Pierce Freelon: The Politician (Part 2)

by: cathy foreman

Picking up from Part 1, where we learned more about Pierce Freelon, the man, we open up part two with a look back at Pierce’s Mayoral run and what he learned from that experience.

From our conversation, I can see that Pierce is pretty self-aware. He knows who he is and stands firmly in his beliefs. We are all a work in progress and for the most part, learn more about ourselves every day especially when we tackle new adventures. So, I wanted to know what more Pierce learned about himself during this run. Did he learn anything he didn’t already know, or did he confirm all that he knows himself to be? And with that, what did he learn about the needs of the community, at large? Now, I’ll be honest with you, the response to this question kind of took me aback; however as I’ve had time to digest our conversation and in writing this piece, I can now appreciate the somewhat simplistic response to the first part of this question for what it is. Not having ever been a part of any political campaign before, what I was looking for was something more robust but in Pierce’s response, I have found that there are levels to this and quite logically any learning through this process is equally as significant as the next. For instance, in Pierce’s response to what he learned about the run, he says, “I learned how to run a campaign and how to raise money. I learned how to fill out a questionnaire or two or 40; what the inside of dozens of churches and mosques and other faiths centers look like.” This piece alone is substantial considering the diversity among faith organizations, in Durham, as a whole. One would have to be open and receptive to other teachings and beliefs, even if we do not agree. He went on to tell how he learned that when you run a political campaign, it’s not just you that’s running, it’s your whole community, your whole tribe. He says, “those are a few things I learned.” Regarding your family and tribe, politics historically can be brutal and it can take a toll on you and your loved ones… from people digging into your background, the background of your friends and family, looking into your associations and trying to spin even the smallest thing into something completely out of context. Your faith and understanding of who you are as well as the trust of your innermost circle are critical. Everyone needs to be on board as the microscope comes out.

As we expand on the question and talk about what Pierce learned about the community, he tells me, “I learned that Durham is seen as a “liberal progressive” town and folks have a different definition of what those words mean. And there are a lot of folks who claim to have certain values, but their policies don’t live up to the values that they espouse – so that a truly good-natured good-hearted person with good intentions can actually cause harm if they don’t have a deep understanding, for example of racial economic structural injustice. So, an equity lens becomes so important; especially when looking at policies … because there are big blind spots between what we want to achieve and what has been achieved … there are some big gaps there and I think a lot of those gaps are because of racial equity and economic equity lens was missing.

Getting into the nuts and bolts of things now, if you remember when I first started this article, I mentioned how some people I had spoken with were unaware of Pierce and after finding out a little about him and his background an important question arose from those conversations. I asked Pierce, most people feel the common trajectory for someone seeking this type of role would have some tenure in local government or municipality, what do you say to those who question your audacity to make this leap from a Mayoral candidate to an NC Senatorial candidate? I begin to see a change in his disposition. He sits up straight and takes a brief second to collect himself and then he answers, “well when I think about the folks from this community that I admire the most, I can’t think of one, that I wouldn’t call audacious. Where do I start? James Shepard, prominent member of Black Wall St and founder of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and founder of NC College for Negros now known as NC Central University, Baba Chuck Davis, Pauli Murray, Ernie Barnes, professional football player and world-renowned artist .. you name it, Phil Freelon, award-winning architect, designer of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. So, the first thing I would say to “what gives you the audacity?” is, Durham did. I’ve got plenty of examples of audacious individuals in this community … how about Bill Bell; there’s audacious for you. We’re going to merge the city and county school districts cause ya’ll don’t want to integrate. So, I’m just going to make that happen; “that’s audacious!”, Pierce said. The list goes on…The Best of EnemiesAnn Atwater … “audacious!”, he would proclaim once more. So, that’s what gives me the audacity; my community gives me the audacity.” Then he asks me, “how would you describe the state of politics in our state, functional?” My response… “dysfunctional, to say the least.” He would go on to say, “let’s start there, we have a lot of politicians in political office and it’s dysfunctional. I think we need to try something a little more audacious. That’s probably what I’d tell them. If you like the way politics have been, then keep the same people who you’ve been electing in politics.” Immediately “that quote” comes to my mind and as I search for the words, in my memory, he picks up on where I’m going and says, “yes, Einstein, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” 

There was a different tone in the air, and I get it. It wasn’t an attack; it was a question. But at the same time, I think people forget that the current leader of the free world was elected with absolutely no background in politics. He spoke to the people who felt as if they had been overlooked and neglected. He spoke to people that felt, well he can’t fuck it up any more than it is already. When you look at it that way, you know it’s conceivable and possible, but the question is legitimate based on the current results and state of chaos we are in. And this doesn’t necessarily bode well for someone who is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to community, but we are of a population that might give it another try … in a different way … but we might also say, you know what, yeah that didn’t work out so well for us the first time. Only time will tell as Pierce navigates his way on the road to the senate.

Now, we jump more towards the campaign. When Pierce made his announcement, there was a little bit of controversy as pertains to McKissick, the current Senator for district 20 and his “open seat”. The way it was reported, implied that McKissick’s seat was already empty and that this was a viable opening. In April, Governor Cooper nominated Floyd McKissick to the NC Utilities Commission and the implication was that he has been confirmed, thus leaving his seat up for grabs. In actuality, that decision has yet to be confirmed, which means that McKissick’s seat is technically not open … which also means there is nothing “necessarily” to campaign for. What I read was that it has most recently taken the legislature up to eight months to make a decision on a nominee. That puzzled me and I wanted to know what that means for Pierce. Is he being presumptuous or is he getting ahead of the proverbial eight ball by laying the groundwork that would be needed if McKissick is indeed approved? So, I asked. Pierce told me that they are on top of things, “keeping an eye on what’s happening in Raleigh” and not letting it deter them. He said, “we’ve made the decision, as a campaign, to move forward despite the gridlock.” He believes it to be important that they stay the course because as he says, “ when I become the state Senator of district 20, that gridlock, in Raleigh, isn’t going anywhere and I’m going to need to move forward on the things that require immediate action … regardless of how they’re dragging their feet in Raleigh.” You’ve got to admire his forethought and tenacity. 

In my preparation for this interview, I made sure to refresh my memory with some tangibles. In doing so, I ran across an article by the People’s Alliance who cited that they would not be throwing their support behind Senator McKissick’s replacement. That struck a chord with me and made me curious. It gave me pause and I couldn’t understand it. Why would a political powerhouse like People’s Alliance not support his replacement? And, that made me wonder how that lack of support would affect Pierce or anyone else who would run for this seat. 

When I brought this up to Pierce, he more or less knew what I was talking about and proceeded to explain to me how this would affect him and in effect also clarifying some points, which I misunderstood. So, what this actually means is that Senator’s McKissick’s current tenure runs through Dec 2020, but if his nomination to the Utilities Commission is approved then his seat becomes vacant and there will need to be an appointment, made by the Governor. But this person will be nominated by the county executive committee, of the party of the departing incumbent, this being Democrat, and will complete the current run. Now, that vacancy and the subsequent appointment is separate from the potential election that will take place should McKissick not reup for his existing seat. The person who could be appointed has the right to run for election against any interested parties. Pierce says he would love to be the person who completes McKissick’s term.

“The role is service and I’m putting my name out there to serve.”

As to what lessons Pierce is taking from his Mayoral candidacy to his potential Senatorial candidacy … he has a rather unique take away. He explains that while there are similarities between the levels of government, there are things as a Senator he will be able to do that he would not have been able to in a municipal position. For instance, I asked, “from reading your information on your website, it appears that you’re running on a healthcare platform?” He confirms that Medicaid expansion is one of his platform principles. One example of a place in which my mayoral and senator platforms overlap, would be in the case of marijuana decriminalization where at the city level, in the municipal government, Durham does not have the authority to decriminalize marijuana; however, what they can do is deprioritize marijuana and they do this by telling the police chief “you know when you’re out there doing public safety work, we want you to put marijuana at the bottom of your list of priorities of things that you’re going to focus on. Focus on Violent Crime. Focus on Drunk Driving. Marijuana needs to be at the bottom.” That’s literally all they have the authority to do. But now that I’m running for state Senate, I am vying for the power to be able to say marijuana is no longer something you can criminalize people for because, at the state level, you can make decisions like that. They could legalize it and they can make it medicinal. They can’t make it a Class 1 drug, demote it or upgrade it; that is the decision that’s made in the General Assembly. So, the part of the law I’m able to influence is different but many of the values are the same. The point is, “why are you locking up young brothers legal in a dozen states?” There’s no reason for people to be locked up for something that’s legal to do in Washington DC. It just doesn’t make sense, not to mention study after study after study shows that white and black youth use marijuana at the exact same amounts. Black folks in the city of Durham are disproportionately arrested by a margin of 13:1 to their white counterparts. So, not only is it wrong but it’s being enforced with racist bias. And this disproportionately affects poor and working-class black children …  that is a moral issue.

“Lead with love.”

To close out this interview, I asked Pierce one final question. I wanted to know, “what is it you hope will reach and impact the people who will be voting? What impact do you want your candidacy to have which will, in turn, gain those votes that you missed as a mayoral candidate?” His response, “It takes the vast majority of people who run for political office more than one run to become elected. President Barack Obama lost his first election. The legendary, honorable Representative Mickey Michaux ran like six times before becoming elected. And I hope that throwing my hat in, for state senate, shows the people of Durham or rather what I hope to communicate is that I’m not going anywhere. I’m 35 years old I have the brightest political future you could fathom. One full of audacity. So, you know I hope they put me in there, but if they don’t … I’ll be back until the policies I care about forward and the communities I come from are provided for.”  

Phil and Nenna Freelon

A simple sentence in his final thought left a resounding impact and I think if you look at any political contender with this in mind, when you cast your vote, it will be more meaningful. “The role is service and I’m putting my name out there to serve.” And then ask yourself, how is or how will this individual serve me, the needs of my family and the needs of my community? Pierce goes on to say that the City of Durham has served him very well. The City of Durham has been a launchpad for his mother, who had never sang outside of the church, but has gone on to have a Grammy Award-nominated career. The City of Durham has provided a community and a space for his father to build a company, out of nothing, in a field that is 2% black and get to the highest level of that profession. And about all of the other audacious people he mentioned, they came from very humble beginnings, here in the City of Durham. They really exceeded expectations and that’s what he intends to do as well.

When asked for a final thought about what he wanted people to know about him, he said, I’ll take a quote from my dear friend, Dr. Margaret Brunson. She says, “Lead with love.” I’m a man that has been nurtured, loved by my parents and by this community and I will lead with love … which is something I think we need a lot more of especially from our leaders.

What do you think? When the time comes, will you throw your support behind Pierce? What more can he do or should he be doing to get your attention?