Candidates running for three Durham City Council seats held a friendly forum on campus Thursday to discuss their platforms and field questions from students and the public before the general election Nov. 3.
Three of the six candidates—Jillian Johnson, Trinity '03, incumbent Steve Schewel, Trinity '73 and visiting assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Charlie Reece—were present at the event in the Nelson Music Room on East Campus. The cordial nature of the forum likely surprised many of the approximately 50 people in attendance—Johnson predicted early on that the three candidates would have similar opinions on almost every issue brought up during the discussion.
“Y’all aren’t going to hear much disagreement up here tonight,” Johnson said. “Sorry!”
The candidates presented positions on several topics, including affordable housing and eliminating racial profiling, but spent much of the forum discussing Durham's living wage.
“Nothing the government can do can solve the problem [of poverty in Durham] by itself.…some of the things we would like to do, our state government won’t let us,” Schewel said. “Right now in Durham the living wage is about $12.60, and the city pays people that, but the state told us we can no longer require our contractors to do the same.”
Due to the location of the event, the candidates also addressed the complex economic relationship between Duke and Durham. Schewel noted that Duke is the biggest employer in Durham and one of the top employers in the state.
“Duke is the number one engine in driving Durham’s economy,” he said. “That’s good because Duke is incredibly rich and prosperous, and I think my job is to leverage as many of those resources from Duke as possible.”
Schewel cited health clinics and loans offered by Duke to local businesses—such as Self-Help Credit Union—as examples of Duke benefitting Durham, but also identified wages as a major weakness of the University.
“Duke doesn’t pay well,” Schewel said. “We need to continue to pressure Duke to increase its pay. That’s the single biggest thing we can do in Durham to reduce poverty.”
Johnson agreed, noting that regular employees of the University are paid a living wage but contracted employees are not.
Some audience members asked the candidates how they would deal with the conservative North Carolina General Assembly while performing Council duties.
“We’re going to have to get creative,” Reece said. “We’re going to have to be as progressive as we’re being permitted to be.”
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After the forum ended, senior Matt Peterson said that he was surprised by how the event unfolded.
“It was a little different than I was expecting in that there wasn’t much opposition—the three candidates were in agreement and it seemed like they pretty much wanted to get elected together,” Peterson said. “I also appreciated how informed the people in the audience who attended were. They asked some really good questions about the city of Durham.”
Thursday's forum was hosted by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, Duke Office of Civic Engagement, Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and Sanford’s Center on Politics.