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Election Day 2021

By Monica Chen

It was a beautiful, sunny Autumnal day on Tuesday as voters in the Triangle headed to the polls to cast their ballots. After 2020, this year was decidedly less intense, but for many, it was still an important election. In Orange County, the school board and the town council were up for re-election, as was the mayor. Durham had a less complicated election, with three seats on the city council and the mayor’s position open that, as it turned out, became an uncontested race.

On Tuesday, candidates and volunteers made a last-minute push to get out the vote, camping out at polling places with booths and flyers. Meanwhile, voters headed to polls with major concerns about their communities and their governments. Growth and development were the biggest issue for voters in both counties.

Here was the scene at four polling places in Durham and Orange.

Carrboro Town Hall, 11 a.m.

In sunny Carrboro, candidates and volunteers alike flocked to the parking lot to appeal to voters, who arrived in a steady stream to vote in a small white building behind the Town Hall.

Jacqueline Gist, a longtime member of the Carrboro Town Council, camped out with a table laid with “Jacquie Gist” flyers. “A lot of people are turning up for the school board elections,” she noted.

Gist has been an alderwoman, now councilwoman, since 1989 and been a resident in Carrboro since 1976. “Carrboro is my constituency,” Gist said. “One thing that I’ve been good at is pulling together different groups of people.”

Gist mentioned her work on the Martin Luther King Jr. Park, which opened in 2020.

“I think my knowledge of how government works benefits the community,” she said.

Carrboro mayoral candidate Damon Seils and other campaigns also came to the polling site.

“The traffic has been steady. A lot of folks voted early,” said Morris Katz as he chatted with volunteers. Katz is the campaign manager for Erica Smith, a Fayetteville Democrat who is running for Senate in 2022. He was in Carrboro to campaign for Danny Nowell, candidate for town council.

“We’re here for Danny. We’ve knocked on a lot of doors and seeing the payoff of an aggressive campaign,” he said.

One voter, Joshua Perin, on the way out of the polling place said, “It was important to me that the progressive candidates took the open seats. I want to see Carrboro grow, but intelligently.”

“I do fear that we are losing the cultural and economic diversity that’s the hallmark of this community,” he added.

Chapel Hill resident Ron Herring arrived in Carrboro and quickly left after discovering he needed to vote somewhere else. “I’ve voted here for decades. I don’t know why I have to go to another location,” he said.

“The one issue that concerns me about Chapel Hill is the interest on the debt that Chapel Hill has is the same or larger than the next item. It’s larger than anything else,” he said. “No candidate seems to be addressing that, which is concerning.”

Paula Thompson, another Chapel Hill resident, voted in Carrboro. “Affordable housing, that’s my biggest issue,” she said. “And the road constructions. We have a lot of potholes [in Chapel Hill].” 

“I don’t want a lot of buildings. There’s a lot of homes that’s not affordable,” she added.

Chapel Hill Public Library, 12:30 p.m.

The mood in Chapel Hill was more subdued than in Carrboro. Chalk-faced people shuffled in and out of the Chapel Hill Public Library on Estes Road on Tuesday. A perpetual cold wind blew through the parking lot, sweeping the newly fallen leaves around the space.

The Orange County Democratic Party had a booth, and campaign workers for incumbent Mayor Pam Hemminger and town council candidates lined the path to the entrance.

Hongbin Gu, who was running for Chapel Hill mayor, greeted voters and passed out buttons.

“Thank you for coming out today. Who are you voting for?” she approached one voter.

“You! I’m voting for you!” the woman pointed to her and smiled. “Oh, thank you,” Gu replied.

When stopped for comments, Gu enthusiastically shared her ideas on growth and development in the town, the ideas pouring out of her.

“I think there’s a strong sense that we need to better manage our growth, that with the new developments – there’s not enough community benefit,” she said. “We need a more balanced approach. We need more diverse housing.”

Gu has been living in Chapel Hill since 1994 and served on the Town Council for the past four years.

“My observation is the same as what was summarized in the Chapel Hill housing study. We are flying blind,” Gu said frankly. “We do not have a comprehensive plan. We are reacting to developers, project to project. There is not a more holistic way to manage our growth.”

“A more holistic, comprehensive thinking has not been seen,” Gu continued. “I certainly see there is a need for higher density. But we are reacting. We need to be more strategic.”

“The thinking in Chapel Hill has been about either you are for development or against it. I think that causes more polarization,” she said.

Gu’s focus also reflected the concerns of most of the voters at the library on Tuesday.

“My main issue [this election year] was in growth and that it’s managed the right way,” said Jean Bernholz. “We need a wiser plan for growth. I think it’s completely out of hand at this point.”

A couple came out of the library with their son in tow, who was still dressed as a wizard from Halloween.

“I’d like having housing in different income brackets,” said Anne Pirruzzello. “Our town is not doing a very good job for people with low income and minorities.”

Maria LaVia said she voted for Hemminger, and affordable housing and the school system were the main issues she was concerned about. “I looked at other candidates,” she said. “I voted for who aligned with my ideals.”

Durham City Center, 2 p.m.

The bronze bull in downtown Durham on Tuesday. A few people gathered at City Plaza to chat with co-workers and eat ice cream. Photo by Monica Chen

Near the bronze bull in the heart of downtown Durham, people chatted with coworkers and friends on Tuesday afternoon. A man sat by the grass, sketching on a notepad, not wanting to be bothered. When asked if he was planning to vote, he shrugged and kept drawing.

A man watched as his son played around the bull. Despite it being windy and overcast in downtown, people strolled around holding cones of ice cream.

Julie Wells, who lives in Hillsborough and works in downtown Durham, got ice cream from Parlour and sat at City Plaza with a coworker.

“It doesn’t seem like this is much of a race,” she said. “I was disappointed to see [Javiera Caballero] drop out during early voting. I’m excited to see some new faces, like Leonardo [Williams], excited to have some new voices.”

City Councilwoman Caballero dropped out from the mayor’s race in October, leaving Elaine O’Neal, former Superior Court Judge of Durham, as the lone candidate for that office.

Like in Orange County, growth and development were on peoples’ minds.

Paulo Lopez has lived in Durham since 1993. “People are getting pushed out from neighborhoods and they’re building these new houses,” he said. “I love Durham, the jobs and the artistic community.”

“People are moving here. They’re going to move here, but you know, don’t push people who have been here out,” he said.

E.K. Powe Elementary School, 3 p.m.

As kids played during recess at E.K. Powe Elementary School on Ninth Street, and parents sat waiting in their cars just outside the playground, candidates and campaign workers came to the site for a last-minute push to entice voters.

Both City Councilwoman DeDreana Freeman and candidate Leonardo Williams stopped by the polling place to shake hands with volunteers and make a final pitch.

Williams, sporting his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity jacket, looked energized from the campaigning and mentioned his experience as drum major at N.C. Central University. On Tuesday, he was on a mission to visit every polling place. “It’s really good,” Williams said. “You really get to see all the colors and personalities of the city.”

When asked how he felt about his chances, he replied, “I’m feeling pretty confident!”

“You put in the work and see the results,” he said.

Williams co-owns Zweili’s Piri Piri Kitchen with his wife, the restaurant’s namesake, Zweili Moyo-Williams, and ran for city council on a pro-small business platform.

“In order to address the social issues, we have to not let it be temporary solutions,” he said.

“We are naturally resilient. We are recovering, and we will recover,” he added. “But when your small businesses are your largest employer overall in the city, and something like the pandemic happens, we need to make sure we don’t run into this again.”

Cathy Rimer-Surles, a volunteer for Freeman’s campaign, carried a bundle of flyers and stayed well into late afternoon at E.K. Powe.

Rimer-Surles has lived in Durham since 1980 and harkened back to when she lived in the Old West neighborhood, where she owned a house that she fixed up. “It was a real money pit,” Rimer-Surles recalled with humor. Like most people on Tuesday, growth and development were also on her mind.

“There is a lot of gentrification. The development is serving wealthy people, not the people who have been living here,” she said. “I don’t want Durham to become another Seattle or San Francisco. So I think this is a really important election. A lot of damage has already been done.”

“With a progressive community, progressive and anti-racist are not the same thing,” she added. “There’s a real discrepancy. There’s a racial economic and wealth gap.”

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