay in step with water quality standards set by the U.S. Clean Water Act.
“We work to keep stormwater clean that goes into our storm drains and ditches and then goes into our streams and rivers and eventually the ocean,” said Laura Smith, public education coordinator at Durham Public Works. Programs like the Big Sweep are guided by the county’s sustainability roadmap and Durham Strategic Plan sustainability provisions that address environmental, equity and economic dimensions of local pollution problems. People familiar with Big Sweep clean up sites say they see less trash at some places. But Durham’s litter problem is nowhere near solved. People still use sites like Northgate Park and Ellerbe Creek as mini trash dumps.
“I meet so many people who have no idea how bad our creeks were. It’s gotten better but every single year we do this we find Styrofoam, plastic bags, and things like athletic equipment in the creek,” Shiflett said.
That’s why volunteers are needed to keep trash from accumulating across the county.
“I’m not going to make an argument that using volunteers is the most efficient method, but we have seen success in terms of long-term engagement,” Smith said. “Our goal is to empower people to go out in their communities and become leaders in solving these problems.
Volunteers help Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association (ECWA) tend a number of preserves along the creek. Creek Week is an educational week of creek cleanups, tree plantings, and informative events in the Spring geared toward stopping littering at the source.
Keep Durham Beautiful conducts regular litter inventories, pick ups and tree plantings outside the Big Sweep season. That group also hands out gloves, trash bags, and neon vests in litter-prevention kits to elementary school students.
Shiflett said he enjoys introducing newcomers to a clean up. “You’re cleaning up somebody’s negligence, you’re making somebody else’s drinking water more palatable and the connections start hitting,” he said.
But after all the work, what happens to the waste?
Big Sweep volunteers last year they collected 17,000 pounds of trash. They sort what they find into clear recycling bags and black landfill bags. The county’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department carts all that to the Durham Transfer Station.
This year’s Sweep started with a Sept. 11 Day of Service at Long Meadow Park and will continue until Nov. 6. October sessions start Saturday with 29 groups and 39 individuals signed up to get to work at Hillside Park, Long Meadow Park, South Ellerbe Creek Trail and more.
Shiflett will be out there.
“I’m one of hundreds,” he said. “There are hundreds of people in Durham who do small things like this. It makes you feel good because there are a lot more better people in the world than there are negative people.”
To learn more about Big Sweep, visit Keep Durham Beautiful’s website or the Big Sweep 2019 event on Facebook.
At top: Michael Shiflett, right, poses in a photograph taken during a 1996 clean up, one keepsake he held onto during decades of volunteering.