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Posts tagged as “Elections”

A Durham Moment: “We are standing here today to say, ‘never again’”

January means many things – the start of a new year, the sight of discarded Christmas trees and lists of resolutions about what’s ahead. But as the lights came down from the 45-ft Christmas tree at the CCB Plaza in downtown Durham on Thursday, a nearby vigil signified a different meaning for this month: the anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol one year ago on January 6, 2021. 

Over 200 miles away from the Capitol, Durham’s legislative delegation gathered at noon in the shadow of the Major the Bull statue to pay tribute to the lives lost on that day in Washington, D.C.

“We are standing here today to say, ‘never again’,” said state Rep. Marcia Morey. 

Morey, who helped organize the event, stressed the importance of upholding the principles of democracy one year later. 

As passersby joined the modest crowd gathered on their lunch break, Ben Haas from the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham opened the vigil by leading the group in prayer. The crowd bowed their heads as Haas began, with Mayor Elaine O’Neil and Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, who were both in attendance, joining in.

Vigils are familiar spaces for Haas, who has helped to commemorate homicide victims across Durham. His prayer emphasized the loss of love and human life as a result of the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

“Peace, justice, love and hope bind us together,” he said. 

One by one, members of the Durham delegation stepped forward to speak. Some citizens stopped to listen while walking their dogs. Others rode bikes to the plaza for the event, with helmets decorated with Durham’s signature sticker, “No bull, I voted.”  

Beyond the theme of remembrance, one message in the speeches prevailed: the importance of voting rights. 

State Rep. Zack Hawkins called for increased access to the right to vote. Proposed state and federal measures include automatic voter registration and online registration bills. 

Eliminating barriers to the ballot box and registering people to vote are small things that can lead to a big win, he said. 

Rep. Natalie Murdock echoed Hawkins, noting that the right to vote is a basic tenet of democracy. She called for Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, Protecting Our Democracy Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. 

“We have the numbers in the Senate, it’s time for us to get this done,” she said. 

In a pandemic-era gathering, masks sported messages of support. One attendee wore a black mask with white lettering spelling out “Vote.” 

State Sen. Mike Woodward left the crowd with three suggestions of ways to move forward: call the events of January 6 an insurrection, remember what happened and help turn out the vote. 

Woodward recalled a quote from civil rights leader John Hervey Wheeler, for whom Durham’s federal courthouse is named. 

“The fight for freedom begins anew every morning,” he said.

As the event ended and the crowd began to disperse, Morey put on her own mask to greet attendees. It, too, bore a simple message: “Do good.” 

Above, Ben Haas of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham opens the vigil with a prayer. Photo by Michaela Towfighi – The 9th Street Journal

As cases soar, emergency judges keep courts moving

Judge Nancy Gordon emerges from a concealed door behind the bench into Courtroom 5A. No one notices her, except for the bailiff, who stands and commands, “All rise!” 

“This honorable court for the County of Durham is now open and sitting,” the bailiff says on this morning in early October. “The Honorable Judge Nancy Gordon presiding.” 

During the bailiff’s cry, Gordon, 67, walks the few feet to the judge’s chair. She wears thin-frame glasses, and her short brown hair, with a faint white streak, is tied back. Her black robe engulfs her. 

She takes a laptop out from under her arm and places it on the desk. Lingering for a moment, she stands with a hand on the chair. The pause lasts just long enough that when the courtroom sits down after the cry, she does too. That way, they all sit in unison.  

It’s a familiar ritual, one Gordon first took part in for decades as a family law attorney, then practiced as a Durham District Court judge. As a jurist, she has never known if she’s supposed to sit or stand during the cry. That’s still the case now that she’s an emergency judge. 

When sitting judges are unavailable, emergency judges step in to keep the court system — and its ever-growing caseload — moving. Unlike sitting judges, however, they aren’t voted onto the bench by constituents in partisan elections. Most lost their bids for re-election, like Gordon in 2014, or chose not to run for another term. 

On the bench, emergency judges hold the same judicial power they did as elected officials. But there’s no longer the subtle pressure of re-election, or the hovering spectre of a constituency. There’s only the expectation to administer justice fairly and objectively. Before each court session, the bailiff’s cry reminds Gordon of this responsibility.

“Really what [the bailiff’s cry] is about is the institution, not the person,” Gordon said. “You’re representing one of the branches of government, and that’s a whole lot bigger than you.” 

‘I don’t own the court system the way I used to’

When Gordon lost re-election’, she spent 90 days away from the bench — the minimum time before she could apply to be an emergency judge. 

Once an emergency judge is placed on an active list, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the chief justice of the state supreme court can assign them to hold court for several reasons, including if a judge goes on medical leave, if a case overload occurs due to a vacancy, or if a judge recuses themselves. 

Emergency judges’ schedules are unpredictable. They may serve in any county in the state, unlike sitting District Court judges. Gordon has spent a single day in some courtrooms; in other courthouses, weeks. 

Gordon was assigned to oversee domestic violence cases in Durham for a week in October. Since August, she has filled in for former District Court Judge Brian Wilks after his promotion to Superior Court.

On Oct. 13, Gordon is sharp and quick. One attorney requests that today be her client’s last appearance for a two-month long case. Without looking up, Gordon cuts her off and snaps, “I’m not marking it last.” They schedule another appearance.

Gordon runs through the afternoon’s 37 cases with remarkable speed. 

Once, she raises her voice at a witness who filed a complaint against the mother of his son. 

“Do you know where your eight-year-old goes to school? Do you have custody papers?” Gordon chides. “If you really want your son to live with you, you should know how he’s doing in school.” 

He tells Gordon that his son is playing the guitar at an upcoming talent show, and her tone softens. She asks if he and the mother can stay 500 feet apart at the event. 

Gordon commands the courtroom, in part because of her familiarity with Durham. But over the last seven years, the state has changed — and so has her work. 

She doesn’t know the younger lawyers, and they don’t know her. When she gets assigned to other counties, they don’t know what to expect from her. Smaller counties welcome visiting judges, but “in a sort of sucking up way that makes me a little uncomfortable.” 

“I don’t own the court system the way I used to,” Gordon said. 

By this she means she isn’t overseeing cases as often as she did as a District Court judge. But if owning the system also means making judicial decisions without the stress of re-election, Gordon might own the system more now than she ever did. 

‘It was like watching heads explode’

In North Carolina, defendants who participate in the state’s community service program must pay a $250 fee. But many can’t come up with the funds, Gordon said. Instead in Durham, judges order community service at a non-profit.

So that’s what Gordon ordered when she went to oversee criminal court in Alamance County, a region in north-central North Carolina that leans Republican. 

“It was like watching heads explode,” Gordon said, laughing. “They’d never seen this before. And I’m sure they were thinking, ‘Who is this progressive judge coming from Durham, that little blue hole?’” 

She could do that because she doesn’t plan to run for office again. As an emergency judge, Gordon doesn’t wonder if the lawyers like her judicial philosophy and will vote for her re-election, she said. She doesn’t worry about how she’ll raise campaign funds. And she doesn’t have to fret about whether someone will challenge her in the next election. 

“I just need to be on the right side of judicial standards, which makes me feel a little more independent about some of the things I can do and not do,” she said. “I just have to do the job that I think is a good job.” 

Re-election is an unspoken concern among sitting judges. Another emergency judge, Lunsford Long, noted that sometimes, sitting judges recuse themselves from a “hot-button type of case that’s going to have political ramifications.” 

“So [the AOC] calls in an emergency judge and says, ‘Look, you’re not an elected judge. You’re not from here. Why don’t you come down here and resolve this mess,’” said Long, who served as an elected judge from Orange County from 2009-2016. “[Judges] wouldn’t say that they’re [concerned about re-election], but that’s obviously what’s going on when they want to duck the case.” 

Attorneys who work in the same courtroom daily also grow familiar with their judges. Sometimes they become too familiar, which makes arguing cases in front of an emergency judge difficult, said Christy Malott, a senior staff attorney at JusticeMatters, an advocacy non-profit. 

If Malott knew who the emergency judge was ahead of time, she altered her presentation: the aspects she focused on, the way she presented evidence. She called attorneys in other counties and asked, “Who knows this judge? What do I need to know in order to do a good job?” 

“Bringing in a new judge can make it a little bit harder, but the alternative is that all those cases don’t get heard,” Malott said. “The calendar gets more and more backed up.”

‘Court should still be able to work’

In 2017, the number of emergency judges was hacked by two-thirds in a General Assembly budget cut. 

The AOC did not respond to requests for comment and recent data on the number of emergency judges in time for publication. 

Gordon, who views her role as an “experienced, knowledgeable backup,” believes the state should make more emergency judges available. Sitting judges bear caseloads that are too large and practice too little self-care, she said. 

“Judges should be able to take a vacation and their court should still be able to work,” she said. 

In the middle of Gordon’s October session, a defendant doesn’t know the name of his public defender. She tells him that it’s Barbara Lagemann and recommends that he meet her before his next court date, which Gordon schedules for Nov. 30. 

As he turns and begins to walk out of the courtroom, Gordon yells, “When’s your next court date, sir?” 

He’s startled. Over his shoulder, he mumbles, “November 30th.” 

Grinning, Gordon throws up her arm and gives a thumbs up: “You’re free to go.” 

Being a judge is solitary work. If you do it right, Gordon said, the job is also exhausting. Yet none of that deters her.

“Retirement’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” she said. “I like keeping my head active. I like being a judge.” 

PHOTO ABOVE: Judge Nancy Gordon has been an emergency judge since losing a re-election bid in 2014.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Barbara Lagemann’s last name.

Reflections: Should students vote in local elections?

Few journalists covered the Durham elections more closely than the student reporters of The 9th Street Journal. They spent hours with the candidates, attended campaign events, and talked with local groups about their endorsements. But despite all that effort, some members of the 9th Street staff said they still felt like outsiders in the Bull City and wondered if they should vote. In a conversation after the election, they discussed their feelings. (The transcript is edited for space and clarity.)

Bill Adair, Co-Editor: How did your journalism change the way you look at Durham?

Jake Sheridan, Student Editor: I understood Durham as a really progressive place and as a place where people cared a lot about what’s going on. And I think I expected a certain civic interest that didn’t develop, that certainly wasn’t reflected in turnout, in the general interest people had in the race. I was surprised that Durham didn’t go vote.

Bill: I wonder if the people who did vote are the people who have lived here a long time and the people who didn’t vote are the people who moved here more recently.

Jake: Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting because, as a Duke student, I’ve seen a couple of elections. When it was a national election, Duke and the areas surrounding Duke — Ninth Street — it was like a paramilitary operation to register voters and to get people to vote for Democrats. And I think Duke is particularly emblematic of that newcomer aura in Durham. A lot of the students here aren’t from here, and they’re kind of coming and going, maybe even less invested than people who live here.

Caroline Petrow-Cohen, Reporter: I’ve always kind of thought that it’s a shame that so many Duke students are not more engaged in the Durham community, and I still think that. But my roommate the other day asked me if I thought Duke students should vote in local elections and I was like, “Of course.” And she was like, “But isn’t that unfair to the people who actually live here? Why should we be voting for our interests if we’re leaving in four years?” And I thought that was interesting because my instinct is of course you should vote, you should read up on the issues and vote. But (her point) is kind of valid. Why do we deserve to have a say if we don’t really live in Durham? We’re just here for four years. I voted, obviously, because I covered it. But not many of my friends voted, even though I was like, “Look at The Ninth Street Journal and read about the candidates.” 

Becca Schneid, Reporter: Well, it’s almost worse when they vote. I think a lot of people change their address to North Carolina for the presidential election because they are from California or somewhere or Texas, so they’re like, “my vote counts more in North Carolina,” haven’t changed it back since and now are here with this power. You’re asking an important question. People have texted me and been like, “I’m going to vote right now, who should I vote for?” because they know that I’ve covered it. That’s so bad (that they have to ask me).

Charlotte Kramon, Reporter: We can’t make that decision.

Caroline: Just because we covered it doesn’t mean that I have the same interests as someone who lives in the city. I think I’m doing the right thing, but am I? I don’t think it’s ever the right thing to not vote, but maybe it is. I don’t know.

Bill: Yeah…that’s an interesting question. At what point is someone suitably up on the candidates and issues so they can make a wise decision? And some people argue, “Well, you should really know the issues and you should know the candidates before you vote.” And so therefore a low turnout is not necessarily a bad thing. It reflects people who aren’t engaged and therefore maybe should not be voting.

Julianna Rennie, Student Editor: I’m pretty sure Javiera Caballero got at least a thousand-something votes and she had dropped out of the race. So how informed are those people if they didn’t even know she wasn’t running? Or are we assuming those people made a conscious decision to vote for her because they preferred her policies?

Becca: I know some of them didn’t (support her) for her policies.

Bill:  Yeah, we probably all know at least one person who voted for Caballero.

Charlotte: When I spoke to Professor Mac McCorkle for my turnout article, he was saying 10 percent of people voted. How is this democratic? That begs the larger question if we’re saying like, “Well, maybe it’s good that the people who turned out are the ones who are most engaged.” But then on a broad level, that can also be a slippery slope to “Well, if people aren’t informed, they shouldn’t vote.” I still think that ultimately, if we’re looking for purely democratic purposes, everyone should vote and they should be informed. But if they’re not informed, the logic of “they should be excluded” can lead to other issues.

Olivia Olsher, Reporter: I think something I would have really appreciated coming into Duke would have been a kind of local news orientation – where can you get your local news, outlining here’s who you can follow on Twitter, here’s what the local government is doing, who they are, and the main issues that are happening and being discussed this year. I feel like a 30-minute debrief on Durham, where you’re going to be living for four years, would be really helpful. 

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project

Above, a sign points the way on Election Day. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Meet the Ward III Durham City Council candidates

Without an incumbent or primary results to signal a frontrunner, the Ward III Durham City Council race is the one to watch in the upcoming Nov. 2 election.

AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams are vying to fill the seat that will soon be vacated by Pierce Freelon, who was appointed in Aug. 2020 and decided not to seek another term. They didn’t face off in October’s primary because the top two vote-getters advanced to the general election, and there are only two candidates in the Ward III race.

Freelon endorsed AJ to replace him, but the candidates split the other major endorsements: AJ is backed by the People’s Alliance PAC, the Durham Association for Educators, and Durham For All while Leonardo is backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham. 

The candidates who earned the support of the same groups as Leonardo — including Elaine O’Neal for mayor, DeDreana Freeman in Ward I, and Mark Anthony Middleton in Ward II —  emerged as clear frontrunners after the primary. Both Freeman and Middleton are incumbents. In the Ward III race, the odds are much less clear. 

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s, announced that he would be running for City Council in June, one day after Pierce Freelon said he would not run. Leonardo is a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

AJ Williams joined the race later, on Aug. 3. He is a grassroots organizer in Durham, director of incubation and ideation labs for Southern Vision Alliance, and a member of Durham Beyond Policing and other abolitionist organizations.

In the Durham primary election earlier this month, voter turnout was relatively low, with only 10.18% of Durham’s registered voters going to the polls. Some residents said they saw very little difference between the candidates.  But the same can’t be said for AJ Willimas and Leonardo Williams. 

They differ not only in their policy ideas, but also in the lenses through which they see governing. Leonardo is an educator and a businessman at his core, so these are the lenses through which he understands community engagement. 

He said that small businesses’ struggles during the pandemic motivated him to run for City Council. Over the pandemic, though large companies were still drawn to downtown Durham, small businesses struggled. Leonardo helped establish the Durham Small Business Coalition, which raised $3 million for the Small Business Fund, and organized a citywide job fair that required participating employers to offer $15 per hour. 

“I said to myself, where is the small business representation in our government? Small businesses collectively are the city’s largest employer. How can we have a city full of small, locally-owned businesses, and not a single representation of them in any leadership or decision making capacity?” he said.

If elected, Leonardo hopes to establish a robust Small Business Sustainability and Success Program and expand the Office of Economic & Workforce Development to reflect Durham’s small business sector. He also plans to facilitate better wages and conditions for workers.

As a former teacher and school administrator, Leonardo also is focused on education in the city. He said that while the county funds education, the city shares responsibility for educating and engaging youth.

“It will be my job as a city councilman to ensure that we are engaging our youth at a much broader age and a much more inclusive way,” Leonardo said. “We can utilize sectors such as education and parks and rec and the local corporate scene, maybe even working with the chamber to establish a citywide apprenticeship program for juniors and seniors in high school.”

He said he views education as a public safety issue, too. He hopes that young men in Durham who are engaged in education and economic opportunities will be less likely to turn to gun violence. 

In September, Leonardo stood outside the Hayti Heritage Center with Councilmember Middleton and the group he co-founded, One Thousand Black Men. Its goal is to curb gun violence and change the trajectory of young Black men through mentorship by challenging 1,000 Black men in Durham to spend one hour each week with a young boy in their neighborhood. These are the kinds of initiatives he hopes to uplift if elected to City Council.

“I know that if I spend an hour a week with a young Black boy, as a professional Black man, I can have a positive impact on his life. And so if I asked 1000 Black men to join me, to step up and step in, let’s take this together, take accountability for what’s happening with our young brothers,” Leonardo said.  

AJ Williams approaches governing as a fourth-generation Durhamite with deep roots in the city — from his father’s journalism career, to his grandma’s work as a small business owner, to his participation in little league.  

In addition to working with Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was appointed to Durham’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee and collaborated with delegates across gender, age, class, race, and ability as well as staff from the Transportation Department and Budget and Management Services Department. He also has served financial roles on multiple BIPOC-led nonprofits.

AJ is genderqueer, and if-elected, would be Durham’s first transgender councilmember. He said he sees governing and organizing through a queer, Black, feminist, trans lens. He wants to listen to not just cisgender, heterosexual people in Durham.

“The Black queer feminist praxis is a part of so much of the work that I’ve done. And it basically tells us that we actually cannot have Black liberation unless we have liberation for all Black people,” AJ said. “So that has also heavily informed the way that I want to show up as an elected official. Really centering the voices of the most marginalized people in our communities who have been left out of the conversation is the way to do that.”

He said it was a natural progression to move from community organizing to running for City Council. If elected, he hopes to maintain the wins that the organizers achieved in the past few years, especially around community safety. As a member of Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was part of the push for Durham’s new Community Safety Department, which is working to address non-violent 911 calls with mental health services instead of police presence. 

“With organizing, particularly for things within our municipal budget, you need to know that you have the support of your elected,” AJ said. “Durham is shifting and changing in new ways, so it felt like a natural next step to be on the Council and get input from community members.”

AJ supports diverting funds away from law enforcement; creating new public safety institutions, such as Bull City Violence Interrupters, a community-led Safety & Wellness Task Force; and supporting other community-led abolitionist movements. He said he is determined to listen to what residents want, something he learned from his work with Durham Beyond Policing.

“We’ve had a budget hearing where we invited over 300 residents to come and participate and share their personal testimonies and stories — the ways that they were impacted by over policing. So, holding the spaces to hear folks has been something that’s always been really important to me as an organizer, and I think that that’s a transferable skill,” AJ said.

 After living in Durham his whole life and watching demographics shift as gentrification has risen in the city, AJ is concerned about affordable housing. He supports land trusts, protections for historically Black neighborhoods, and an eviction moratorium.

“We need to make sure that folks who are in the market to rent are able to live here, affordably, as well as those who are pursuing homeownership. We need to also support an expansion of the Long-time Homeowners Tax Assistance Program to protect people who have been here not just for decades, but generations,” he said.

AJ shares a background in filmmaking and art like his predecessor Pierce Freelon, who endorsed him. Freelon said the most important advice he ever got was from former mayor Bill Bell: to answer every email that he receives. It’s engagement in the community, Freelon said, that changes lives, whether it’s enacting historic city policies, or just responding to a resident about their broken door. 

This level of engagement is especially important to Freelon when interacting with gun violence victims in the community, and it will be necessary for his successor.

“That means something to me: being present in the community. The day after a shooting, you need to be there: knocking on doors and talking to residents in the communities that are experiencing the violence,” Freelon said. “If you’re going to be advocating for anything that impacts that community: the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

He said that when he does engage with community members, they are often surprised that he took the time to reach out and respond to their issues.

“This seat is different. You know, there’s something special in Ward III, and so whoever wins the seat will need to listen to residents,” Freelon said. “Whoever it is, they will be there to listen.”

***

Correction: This story was updated to correct that Leonardo Williams was a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the voter turnout rate in Durham’s primary election.

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: From left, candidates for Ward III Leonardo Williams (left) and AJ Williams – Photos by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Election season is here, and candidates want your vote. Do signs matter?

Clusters of campaign signs across Durham vie for people’s attention. Some display slogans or a picture of the candidate, but all were designed to capitalize on the split second of attention they receive from voters.

Mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal’s signs are the simplest, with a light blue background and “O’NEAL” in large white letters. Javiera Caballero, who suspended her mayoral campaign on Oct. 11, hired a local designer to create her signs based on input from her supporters. They say “VAMOS BULL CITY-JAVIERA FOR MAYOR” in white lettering with a purple background. (Caballero’s campaign materials always have a purple theme). 

Ward III City Council candidate AJ Williams’s signs are decorated with several colors, slogans such as “Honor the Legacy”, and a photo of himself. They differ from the other simpler signs. From the start of his campaign, he saw yard signs as key investments. “Yard signs are a way to really maximize your ability to be seen across the city, even if you can’t knock every door, or make every phone call,” Williams said. “Durham is a city of over 300,000 people and the truth of the matter is, you’re not going to be able to contact all 300,000.”

Williams believes his nearly $5,000 investment in signs paid off in significant ways. People recognize him from his signs, even when he wears a mask. The vibrant graphic, combined with the image of his face, was intended to stand out. “I’m glad we made the decision to really do something different,” Williams said.

Durham voter Jimmy Lamont wishes more signs had photos of the candidates. He voted in the primary because his son knows one of the mayoral candidates. He’s unfamiliar with many of the other candidates, but he thinks adding pictures to campaign signs would help. “I don’t know none of these people,” Lamont said, gesturing toward the signs.

In the book “Winning Elections: Political Campaign Management, Strategy, and Tactics,” Becky West of Campaigns & Elections advised candidates to use simple yard signs and logos that emphasize their names. She added that signs should include minimal colors and bold lettering so that voters can see the candidate’s name. “Plan for simplicity,” she wrote. “An effective logo needs only the candidate’s name, the office sought, and possibly a simple graphic symbol.”

Signs may not be the decisive factor in a campaign, but they have a measurable impact. One study found that signs “had an estimated effect of 2.5 percentage points.”

Zach Finley, Javiera Caballero’s campaign manager, explained that campaigns try to place signs in strategic locations to “get the most bang for your buck.” Areas like intersections have high traffic rates, making them optimal locations for signs. He added that engaged supporters “really enjoy” putting signs up in their yards.

The cost per sign depends on various factors, but usually hovers around $2-$2.50. Finley said that Caballero’s campaign signs were more expensive than average due to their unique colors and material. Her campaign spent $2,433 on yard signs. O’Neal’s campaign spent $4,239.

Many Durhamites say that while signs boost visibility, candidates should prioritize engaging with constituents in more meaningful ways. “I had a hundred and something signs,” said Jan Oartie, who previously ran for Durham Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor. “But it’s more about me going out to meet people. I’d go to a farmers market and give out water. I’d be downtown when they had events.”

Charlitta Burruss, who lost her bid for Durham mayor in the recent primary, sees signs as expensive and unnecessary. She believes that candidates waste money on signs without showing voters that they’re willing to tackle important issues. “When I say ‘know’, I mean not just your name,” Burruss said. “I mean know who you are …  What is your agenda — your real agenda?”

Instead of spending money on signs, Burruss’s campaign strategy centered on news coverage and word-of-mouth. She relied on being a familiar face in Durham after years of working and volunteering in the city. “I feel like I market myself in many different ways,” Burruss said.

Signs may be a crucial tool for candidates lacking name recognition, but some believe that voters should get to know a candidate in other ways, too. Geneva Ennett, a Durham judge, said that candidates should have several years of experience working in the community so that voters are familiar with their names and what they plan to do in office. Still, “[signs] do make a difference,” she said. “They really do. They trigger people’s memories.”

John Weisman, who voted in the primary election at the Durham County Library, is not swayed by signs. Weisman prefers to read profiles, newspapers, and questionnaires and attend candidate forums. However, he does notice when opposing candidates have more signs around the city than his preferred candidate. “It’s more of an observation than a worry,” Weisman said. “There are segments of the voting population who are influenced by different things, so you need multiple strategies.”

Weisman can’t put up his own signs because he lives in a condominium. However, his friends display them in their front yards to show solidarity and boost their preferred candidates’ visibility.

 Still, Durham voters ultimately support candidates who are integrated in the community, understand their struggles, and strive for solutions. “Everyone gets these signs,” Oartie said. “But are you out there in the community?”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Signs promoting Durham mayoral candidates are popping up around Durham. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

Meet the seven candidates running for Durham mayor, including Bree Davis, Daryl Quick, and Jahnmaud Lane

By Julianna Rennie and Jake Sheridan

There’s one week left for Durham voters to cast their ballots before the primary election on Oct. 5. The outcome will determine the two finalists in each of the four City Council races. 

There are seven candidates vying for the mayor’s seat. Durham’s current mayor, Steve Schewel, is not seeking reelection. 

The 9th Street Journal recently profiled some of the candidates. Check out our stories on City Council member Javiera Caballero, former judge Elaine O’Neal, housing advocate Charlitta Burruss, and youth minister Rebecca Harvard Barnes

Here’s what you need to know about the remaining three candidates: Bree Davis, Daryl Quick and Jahnmaud Lane.

Bree Davis

Born in sunny South Florida, Bree Davis comes from a family of changemakers. Her father worked as a Baptist minister and coordinated outreach for Haitian and Cuban refugees. 

“This is kind of my legacy,” she told the 9th Street Journal.  

After moving to Durham 12 years ago, Davis experienced houselessness, food insecurity, and underemployment. As a single mom and bisexual Black woman, Davis says she knows what it feels like to fall through the cracks.

If elected, Davis promises to make sure that all Durham residents benefit from the city’s recent economic boom. 

“The goal has been achieved, but now we have to pick up the folks that have been left behind,” she said.

Her other policy priorities include affordable housing and community safety. In her INDY Week candidate questionnaire, Davis wrote that she would fully fund the Durham Police Department while exploring alternatives to policing through Durham’s new Community Safety Department. 

Davis currently works as a research coordinator for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started her own social media consulting company, Social Media Phobia Solutions, in 2011. She’s also a collage artist and filmmaker

Daryl Quick

Daryl Quick is pledging to “make a better Durham by getting back to the basics.”

Throughout the campaign, Quick has talked openly about his experiences growing up in public housing with family members who struggled with drug addiction. 

A native Durhamite, Quick hopes to inspire children experiencing poverty to dream of running for public office.

His platform addresses violent crime, social services, and infrastructure.

Quick promotes his campaign heavily on his Facebook page. In a Sept. 8 post, he wrote, “No more status quo! No more gentrification! No more low wage paying jobs! No more kids can’t play! No more walking past a homeless person downtown!”

Jahnmaud Lane

Jahnmaud Lane isn’t just a rare Durham Republican: He’s a highly followed conservative commentator. 

His Facebook page, “Mind of Jamal,” has over 300,000 followers. The clips regularly stretch over an hour. 

In his videos, the adamant Trump supporter pours over a range of far-right topics. He recently criticized coronavirus vaccines and workers’ unions, decried calls for national political unity, and urged his followers to “break out the Old Dixie” because “this union stuff aint working.” Lane often speaks in front of a Confederate flag. 

He streams videos on YouTube, too, but the apparently associated “MindofJamal” Twitter account has been suspended. 

Lane did not reply to a call requesting an interview. He described himself as a former “no-good, piece-of-trash drug dealer” in an interview with The News & Observer

The article noted that he was charged in 2001 with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Two years later, he spent over a year in a state corrections facility for assaulting and seriously injuring another person, the article added. 

In the News & Observer piece, Lane also acknowledged that he attended the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, though he said he didn’t enter the Capitol building. 

On Lane’s campaign website, his platform focuses on addressing a rise in violent crime. He would like to pay police officers more. His other policy ideas include building more affordable housing and more intensely inspecting public housing facilities for tenant damage.

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For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Bree Davis is one of seven candidates running to be Durham’s next mayor. Photo provided by Bree Davis.

Burruss banks on ‘boots on the ground’ experience in her mayoral campaign

As mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss showed us around her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms, she stopped at the road in front of her house and pointed to the ground where bullet shells had strewn the street the night before. 

“I picked up 15 shells from this parking lot,” said Burruss, shaking her head. 

Having served on the resident councils of several Durham Housing Authority communities – she previously lived in Calvert Place – Burruss is familiar with the gun violence and affordable housing crises facing the city. 

Through her campaign, Burruss hopes to encourage others from low-income neighborhoods to run for political office. She said people like her, who have relationships with residents of Durham’s often-overlooked communities, have an important perspective to share. 

“We don’t consider people who are actually boots on the ground, that are actually in the community and making a big impact,” Burruss told the 9th Street Journal. 

In June this year, after hearing gunfire every night from her home in Edgemont Elms, Burruss organized a community barbecue, inviting district police and local families to spend time together and build relationships. In addition to her resident council responsibilities, Burruss is a member of the Residential Advisory Board of DHA and chairperson for the Consumer Family Advisory Committee of Durham.

In 2018, she received a Neighborhood Spotlight Award for her community outreach effort in Durham, which included organizing food and toy donations and community events. 

This campaign marks Burruss’s fourth attempt at running for political office in North Carolina. She was a candidate for mayor of Monroe in 2007; town council in Marshville in 2011; and city council in Durham in 2019, receiving 1,258 votes. 

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1959, Burruss comes from a family of preachers. After working many different jobs to support her son, Burruss decided to pursue higher education in her late 40’s, receiving an associate’s degree in Human Services from South Piedmont Community College in 2004 and a Bachelor of Sciences in social work from Gardner-Webb University in 2006. 

Though she has never held a political office, Burruss is an experienced community leader; she said her roots in the community give her an advantage over other candidates. For example, Burruss has become frustrated by what sees as broken communication channels between DHA residents and local government officials. In her experience, the local government makes a dangerous presumption that all DHA residents have access to  computers and internet required to find information about affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“Durham officials don’t realize not everybody can afford internet access, and older people are not using computers,” said Burruss. 

Alternative methods of communication, such as electronic billboards and posters containing updates from the local government, could be a better way to reach those without internet access, she said. 

Patching the communication gaps between low-income residents and the Durham mayor’s office, Burruss said, is a vital prerequisite to addressing the issues she is most passionate about — crime, affordable housing, and employment. 

Addressing crime and poverty would be Burruss’s main priority as mayor. She believes investment in education and parental support in communities with high crime rates can help break this cycle. 

Burruss does not support defunding the police in Durham. Rather, she believes police officers should be retrained to better communicate with residents and those with mental health conditions. She also supports paying police officers more so they don’t leave to find work in counties offering higher salaries.

She says her experience as a liaison between local residents, police, and the Housing Authority positions her well to improve city relations as mayor. If elected, Burruss plans to spend time in Durham, speaking to people “on the ground” to inform her policy decisions. 

“If I were in the mayor’s chair, you’d be able to put your hands on me,” said Burruss. 

At the top: Mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss serves on the resident council for her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero envisions a Durham for all

Until a few months ago, Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero had no plans to run for mayor. She was in the middle of serving her four-year term on the council when Mayor Steve Schewel unexpectedly announced he would not be running for reelection. After years of public service, Caballero decided to take her leadership to the next level.  

“It created an opportunity and an open seat that I felt compelled to at least try for,” Caballero said of Schewel’s retirement. She’s motivated to continue the mission she began on the City Council to make Durham more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. The city is on the cusp of unprecedented progress, she believes, and there’s important work to be done.

Durham’s most pressing challenge is still COVID-19, Caballero said. She and her fellow council members are working hard to vaccinate Durhamites and distribute resources to every neighborhood. 

Beyond the pandemic, Durham faces a web of interlocking issues that Caballero is determined to face head-on, from gun violence to affordable housing to the need for green infrastructure. 

Caballero moved from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children. The city has transformed since then, but some of the biggest changes are still to come, including the implementation of a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond and the development of a new community safety department that offers alternatives to policing. 

Caballero worked on both these initiatives as a city council member and is determined to see them through. “It’s so important that the things we’ve passed actually get implemented effectively,” she said. “I want to ensure that the work I have helped to start continues at the kind of expansive level I know it can.”

Caballero’s vision for Durham revolves around community engagement and collaboration. Both are necessary to confront challenges like public safety and affordable housing access, she said. If elected mayor, she promises to prioritize transparency and communication.

“Our systems are designed to be opaque, but we can be intentional about including folks,” Caballero said. “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”

Caballero’s ability to connect with all pockets of the Durham community is one of her greatest strengths, said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who serves on the City Council with Caballero and has endorsed her in the mayoral race. “Javiera is able to reach out into communities that have been underserved and unheard in government for a long time,” Johnson said. “She really cares about everyone who lives here.”

Javiera Caballero became the Durham City Council’s first Latina member when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Jan. 2018. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Caballero, whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was young, would be the first Latina mayor ever elected in North Carolina. That representation is important, especially in Durham, where Latinos make up nearly 14% of the population. On the City Council, Caballero has advocated for improved language access programs and legal aid for immigrants. 

Schewel, who endorsed Caballero for mayor last month, praised her deep knowledge of Durham and its people. “There’s no doubt at all that Javiera is deeply rooted in our community and knows the community inside and out,” he said. “She wants to make the city we love a city for all, and I think she knows exactly how to do that.”

Caballero has also been endorsed by the People’s Alliance, an influential Durham political action committee. Caballero is “policy centric and detail oriented,” the endorsement reads. Community organization Durham for All and the Durham Association of Educators have both endorsed Caballero as well. 

Both Schewel and Johnson describe Caballero as extremely hardworking and productive. She wants to get things done for Durham, they said, and that will remain true whether she’s elected mayor or not. 

If Caballero doesn’t win, she’ll continue to serve her current term on the City Council, which ends in 2023. She’s deeply invested in continuing the work she’s started, she said, and refuses to slow down. 

“Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot to do,” Caballero said. “In either seat, I will keep on doing the work.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero poses in her campaign t-shirt. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Analysis: Contrary to predictions of gloom and doom, election went smoothly

Despite the predictions of chaos and bureaucratic breakdowns on Election Day, which occasionally robbed Damon Circosta of a good night’s sleep, the chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections can finally rest easy. The state’s election went smoothly, with “remarkably few” difficulties — ”and that’s saying something,” he said.

“Every election has a number of these Election Day challenges that you have to work through,” he said. “It is notable that in the midst of a pandemic, where we had to make considerable adaptations, how few hiccups there were in the process.”

From the six polling places of 2,660 statewide that opened late, to the thousands of mail-in ballots that voters requested but never returned (as of Wednesday morning, around 92,300 absentee ballots remain outstanding), the election wasn’t without its share of problems. Yet county and state officials say they have tackled those challenges with ease, extending vote times at the precincts that saw delays and allowing mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrive by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Phil Lehman, chair of the Durham Board of Elections, says the board “didn’t have any real glitches” on Election Day. The county prepared for possible instances of voter intimidation by putting unarmed security guards at every precinct, but he says no harassment occurred.

“In fact, one of the complaints we got was from an observer who complained about someone in uniform in a patrol car, which was part of the security service. I thought, man, if this is what passes for voter intimidation in Durham, we’re doing very well,” he laughed. 

Both Lehman and Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, agreed that mail-in voting provided the greatest challenge, largely due to changing requirements for witness information.

“It really didn’t get worked out until two weeks until the election, so we had to hold onto a number of ballots until then,” Cohen said. Still, because North Carolina law enabled counties to process absentee ballots weeks before they were counted on Nov. 3, the state reported 97% of its votes on election night.

Counties are now in the midst of the canvass, the final tally of votes that ends on Friday. During the canvass period, county election boards will meet to count any remaining absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and review provisional ballots for voter eligibility. 

Durham has 1,277 provisional ballots yet to be reviewed, and 2,800 absentee ballots remain outstanding. The county is unlikely to receive all 2,800, however, because some voters who requested absentee ballots may have voted on Election Day or chosen not to vote at all. The county board of elections will meet Thursday and Friday to certify the remaining ballots.

After the state board reviews county results for final certification on Nov. 24, there could be a recount in the race for chief justice of the state Supreme Court. A 10,000-vote margin is required for the losing candidate to request a recount; as of Wednesday morning, Republican Paul Newby’s lead over Democrat Cheri Beasley had shrunk to just under 1,000 votes.

While Cohen anticipates the recount, he doubts North Carolina will see any further legal challenges.

“The margins are large in the national races, and there’s no evidence of any kind of fraud,” he said.

Until the counties send their results to the state board of elections, Circosta is standing back to “supervise and support.” 

“My job right now, after having built this funnel for democracy, is to let the funnel do its work over the next week,” he said.

Above, a voter fills out her ballot at the polling place at the Ruritan Club in Bahama. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

A wad of towels and a spray bottle to keep voters safe

Wearing a plastic face shield, a blue surgical mask, blue gloves and a white surgical gown that reaches down to her pink running shoes, Maria Quiros looks like many of the health workers battling the coronavirus in hospitals across the country. 

But this is no hospital. It’s the early voting site at Duke’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. And Quiros’s job isn’t to heal the sick — it’s to protect thousands of voters from the virus.

Her outfit is a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic has transformed voting, usually no more risky than visiting the county library, into an activity that is potentially life-threatening.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

“It makes everything feel very surreal,” said Emma DeRose, a Duke senior and volunteer poll worker who helped wipe down the voting stations with disinfectant. “Obviously, we know a pandemic is going on. But I think Duke is kind of in a bubble in a way. We’ve had a pretty low case count, and it doesn’t really feel that present. And then I think you get to the polling center, and you’re seeing these people, including myself, just all decked out, and it’s like ‘woah.’”

Voting, like going to the grocery store or to school, has become a stroll through a minefield. And, since early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, Quiros, DeRose and others have kept voters safe with a wad of paper towels and a spray bottle of disinfectant. 

According to an Aug. 14 memo from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, workers at voting sites are required to perform “ongoing and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas” with an EPA-approved disinfectant for COVID-19.

On a recent Friday, Quiros stood at the left side of the voting room in Karsh. She had her dark hair in a bun, and her eyes scanned the booths. As soon as a voter left a booth, Quiros scurried over and began cleaning. 

She started by wiping the bottom of the polling booth. Next, she cleaned one side, and then the other, finishing with a horizontal swipe along the front edge.  

While waiting, Quiros also directed voters to empty booths or helped them follow the blue arrows to the spot where they could scan their ballots — she’s both the cleanup crew and stage director. 

It’s tedious work, but Quiros is staying positive. She’s confident that the polling place is safe for voters.

“Because we are taking care of them,” she said.

Quiros said she has been working 12 hours a day since Oct. 15. She has help. There are 10 to 15 poll workers during each shift, and these workers rotate between various positions, from ballot tabulator to sanitation worker, said DeRose, who was greeting people and handing out pens. 

“I think just us being very thorough with the cleaning provides a sense of comfort,” DeRose said. 

This Friday afternoon, Quiros was accompanied by Kate Young, 72, who had started her cleaning duty at 1:30 p.m. 

“You get used to it,” she said, referring to the protective gear she was wearing. “This is what we have to do now.” 

She has volunteered as a poll worker for four years, and she said this voting site is far better run than the one at the Devil’s Den in 2016. 

“It was a madhouse,” she said, chuckling. 

Uncertainty looms over this election, but Young isn’t worried. She prefers to focus on helping in small ways, a lesson she has learned from her years with the Peace Corps, End Hunger in Durham, and other activist work.

“You do what you can,” she said.

At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street journal