Nearly 300 leaders from the Latino community on Monday met with Durham municipal election candidates to discuss the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organization’s common agenda on housing and public safety.
“Through the listening sessions, we confirmed that Latino communities are either under or over-policed due to the lack of bilingual police officers,” wrote Rev. Dr. Herbert Reynolds Davis, senior pastor at Nehemiah Church, in a press release.
“We hope the next Mayor of Durham will lead in creating the type of partnership which has the potential to create better housing for all groups in Durham,” Friar Hugh Macsherry wrote in the press release.
The assembly was also a “nonpartisan call to get out the vote,” the press release stated.
“We never endorse any of the candidates. Instead, mayoral and city council candidates can always decide to endorse our priorities,” wrote Martha Ramirez of Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanual.
The event primarily took place in Spanish, with organizers serving as translators for the English-speaking candidates.
At the start of the candidate portion of the event, each contender had an opportunity to introduce themselves to the audience.
Current Ward 2 City Councilman Mark Anthony Middleton said that he is seeking “permission for four more years to continue work that [he] actually started with a lot of you in this room—work to continue to build Black and brown power in the city.”
“I actually stood with the Latino Congress years ago, before I was in office walking the halls of our legislature, lobbying for provisional driver's licenses for folk to be able to drive and bring produce into the city from farms, when I worked on faith [identifications], when we worked to get bilingual counselors in schools so all of our children could learn and thrive,” Middleton said.
Current Ward I City Councilwoman DeDreana Freeman told attendees that she works with a nonprofit organization focused on “reaching children of color that are Black and brown and our community, working closely with their parents, caregivers and families to ensure that they have the academic support they need to achieve success from birth to college or career.”
Candidate for Ward III Leonardo Williams discussed how he is a two-time Teacher of the Year winner in Durham Public Schools, a restaurant owner and co-founder of Latino Ambassadors at the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.
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“We may be brothers and sisters, some of a different song. But we all are brothers and sisters with the same heart. I love Durham and I'm sure that you do too because you're here tonight,” Leonardo Williams said.
Leonardo Williams added that he “[wants] us to solve issues together.”
“We suffer from some of the same things and we succeed by some of the same things,” he said.
Mayor candidate Elaine O’Neal joked about her Spanish knowledge, saying “I took a little Spanish in high school, so I am rusty, but I'm determined to learn again.”
She noted that she has served Durham for 24 years and that her time as a judge made her “very familiar with the stories that we heard tonight.” Part of what she worked on included working with the Durham Police Department to try to ensure that communication was bilingual.
Durham City Council Ward I candidate Marion T. Johnson told the audience about her parents immigrating to the United States 40 years ago. Johnson is a first-generation American—“and very proud to be.”
“I know that one thing about immigrants is that we can always find our people and we can always make a home wherever we go. I'm blessed to have found my people in Durham and to choose Durham as my home. And that's why I'm running for office,” Johnson said.
Johnson currently works for a Black-owned social justice consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits and foundations to focus equity in all corners of their work. Equity and justice are two main focuses of her platform, she said.
“I'm committed to listening to all of the communities here in Durham, the communities that make Durham such an incredible place to live. And I'm committed to amplifying the voices that most need to be heard.”
AJ Williams began his introduction in Spanish.
“I want to ensure that Durham is a safe and affordable place to live for all of our residents,” he added. He noted that he has worked at a nonprofit for the last four years and supported groups of Latinx communities.
Sylvester Williams expressed excitement about speaking in a church.
“I'm so excited to be here to be on the candidate forum where they're not afraid to call on the name of Jesús Cristo,” he said.
“We do not see that in Durham the face of poverty is Black and brown, and I'm ready to make a change to make a difference in what has happened in Durham because they've overlooked Black and brown populations,” he said, “and not only the Black and brown populations, but also the voices of Christians are being silenced in Durham.”
Organizers then asked the candidates to respond “Yes” or “No” to each of the questions asked. After all the questions were asked, they were all given a chance to elaborate.
Questions for O’Neal
There were two questions asked specifically to mayoral candidate O’Neal.
Ramirez asked O’Neal: "If you are elected, will you arrange and attend a meeting with the new chief of police and leaders from our organization to discuss our agenda on safety?”
O’Neal responded affirmatively.
“I would hope to have more than one meeting. I would like to establish a relationship where you provide guidance, leadership and help me to establish goals that I can put forth in action. I intend to govern with you,” she said.
A forum leader asked O’Neal: “If elected, will you arrange and attend a meeting with the Durham district attorney to discuss ways to strengthen legal consequences for landlords not complying with housing code violations?”
O’Neal responded yes and was met with audience applause.
During her opportunity to elaborate, O’Neal said, “There was a court established community life court under my jurisdiction when I was chief district court judge, so I am well aware of how that process works. And we'll be working to reestablish that relationship and that court. I know Constance Stancil [director of Neighborhood Improvement Services for the city of Durham] and her staff will go and work together on a racial equity task force.”
Questions for city council candidates
Candidates were asked if they would meet with Latino Congress leaders within 90 days of taking office to discuss the congress’ collective agenda. All candidates responded affirmatively.
The second question the organizers asked was: “If elected, will you fight to secure funding to ensure Durham increases the percentage of bilingual police officers by at least one percent every year during the next five years? Or five officers per year?”
All the candidates responded yes.
Bilingual police officers in Durham receive a bonus of $1,000 “in accordance with good performance as a reward for their skills and added workload.”
The third question the organizers asked was: “We have learned Durham is losing bilingual officers to all the cities. If elected, would you direct the chief of police to review compensation practices for bilingual police officers and help bring the added bonus to at least $1,500 annually?”
All the candidates responded yes.
The final question asked to the candidates was: “Our research indicates that the community safety department is still in the process of planning and will soon start hiring community's response staff. If elected, will you work with us to ensure this department promotes the safety of the Latino community by hiring bilingual responses staff?”
All the candidates responded yes.
The candidates were then provided an opportunity to give detailed responses to the questions.
“I know what it is to be in this community and to really have concerns around housing and public safety,” Freeman said, “And I want to say I want to work with you.”
Freeman said that while “our issues may be different,” they’re actually “very parallel.”
Johnson reiterated that accessibility and community safety are two major parts of her platform.
“It is crucial that all of our city services are accessible to everyone and are culturally competent for everyone. Regardless of how much money we have, what language we speak or how long we've lived in the city,” Johnson said.
O’Neal remarked that the questions the candidates were asked “are just the beginning of a conversation.”
“We must also look to partner with Durham Public Schools and other agencies to build community capacity so that your children and my children can become police officers in this city and be whatever it is they want to be,” she said.
Editor’s note: The Chronicle viewed the forum from a recording provided by one of the organizers of the event. The recording ended before Sylvester Williams, a Ward II candidate, and AJ Williams, a Ward III candidate, had the opportunity to justify their answers to the Q&A panel. To remain fair to all the candidates, The Chronicle did not include the justifications given by their opponents, Mark-Anthony Middleton in Ward II and Leonardo Williams in Ward III, respectively. The only candidates featured were DeDreana Freeman and Marion T. Johnson from Ward I and mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal.
Kathryn Thomas is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.