Along with economic development, job training and quality of life issues, the trio of candidates for Terre Haute mayor this week tackled the issues of race and equal opportunity in Terre Haute.
Hosted by Citizens of Action, a grassroots organization dedicated to eliminating discrimination and racism in employment, economic development, education and the criminal justice system in Vigo County, Tuesday night’s forum pushed each candidate to spell out their plans for addressing perceived inequity.
From the start, candidates were asked what race-related issue needs addressing in the city.
Republican candidate and incumbent mayor Duke Bennett said ensuring equal opportunity in both public and private employment should always be a priority.
“The biggest thing is equal opportunity for everyone, especially in employment,” Bennett said. “When you talk to local business owners they often say there’s no problem but then people in the community says there is.
“We have to continue to tear down walls and make it an even playing field for everyone so that those opportunities exist.”
Independent candidate Pat Goodwin said the city needs to bolster its human relations staff and use them to ensure equal employment opportunities.
“We have a human relations department that has one full-time staff person, and that’s simply not enough,” Goodwin said. “The city should start by setting a good example of proper hiring practices, of investigating problems in city departments, of weeding out discrimination in employment within city hall and city departments.”
Democrat candidate Karrum Nasser said equity starts with giving people hope and the mobility to work themselves up and away from their current plot in life.
“It all starts with jobs. It all starts with giving people hope and the opportunity to pick themselves up,” Nasser said. “Whether it’s on the avenues or in Phoenix Hills, people need to feel they have the same opportunities as everyone else.”
A follow-up question pointed to the lack of either elected or appointed African-Americans in city government and asked the candidates if an annual summit addressing the needs of the African-American community is needed.
Goodwin was all for the idea, reiterating the need for an expanded human relations department that could facilitate such events.
Similarly, Nasser supported the idea and said the city could follow the county’s lead and post all available board positions online for people to apply.
“There are a lot of people that probably don’t know there’s an opportunity for them to serve,” Nasser said. “They’re not necessarily an elected position but to help out on the parks board or whatever board is available.”
Bennett said if the community wants to see more people of color in elected positions then they need to run for office or support those candidates.
“I think it’s really important that happens,” Bennett said. “But politics are pretty toxic out there right now and I think that’s scaring some people away. But the more encouragement we can give to people of color, women and everybody else, we should all be encouraging that right now.”
The trio also fielded questions on reparations and the disproportionate number of young African-American men in jails and prisons around the country.
And while each offered their opinions on the matters, they reminded the more than 50 in attendance that both subjects lie outside the scope of mayoral duties and are better questions for U.S. representatives and senators.