Fights, scandal, allegiances: high school or city council?

From an alleged punch thrown to a campaign scandal to inflammatory speeches, it’s shocking that Durham’s City Council finds time to get anything done at all. 

On September 21, I attended a candidate forum held by the People’s Alliance, Durham for All and Bike Durham.

While candidates were not fighting in the Riverside Cafeteria, they exhibited behaviors similar to those of teenagers.

Given 60 seconds to respond to each prompt, candidates recited their spiels on affordable housing, environmental sustainability and law enforcement’s role in Durham. With 12 progressive candidates vying for three seats on council, the platforms started to sound the same, but trivial insults amplified the differences, not to mention the subtle complexities of politics.

City council candidate Nate Baker responds to a question at the September 21 candidate forum while candidate Khalilah Karim listens. Durham’s municipal primary takes place on October 10 but early voting began the day of the forum. Photo by Elena Paces-Wiles.

For example, candidate Sherri Zann Rosenthal insulted the very organization which invited her. 

The timer sounded, but she was not deterred. She spoke right over the bell as if she hadn’t heard it at all.

“The People’s Alliance have been part of promulgating something that is anti-progressive and the voting records of Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero have been anti-progressive,” she said.

Later, she managed to turn a question on racial wealth gaps against the City Council and the People’s Alliance as well.

Petty as the forum was, the real drama went down in a work session meeting across town. 

Current Council Member Javiera Caballero is running for reelection and Council Member Leonardo Williams is running for mayor. They hoped to finish the work session in time to attend the forum, but Council Member Monique Holsey-Hyman ensured that didn’t happen.

In a heated speech at the beginning of the meeting, she discussed a recent campaign scandal and subsequent State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) inquiry.

Two days prior, District Attorney Satana Deberry released a letter detailing the facts of the case and concluding that there is no probable cause to pursue charges against Holsey-Hyman.

Last fall, developer Jarrod Eden alleged that Holsey-Hyman solicited campaign funds. Holsey-Hyman cooperated with the investigation while Eden declined an interview and did not provide a statement.

“Additionally there is also no evidence that there was a coordinated effort led by any other council member to initiate allegations against Holsey-Hyman,” Deberry wrote.

After giving honor to God, her family, and all those who stood by her, she specifically called attention to Mayor Elaine O’Neal and Council Member Dedreanna Freeman for supporting her despite the allegations.

“[Freeman] went into protective mode to make sure that I was treated fairly,” Holsey-Hyman claimed. ”Stop attacking her character. She stood up for me.”

She then singled out Caballero, Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton, Williams, Johnson, City Manager Wanda Page, and City Attorney Kimberly Rehberg.

“I have endured so much you do not know. There is no words to tell you the amount of pain that I’ve suffered,” Holsey-Hyman said.

She mentioned the teamwork and comradery she felt when she first joined the Council, and the betrayal she felt from the same colleagues.

In addition to Eden’s accusations, Holsey-Hyman faced allegations of using Council resources towards her personal campaign. 

In response, Johnson, assisted by other Council Members, wrote a resolution censoring Holsey-Hyman, which she brought up during the March 23 work session.

“We fight all the time. We disagree. It’s all part of the process,” Johnson said. “This crosses the line for me into an actual ethical violation that is documented and needs to be responded to.”

Holsey-Hyman didn’t see it that way. 

“I think it’s a slander on my character because I don’t dance to the drummer’s beat that people want me to dance to,” she said.

Freeman spoke out against this resolution, claiming it was a misrepresentation of Holsey-Hyman and an example of gender bias on Council (currently, women hold 5 seats while men hold 2). 

Middleton took offense to Freeman’s accusation, sparking a verbal argument between the two that quickly escalated. After the meeting, Freeman allegedly struck Williams and O’Neal while attempting to attack Middleton, according to an April 3 Indy story. Multiple sources have also given other accounts of what happened in interviews with WRAL.

This is not the future we need for Durham. We need a unified government. If the Council spends all its time in-fighting, policies that could address real issues, like affordable housing or gun violence, will not get passed. We must elect officials who will strive towards a unified Durham. And to do that, we need to vote, especially where there’s no presidential or state-wide elections and turnout is traditionally low. 

Only about 30,000 people voted in the 2021 municipal election according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. There are currently 232,134 registered voters in Durham.

Perhaps the mayor said it best.

“I don’t know where Durham is poised and where it is going but I do hope that Durham city is paying attention to all of us.”

Although the upcoming election may seem insignificant compared to next year’s presidential race, the decisions our mayor and city council make on budgets, zoning and redevelopment often have a greater impact on our day-to-day lives than those of the president. 

In order to pass any policies, the members must foster a more collaborative environment on Council. That’s why it is so important for all Riverside students who will be 18 by the November 7 municipal election to vote. A few young voices could determine our city’s future.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story did not include the word “allegedly” in its description of the March 23 incident.

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