Sheila Arias Abonza was busy planning a Martin Luther King Jr. day celebration when she got a Facebook message on Thursday afternoon. 

“I actually had a good friend of mine send me a message and say ‘Congratulations!’ and I said ‘For what?’” said Abonza, a candidate for the open Durham City Council seat. “He said, ‘You are one of the seven finalists.’”

At their Jan. 4 work session, Durham City Council made their first round of cuts in the race to fill Mayor Steve Schewel’s vacated at-large council seat. After initially receiving 20 applications, the council whittled the list down to seven names via a ranked-choice vote on Thursday afternoon.

In alphabetical order, the remaining candidates are Abonza, Javiera Caballero, Pierce Freelon, Kaaren Haldeman, Shelia Ann Huggins, Pilar Rocha-Goldberg and Carl Rist.

“I feel really good,” Haldeman said Thursday night. “I know some of the other candidates, have volunteered with some of the other candidates and it’s a group of people that I’m just really impressed by.”

Like Abonza, Haldeman—a gun violence activist who also works with Rise to Run, which seeks to empower girls to consider participating in politics—found out about making the cut via Facebook. Around 5:00 p.m., she saw that a friend had tagged her in a post about being one of the finalists, and since then she’s received lots of positive feedback from her friends.

Haldeman is one of the five female finalists for the position. If chosen, a female candidate would make the city council majority-female. 

“This is a really powerful time for women,” Haldeman said. “I can’t tell you how it feels for someone who has been in activism for a long time, to see this number of women jumping into the political landscape.”

For Abonza, who is a campaign associate at Moms Rising and owns a cleaning business, being one of three Latina finalists for the position on the council—which currently does not have any Latinx members—is exciting.

“Seeing those names, it’s amazing. It makes me feel very good as a resident of Durham knowing that there are Latinas out there that care so much about the community and want to make a difference,” Abonza said. “The fact that there are three different Latinas from three different countries in Latin America—and that we are three women—it’s even more amazing, because we’re making history and we’re breaking barriers, and these individuals on city council are seeing this.”

Caballero, a program coordinator at Alma Advisory Group and PTA President at Club Blvd. Elementary school, moved to the city in 2010. She currently serves on the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission, and stressed the importance of having “culturally sensitive, bilingual leaders” in her application for the position.

“If we want our community to be better, then we must all be involved and do our part in whatever capacity we are able to,” she wrote in the questionnaire the candidates submitted to the council.

Rocha-Goldberg, the president and CEO of Durham’s El Centro Hispano, is focused on the issues of affordable housing, inclusion and increasing the safeness of the city. She has previously worked with Duke on issues relevant to the Latinx community, and served on the Board of Directors for UnidosUS and as member and chair of the Governor’s Hispanic/Latino Affairs Committee under Governor Beverly Perdue.

“I feel very honored to be chosen for this last part of the process,” Rocha-Goldberg wrote in an email Friday morning. “I believe that my background and experience will serve inclusivity and give not only a voice to an important segment of the community, but will serve the larger community by increasing understanding and supporting integration and communication within the community.”

Two of the candidates for the vacant seat are familiar names to Durham residents who kept up with the recent municipal elections. Freelon, who finished third in the mayoral primary, is the founder of Blackspace, a digital maker space in Durham.

“If elected, I will be the sole millennial on Durham's City Council and will bring creative perspectives and innovative solutions to the issues facing Durham… As someone born and raised in this city, I am excited about the opportunity to serve the community that has given me so much,” Freelon wrote in an email Thursday afternoon.

Huggins, a self-employed attorney with a focus on business law who previously worked as a city employee, ran against now-councilwoman Vernetta Alston in the recent race for the Ward 3 city council seat. During her time working for Durham, Huggins earned a Culture of Service award.

“Durham is at a crossroads, and the decisions we make now will determine the trajectory of our city for years to come,” she wrote in her candidate questionnaire.

One of the candidates is also a Duke alumni. Rist, who earned a Master of Arts in Public Policy Studies in 1991, has been a member of the People’s Alliance Political Action Committee for 25 years.

He highlighted his experience as a particularly relevant asset considering the youth of the current council.

“It is a great honor to be chosen as one of the finalists for an appointment to the Durham City Council,” Rist wrote in an email on Friday. “Ever since I graduated from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke in 1991, I have been involved in promoting progressive politics in Durham.”

With the field of candidates narrowed, the next steps in the selection process will be in-person. The candidates will be interviewed on Jan. 11, and the council plans to elect and swear-in the new member on Jan. 16.

“People ask me, ‘What happens if you’re not selected?’ And I say that’s fine, I’m still going to be doing my work as an activist in the community, and this whole process has taught me so much about the city,” Abonza said. “I’m gaining so much knowledge and getting to know so many people that it continues to encourage me to make a difference.”