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Posts published by “Caroline Petrow-Cohen”

Cooper and Forest clash over COVID-19 in Governor’s race

When Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted out his plan to move North Carolina into Phase 2.5, his post garnered dozens of replies for and against the guarded decision. 

“I want to say some unkind words,” one Twitter user wrote, “but I will hold it for the polls.” 

The tweet’s poster won’t be the only Carolinian carrying coronavirus opinions into the voting booth. 

Cooper’s announcement comes during a governor’s race that has been dominated by COVID-19. The governor and his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, fall on nearly opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to handling the pandemic. Cooper describes his approach to reopening as cautious and data driven. Thoughts and face unmasked, Forest has criticized him every step of the way.

Forest, 52, has served as North Carolina’s lieutenant governor since 2013, following a successful career in architecture. In the role, he acts as president of the North Carolina Senate and a voting member of the State Board of Education. Forest is also a member of the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Military Affairs, and serves as the chair of the Energy Policy Council and the Board of Postsecondary Education Credentials.  

Cooper, the 63-year-old Democratic incumbent, won his office in 2016, narrowly defeating Republican candidate Pat McCrory. He served as North Carolina’s attorney general for 16 years prior. 

The race could be tight. North Carolina is a swing state, and the Cook Political Report classified the governor’s seat as lean Democrat. The outcome may be determined by the success of Cooper’s continued coronavirus response.

Epidemiologists and public health experts say Cooper is making the right decisions. Ahmed Arif, an epidemiologist at UNC Charlotte, said Cooper’s incremental approach is what the state needs to avoid another spike in COVID-19 cases. But it’s not so simple, he added.

“It’s a difficult job for public health professionals to make a case when you’re fighting against an unseen enemy,” Arif said. “People can’t see in front of them how many deaths and infections they’re preventing when they follow the guidelines.” 

Tomi Akinyemiju, an epidemiologist and professor of population health sciences at Duke University, is also wary of a new spike in cases as the state continues to reopen. She said she’s thankful for Cooper’s reliance on data-driven benchmarks as he leads the charge against the pandemic. 

“We have to guide our decisions with data. Not with emotions, not with money, because at the end of the day we’re talking about human life here,” Akinyemiju said. 

With scientists and public health officials in his corner, Cooper continues to slowly lift restrictions. “Governor Cooper is laser-focused on making sure we emerge from the pandemic even stronger than before,” wrote Liz Doherty, Cooper’s director of communications, in an email to The 9th Street Journal. “He’s relied on science and data to make difficult decisions,” she said.

And as he makes these decisions, Cooper is under the spotlight.

For months, the incumbent has given eagerly awaited press conferences as he manages the state’s pandemic response. Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political consultant in North Carolina, said that Cooper’s leadership role presents a challenge for Forest. 

“The whole election is going to be a referendum on Cooper’s handling of coronavirus,” Wrenn told The Atlantic in May. “He’s got a big advantage in that he’s got a microphone. Forest has nothing compared to that,” he said. 

Donald Taylor, a professor of public policy at Duke University with a focus in health policy, said that Forest is likely desperate for coverage. It makes sense for Forest to so vocally oppose Cooper’s handling of the pandemic, he said, because he doesn’t have many other options. 

“I don’t think Lieutenant Governor Forest has any other case for press,” Taylor said. “There’s so much noise, there’s no way to break through. And he’s losing, so he’s probably doing the only thing he can.”

Despite all the attention on Cooper, Forest has been making waves on the campaign trail, drawing both support and harsh criticism for his in person campaigning. He’s held multiple events with crowds that exceed the limits outlined in Cooper’s executive order, and footage of the events show the vast majority of attendees not wearing face masks or social distancing. 

The challenger poses for pictures with supporters, ignoring the CDC’s suggestion of maintaining six feet of distance. “We shake as many hands as we can,” Forest said in an interview with WXII news, at the site of an in person campaign event he held in August.

Nathan Boucher, a Duke University professor of population health sciences and public policy, said he thinks Forest’s extreme anti-Cooper messaging is the basis of his entire campaign. 

“Forest has no platform other than being pro-Trump and anti-governor Cooper,” Boucher said. “Nothing that he says is intelligent. There’s nothing evidence based, there’s no plan.”

Forest’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In contrast, Cooper is not campaigning in person at all. “I think the Department of Health and Human Services would tell anyone that if you’re having these kinds of gatherings, that you risk the spread of the virus,” he previously told reporters, referring to Forest’s in person events. 

Republican Governors Association spokesperson Amelia Chassé Alcivar criticized Cooper for his remote method of campaigning, calling it “undemocratic,” The Charlotte Observer reported.

Forest’s often flagrant violations of public health recommendations resonate with voters who feel the threat of the virus has been over exaggerated, like the supporters of ReOpen NC, a group that has organized multiple protests against the state’s shut down orders and called for the impeachment of Cooper in July. 

Cooper’s evidence based approach to reopening is likely garnering support for him in progressive areas of the state, Boucher said, such as the triangle area, Asheville and Charlotte. But “there are different North Carolinas within North Carolina,” Boucher said, and Cooper’s pandemic response is ruffling some feathers, especially in more rural communities. 

Those opposed to Cooper’s handling of the pandemic appear to be in the minority for now. The vast majority of polls show Cooper leading Forest by at least 10 points. An August 11 poll conducted by Emerson College, however, has Cooper leading by just six. 

The incumbent also comfortably leads the money race, easily outraising his opponent according to the latest campaign finance reports. The Committee to Elect Dan Forest reported it raised $2.4 million over nearly five months months ending June 30 and had close to $2 million in cash on hand then.

But the Roy Cooper for North Carolina committee announced in early July that it had raised about $6 million, and had $14 million in cash on hand on July 1.

Forest, to the left, stands at a rally speaking. An American flag is behind him and he wears a suit. Cooper, to the right, wears a suit with a blue tie as he speaks in front of a grey background at a podium.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (left) and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper (right) are running to be North Carolina’s governor.

In Cooper’s latest coronavirus press conference, he emphasized that taking the pandemic seriously will help get the economy back on track faster.  

“Every time you wear your mask or social distance, you’re helping our statewide numbers so we can ease restrictions,” he said. “We help our economy by slowing the spread.” 

Cooper also took a subtle jab at the North Carolinians who are not adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. “Most of you are showing you know how to fight this disease,” he said. “And most of you should be proud of yourselves.” 

Taylor said he thinks North Carolinians have difficulty grasping what he believes it takes to reopen the economy safely. “North Carolina has been one of the epicenters of a false dichotomy, which is that you can deal with the pandemic or you can reopen the economy,” Taylor said. “The actual answer has always been that you reopen the economy by dealing with the pandemic.” 

Forest and Cooper have been clashing over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic since it reached North Carolina in March. When Cooper first announced a ban on indoor seating for restaurants and bars, Forest responded with a press release, writing that the governor’s decision would “devastate our economy, shutter many small businesses, and leave many people unemployed.” 

Forest sued Cooper in July over coronavirus related executive orders, claiming that the governor did not have the authority to issue the orders. Forest has since dropped the lawsuit, but their disagreement remains alive and well. In many ways, the North Carolina governor’s race embodies the economic health versus public health debate that has been simmering for months. 

“I think everything should be open,” Forest told The Atlantic. “I don’t care about getting a virus.”. He said he supports issuing recommendations rather than mandates and believes businesses should be left to make their own decisions.

“I don’t think the government should lead with a stick,” Forest said. “It should lead with a carrot and allow these industries to have some personal responsibility and freedom.” 

Boucher said he wishes Cooper and Forest could work together on leading North Carolina through this crisis. That might have made it easier for people to accept the tough realities of reopening, he said. 

“Cooper has had to make some difficult decisions in the face of a lot of opposition, including his own lieutenant governor,” Boucher said. “I think he’s made the right ones for the people of North Carolina, but everybody gets hurt with every decision.”

In the era of COVID-19, North Carolinians are desperate for a leader they can trust. Those who support Cooper’s “dimmer switch” approach to easing restrictions will almost certainly not be voting for Forest come November. 

But others fed up with economic hardship and pandemic fatigue may blame Cooper. For them, Forest represents the hope of reopening the state once again.

McDougald Terrace crisis was decades in the making

Health threats from carbon monoxide leaks plunged hundreds of McDougald Terrace residents into a crisis last winter.

After Durham County EMS Assistant Chief Lee VanVleet noticed an unusual number of EMS calls linked to the hazardous gas, nearly 900 residents were evacuated from Durham’s oldest and largest public housing complex. 

Beginning in late December, inspectors found stoves, furnaces, and water heaters emitting excess amounts of the invisible, odorless gas, which can be lethal. 

These substandard conditions didn’t come out of the blue. McDougald Terrace failed federal inspections in 2019, scoring a dismal 31 out of 100. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development marks scores lower than 60 as failing grades.

Exposed electrical wires and ventilation problems, including misaligned chimneys and faulty ventilation systems in water heaters, were among 153 health and safety deficiencies detailed in the federal Housing and Urban Development inspection report. Inspectors also found mold and roaches in apartments at McDougald, which was built to house black tenants in 1954, when racial segregation was still sanctioned across Durham.

Ashley Canady, resident council president at McDougald Terrace, and other tenants marched in the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Unity March and Rally in January. 9th Street Journal file photo by Corey Pilson

Total costs for putting residents up in hotels, providing them with stipends and completing emergency repairs at McDougald Terrace are expected to reach at least $9 million, the Durham Housing Authority announced this month.

After news broke that parts of McDougald Terrace were unsafe, Durham Housing Authority and city officials immediately blamed inadequate funding from HUD. They claimed that the federal government failed to give the authority the money needed to keep Durham’s public housing communities in good repair.

Federal funding for the Durham Housing Authority has actually been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, the authority received a total of approximately $32 million in federal awards. In 2018, awards totaled about $34.5 million, and this funding rose to over $35 million in 2019. 

While federal funding has technically increased each year for the past three years, the authority has not been receiving enough funds relative to their needs, a DHA spokesman said. 

Researchers and HUD officials have confirmed that federal grants across the country have not been enough for housing authorities to keep traditional public housing well maintained. In 2011, HUD estimated that the deferred capital needs in public housing amounted to nearly $26 billion and that number has only continued to grow.  

Despite that, housing authorities in other North Carolina cities operating in the same challenging funding environment manage to keep their properties in better shape than Durham does.

Public housing in Durham has failed significantly more HUD inspections than has public housing in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro. Since 2015, Charlotte has failed only one property inspection and Durham has failed 13. Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro failed no HUD inspections in the past five years, according to available data

An early aerial view of sprawling McDougald Terrace, built in 1954. Source: Durham Housing Authority

What explains this disparity?

Behind other cities

North Carolina affordable housing experts say some cities were quicker to embrace a private-public-housing hybrid called Rental Assistance Demonstration, frequently called RAD conversion. RAD allows housing authorities to use non-federal public funding and private investment to improve their properties.

Most Durham Housing Authority properties depend on federal grants. Rents paid by tenants with incomes low enough to qualify to live in public housing don’t cover operating costs and upkeep. Before the coronavirus outbreak, DHA reported its residents had average annual incomes of $13,000 a year and average rent paid was $238 a month. 

When a housing authority pursues a RAD conversion project, it can use public money besides HUD funding and private investment to improve authority-owned property. A share of the housing can be rented at market rates.

Durham has converted only three out of its 17 properties to this model. Last fall, Durham voters passed a $95 million housing bond that will help DHA convert four more public housing communities and the DHA office building. Some of these plans call for tearing down what’s there now and building new housing.

The Greensboro Housing Authority, on the other hand, has converted all but one of its public housing communities to RAD properties. This allowed the authority to leverage more private capital to maintain these properties.

RAD conversion does offer housing authorities new sources of funds. But housing authorities in North Carolina that have not transitioned entirely to the RAD model still keep their rental housing in better shape than Durham does, according to HUD inspection reports.

Even without the extra cash that RAD conversion provides, Raleigh and Winston-Salem had no properties that failed their most recent HUD inspections. Durham had seven in 2019. 

The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem takes steps Durham does not. It hired a company called United States Inspection Group to conduct property inspections that mirror the federal HUD inspections, said Kevin Cheshire, the authority’s executive director and general counsel.

The company specializes in inspecting and mitigating issues prior to HUD’s evaluations. This helps the authority keep up with needed repairs and earn high scores when HUD inspectors arrive, Cheshire said.

The Raleigh Housing Authority also takes extra steps to maintain their public housing despite funding challenges. Over the last few decades, that authority demolished and rebuilt its three largest properties, using Hope VI grant funds for two of the projects.

The redevelopment of these properties has helped keep repair costs lower for the agency in the long run,” Raleigh Housing Authority special assistant Laura McCann explained during an email correspondence.

The Durham Housing Authority, which is expected to receive more than $34 million in federal funding this year, has no such success story. And there’s no one place to pin the blame, according to observers inside and outside the organization.

“We’re seeing in Durham the consequences of years of problems,” said Samuel Gunter, Executive Director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition.

Carl Newman, general counsel for the Durham Housing Authority, says that RAD conversion is Durham’s best hope for improving its public housing. RAD conversion has already been completed at Morreene Road, Damar Court, and Laurel Oaks, but much more work is needed.

No McDougald makeover

RAD conversion is at the heart of DHA’s planned redevelopment of five of its properties in downtown Durham. With a share of a $95 million affordable housing bond that Durham voters approved last fall, and other additional funds, DHA plans to invest more than $58 million in redevelopment. 

The focus is on five properties in and near downtown, including J.J. Henderson, Oldham Towers, Liberty Street, Forest Hill Heights, and DHA’s office building on East Main Street. DHA aims to create a mix of subsidized housing reserved for low-income residents and market-rate rentals at each site.

McDougald Terrace is notably missing from this redevelopment list. At first glance this appears puzzling, as McDougald is arguably the DHA property most in need of redevelopment.

But Mayor Steve Schewel shortly after the housing bond passed last fall said there are economic reasons to wait on rebuilding McDougald. The city’s largest public housing property is over 65 years old, making it a challenge to renovate. “It’s good to get experience creating these mixed income communities on a smaller scale first,” the mayor said. 

One downtown redevelopment plan calls for replacing Durham Housing Authority offices with housing available to renters with low incomes and others able to pay market rates. 9th Street Journal graphic by Cameron Oglesby

In order to complete these redevelopments, DHA is relying not only on funds from the affordable housing bond but also on private investment. And private investors need to be convinced they’re putting their money into something worthwhile.

“You have to give confidence to people that you’re going to succeed,” Schewel said, “and the best place in Durham to gain that confidence is Main Street, and downtown. We know that private investors will come there, and we know that market rate renters in these communities will want to live there.”

After finding success on Main Street, city and DHA officials can then move on to more challenging projects like McDougald, Schewel said.

“We’re going to do RAD conversion, because actually that’s the only solution. It just isn’t a quick one. Had we started this project 10 years ago…,” said Newman, his voice trailing off for a few seconds. “But, here we are.”

There has been significant turnover in management at the Durham Housing Authority in recent years, Newman said. CEO Anthony Scott started with the authority in 2016. “The people who could have made a different decision 10 years ago, most of them don’t work here anymore,” Newman said.

Living with the legacy

Gunter, at the statewide affordable housing organization, said the federal government’s history of underinvestment in public housing shoulders some of the blame for conditions at McDougald Terrace.

This is what it costs when you have spent decades under-investing,” Gunter said, “This is the bill coming due. It really is a no-win situation. And the folks that get screwed are the residents” 

A rear view of a dwelling at McDougald Terrace, the city’s oldest pubic housing complex. 9th Street Journal photo by Corey Pilson
Shimey Harvey visited her McDougald Terrace apartment regularly while she and her son stayed at a local motel. 9th Street Journal file photo by Corey Pilson

During the evacuation of McDougald, the mostly women and children residents were relocated to 16 hotels throughout Durham County, displaced from their kitchens, school bus stops, neighbors and, sometimes, practical transportation to jobs.

McDougald resident Shimey Harvey and her son had lived in her apartment for about two years before the evacuations began. She lived with frequent headaches before the evacuation, she said.

When Harvey was relocated to Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, her headaches stopped, she said. She was safe from carbon monoxide leaks, but her world had been turned upside down. As a result of the disruption, she was forced to quit her job, she said.

In a scramble to get people back to their homes, work at McDougald was exempted from  Durham’s stay-at-home order intended to decrease the spread of coronavirus in March. Residents, including Harvey, returned to the sprawling brick complex near North Carolina Central University in May.

Back at home in McDougald, carbon monoxide leaks are no longer a threat, Harvey said, but her living space is still in poor condition. “I still have mold in my apartment. All they fixed was the appliances,” she said.

Harvey blames Durham Housing Authority for the mess at McDougald. “All these years, if certain things had been updated sooner, these problems wouldn’t have gotten so bad,” she said, “My heater looks like it’s from the beginning of time.”

Although Harvey would like to move with her son to a safer home, this is not the right time.

She hasn’t been able to search for another job while coping with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including public schools closing. Home-schooling her son without a laptop or teaching experience have been among the hardships, she said. 

She won’t be turning to the Durham Housing Authority for help of any kind. “What are they gonna do for me?” she said, “They have a lot of problems to deal with, I’m just a small nut.”

At top: After a months-long evacuation, McDougald Terrace residents have returned to their aged public housing community.  Photo by Corey Pilson

Mothers & Sons is closed, but owner stays linked to local food scene

On Tuesday, March 17, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all bars and restaurant dining rooms to shut their doors. While this order was definitive, its consequences were far from simple. Josh DeCarolis, chef and owner of Mothers & Sons Trattoria in downtown Durham, had decisions to make and options to weigh.

DeCarolis faced the only two choices restaurants had then: Remain open with drastic limitations, or shut down until further notice. Neither was desirable and both would have far reaching consequences for owners, employees, and the local economy. 

Restaurants were permitted to offer takeout and delivery orders, but DeCarolis concluded that wasn’t viable for Mothers & Sons. It would be impossible to do enough business with takeout orders alone to sustain the restaurant and its staff, he said.

Even if running on takeout and delivery orders made economic sense, the risk would likely not be worth the reward. “We thought that the decision to try and completely pivot our business model was just going to make things difficult, and put people in danger unnecessarily. Our biggest concern as business owners and citizens is to be safe,” he said.

In late 2015, DeCarolis spent four months in Italy learning pasta making techniques. He opened Mothers & Sons in 2016. The restaurant became a staple for customers who crowded inside to order homemade pasta and other Italian dishes. 

Before it closed, Mothers & Sons had a staff of around 40 people that DeCarolis described as a huge, close family. He was forced to lay off everyone. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” DeCarolis said, “but there’s just not much we can do about it. Certainly, once the door is closed, there’s no way we can pay anybody.”

DeCarolis has worked in restaurants his whole adult life. Before opening Mothers & Sons, he was the head chef at Mateo Bar de Tapas next door. With years of experience dealing with food safety and food borne illnesses, he understands what protocols to follow if a chef or a staff member becomes sick. 

But the outbreak of COVID-19 was an unprecedented challenge for DeCarolis. “This is way above my pay grade,” he said, “I’m listening to what the experts say.”

Closing Mothers & Sons affected more than the chefs and servers who found themselves filing for unemployment. When a restaurant shuts down, a chain reaction reaches farms and suppliers large and small. 

Mothers & Sons relied on some larger distributors for kitchen staples, but it also bought fresh ingredients from many local farms. “It’s really a shame,” DeCarolis said, “These small farms rely on our business and we rely on them, and we’ve been forced to put everything on hold.”

The dining room shut down has inspired new offerings in Durham’s shrunken food scene. One is an Alimentari pop up shop in Lucky’s Delicatessen, promoted here on Instagram.

In addition to Mothers & Sons, DeCarolis is an owner at the Alimentari at Left Bank butchery in Raleigh. The shop is a partnership with the Left Bank Butchery in Saxapahaw, a village west of town with a vibrant food scene. The Raleigh shop is open part time and does business largely through pre-orders and curb side pick up.

Although Alimentari is a smaller venture than DeCarolis’ primary restaurant, these days he’s been putting more energy into keeping it open and running. To try and support his smaller suppliers, DeCarolis has been purchasing ingredients that he’d normally buy for Mothers & Sons to use at Alimentari instead. 

Like formerly full-service restaurants braving the storm with takeout and delivery services, Alimentari has changed. The butcher shop is open only four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday. Only one customer is admitted at a time. 

Alimentari’s staff was not spared from layoffs either. Initially staff was trimmed to just one essential employee. Since then, they were able to hire back four more employees, DeCarolis said.

Some unexpected good has come out of this difficult situation, DeCarolis said. Some staff previously employed at Mothers & Sons are now making school lunches for Durham public schools as part of FEAST, the charity program organized to feed children in need throughout Durham County. 

Mothers & Sons supplies food and kitchen space to prepare the lunches. Former Mothers & Sons employees receive some compensation for their work, but DeCarolis has not been able to rehire them.

The COVID-19 era has also brought an unexpected expansion for Alimentari. A pop up shop called Alimentari at Mothers & Sons opened May 7 in the place of another next-door neighbor: Lucky’s Delicatessen on West Chapel Hill Street. The pop up is open Thursdays through Saturdays and sells fresh produce and Italian goods.

“We’ve only been open a week, but it’s been pretty encouraging,” DeCarolis said, “A lot of people from the community have come out.”  

DeCarolis says he finds a silver lining in being able to be there for his Alimentari customers and continuing to build trust and goodwill. “People are really thankful and grateful to be able to get quality meat and fresh pasta, without having to go out to a crowded, big box grocery store,” he said.

Trust and goodwill may be a saving grace after Gov. Roy Cooper allows dining rooms, with new limitations, to reopen on or after May 22. Almost all restaurants will be in a difficult position after having to shut down or downscale for so long. Support from customers now and in coming months is vital, said DeCarolis, who intends to reopen Mothers & Sons. 

“We’re keeping a close eye on what the state government is saying, and we’re hoping to open back up safely as soon as possible,” he said, “I can’t predict when that will be.”

DeCarolis praised Durham for being a strong community, particularly among restaurant owners,workers, and customers. 

“We’re all trying to navigate this together,” DeCarolis said, “We’re working as a community, but the long and short of it is that everybody, big and small, is going to need some help.”

At top: Not long ago Mothers & Sons was one of Durham’s most vibrant downtown restaurants. Photo by Corey Pilson 


City manager not keen on sending Durham police to Charlotte for Republican National Convention

Durham’s city manager says it’s unlikely he will recommend sending Durham police officers to Charlotte to help with security during the 2020 Republican National Convention. 

During the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, more than 2,800 officers from North Carolina and across the country helped the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, including officers from Durham. 

City Manager Tom Bonfield on Monday offered two reasons for likely recommending that Durham sit out this time. Durham police have plenty of demands that keep them busy at home, he said. And he suspects that policing the convention could be difficult for officers.

“I think there’s a high likelihood that the officers are going to be put in some pretty difficult exposures,” he said. “It’s just not worth it to us to have to do that.”

Bonfield has spoken generally with the Charlotte city manager regarding the convention, he said. But Durham has not yet received an official request from Charlotte asking for police.

Bonfield would consult further with Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis if Durham receives a request, he said. “I would want to hear from the chief,” Bonfield said. “We’ve talked generally about it, but I don’t think I would be recommending that we send anybody down.” 

When asked if this would be violating a norm of nearby city police departments helping each other out, Bonfield said such decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis. This would not be the first time Durham opted not to send their officers to another community, he stressed.

When protests over the Silent Sam confederate statue on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill campus flared, Durham was asked to help out but declined to send officers, he said. “We didn’t want to put our officers in a problem,” Bonfield said. “Every situation is different and every circumstance is different depending on what’s going on.” 

Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue has said that policing months of intense protests near that statute, which was removed in August 2018, took physical and emotional tolls on officers.

Like it did for the 2012 Democratic Convention, the Department of Homeland Security has classified next year’s Republican Convention a National Special Security Event. Such events, which include presidential inaugurations and the Super Bowl, are considered prime targets for multiple types of security threats, including terrorism and crime. 

Some on the ground in Charlotte expect keeping the peace there next August may be tougher than it was in 2012, when Democrats nominated former President Barack Obama to run for a second term. 

In a recent video report, longtime North Carolina political reporter Jim Morrill said street protests during the Republican National Convention could well be more intense than they were in 2012. 

“The protests themselves were pretty subdued. I don’t think that would be the same thing in 2020, not with the Republican convention here and the likelihood that President Trump would be renominated,” he said.

Neither Chief Davis nor a spokeswoman for the Durham Police Department responded to multiple calls inquiring about this issue.

At top: Protesters block an intersection in Charlotte during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Photo from Voice of America

Election Night 2019: Joshua Gunn’s non-concession speech

Joshua Gunn with a supporter Tuesday as vote tallies streamed in. Photo by Cameron Beach

Tucked away between two brick walls at the Boricua Soul restaurant on an otherwise quiet and empty American Tobacco Campus, Joshua Gunn addresses his crowd of unwavering supporters seconds after votes from all Durham precincts were reported.

Gunn had notched 18,490 votes, putting him in fourth place just below Councilwoman Javiera Caballero, with 18,885 votes. Beer bottles and a stray bag of Joshua Gunn for City Council pins sat on a nearby wooden table, under strings of glowing yellow lights. Although all precinct votes were in and Gunn is still 395 votes shy of a council seat, he spoke with determination and a cool, calm confidence.

“We have provisional ballots and we have absentee ballots, that have not been counted,” Gunn said. “We can make up this margin with those votes.”

Applause erupts from the crowd as Gunn continues. “We are far from a night of concessions, to be clear,” he said.

Earlier in the night, Gunn had slipped for a bit into third place, pushing Caballero down to fourth with 63% of precincts reporting. The margin was razor thin, as Gunn was ahead by less than 50 votes.

“I’m excited,” he said then. “This is just exciting.”

As more votes were processed, however, Gunn fell behind Caballero once again. With 95% of precincts reporting, Gunn had notched 18,076 votes against Caballero’s 18,287.

With the race drawing to a close, nervous energy and excitement radiated from the small crowd. Supporters turned their heads away from their conversations with each other to fix them on a TV screen updating results.

When the screen read that 100% of the precinct votes had been counted, Gunn didn’t miss a beat. He grabbed a microphone and spoke to a crowd still filled with hope.

“We got 19,000 votes in the 2019 general election for city council,” he said. “In the primary, we got 6,700 votes. We tripled our votes.”

Applause momentarily drowned out Gunn’s voice. The 4% margin between Gunn and Caballero is well beyond the range of a recount, Gunn said. He tells his supporters that he’s not giving up yet.

Although the first-time candidate noted he is unfamiliar with the recount process, Gunn said he believes this election warrants a double check.

On Nov. 14, the board of elections will meet to tally up any outstanding ballots, including provisional and absentee ballots. They will determine then whether a recount is called for.

About 20 minutes after Gunn made his speech, the watch party began to thin out. Gunn, surrounded by an intimate group of supporters and his wife and two young children, looked tired, but not defeated.

“It’s hard right now to appreciate the fact that almost 20,000 people voted for a first-time candidate,” Gunn said. “I’m trying to remind myself of the scale of what we have accomplished, but ultimately, you want to win.”

“I’m going to go home tonight, lick my wounds, say a prayer, and hope we wake up in the morning to some good news,” he said.

Charlie Reece: Community safety, housing, jobs that work for Durham

At the Barktoberfest Halloween celebration at Durham Central Park, City Council member Charlie Reece scored a fun assignment. He helped judge the dog-costume contest.

Family fun in the heart of downtown is so Durham. But so are lots of extremely serious and complex problems, from a recent spike in shootings to a shrinking supply of affordable housing during a building boom. 

Seeking re-election to a second term, Reece said he wants to remain a part of it all, especially addressing the city’s toughest challenges. That will involve building on recent successes, he said.

“We’ve made real investments in the police department and infrastructure and we’re now paying all city workers a living wage,” Reece said. “But the fact that we’ve made a lot of progress doesn’t mean that things aren’t broken. They are broken, but they’re somewhat less broken than when we got here.”

As a 10th generation North Carolinian and UNC Law School graduate, Reece has planted his roots close to home. A former prosecutor trainer on domestic violence and sexual assault cases, assistant attorney general and general counsel for the family clinical-research company Rho, he’s lived in Durham for 12 years.

Reece got involved in Durham politics as the Democratic precinct chair for precinct 39 in affluent Hope Valley and southwest Durham. From there he served on the state executive committee and later as state treasurer for the state Democratic party.

When secretary of the board of the influential Durham People’s Alliance political action committee, he became the spokesperson for key policy issues including racial disparities in policing in Durham. In 2015, after two at-large incumbents on city council did not seek re-election, Reece ran and won.

Four years later, Reece wants to keep what he said is the best job he’s ever had. His campaign  touts a platform shared with fellow incumbents Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero that focuses on public safety, expanding access to housing with the proposed $95 million affordable housing bond, and bolstering the economy to bring more jobs.

The council vote in March to deny Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for more officers angered some debating over how to make Durham more safe. This issue split the council too, as a 4-3 vote ultimately tilted the scales. All incumbents on the ballot this week voted against adding more officers. 

Reece said he came to his decision carefully. “Public safety has always been a priority for me,” he said. “Over the last four years since I’ve been on the council, the council has made an unprecedented series of investments in public safety, specifically in the police department.” 

Charlie Reece campaigning during his bid to with a second term to the Durham City Council. Photo by Cameron Beach

The current city budget increased police funding, and 36 new officers have been added to the force over the course of Reece’s first four-year term, he said. Given this and the overall improvements in both the police department and public safety that Reece sees, he firmly stands behind his vote.

Reece and his colleagues have also worked to create financial incentives to motivate officers who train in Durham to stay in Durham, and spent $71 million on a new police headquarters, he said. As a result of these investments, Reece said, Durham has seen a gradual decrease in violent crimes over the past four years. 

While violent crime, including fatal drive-by shootings, is up this year, that data is compared to a record-low crime rate in 2018, Reece stressed. 

Reece wants to continue to invest in community-rooted safety initiatives. He regularly meets with members of the activist group Durham Beyond Policing to work with them to develop and fund a community wellness plan, he said.

Reece also emphasized the importance of tackling social issues contributing to crime, even during the city’s economic boom. That includes unequal access to jobs with living wages and a declining supply of affordable housing.

Reese supports a $95 million affordable housing bond also on the ballot. The most important thing it would do is provide funds to improve public housing communities in Durham that are crumbling, Reece said. The bond is also expected to help provide 1,600 new affordable housing units.

“The bond isn’t going to solve the entire problem,” he said, “but without it, the Durham that we love, the Durham of grit and drive and determination, a multiracial, multi-class city, is going to slowly disappear.”

Improving the overall state of Durham’s economy will lead to improvements in both affordable housing access and public safety, Reece said. The approach Reece supports is not the most traditional.

Reece supports a strategy put forth by the Durham Economic and Workforce Development department called Built2Last, labeled A Road Map for Inclusive and Equitable Development in Durham. Developed by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, this plan has proposed four key strategies, including a sustainability scorecard for businesses and a fund for equitable community economic development, that aim to include everyone in Durham in its economic growth.

Reece said that Built2Last works to shift the focus of economic development away from the more traditional cash-for-jobs approach of offering tax cuts or other incentives to draw or keep businesses in Durham. 

“We can instead focus our efforts internally, into the city, and imagine a world in which the city’s robust economic development budget is invested into our homegrown entrepreneurs and businesses that are owned and operated by people that live here in the city of Durham,” he said. 

Challengers have criticized Reece, Johnson and Caballero for running on a shared platform, Bull City Together. Unlike what critics have said, the shared platform is not a power play or group think, Reece said. Instead, crafting the platform helped the three incumbents develop a robust policy plan that aims to help efficiently solve problems, he said.

“There’s only three of us, and we don’t always agree,” Reece said. 

Reece admits he is frustrated with some of the criticism he and other incumbents are attracting as Election Day nears. 

“There’s a narrative that’s been pushed in this campaign that the incumbents just don’t listen to certain types of folks,” he said. “But we listen to everyone that we hear from. The problem is that on any decision that we make, whether it’s how much to spend on sidewalks, where to put a new public park or how many police officers to hire, we have to make a decision.”

No city council can ever make everyone happy, he said.

“We make the decisions that are consistent with our own values and with what we think is right,” Reece said, “Every four years, the people of Durham get to tell us whether we have made enough right decisions.” 

At top: Charlie Reece holding campaign materials describing the Bull City Together platform he worked up with incumbent City Council members Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero. Photo by Cameron Beach

Joshua Gunn: Hip-hop artist, entrepreneur, council candidate

In a music video dropped in May called “What a Wonderful Durham,” Joshua Gunn sits at a desk in a high school classroom. Wearing a black windbreaker and a Durham Bulls cap, he raps about his dream for a future Durham.

There are no ICE raids, he says. No one loses a home to gentrification. No food deserts. All religions, races and genders are respected. Everybody has health care. Opportunity abounds. 

Five months later, in Durham’s city council chambers, Gunn is wearing a navy jacket, crisp white shirt and a red striped tie. A Gunn for City Council button is pinned to his lapel.

He’s explaining his dream again, not with rap but with data about crime, poverty and economic development needs. And he’s taking aim at three incumbent council members whose shared campaign platform, he says, doesn’t serve all of Durham.

“We have a homicide rate that has doubled from 2018 to 2019, we have a crisis of public safety in our community, and I fear that our council lacks the proper perspectives to address those concerns,” Gunn said.

Gunn’s family has been in Durham, where he grew up, for four generations. After leaving to pursue his music career, Gunn said he found a changed city when he returned in 2013. New condos, apartments and restaurants lined downtown. While some of change was positive, Gunn noticed stark problems with the way the city was growing.

“There was a food scene and a theater scene, and all these amazing new additions to our community,” Gunn said. “But on the other side of that, I noticed that people were being displaced and that not all of Durham was being able to participate.”

Gunn in “What a Wonderful Durham,” his 2019 music video, filmed in a high school classroom.

Gunn quickly got involved, co-founding the annual festival Black August in the Park to “celebrate blackness.” He and friends launched the annual Black Market, a gathering for black owned businesses to gain exposure and to network. Gunn is still rapping and works at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, where he is a vice president. He tries to bring new jobs to Durham and help existing businesses expand, he said.

The fourth-place finisher in last month’s primary and youngest candidate in the race at age 35, Gunn continues to build his campaign. A campaign disclosure report filed early this month counted only $4,608 in contributions, but he’s fundraising.

And Gunn has notched some key endorsements. Current city councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton, not on the ballot this year, supports Gunn. So does former Durham Mayor Bill Bell.

Middleton said he endorsed Gunn because of his intelligence and his ability to bring a wide range of voices to the council. As a young hip hop artist, Gunn can bring a new demographic  into the fold, Middleton said. 

“He’s a generational voice and he pulls from a lot of different areas of experience, from business to activism to the arts community. He’s one of those rare candidates that brings so many different elements,” Middleton said.

Like Gunn, Middleton is concerned by the nature of the three incumbents’ shared platform, called Bull City Together. “From a democratic point of view, when you have three people that are currently sitting on a deliberative body, telegraphing publicly that they’ve already made up their minds on some things, prior to having any public debate, I think that should give us all pause,” he said.

Gunn during one of his Facebook live video “Ask Me Anything” events staged from his Durham home.

In his campaign, Gunn emphasizes the need for more comprehensive economic development, more direct and pragmatic crime prevention, and an affordable housing solution that is linked to accessible jobs.

The Jordan High School and North Carolina A&T grad says he sees an absence of engagement from city council members with the private sector.

“Real estate developers are going to build what’s easiest for them if we don’t engage with them,” Gunn said. And what’s easiest are the luxury apartment buildings that seem to be taking over downtown, in lieu of offices and other commercial developments that bring jobs.

To help get Durham’s economy on track for everyone who lives here, Gunn favors incentivizing business development downtown. “Downtown is a live, work, play environment,” Gunn said, “but work is a very important component of that.”

Gunn says his top priorities are the economy and public safety, issues that are closely connected. 

Despite a decline in recent years, Durham is experiencing an uptick in violent crime and gun violence. Members of the Durham community are split on how best to approach a solution, candidate forums have made clear.

When Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis requested 72 more officers for her department in March, the city council denied her funding. Later, a split council vote denied a compromise that would have funded 18 officers.

The short-term route to improving public safety is to trust Chief Davis and give her what she needs to run her department, Gunn said. As a black man, he understands the complex and sometimes painful relationships between residents and officers. But Davis is focusing on the right ways to train a police force, including using de-escalation techniques, implicit bias training, and crisis response services, he said.   

“The reasons behind Chief Davis’ request were very logical,” Gunn said, given Durham’s growth.

Durham’s rapid growth has worsened the affordable housing shortage. While Gunn says he supports an initiative to provide affordable housing for Durham’s most vulnerable residents, he sees major issues with the city’s proposed $95 million dollar affordable housing bond

Most of these issues can be traced back to a lack of long-term, comprehensive planning, he said.

“The bond overemphasizes downtown,” Gunn said, and doesn’t do enough to expand jobs where people can afford to live. Many of Durham’s jobs that pay above the living wage are located outside of downtown, he said.

Gunn’s platform emphasizes policy, but it is also fueled by his desire to expand points of view on city council council. 

Gunn said he wants a spot on the council for the Durhamites who do not live in the booming downtown core. That includes people who are facing the impacts of gentrification and poverty, and who are struggling to make progress in a city that is celebrated as being the most progressive in the area.

At top: Joshua Gunn makes a point at Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidates forum at city hall last week.  Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal


Demolishing an old railroad bridge to improve a downtown gateway

As a building boom in Durham transforms the cityscape, new developments under construction downtown such as the Willard Street Apartments building and the 555 Mangum Street office space are beginning to rise on the skyline. It’s a time of change for the city. 

But modernizing requires demolition too, and that’s the case at a key route in and out of the heart of downtown. An inactive railroad bridge spanning over downtown Durham’s West Chapel Hill Street has been taken down.

The removal last month is expected to improve safety and help beautify a city that is still growing. “That road is a key gateway into downtown, and it’s sort of an eyesore. It’s dark and it’s industrial,” said Rachel Wexler at Downtown Durham, Inc. 

While taking down an old bridge may seem like a simple step for a developing city, many organizations helped make it happen. North Carolina Railroad is collaborating with Norfolk Southern, Downtown Durham, Inc., and the City of Durham.

The recently removed segment of rail line was owned by North Carolina Railroad (NCRR), which leases a still-active rail bridge on the same stretch of road to the freight and transportation corporation Norfolk Southern. 

A gash of dirt stands where a rail bridge once spanned West Chapel Hill Street between West Pettigrew and Great Jones streets. Photo by Cameron Beach.

The destroyed span had not been in use since two of Durham’s five freight rail line junctions were abandoned many years ago, said Megen Hoenk, director of corporate communications at NCRR. 

Not only was it not needed, the rail line bridge was becoming a safety liability, said Tom Haning, a contractor working on the project with W. M. Brode Company. Norfolk Southern proposed removing it and North Carolina Railroad approved and provided funding for the $1.5 million project, Hoenk said. 

The obsolete bridge wasn’t the nicest to look at, and its removal is the first step of many to be taken to clean up and improve the West Chapel Hill Street corridor near Durham Station. Revitalization is important because pedestrians and vehicles flow through there every day. 

A private corporation with 100% of its stock owned by the state of North Carolina, North Carolina Railroad owns and manages a 317-mile rail line that stretches from Charlotte to the Port of Morehead City, making its way through the center of Durham along the way. 

While Durham officials did not propose the bridge removal, city staff and community members support the project because it helps clean up a congested area downtown. “It was an unused railroad track that had been out of commission for I don’t know how long,” said Bill Bell, former Durham mayor and NCRR board member.

As Durham city planners work to accommodate a growing population and increased traffic congestion downtown, giving West Chapel Hill Street a facelift is a key step in the right direction, Bell said. 

The bridge demolition project disrupted car traffic on West Chapel Hill Street starting in August and redirected foot traffic as recently as last week. Photo by Cameron Beach

Those working on this project, however, plan to go beyond basic structural fixes, which include painting and repair of the underpass walls and improvements to the nearby bridge still carrying trains. Durham City General Services and nonprofit Downtown Durham Inc. are also planning a public art installation at the West Chapel Hill Street underpass, once construction is complete. 

What that will look like hasn’t been decided. But Durham City General Services staff plan to apply for funding during the next budget cycle, said Stacey Poston of City General Services.

Wexler, director of special projects at Downtown Durham, Inc., said that the underpass has been an area of interest for some time. 

“It’s definitely been an interest of ours to try and beautify that street and make that gateway more of a pleasant experience for people. And the taking down of that second bridge has been the impetus to bring that project to the forefront,” she said.

Poston said she is excited about the new space for public art that the removal of the bridge has created. 

“If you walk through there now, it’s so nice and light. Before it was so dark, and now there’s basically a big gallery wall that we could do something great on,” she said.“The bridge had to come out before you can put the art in.” 

Photo at top: Where two railroad bridges long stood, now there is one. North Carolina Railroad Company recently demolished an unused span over West Chapel Hill Street, opening a tight stretch of road to more light and design possibilities. Photo by Cameron Beach