Updated: Oct 7, 2019
Article Edited on 10/06/2019 at 7:46pm: Saige Martin is running in district D, not B as stated before
Article Edited 10/07/2019 at 10:03am: Brittany Bryan is the candidate running in District D, not Brittany Cooper as previously stated.
On a steamy night in October, just 5 days before Election Day, local labor organizations and activist groups came together and hosted the first ever The People First Raleigh Mayoral and City Council Candidate Forum at the Pullen Community Center. Unlike many of the other forums during this contentious election, the stated purpose of the event was centering the issues most affecting Black and Brown working class people. The National Black Worker Center Project (NBWCP) has been engaging Raleigh’s Black community for the last six months through their “Black Voices, Black Votes” campaign, and used the over 2000 collected surveys to create questions that reflected the resident’s stated concerns. The NBWCP partnered with The NC A. Philip Randolph Institute, Black Workers for Justice, The National Domestic Workers Alliance, Power UP-NCLCVF, and Raise Up for 15 to put on the forum.
Most of the candidates voters will see on the ballot were present for the forum:
Mayoral candidates Caroline Sullivan, Zainab Baloch, Charles Francis, George Knott, and Keith Sutton,
At-Large incumbents Nicole Stewart and Russ Stephenson and challenger Dr. Portia Rochelle,
District A candidates Josh Bradley and Sam Hershey,
District B incumbent David Cox and challenger Brian Fitzsimmons,
District C incumbent and Mayor Pro-Tem Corey Branch and challengers Wanda Hunter and Ricky Scott
District D incumbent Kay Crowder and challengers Brittany Bryan and Saige Martin,
And District E incumbent Stef Mendell and challenger David Knight.
Those not in attendance were mayoral candidate Mary Ann Baldwin, District C candidate Shelia Alamin-Khasoggi, at-large candidates Jonathan Melton, James Bledsoe, and Carlie Allison Spencer, District A candidate Patrick Buffkin, and District D candidate April Parker.
This forum was exceptional for many reasons, and one of those reasons was the intensity of the discussions that verged on protest and impassioned monologues. This is what the residents of Raleigh’s underserved communities needed to see - not subdued, tempered politicians, but fellow residents who were just as angry about the pain that issues like gentrification and excessive policing have inflicted upon their loved ones and neighbors as they are. It was immediately audible whether the audience of community members agreed or disagreed with the answers of the candidates through cheers and applause or boos. Even fellow panelists couldn’t help but interject and cry foul on their peers when they noticed comments becoming antagonistic and inflated. The forum wasn’t only informative, but entertaining and fair. Though there were obvious favorites, the audience did not hold back with applause when any candidate made statements that properly addressed their concerns. Neither did they let those favorites off the hook when they became overfamiliar - the stakes are high for the future of East/Southeast Raleigh, and the residents meant business.
The performance of candidates was uneven, and it was obvious that some were not familiar with many of the issues facing the residents they were speaking to. At-Large candidate Dr. Portia Rochelle, District D candidate Saige Martin, and mayoral candidates Zainab Baloch and Charles Francis offered bold and well-informed answers to moderator Stormie Forte’s questions. Those that struggled most included at-large candidate Russ Stephenson and mayoral candidate Caroline Sullivan, both of whom depended heavily on anecdotes and history lessons while giving answers light on clear plans for policy change.
One of the biggest political arguments in Raleigh and at Friday night’s forum is whether voters should continue trusting the old guard (the “Council of No”, or NIMBYs, as they have been labeled) to create substantive change on issues that they have had years or even decades to work on, or should Raleigh elect a new guard of candidates who are driven to make Raleigh bigger and better for all of her residents with an almost over-emphasis on the private-public partnerships they believe will make that happen. Incumbent candidates stuck solidly with their story that an uncooperative mayor Nancy McFarlene and a republican supermajority in the general assembly have frustrated their projects to make Raleigh more progressive and affordable for all. District D councilwoman Kay Crowder described the 3 year, uphill battle she faced to make bus fare free for young people and the elderly. District B candidate Brian Fitzsimmons commented that racist and classist remarks are made by residents during city council meetings have consistently gone unchallenged by sitting councilmembers, which he correlates with their lack of action on the most pressing issue facing Raleigh right now: rising displacement and homelessness.
Endorsements and campaign contributions also came up frequently among the candidates in the forum. Many of the challenging candidates have been given substantial contributions from developer John Kane, who is looking for council approval for at least two massive building projects (one in an “Opportunity Zone”), and asking for a large portion of the costs to be supplemented by tax dollars. While endorsements and campaign contributions do not determine how vote, it is a glimpse into how they will be expected to vote. Councilor-at-large Russ Stephenson pointed out that candidates with contributions from the groups like the Triangle Apartment Association will not support eviction policy reform. Those those who took Kane money did not fully condemn the soccer stadium project when asked. Those who had endorsements from entities within the housing industry emphasized the need to “add housing stock of all kinds” as an effective plan for creating more affordable housing, while those who did not carry such endorsements emphasized a need to specifically build public housing and housing for those making minimum wage. Mayoral candidate Zainab Baloch also made the audience aware of Caroline Sullivan’s astounding amount of out-of-state donations (much of that from DC and surrounding areas), which may be the result of relationships held by her for-profit prison lobbyist husband.
The overarching impression I have about the forum is that the true hope for Raleigh’s future lies in the organizers and activists. Much like the Moral Monday movement’s influence on breaking the supermajority in the NCGA and unseating Governor McCrory, Raleigh needs a social justice movement that will force city officials to reckon with the ones who have been so easily ignored in the past - poor people and Black and Indigenous people. No one predicted winner was completely on board with the stated needs of those who attended this forum. But, because of organizations like NBWCP and Black Workers for Justice, those candidates had to face this community while they explained why they could or couldn’t give them what they want. As we look beyond election day, the need for a strong activist moment in Raleigh will exponentially increase. We must hold not only our council members to the promises they made on the campaign trail, but the city manager, attorney, and other department heads to support the council member’s vision and equip them with the information and personnel to carry it out. Organizations like North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, National Domestic Workers Alliance, PowerUp NCLCVF, and Raise Up for $15 specifically train in advocating for the Raleigh’s working class residents before all types of audiences, including our council members, and we will be dependent on collaborative action to increase our visibility and impact before leadership. And while many of our council members can retreat to neighborhoods that are unaffected by corroded water and sewer pipes or police brutality, the organizers behind these activist groups are embedded in the communities they advocate for.
Zainab Baloch, Dr. Portia Rochelle, Wanda Hunter, Nicole Stewart, Saige Martin, and Josh Bradley all have strong activist backgrounds and it showed during the forum. They all had done their homework and were well acquainted with the issues facing Black and Brown community, though not all of their solutions sat well. Nicole Stewart was the only candidate who did not show her support for a police oversight board, saying that she had yet to observe a working model that activists were pleased with, and desires to get back to basic tactics to curb excessive police force like better training and nurturing officer and community relationships. To me, this signifies a step that many activists organizations have failed to take - putting forth our own candidates. If the YIMBY movement in Raleigh has taught us anything, it is how to create a slate of politicians to further an organization’s agenda. Our meetings and protests and demonstrations are important, but they do not replace the vital link of representation. If we want to have a viable candidate who is ready to represent the interests of the Raleigh’s Black and Brown working class, we must organize now and raise one up ourselves.
While Raleigh earns “Best City to Raise a Family” and “Best City to Start A Business” awards, many residents quality of life is steadily declining due to displacement and homelessness, rising property taxes, increased traffic, and excessive police force. This does not include the impact of rising health care costs, lower protection for workers, rising deportations of asylum seekers, chemical spills and rolled by environmental regulations, and stagnation in wages due to decisions made on Capitol Hill, as well as increased violence and abuse against queer people and people of color due to the ascention of the bigoted Trump Adminstration. Whose family and business thrives in Raleigh, and, more importantly, whose suffer? The candidates running in Raleigh’s municipal election all have their own interpretation of how the city’s living disparities have come to be and what must be done to right the ship. But Raleigh’s Black, Brown, and working class residents also have a plan, one they have been formulating for decades. It is time we use our energy and resources to build a coalition and lift up our own candidates to carry these plans all the way to City Hall.