Q&A with Durham mayoral candidates

Next Tuesday, Durham voters will elect one of four candidates to serve as the next mayor of the Bull City. Incumbent candidate Bill Bell, Durham’s mayor since 2001, has three contenders vying to take over his position: retired salesman Ralph McKinney, local pastor Sylvester Williams and Durham County Commissioner Joe Bowser. The Chronicle’s Caroline Fairchild spoke with Bell, McKinney and Williams to learn about their vision for the city and Duke-Durham relations. Bowser could not be reached for comment this week.

The Chronicle: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing Durham in the upcoming year?

Bill Bell: The economy. We need to try to create an environment for jobs and try to create an environment where we can expand in Durham and find jobs. That is pretty general, but specifically, we need to revitalize our inner city neighborhoods and target those are in need.

Ralph McKinney: First, we have to find an avenue to not increase the tax dollar but get more value out of them. There is a must to address the women and children at risk living in an environment that has come about due to social programs. Bill Bell and Joe Bowser have known about this for years without realizing it. We must find an avenue to address the racial divide with have in our community to renew the opportunities for success for everyone—and not be divided because of past history and bring some solutions that bring about productivity.

Sylvester Williams: Creating jobs within the private sector is priority number one. The unemployment rate for Durham County is 8.4 percent. There are sectors within the city of Durham with unemployment rates well over 30 percent. The city’s dependence on government-related jobs helped to insulate it from the downturn in the economy. However, with both the state of North Carolina and the federal government proposing to make extensive budget cuts, Durham’s employment growth could be further impaired.

TC: In what areas do you hope to improve from your last terms as mayor?

BB: I think we are on right track in how the city is moving. We are focusing on our infrastructure and the revitalization of downtown. We are always working to find ways to reduce crime, and I understand that this is a community effort. We are hoping to increase the information about crime prevention.

TC: What do you plan on doing differently than Mayor Bell if elected?

RM: We have intentionally avoided addressing the situation of safety for citizens. Every time we see a situation, we just say “wrong place, wrong time,” but we need to make sure we have people educated and trained to repair their own communities, rather than have the government do it for them. There was a significant amount of money being spent.... We need to go invest more responsibly and have programs like Habitat for Humanity where people can own their home and going to the property owners and make an opportunity for them to buy and repair their own houses. [Bell] had a program to built marginal homes, and that was a failure because the market is saturated with taxes and people can do their own work.

SW: There has been a huge focus on downtown Durham, and my focus would actually be on the surrounding communities and the jobs that could help the rehabilitation of the surrounding communities. The surrounding communities in Durham are very depressed, and that is where I would also focus on housing as well as job growth.

TC: How do you hope to improve Duke-Durham relations if elected?

BB: I think we have a great partnership between the University and the city of Durham. We hope to strengthen the partnership. I think over the years the partnership has grown in a very positive way. When you look at Duke’s contributions to downtown Durham, they have been important. They have moved employees down there and paid for buildings. There may be opportunities for Duke to find more ways to contribute.

RM: Duke University has got a law school and an engineering school, and I think it’s time that the educational leaders, business leaders and students get together about what to get done and how to get it done. They have a great ability to get involved in our community. Duke students can look at problems from the outside and help from the inside. There are opportunities for students to go into the communities and try and problem-solve in Durham.

SW: I think the protests in New York City related to corporate greed could happen on a grander scale in Durham if the misallocation of resources are not addressed. Duke helps to fund [nonprofit] Self-Help, which has purchased houses in the south-side area of Durham. These houses are boarded up while people are looking for places to live. Duke could put more money into these homes for the local residents to help improve its image with the residents of Durham.

TC: Why do you think you make the best candidate for Durham mayor?

BB: I have almost 40 years of local-effective experience in Durham and the county level. I was on the board of county commissioners for over 10 years. I bring stability to the organization. I have institutional knowledge. I enjoy the job and those are areas that I have expertise moving forward. I think if you look at the leadership of the council, we aren’t always in agreement but we move on. We don’t bring a lot of drama. and I think that is important as well.

RM: I’ve always made sure that when I get involved, I document the best action to take to get the best results. We can make sure that all the population has their Constitutional rights protected and no one is disadvantaged. We need to make sure that businesses deal with people treated fairly and do not charge clients different rates by race. Citizens have rights and Joe Bowser and Bill Bell have met citizens who have done that and have looked the other way. To me, that is cowardly and indifferent and needs to change.

SW: My faith in Christ Jesus taught me to respect the dignity of every man. I see every citizen of Durham, regardless of past failure as having the capability to be a positive contributor to the interests of Durham. My years of experience in the financial industry will allow me to view our the city’s budget from a perspective that will allow the city to maximize services, while also looking to cut wasteful spending. Lastly, my values would cause me to represent all of Durham, and I would not vote to pass a same-sex resolution 7-0 as the current city council did. Before passing the resolution, the mayor suspended any discussion from the citizens attending the meeting. Durham should never be a place where its citizens do not have a voice in the sanctioning of issues that will affect our children and grandchildren.


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