Five of the seven finalists for the vacant Durham City Council seat. Left to right: Pierce Freelon, Javiera Caballero, Carl Rist, Pilar Rocha-Goldberg and Shelia Ann Huggins.
Five of the seven finalists for the vacant Durham City Council seat. Left to right: Pierce Freelon, Javiera Caballero, Carl Rist, Pilar Rocha-Goldberg and Shelia Ann Huggins.

Durham County

Will one of these people be the next Durham City Council member?

By Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

January 04, 2018 03:08 PM


The seven finalists for the vacant Durham City Council seat are Sheila Arias Abonza, Javiera Caballero, Pierce Freelon, Kaaren Haldeman, Shelia Ann Huggins, Carl Rist and Pilar Rocha-Goldberg.

The council voted on its short list of candidates Thursday afternoon. They’ll appoint one of them Jan. 16. The vacancy was created when member Steve Schewel was sworn in as mayor Dec. 4. There is about two years left on his at-large council term.

Twenty people had applied, including former mayoral candidate Freelon and former council candidate Huggins.

Freelon, 34, is the founder of the digital makerspace Blackspace and a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill. He ran for mayor but did not make it through the primary.

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Mayoral candidate Pierce Freelon raps a response during a forum at The Pinhook in downtown Durham. He is one of several candidates that discussed the issue of policing in Durham Wednesday Sept. 6. Dawn Baumgartner

Freelon brought a backpack of 100 letters from supporters to the council meeting. A lot of what he proposed during his mayoral campaign remains part of the vision he’d bring to council, like a focus on poverty, jobs guarantee, access to services for vulnerable communities, affordable housing and gentrification, he said. He’s also trying to get the endorsement of the People’s Alliance political action committee, which plans to endorse one of the applicants.

Huggins, 50, is an attorney in private practice whose firm is less than a block from Durham City Hall. She campaigned for the Ward 3 council seat and lost to Alston in the general election.

Huggins practices business law, which is mostly contracts, she said. But until 2014, she worked for the city. Huggins started working for the city’s General Services Department in 2006 handling special projects, then moved to Neighborhood Improvement Services and finally to the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Before that she was an environmental chemist for the state.

Rocha-Goldberg is CEO of El Centro Hispano.

Rocha-Goldberg, 49, came to Durham in 2004 from Colombia to work at Duke University with the Latino community. She sees Durham’s major issues as balancing growth with community needs, affordable housing, transportation, the environment and how to make the city safer.

“We are lucky to be in a welcoming city for immigrants in general in Durham,” she said. “We acknowledge the immigrants are here. We have to give the community the right tools to integrate.”

Caballero is a member of the Durham Open Spaces and Trails Commission and president of the Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary School PTA.

Caballero, 39, moved to Durham from Chicago in 2010.

“Currently there isn’t a perspective for the immigrant community and Latinx community, and I think there’s a gap and there are a lot of pressing issues for the city,” she has said. Issues include affordable housing, policing and fear in the immigrant community.

“I’m an immigrant. I came when I was really little from Chile,” Caballero said. “To me, that’s something that’s near and dear to my heart.” She said the 2016 presidential election elevated the conversation about immigration.

Caballero’s family moved to the U.S. when her dad was in graduate school. She lived in Oklahoma and South Carolina before moving to Charlotte at age 9. She has been a citizen since she was 14 and is a graduate of Appalachian State University. Caballero is a project coordinator for Chicago-based Alma Advisory Group. She is also a mother of three and is in her second year as PTA president at Club. At the school, she has been active in outreach to Latinx families, she said.

Here's what bothers Durham City Council candidate Shelia Ann Huggins about downtown development. Dawn Baumgartner

Haldeman is a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In her questionnaire, she said “urban and community gardening, edible schoolyards and other innovations in using open space to address other social issues would be a priority.”

Rist works at Prosperity Now and has been a longtime leader in the People’s Alliance. In his application questionnaire, he said “the single most important issue facing Durham and Durham’s city leaders is the growing gap between rich and poor.”

Rist, 55, said he has known Schewel for a long time and shares his values, especially regarding affordable housing and tax fairness. Prosperity Now is a research and policy think tank, and Rist works to help lower-income households build wealth.

“I think I’ve got a lot of experience. The council is dynamic, younger, certainly a progressive group ... it’s fun and exciting work, and they’re an impressive bunch I’d love to work with,” Rist said.

Arias Abonza is the owner of Jas Cleaning Services and a campaign associate of MomsRising.

“I’m a Mexican American woman who was brought to this country as a young child, leaving everything behind to come to a new land with my family in search of the American dream, better education and to be united as one whole family,” Arias Abonza wrote in her application for the vacant seat.

“I know what it’s like not speaking the language, being put in a new world and not knowing how to adapt. I bring my personal experiences as a woman living with fear during that time I was neither a resident nor a citizen of this country. I bring the struggles and humiliations my parents had to deal with because their English wasn’t good enough for society. I bring the experience of a mother of a child with special needs and the unique challenges I had to face with not knowing how to navigate the systems in order to obtain the medical and professional help my child needed and still needs,” she said.

The seven finalists were determined by rank choice voting. Each council member submitted his or her top seven choices. Schewel’s list had all seven who were chosen, as did City Council member Charlie Reece’s list.

Council member Vernetta Alston voted for Sammy Banawan, Haldeman, Arias Abonza, Rist, Freelon, Rocha-Goldberg and Caballero. Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson voted for Rocha-Goldberg, Banawan, Caballero, Huggins, Haldeman, Freelon and Rist. Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton voted for Ricardo Correa, Fredrick A. Davis, Freelon, Rocha-Goldberg, Haldeman, Huggins and Rist. Council member DeDreana Freeman voted for Nida Allam, Arias Abonza, Fredrick A. Davis, Haldeman, Huggins, Rocha-Goldberg and Rist.

The council will hold three more special meetings in the next week about the council vacancy. At 7 p.m. Jan. 10, candidate supporters will speak on behalf of their choice for the council seat. Then at 5 p.m. Jan. 11, the council will interview the seven finalists. Finally, at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 16, the council will vote to appoint someone. The new council member will be sworn in at the 7 p.m. Jan. 16 regular council meeting. All meetings are at Durham City Hall.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan