Q&A with Elaine O’Neal, the Next Mayor of Durham

Hillside Graduate Elaine O’Neal was elected mayor yesterday. She claimed victory on Tuesday, with 85% of the votes. The following is a Q and A with O’Neal from an interview conducted prior to her win. It has been redacted for concision and clarity.

The Pirates’ Hook (PH): Can you tell us about your background?

Elaine O’Neal (EO): I’ve never lived outside of Durham. I’m a Durham Public Schools Graduate, I went to Hillside and then Central for college and then for law school. I served as an attorney in private practice, and for the city as the Chief District Court Judge and a Superior Court Judge.

I was also the first female to be a chief district court judge in Durham county, and the first female to be a superior court judge in Durham county. Most of my adult career has been as a public servant. I retired from the bench in 2018, and that was pretty much the end of my political career, or so I thought.

(PH): Why did you decide to run for mayor?

(EO): I love Durham. You can’t help but love Durham if you’re from Durham. The one thing that I have been blessed with, is that I have been able to walk in so many spaces and cultures in Durham.

I have been in politics for so long, it seems to me that we are at a place of fragmentation that I haven’t seen before, because COVID has impacted our ability to interact with each other. This at so many levels; economically, socially, and definitely with wealth. All election years are pivotal, but we are at a really pivotal time in my mind.

I really believe that I can unify us so that we can get through these hard times, by focusing on some of our most pressing issues as a community. I really want to emphasize unifying us as neighbors again, knowing that neighbors care about each other. 

‘Caring about our neighbors’ is the term that I grew up on. That’s the term that trained me, I’m a product of that phenomenal system.

You young people have been my passion forever. I want you all to be able to say, ‘I can do this in Durham, I can be all that I can’t be in Durham, and Durham will support me in doing it.’

I really want to emphasize unifying us as neighbors again, knowing that neighbors care about each other.

Elaine O’Neal

(PH): What unique perspective do you offer as a former judge?

(EO): There’s a whole different world of people that frequent the criminal courts. And that world can be hidden. But there are people who are in distress, people that are doing bad bad things, and people that are having bad things done to them, and that world can be hidden from a lot of other areas of Durham.

So I bring that perspective in trying to make visible some of the issues that our most distressed communities have, in terms of hopelessness, joblessness, and lack of opportunities.

The talent pool is there, but we don’t really see it unless they are in the limelight in a negative way.

I’ve seen it, I’ve worked in it, and lived in it for 24 years. Basically, I can help to address some of those issues that a lot of our district’s community members face.

I’ve seen it, I’ve worked in it, and lived in it for 24 years. Basically, I can help to address some of those issues that a lot of our district’s community members face.

Elaine O’Neal

(PH): What are your main goals as mayor?

(EO): Unity is the overall focus; the problems we are facing are multifaceted.

We’ve got to be able to come together to be able to solve the problems. If any governmental body could have solved some of these long standing issues they would, so we’ve got to have a different approach. The first thing we’ve got to do is unify as a community, to the extent we can, and ask everybody to push us forward together, because it’s going to take all of us to do something.

The second underlying thing that we all want to enjoy is community safety. You want to be safe in your home. When you talk about community safety you have to acknowledge that a lot of our communities are not safe because they are impoverished. 

You can’t talk about Community safety without talking about poverty, you can’t talk about poverty without talking about housing, and you can’t talk about housing without talking about affordable housing. And you can’t talk about a lot of this without talking about a quality education. So it’s all mixed together under one big goal of making everybody aware that we can come together and move our community forward in a way that does not leave anybody behind.

(PH): What are your realistic expectations for tangible change you can make as a mayor?

(EO): The first thing you have to do is build some support and coalition among your Council Members so that you all can agree that this is what we would like to do. Unless I have those if I’m elected mayor, if I don’t have four votes on the city council, none of this matters. I’d just be a mayor with a big mouth.

The second thing that I have done is with the racial equity task force. We were charged with making recommendations to the city about how to deal with equity, specifically in the racial equity arena. We had a 64-page document with all kinds of recommendations specifically addressing systemic issues. Seventeen Durham citizens and I worked on that report for about 20 months. We really don’t have a counterpart out there for another city, so the kind of systemic issues we’re talking about are going to take pioneering work.

We at least have one document that can help guide some of the system issues. 

The county and the city are also forming some different task forces that will help in other ways, like a Community Safety and Wellness task force. We’re getting pieces for us to be able to move forward, but these are long standing issues so they’re not going to go away magically in one mayor or or one term. 

To make progress we have to have our boots on the ground in the community. You have to have community trust to move forward. However, I don’t think any of that is rocket science. That’s what I think your mayor can do, be the voice and face for the city to build a coalition of support, and a collective vision.

You have to have community trust to move forward. However, I don’t think any of that is rocket science. That’s what I think your mayor can do, be the voice and face for the city to build a coalition of support, and a collective vision.

Elaine O’Neal

(PH): How are you going to support young people in our community and amplify our voices?

(EO): The Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners are directly in charge of how the schools are running the city, though I can be a definite partner in helping to develop pipelines, for you all to be able to have whatever successful career that you want to have. One of the organizations that I had been involved with since its conception is called Made in Durham.

The goal is that we want every young person by the age of 25 who lives in Durham to have a post credential degree or some type of trade or skill. 

I have spent many years in public service, and most of my emphasis has been on young people. I was also involved in Systems of Care, which was designed for the city and county to help our most vulnerable children and create a system that supports families. I’ve been involved in juvenile crime prevention. 

I need for you to get everything that you need from me, so that you can walk into a future knowing that you have been well trained and you’re prepared so you can leave the world a little bit differently than we’ve left it for you all. 

(PH): You are the first woman of color to be mayor of Durham, what does that mean for representation in our Community?

(EO): I never really like to say that I’m going to be the first African American female. I’ve been the first in a lot of ways and I think that says something about our society today that we’re still saying we’re the first. Even though I am proud to be the first black female mayor, I want to make it so that that’s not a thing.

I am the bridge by which you should walk over to be your best person, female, white, black, Latino you know it, we just want you to be your best. I think that it will open the door where it is normal for women and women of color to be in these positions, without it being a thing.

I am the bridge by which you should walk over to be your best person, female, white, black, Latino you know it, we just want you to be your best.

Elaine O’Neal

(PH): What does an O’Neal victory mean for DPS and Riverside?

(EO): I want every student to know that the education that you’re getting is going to lead you to be able to do what you want to do. I got my education from Durham Public Schools completed in the 1980s and now look at where I am. I am a former student, who sat in the same schools that you sit in. I want you to see that your Community will train you, educate you, then push you and support you in being your best self, like it did for me.

I also have siblings who have worked as DPS principals and superintendents, and both my parents worked for DPS. I know a lot of DPS leadership, and I hope to strengthen those ties to make education for you better in trying to create pipelines.

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