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Sunday February 5th

Upcoming town elections could improve diversity in local governance

Chapel Hill town council candidate Hongbin Gu poses for a portrait in front of the Chapel Hill Town Hall building.
Buy Photos Chapel Hill town council candidate Hongbin Gu poses for a portrait in front of the Chapel Hill Town Hall building.

Clarification: An original version of this story said that former Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt served from 2009-2015, but this date range does not include the time he spent as a member on the Chapel Hill Town Council. Lee Storrow, who served as a member from 2011-2015, was also part of the LGBTQ community.The story was updated at 7:40 p.m. to reflect this change. 

Chapel Hill residents will head to the polls to vote in Town Council and mayoral elections Nov. 7 and choose from one of the most diverse pools of candidates in recent years.

Four town council seats are open this year, and at least two of them will be filled by newcomers. Sally Greene and George Cianciolo have confirmed they will not rerun for office. The two incumbents are Ed Harrison and Maria Palmer. 

Palmer is the only Latina woman currently serving on Town Council, and said she was disappointed with the lack of Hispanics and Latinos(as) involved in politics in Chapel Hill, but there is a fine line in allowing for diversity.

“When you have knowledgeable and professional Hispanics, you have to be really careful,” she said. “I don’t want them to just be a token.”

Palmer last ran for election in 2013 and said this election includes candidates with more diverse educational and racial backgrounds than four years ago. The town council member also said she was excited for civil rights lawyer Allen Buansi to run for town council, because of how important it is to understand the connection between law and policy. 

Buansi said his choice to work in local policy and town ordinances is partly because his father is from Ghana, and how important immigration policy currently is. Buansi would be the only African-American male on Town Council if elected. 

He said he thinks race will be on voters’ minds this November, especially because of the recent violent protests in Charlottesville and the Silent Sam controversy in Chapel Hill.

“I think a lot of different groups of people feel under attack by, you know, things that our president has done and said,” Buansi said. “I think that’s motivated people of diverse backgrounds to get out there and do something about it.”

Currently, the only people of color on Town Council are Palmer and Donna Bell. Palmer said identifying as a woman of color affects her professional life in ways she cannot control.

“I realize people dismiss me in many ways because of my accent before I even open my mouth,” Palmer said. “Folks don’t believe they do, they believe they are fair and balanced.”

Hongbin Gu is a Chinese immigrant with an educational background in statistics and quantitative research. If she is elected and Palmer is re-elected, there would be three women of color on Town Council.

“Of course I am keenly aware that I am Asian and I am a female,” she said. “The most recent statistics I looked into — I think Asian accounts for about 12 percent of the Chapel Hill town population. Given that it’s a large population that does not have any representation currently in Chapel Hill, that might be something I could help to correct.”

Gu noted that her racial identity does not affect her platform very much because she thinks most communities in Chapel Hill have similar desires.

“I don’t think that there is any glaring issues that the Asian community has that is different or distinct from other peoples’ in this town,” she said. “Asians care about education, and Chapel Hill is a town that values education in general. Also, Asian communities really care about the diversities and inclusiveness in the town — that is something Chapel Hill values as well.”

This year’s candidates portray diversity in more than just race and professional and educational backgrounds. Karen Stegman works in the non-profit sector and identifies as LGBTQ. She said Carrboro was the first North Carolinian municipality to elect a gay mayor in 1995, and there wasn't enough LGBTQ representation in Chapel Hill. 

“I don’t think any one member of a segment of a population can represent every member of that population,” Stegman said. “Part of the reason I love Chapel Hill is because it would be a privilege to serve and represent the LGBTQ citizens of our community.”

Mark Kleinschmidt is openly gay and was Chapel Hill Mayor before incumbent Pam Hemminger.

Hemminger faces a write-in candidate, Eugene Farrar.

Rounding out the seven candidates are Rachel Schaevitz and Carl Schuler. Palmer said the diversity in candidates this year is important for progress in Chapel Hill.

“If we have more minority representation in the council, we can push harder for issues that affect minority communities,” Palmer said.

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