City council and mayoral candidates got an unusual range of questions Tuesday night at a forum with St. Augustine’s University students.
Most forums this election season have addressed city hot topics like transit, downtown development and taxes. But students at the historically black college in Southeast Raleigh wanted to hear about voter ID laws, police violence and development around their campus.
The campus forum – sponsored by the college’s student government and community activist Octavia Rainey – gave students a rare chance to meet elected leaders and council hopefuls. Raleigh has six colleges and universities, but many students don’t vote in municipal elections.
The St. Aug’s students wanted to enlist the candidates in improving the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. One student asked whether the candidates would help with three projects: a new football stadium for the school, the restoration of the old St. Agnes Hospital and the revitalization of the business district at the campus entrance.
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Many of the candidates were noncommittal, and some incumbents said they weren’t familiar with the city’s potential role in the projects. But John Odom and Eugene Weeks, two district incumbents, said they’re ready for Raleigh to chip in.
Odom said he’s behind the stadium project, and he blamed other council members for not supporting a partnership with Rex Healthcare on the former hospital. “The deal’s ready to be done, and this council won’t vote on it,” he said.
Odom also said the city is too focused on downtown and has ignored the shabby business district across from the college gates at Oakwood Avenue and Tarboro Street.
“We give a ton of money to the streets (around) Fayetteville Street – why can’t this area get some of that money?” he said.
Others said they also want to see the projects move forward. “I love the idea of that historic building coming back to life,” said Councilman Russ Stephenson, who’s running for re-election to his at-large seat. “This area is ripe for economic development.”
Robert Weltzin, a candidate for mayor, said he thinks the projects could be funded out of the “leisure services” budget, which he noted allocates $72 million toward arts and parks. He has said that some of that funding should be eliminated. “That’s a lot of money we could be using to build up our infrastructure,” he said.
But Brian Fitzsimmons, who’s running against Odom in District B, said that’s the wrong place to divert funding. “That $72 million is being spent incredibly well,” he said.
The St. Aug’s student moderators asked for a one-word response to the state’s new voter ID law. The issue is decided at the state level, but they were curious where the council candidates stand.
Odom, Fitzsimmons, Stephenson, Weeks, District C candidate Racquel Williams, District E incumbent Bonner Gaylord and District D candidate Jim Kemp Sherron said they’re against the law. Weltzin and fellow mayoral candidate Venita Peyton are for it, and at-large candidate Jason Spriggs said he isn’t sure. Six other candidates did not attend Tuesday’s forum.
Candidates also faced a question about the recent shooting of an unarmed black man by Charlotte police. The students wanted to know how to prevent a similar tragedy in Raleigh.
Spriggs said he thinks officers should go through sensitivity training, and the department should hire more minority and female officers. “I think that’s a good start to prevent something as terrible as this,” he said.
Williams said she’s concerned police are focused heavily on Southeast Raleigh. “Police are arresting more people in this district than any other district in Raleigh,” she said. “Let’s start getting the whole police department diversified. When your police department don’t look like your community, we have a problem.”