By Jake Sheridan, Julianna Rennie, Caroline Petrow-Cohen, and Olivia Olsher
Durham’s new mayor-elect Elaine O’Neal cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday’s municipal election.
The former judge soundly beat City Council Member Javiera Caballero, who suspended her campaign in early October. O’Neal announced she would enter the race in January and has been a favorite ever since. She will be the first Black woman to serve as the city’s mayor.
Election Day saw big wins for the two City Council incumbents running to retain their seats. DeDreana Freeman won in Ward I, and Mark-Anthony Middleton won in Ward II. Both had decisive victories in the primary.
The Ward III race — a contest with no primary and no incumbent — was the one to watch. Restaurant owner and former teacher Leonardo Williams jumped out to a strong lead when early in-person votes posted as polls closed, but the margin narrowed as Election Day results came in.
Although community organizer AJ Williams trailed behind, Bill Withers’ hit “Lovely Day” still played at his Durham Central Park pavilion watch party.
“We’re going to see what the people want tonight. I really believe that,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s me… I feel like there’s a lot at stake… and it will be good to see who bubbles to the top.”
Ultimately, however, the bubbles settled in his opponent’s favor. AJ brought in more votes cast on Election Day than Leonardo, but Leonardo ultimately won by more than 600 votes.
“Running for office is an exhausting, deeply gratifying experience,” AJ said while watching the election results Tuesday night.
Incumbents DeDreana Freeman and Mark Anthony Middleton held onto their City Council seats, winning with large margins.
Turnout appeared to be considerably down in Durham this year. Only 30,231 ballots were cast in the mayoral race this year as of 10 p.m., a strong drop off from the city’s last two municipal general elections.
Just under 36,000 voters cast ballots in the 2017 mayoral election, and nearly 35,000 did so in 2019.
O’Neal’s supporters at the Rickhouse in downtown Durham erupted into applause as former Durham mayor Bill Bell introduced the city’s newest leader. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” Bell said. “The young lady we’re going to be hearing from tonight is the epitome of style, esteem and intelligence.”
O’Neal, wearing a black dress and a huge smile, took the stage to greet her supporters. Not all the votes had been counted at that moment, but O’Neal’s victory was resounding. “I’m humbled by your support,” she said, “and grateful to be the next mayor of our fine city.”
O’Neal said her highest priority is public safety. That’s the issue many of her supporters care about most. “We need a police force,” one voter said. “A real one, not one with 20 empty slots.”
He trusts O’Neal to address Durham’s public safety needs because she understands policing and, more importantly, she understands the community. “Elaine knows the streets,” he said.
O’Neal’s supporters also want to see her improve Durham’s affordable housing infrastructure and public school system.
Mayor Steve Schewel congratulated O’Neal on her victory. “She’s going to do a great job,” he said. “I know she’ll be able to really bring this city together.”
Things were more subdued at Durham Central Park, where AJ Williams supporters gathered.
When it was clear he narrowly lost, supporters offered empathetic embraces him. He then took to the dance floor to deliver a speech to the crowd of roughly 40 people.
“I think we can do this again!” he told the crowd, which erupted in cheers, and began chanting “We love you! We love you!”
The music started playing again, and AJ joined a group of supporters starting a shuffle on the dance floor.
“Leonardo is great,” said Pierce Freelon, the current Ward III member who had endorsed AJ. “I know Ward III will be in good hands regardless of the outcome…It’s important to have someone with roots in the community.”
At top: Elaine O’Neal gives a victory speech at her Election Day party. Photo by 9th Street Journal reporter Caroline Petrow-Cohen.