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Posts published by “Rebecca Schneid”

Upgrades to Durham Bulls Athletic Park will exceed $10 million

When the City of Durham was asked to spend twice as much as expected to make improvements to Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the result was never really in question. But that didn’t keep the council from debating the question when it met on Monday. 

The city leases the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to the Durham Bulls team, and is required, under an agreement with Major League Baseball, to make upgrades to the Bulls’ stadium by April 2025 in order to keep the Bulls in Durham.

With that in mind, the Durham City Council voted 5-0 Monday to spend an extra $5.35 million to renovate the ballpark, on top of the original $5.22 million it approved in June 2021, for a total cost of $10.57 million. The Durham Bulls are contributing $1 million in renovation costs but it’s up to the city to cover the other $9.57 million. 

During a work session in March, John Paces-Wiles, senior project manager with the city’s general services department, relayed that the upgrades will include renovations to player locker rooms, coaches’ offices and a new batting tunnel.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, Skanska, the company that won the bid for the project, reported to city officials that the higher costs resulted from the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected the entire construction industry. Costs for construction materials went up an average of 45 percent since March 2021, the company reported.

Though the council voted 5-0 to approve the additional expenditures, members were divided on whether the deal to keep the Durham Bulls, which was brokered with the council back in 2014, was truly worth the money.

Prior to the meeting, At-Large Council Member Jillian Johnson and Ward 3 Representative Leonardo Williams debated the topic on social media. The debate continued Monday as each member weighed in on the issue.

Johnson lamented that the council had committed itself to paying for upgrades to the stadium, and pointed out that the baseball league requires many cities across the nation to pay for upgrades to their stadiums. Durham’s lease with the Bulls expires in 2033. She urged the council to broker a better deal with the league at that time.

“I hope that we can have a little more equity in the future for how the city, the Bulls, and maybe even Major League Baseball can split the costs,” Johnson said. “I’m disappointed that it’s falling all on our residents.”

Paces-Wiles and the general services department provided information regarding the Durham Bulls’ cultural events, revenue and overall contributions to the community, statistics which Leonardo Williams reiterated in arguing that the Durham Bulls were, indeed, worth the monetary investment.

Williams pointed to the Bulls’ direct economic impact on the city, which included generating $48.5 million in revenue last year. In addition, the Bulls’ presence in Durham directly supported 23,130 jobs and indirectly supported over 25,00 jobs last year, according to the report from the general services department.

Williams and Mayor Pro-Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton lamented that there was debate about whether to pay the money.

“This is a real city, and we got to put our big pants on,” Williams said at the council meeting. “Which means we need to have assets to welcome people to the city to spend so we can generate the revenue to address the social issues that we have.”

Mayor Elaine O’Neal echoed Williams’ statements, pointing to the Durham Bulls’ history in her life, and the life of Durham.

The Durham Bulls moved from Durham Athletic Park to the team’s current downtown home, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in 1995. 

Durham Bulls Athletic Park hosted 70 home games in 2021 and dozens of other events, including the city’s Fourth of July celebration. 

Williams and O’Neal also mentioned the fame generated by the film “Bull Durham.” The Durham Bulls are at the center of the 1988 movie, which was filmed at Durham Athletic Park. 

Elaine O’Neal’s family home is just three blocks down from Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and she recalled her father’s pride when “Bull Durham” was released.

“For my father’s 103rd birthday, he wanted to go to a Durham Bulls game, and we have a photo of him and the Bulls mascot up in our home,” O’Neal said. “The Durham Bulls…will never ever go away, if you have been a part of this community for as long as I have.”

Despite the lively conversation, the motion to fund the ballpark renovations passed unanimously.

Opening Day for the 2022 season is set for April 12, when the Bulls will face the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

Above: Photo of Durham Bulls Athletic Park by Henry Haggart — The 9th Street Journal

As Durham buildings fall to the wrecking ball, a Facebook community gathers to watch, vent and question

​​Addy Cozart’s first post to “The Teardowns of Durham” Facebook group features a series of emojis: angry, sad, crying. 

“My block @ Hillsborough and Rutherford has been sold,” the Feb. 21 post says. “Final day to move out March 4th. The buyers are developers. I’m assuming more apartments will go up.…” 

The comments came rolling in, mostly sympathetic, some angry and indignant.

Cozart’s is just one of the emotional posts that litter the walls of The Teardowns of Durham, an open Facebook group that focuses on pictures and information relevant to Durham’s changing housing landscape.

This is a place of solidarity: with over 3,500 members and counting, the group includes posts about hundreds of buildings that have been torn down, housing justice activism and new, expensive housing in the area. Though the active member count is much smaller, the Facebook group is a public page for a reason: it’s a place for free information. And with about 50 posts per month in the group, and many more comments on each, there’s much to be informed about.

The Teardowns of Durham is partly just what it sounds like — a Facebook group about buildings that have been or are being torn down. But it has also become a forum where locals discuss how Durham is changing and shifting, where new developments are coming and which buildings they once recognized are coming down. 

The active discussion reflects Durham’s housing crisis: in the first three months of 2021, about 2,400 homes were sold in Raleigh and Durham. Of those, more than half were bought either by people from out of state or companies, according to a report from the Triangle Business Journal. According to WRAL, 20% of homes in Durham have been purchased by investors in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 11% in second quarter 2020. 

Durham housing prices and property taxes also have increased, making it harder for newcomers to buy and for residents to stay. Meanwhile, though Durham has made efforts to create rent relief programs, the demand for housing remains high, and housing stocks are low.

The Facebook group began as a way to exchange information among a small group of Durham friends and colleagues. It has now ballooned to include thousands of members, from Duke students to Durhamites who have been here since childhood. 

There’s a catharsis that runs through each post about a demolished Durham building — a need to tell someone about the frustration at losing a property. A recent post by David Becker is typical of many.

“Big beautiful place on the corner of Gregson and Club was there yesterday when I drove by. This morning….gone,” Becker writes. Much of the frustration aired on the Facebook group reflects worries about losing Durham’s personality, including historic buildings that are dispersed throughout the city. Durham has 15 historic neighborhoods that are listed as National Register Historic Districts. In addition to the Facebook group, other activists and preservationist groups include Open Durham, Historic Preservation Society of Durham and Preservation Durham.

Frequent poster Chris Jay notes that a homeowner refurbished an old home to make it an “weekend getaway” out in Narrowsburg, New York.

“Imagine if all the old homes in Durham that are getting torn down were revitalized and brought back to life to their original classic design, including decor,” Jay says. “That’s what this woman did!”

Another commentator echoes Jay’s sentiment.

“I’m sad we are losing so much of Durham’s history,” the post says. “When someone’s lived here all their life, the changes seem so overwhelming… not always a good thing.”

Some posters on the Facebook group push back, arguing that romanticizing old houses will not make Durham more affordable, and will not stop gentrification.

The posts that consistently get substantial interactions, though? Questions. Many users in the Facebook group wonder what is happening to Durham’s warehouse district, around the corner from Fullsteam Brewery and The Accordion, where commercial buildings are being torn down on Geer Street. Another poster supplies a partial answer, responding that a Washington D.C. developer plans to create two large apartment complexes called GeerHouse.

One user laments the teardown of one home replaced by four modern tiny homes on Pritchard Place, near North Carolina Central University. Another user shares a tip: she heard that a century-old Pentecostal church in West Durham is being sold. Responses flood in. The overtone of the conversation: will the church be torn down? 

Concerned Durhamites started the Teardowns of Durham Facebook group in May 2019, when the pace of construction and demolition around Durham was ramping up in neighborhoods including Trinity Park, Braggtown, Watts-Hillandale, Campus Hills and more. 

In part, the group fills an information gap. Local journalism has been declining in most places in the country, including in Durham, and there are fewer local news sources to keep Durhamites informed about their changing city.  

That is a major reason why Ellen Dagenhart, who previously served as president of the Historic Preservation Society of Durham, joined the Facebook group in September 2019.

“The few remaining reporters just can’t be at every meeting where so much of the sausage is brought up and made,” she said. “There’s an awful lot of mischief happening that is under the radar now. Teardowns is filling a void, a need, for a place where people can share, learn, question, vent.”

Bonita Green was born and raised in Durham. She left Durham for South Florida in 1999, and when she returned in 2012

, she didn’t recognize the city she loved.  Now, she lives in the Merrick-Moore Community and works with the Merrick-Moore Community Development Organization. Fed up with the rapid development, she has used the Teardowns group to air her frustrations, she said in a recent interview.

“I saw all the development in my community and the acres of land that the city bought on the West side of Durham. So I had a fear of being washed out. I was fighting to protect the legacy of this community,” Green said.

For people like Green, the Facebook group has become more than a place to simply share news and vent. It has also become a site of political organization and mobilization. There are almost as many petitions in the group as pictures of bulldozed buildings.  

Urban planner and Durham resident Nate Baker said the petitions and political activism of the group tell a greater story: they reflect many Durhamites’ desire for control over the housing situation in their city. He believes Durham residents are not necessarily resistant to change, as long as they are included in the process.

“I think people have anxiety about the world changing around them and not really having much of a say in the matter,” Baker said. “There hasn’t been robust community engagement and planning processes to alleviate some people’s concerns over teardowns.”

He says the city could make changes, like building more affordable housing complexes, that would make Durham’s residents feel more empowered.

Dagenhart, the member who joined the Facebook group in 2019, said the Facebook group is also a place where residents can talk about their aspirations for what Durham could be. She recalled the joyous ceremony that took place in 2011, when ​​more than 2,000 citizens took vows to “Marry Durham,” promising to protect the city and its reputation and to honor its diversity.

“I think Durham is in need of some marriage counseling,” Dagenhart said.

Above: The South Bank building downtown is among many Durham buildings undergoing demolition to make way for new construction. Photo by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal

Rent relief program shutting down — less than a month after opening

A program that helps Durham residents struggling to pay rent because of the pandemic will close on Feb. 6 after just 25 days of operation.

The Durham Rent Relief Program’s closure was announced Jan. 31 by Legal Aid of North Carolina.  

The program’s overwhelming popularity during its brief lifespan tells the story of a housing crisis in Durham that preceded the pandemic and was exacerbated by it. City officials say there simply isn’t enough federal funding to meet the needs of the many renters struggling to make ends meet. 

“We already had a challenge before COVID being able to provide affordable housing,” said Reginald J. Johnson, Community Development Director for the City of Durham. “We already had a high poverty rate for a city of our size, despite the growing economy here. Then you add COVID on top of that, and here we are.” 

Residents and landlords have until Feb. 6 to apply for assistance with rent and utilities on Legal Aid NC’s website. Renters who are at “imminent risk of eviction” or are unemployed will be given priority, according to the agency. 

The Durham Housing Authority and Legal Aid will host a rental assistance event to aid residents with their program applications from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 4 at the T.A. Grady Recreation Center..

The program, which is funded by the City of Durham through the federal American Rescue Plan Act and administered by Legal Aid of North Carolina, opened on Jan. 12, 2022. Within three weeks,  it received 1,700 completed applications, with 1,400 applications still in progress according to Legal Aid.

Many Durham residents have struggled to keep up after losing their jobs or taking pay cuts because of COVID-19. Meanwhile, rental prices have soared. According to a recent report, Durham’s median rental price jumped 39 percent between March 2019 and August 2021, the second-highest increase among all cities surveyed.  

Johnson said city officials weren’t surprised by the large number of applications.  Federal funding ultimately was dwarfed by the vast needs of renters, he said.

“We don’t pretend to know all the answers to this issue,” Johnson said. “But what we do know is that amount of money that the federal government gave was fairly significant, and it was still not enough to meet the challenge.” 

With federal funding running out, organizations such as Stop Evictions Now, Community Empowerment Fund and Legal Aid are working to keep residents housed.

Kevin Atkins, a former housing access coordinator for Community Empowerment Fund, works closely with Durham renters looking for help. Legal Aid North Carolina kept many people from being displaced and evicted during the pandemic, he said. Still, the problem is daunting.  

Last year once funding started to go out, we knew there was going to be an overwhelming number of people going through this situation,” Atkins said. “And nothing’s changed, and it’s been two years now. It’s a lot of people that have very high rents that they haven’t been able to pay.”

Atkins says it’s likely that there are many more Durham renters facing eviction who simply don’t know about rent relief programs.

These numbers are a reflection of what’s been going on the last few years,” Atkins said. “There’s going to be a lot of people evicted, so I think that’s something that you can’t ignore at this point.”

The shortage in rent relief funding extends beyond Durham. A similar program in Wake County stopped accepting new applications for relief in January, according to reports on WRAL. 

Legal Aid of North Carolina is helping other cities with rent relief programs similar to the one in Durham. The agency also operates the statewide Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Eviction Program.

After the Durham program closes on Feb. 6, renters facing eviction can call Legal Aid of North Carolina’s toll-free Housing Helpline at 1-877-201-6426. In addition, Legal Aid’s Housing Helpline webpage offers free legal resources on eviction and renters’ rights.

Above, a rent relief program run by Durham’s Community Development Department and Legal Aid of NC has been flooded with applications. Photo by Kulsoom Rizavi – The 9th Street Journal

As Martin Luther King Jr Day approaches, a new city councilman reflects on race and more

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s Kitchen and former educator, was sworn into office as a Durham City Council member in December. As he begins his work representing Ward 3, COVID-19 is exacerbating racial inequalities in Durham. Looking ahead to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, The 9th Street Journal asked Williams about some of the complex challenges facing Durham, including wealth disparities, police reform and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

9th Street JournalDurham has obviously had prosperity in the last decade, but there’s a disparity: Roughly 18% of Durham’s Black residents and nearly a third of Hispanics live under the poverty line, while far fewer white people do. How can we heal these wounds?

Leonardo Williams: I’m a Black small business owner. I didn’t give up my job to run for office; we are still running our business. It’s important to have that perspective on the council. Folks naturally govern and analyze situations from their own perspective, their own lived experiences. And with Omicron being as transmissible as it is, when we shut the city down, you lose businesses, you’re going to lose jobs, and poverty is going to smack you harder than ever before. 

In regards to race and racial equity, the city made a significant move in establishing the Racial Equity Task Force. They’ve done their work and we have to follow through on those things. But also, it’s very important to ensure that we create equity. We can all do this together. We can fight for more equitable pay, pay transparency, pay worth and all of those things. And also, ask questions: Who has access to what jobs? We can be conscious of that. We can have a body of government say, “You may have a criminal record, but you can still work for the city, to a limit.” We have to shape the government to be more agile.

9th Street: The Racial Equity Task Force released some suggestions about how to deal with the wealth gap: for instance, a local reparations program, guaranteed basic income and raising the minimum wage. Do you think those are likely to take shape this year? 

LW: Those programs are great. They’re good ideas, and they’re in the right direction. But I think when we incorporate the community and partner with the private sector, we can go a lot further and can be a lot more sustainable and accountable. About reparations—for me, I do not think the most effective way to adhere to reparations is to have a one-time payout. Because our history and our disenfranchisement is so much more valuable than one payout. Generations have been taken away, I want generations back.

9th Street: The gun violence uptick has been central to the experience of Durham youth recently, including recent deaths of children. And, again, there are significant racial disparities in who is affected. What can the city do going forward on this issue?

LW: What is the most direct gateway to our youth? Education. So first of all, the city has to get more involved in  education. We can’t be disconnected from our youth because we don’t fund the education system. Teaching and learning is beyond the classroom—it’s everywhere. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has funding for afterschool programs that they are looking to disperse—additional funding that came in due to COVID. So I’ll be looking to see how we can get some of that funding in Durham. 

Our youth do not have enough to do. That’s why we find them going where they’re accepted, and that’s on the streets. I’m a Black male, a professional, I need to be spending time with other young Black men in this community. I start with my son, and just being present with him. And I have to do that for young boys in my neighborhood as well. It’s going to take engagement, basically. And I think the city can play some very formal roles in that.

9th Street: In terms of criminal justice reform, there’s the Community Safety and Wellness Task force, as well as the new Community Safety Department here in Durham. Is Durham looking towards more community-led initiatives to de-center policing?

LW: Those task forces are necessary, because if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have those ideas to build on. Ultimately, we do want to grow ourselves to be less reliant on policing the way we know it. 

We need good policing. And we have to make bad police officers feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome. You have to build a culture of policing internally where they are calling out their own. You also have to have the community doing its part. And I think that’s what the Community Safety and Wellness Taskforce does and I think that’s what the Racial Equity Task Force does. 

We’re gonna need institutional policing. I want us to rely on community policing more, but that’s the long game. 

9th Street: Housing in Durham has obviously been a huge issue that falls along racial divides, for instance when you look at who is evicted most often. And, this has been exacerbated by COVID. What can the city council do to more intentionally hit this issue? 

LW: Yeah, that’s a loaded one. I literally just got off a call with one of the residents at Braswell apartments—gosh, just emotional. I’m calling to the table property owners, residential and commercial. I’m passionate about this. First of all, housing stability is the basic foundation of doing anything that you need to do such as a jobs and transportation. 

You know, this woman I was speaking to is supposed to be looking for an apartment, but she can’t because she’s in her apartment right now with COVID. I can go on and on about these stories. So what I’m doing right now is I’m pulling together a few [leaders]. I want the government to be a partner with the private sector in  economic development. Yes, we’re gonna make money. We’re gonna be strong economically. But we’re not leaving anyone behind. We’re not pushing anybody out. And that’s what I’ll be working on. If I don’t get anything else done on city council in these four years, you will see that happen.

And what that looks like is developing a small, robust business support apparatus, where we’re not only providing technical assistance, but we’re actually going out finding business and building businesses. We’re going to honor risk-takers, we’re going to identify talent here locally, and invest in it. We’re going to bring venture capital firms here that invest in ideas here locally.

We have all of what it takes to be a beautiful, economically strong city without leaving anyone behind.

9th Street: Obviously, there’s a lot of pain there. Where is there hope for the future? 

LW: You know, COVID has provided us somewhat of a reset. And while it’s, yes, survival of the fittest, it’s also a time where the playing field gets even, is leveling out, where it’s hard for everybody.—where you can take a chance and better yourself. Because it’s hard for everybody. So I think that’s a reason for everybody to be hopeful, just creating more access to opportunity. That’s what we’re gonna focus on.

Analysis: 3 Takeaways from the Durham Municipal Election

Although the contest started with a big surprise — a top mayoral candidate suspended her campaign just weeks before Election Day — there were very few shocks at the end of last night’s Durham municipal elections. 

Elaine O’Neal, Durham’s new mayor elect, was sure to become the first Black woman to serve as the city’s mayor. Last night only made it official.

Former Judge O’Neal received 25,604 votes, or 84.69% of the total. Her challenger, City Council member Javiera Caballero, remained on the ballot after halting her campaign and won 4,385 votes, or 14.50% of the total, Durham County’s unofficial election results site showed late Wednesday.

Here are three key takeaways from Durham’s municipal election. 

1. Low election turnout from Bull City citizens once again.

Turnout is always low in Durham’s municipal elections, but this year was even worse. The number of people who voted appeared to be considerably down. As of Wednesday night, just over 30,000 ballots were counted in the mayoral race. That number could rise modestly as a few mail ballots trickle in, but won’t go up much. In the 2017 and 2019 municipal elections, around 36,000 and 35,000 votes for mayor were cast, respectively. 

There was a slow start to voting this election cycle, even in the primaries. Just one in 10 registered voters cast ballots in the Oct. 5 primary, in which candidates running for mayor and two City Council seats competed. The 10.02% turnout rate was in between the turnout rate for Durham’s last two municipal primaries. The primary showed a slight upshift in votes compared with 2019, back when Mayor Steve Schewel was running for re-election and 8.96% of Durham registered voters cast ballots. 

This year’s low turnout could have something to do with what was on the ballot. Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero suspended her campaign, and decisive primary victories told a relatively clear story of who would win Ward I and Ward II. 

2. Incumbents dominated in Ward I and Ward II

Unsurprisingly, City Council incumbents Mark-Anthony Middleton and DeDreana Freeman won by large margins. This was expected after decisive primary wins by both candidates. 

Freeman won an impressive 71.17% of the vote against the more progressive community organizer Marion T. Johnson. Johnson was no pushover: she received a big endorsement from the People’s Alliance, as well as Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson. and led a hard-fought campaign that included call canvassing and yard signs across the city.

Still, Freeman’s work on the council, including efforts to fight child poverty and support environmental justice initiatives and small businesses owned by people of color proved robust enough to easily grant her another term. 

Middleton won a whopping 87.57% of the votes to continue as Ward II representative. He beat the decidedly more conservative pastor and former financial analyst Sylvester Williams. As a City Council member, Middleton has supported progressive initiatives like the Community Safety Department, basic income pilot program, and preservation of Durham’s historically Black neighborhoods.

3. Progressives took a hit

With incumbents and clear primary wins in the races for mayor, Ward I and Ward II, it was Ward III that truly proved the night’s most suspenseful contest. Community organizer AJ Williams and Zweli’s restaurant owner and educator Leonardo Williams both ran extensive campaigns, splitting key endorsements from throughout the city. Pierce Freelon, who was appointed to the seat in 2020, endorsed AJ Williams earlier this year. 

After a tense night, though, Leonardo Williams won by just 635 votes. 

His win followed a trend. The somewhat more moderate candidate also won in a Ward I race where both candidates campaigned hard. Same goes for the mayoral race, where Elaine O’Neal won the primary so decisively that her more progressive opponent effectively called it quits. 

In the end, the most progressive candidates lost in Durham yesterday, excluding Middleton, and a more moderate Durham won. The People’s Alliance PAC, the most progressive endorsing PAC with significant influence in Durham, endorsed Caballero, Johnson, Middleton, and AJ Williams. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a more moderate body, endorsed Elaine O’Neal, Freeman, Middleton and Leonardo Williams. 

Caballero had also been endorsed by Mayor Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro-Tempore and At-Large City Council Member Jillian Johnson.

Every single candidate on DCABP’s endorsement list won their election on Tuesday night. There are many factors at play in why a candidate wins: incumbency, effort in campaigning, positionality on significant issues. Yet, still, the most progressive candidates in Tuesday’s races did not come out on top.

At top, Mayor-elect Elaine O’Neal, right, campaigns outside the Main Library on Election Day. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

Meet the Ward III Durham City Council candidates

Without an incumbent or primary results to signal a frontrunner, the Ward III Durham City Council race is the one to watch in the upcoming Nov. 2 election.

AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams are vying to fill the seat that will soon be vacated by Pierce Freelon, who was appointed in Aug. 2020 and decided not to seek another term. They didn’t face off in October’s primary because the top two vote-getters advanced to the general election, and there are only two candidates in the Ward III race.

Freelon endorsed AJ to replace him, but the candidates split the other major endorsements: AJ is backed by the People’s Alliance PAC, the Durham Association for Educators, and Durham For All while Leonardo is backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham. 

The candidates who earned the support of the same groups as Leonardo — including Elaine O’Neal for mayor, DeDreana Freeman in Ward I, and Mark Anthony Middleton in Ward II —  emerged as clear frontrunners after the primary. Both Freeman and Middleton are incumbents. In the Ward III race, the odds are much less clear. 

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s, announced that he would be running for City Council in June, one day after Pierce Freelon said he would not run. Leonardo is a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

AJ Williams joined the race later, on Aug. 3. He is a grassroots organizer in Durham, director of incubation and ideation labs for Southern Vision Alliance, and a member of Durham Beyond Policing and other abolitionist organizations.

In the Durham primary election earlier this month, voter turnout was relatively low, with only 10.18% of Durham’s registered voters going to the polls. Some residents said they saw very little difference between the candidates.  But the same can’t be said for AJ Willimas and Leonardo Williams. 

They differ not only in their policy ideas, but also in the lenses through which they see governing. Leonardo is an educator and a businessman at his core, so these are the lenses through which he understands community engagement. 

He said that small businesses’ struggles during the pandemic motivated him to run for City Council. Over the pandemic, though large companies were still drawn to downtown Durham, small businesses struggled. Leonardo helped establish the Durham Small Business Coalition, which raised $3 million for the Small Business Fund, and organized a citywide job fair that required participating employers to offer $15 per hour. 

“I said to myself, where is the small business representation in our government? Small businesses collectively are the city’s largest employer. How can we have a city full of small, locally-owned businesses, and not a single representation of them in any leadership or decision making capacity?” he said.

If elected, Leonardo hopes to establish a robust Small Business Sustainability and Success Program and expand the Office of Economic & Workforce Development to reflect Durham’s small business sector. He also plans to facilitate better wages and conditions for workers.

As a former teacher and school administrator, Leonardo also is focused on education in the city. He said that while the county funds education, the city shares responsibility for educating and engaging youth.

“It will be my job as a city councilman to ensure that we are engaging our youth at a much broader age and a much more inclusive way,” Leonardo said. “We can utilize sectors such as education and parks and rec and the local corporate scene, maybe even working with the chamber to establish a citywide apprenticeship program for juniors and seniors in high school.”

He said he views education as a public safety issue, too. He hopes that young men in Durham who are engaged in education and economic opportunities will be less likely to turn to gun violence. 

In September, Leonardo stood outside the Hayti Heritage Center with Councilmember Middleton and the group he co-founded, One Thousand Black Men. Its goal is to curb gun violence and change the trajectory of young Black men through mentorship by challenging 1,000 Black men in Durham to spend one hour each week with a young boy in their neighborhood. These are the kinds of initiatives he hopes to uplift if elected to City Council.

“I know that if I spend an hour a week with a young Black boy, as a professional Black man, I can have a positive impact on his life. And so if I asked 1000 Black men to join me, to step up and step in, let’s take this together, take accountability for what’s happening with our young brothers,” Leonardo said.  

AJ Williams approaches governing as a fourth-generation Durhamite with deep roots in the city — from his father’s journalism career, to his grandma’s work as a small business owner, to his participation in little league.  

In addition to working with Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was appointed to Durham’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee and collaborated with delegates across gender, age, class, race, and ability as well as staff from the Transportation Department and Budget and Management Services Department. He also has served financial roles on multiple BIPOC-led nonprofits.

AJ is genderqueer, and if-elected, would be Durham’s first transgender councilmember. He said he sees governing and organizing through a queer, Black, feminist, trans lens. He wants to listen to not just cisgender, heterosexual people in Durham.

“The Black queer feminist praxis is a part of so much of the work that I’ve done. And it basically tells us that we actually cannot have Black liberation unless we have liberation for all Black people,” AJ said. “So that has also heavily informed the way that I want to show up as an elected official. Really centering the voices of the most marginalized people in our communities who have been left out of the conversation is the way to do that.”

He said it was a natural progression to move from community organizing to running for City Council. If elected, he hopes to maintain the wins that the organizers achieved in the past few years, especially around community safety. As a member of Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was part of the push for Durham’s new Community Safety Department, which is working to address non-violent 911 calls with mental health services instead of police presence. 

“With organizing, particularly for things within our municipal budget, you need to know that you have the support of your elected,” AJ said. “Durham is shifting and changing in new ways, so it felt like a natural next step to be on the Council and get input from community members.”

AJ supports diverting funds away from law enforcement; creating new public safety institutions, such as Bull City Violence Interrupters, a community-led Safety & Wellness Task Force; and supporting other community-led abolitionist movements. He said he is determined to listen to what residents want, something he learned from his work with Durham Beyond Policing.

“We’ve had a budget hearing where we invited over 300 residents to come and participate and share their personal testimonies and stories — the ways that they were impacted by over policing. So, holding the spaces to hear folks has been something that’s always been really important to me as an organizer, and I think that that’s a transferable skill,” AJ said.

 After living in Durham his whole life and watching demographics shift as gentrification has risen in the city, AJ is concerned about affordable housing. He supports land trusts, protections for historically Black neighborhoods, and an eviction moratorium.

“We need to make sure that folks who are in the market to rent are able to live here, affordably, as well as those who are pursuing homeownership. We need to also support an expansion of the Long-time Homeowners Tax Assistance Program to protect people who have been here not just for decades, but generations,” he said.

AJ shares a background in filmmaking and art like his predecessor Pierce Freelon, who endorsed him. Freelon said the most important advice he ever got was from former mayor Bill Bell: to answer every email that he receives. It’s engagement in the community, Freelon said, that changes lives, whether it’s enacting historic city policies, or just responding to a resident about their broken door. 

This level of engagement is especially important to Freelon when interacting with gun violence victims in the community, and it will be necessary for his successor.

“That means something to me: being present in the community. The day after a shooting, you need to be there: knocking on doors and talking to residents in the communities that are experiencing the violence,” Freelon said. “If you’re going to be advocating for anything that impacts that community: the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

He said that when he does engage with community members, they are often surprised that he took the time to reach out and respond to their issues.

“This seat is different. You know, there’s something special in Ward III, and so whoever wins the seat will need to listen to residents,” Freelon said. “Whoever it is, they will be there to listen.”

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Correction: This story was updated to correct that Leonardo Williams was a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the voter turnout rate in Durham’s primary election.

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: From left, candidates for Ward III Leonardo Williams (left) and AJ Williams – Photos by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Caballero suspends Durham mayoral campaign; O’Neal poised to win

Mayoral Candidate Javiera Caballero is suspending her campaign, clearing Elaine O’Neal’s path to become Durham’s first Black woman mayor.

Caballero, a City Council member, announced her decision in a statement released Monday morning. While her name will appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot, she is no longer campaigning and plans to stay in her City Council seat.

Two weeks ago, many felt the race for mayor was close. Caballero held endorsements from the People’s Alliance PAC, Mayor Steve Schewel, and the Durham Association of Educators. O’Neal, a former judge and the race’s other major candidate, received endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Indy Week, Friends of Durham, and former Mayor Bill Bell.  

But then last week’s primary election brought surprising results. O’Neal toppled any illusion of equal support, garnering 68% of the vote, leaving Caballero in distant second place with only 25% of the vote. Both O’Neal and Caballero soundly beat the other five candidates on the primary ballot to advance to the November general election. 

Caballero became the first Latina city council member in North Carolina after she was appointed in 2018 to fill Schewel’s council seat. She was then re-elected to a four-year term in 2019. If she had been elected as Durham mayor, she would have been the first Latina to serve in the office in Durham or any municipality in the Southeast outside of Florida.

“I congratulate Judge O’Neal on her strong performance in the primary election. I know that we share many values. She has a long record of service to the community,” Caballero said in her statement. “It is my hope and expectation that she and I will work as partners to move our city forward.”

Schewel said he is almost certain O’Neal will win in November, and said there are multiple reasons why the primary’s margin was so large after the playing field seemed even. For one, O’Neal announced her candidacy back in January and Caballero filed on Aug. 13. He said the almost eight-month difference gave Caballero a late start she evidently could not overcome.

Further, O’Neal has prioritized fighting gun violence and violent crime in her campaign. As a Durham native and former judge, she claims to understand the community and the pain it’s endured as gun violence has risen over the past year. 

“Durham residents are really concerned about community safety and Elaine has really built her campaign around that,” Schewel said. “Elaine is a really strong candidate and has deep roots in the community and is highly respected.”

Schewel said he is proud of Caballero for her decision to suspend her campaign, and that it was the right thing to do. Going forward, he is throwing his support behind O’Neal to aid her transition to office.

“[O’Neal] is going to win in November, and she is going to be a great mayor,” Schewel said. “I’ve already spoken with Elaine this morning and let her know that I will be here to help her in whatever way I can.”

***

Correction: The story has been updated to indicate that Indy Week endorsed O’Neal, not Caballero, and that O’Neal announced her intention in January but did not actually file then, as the original version indicated.

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero poses during her campaign for mayor. Caballero suspended her campaign Monday. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

O’Neal to face Caballero in general election

Story by Rebecca Schneid and Olivia Olsher; Photos by Josie Vonk

City Council Member Javiera Caballero and former judge Elaine O’Neal coasted to an easy victory in Tuesday’s mayoral primary in Durham. The two candidates will compete in the Nov. 2 general election to replace two-term mayor Steve Schewel, who chose not to run again.

With all 56 precincts reporting, O’Neal had 68% to 25% for Caballero.

In the two contested races for City Council seats, the incumbents finished strong. Incumbent DeDreana Freeman had a commanding lead over Marion Johnson in Ward I and Mark-Anthony Middleton surged well ahead of fellow pastor Sylvester Williams in Ward II. But rather than bask in his victory, Middleton said it was important to focus on the critical issue of gun violence. 

“Not a lot of victory laps will be had tonight,” said Middleton. “Children tonight will be jumping into bathtubs because of gun violence. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The top two candidates in each race advance to the general election.

With only two candidates for Ward III, where current City Council member Pierce Freelon is stepping down, A.J. Williams and Leonardo Williams automatically progress to the general election.

City Council election results with all 56 precincts reporting – State Board of Elections

(See official election results here.)

There were more voting booths than voters at the precinct at St. Stephens Episcopal Church. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Both mayoral candidates spent their day doing last-minute chatting with voters outside polling spots across the city. Caballero sat out front of the St. Stephens Episcopal Church in a foldable lawn chair, next to some signs, catching voters on their way into the polling site. She let them know she was a candidate on the ballot, and asked them to vote for her as they entered.

O’Neal stopped by Morehead Elementary School, where she was surrounded by her close friends and supporters wearing campaign garb, all cheering “Vote for O’Neal” at people who passed by. 

“It takes people, the people who came out of their houses and took a leap for me, and for that I am ever so grateful, and you just cannot take that for granted,” O’Neal said. “Next steps: to rest up and get back out there tomorrow.”

In photo at top, Elaine O’Neal did some last-minute campaigning on Election Day. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Durham primary early in-person voting begins, but slowly

But for the chatter of employees running one of Durham County’s five early voting locations, it was mostly silent outside Durham County Main Library Friday morning. 

Every once in a while, a Durham voter made their way down the steps of the newly renovated building, but it seemed that few people were voting in person. Only ten voters made the trek in an hour.  

Nellie Bellows turned out to vote because her husband told her to get it out of the way, she said. But she hasn’t really been hearing much about the elections from her friends. She cited COVID-19 and the isolation that has followed as a possible reason why people have not heard much about this year’s municipal election.

Early voting for the primary began Thursday and will run until Oct. 2. There are five early voting locations: Durham County Main Library, North Regional Library, South Regional Library, East Regional Library and North Carolina Central University’s Turner Law Building.

Durham residents will be voting for contested races in Wards I and II during the primary. They’ll also cast ballots to elect a new mayor to replace Steve Schewel, who announced earlier this year he will not be running for a third term. Seven candidates are vying for the office. The top two vote-getters in each primary race will move on to the Nov. 2 general election. 

Ashley and Cody Strahm, a married couple from Duke Park, went out on the hot, cloudy morning to cast their votes. The couple is passionate about local elections, they said, and heard about early voting through a neighborhood group email list.

“Everyone knows the national elections are important, but not everyone knows about the local elections, and we love Durham, so we think these elections are important because we want to continue to see it go in a positive direction,” Cody said.

Some citizens don’t feel there’s as much at stake in local elections since many of the candidates identify as Democrats, he added.  

“I think we all are progressive, so lots of people probably think there’s less on the line,” he said. 

When Duke graduate student Hananiel Setiawan visited the library to vote, he lamented how little his classmates knew about local elections. Ever since he moved to Durham for school in 2017, he has participated in every election. 

“People just take it for granted. Of course, there’s this Duke bubble, and some people don’t really think about Durham,” he said.

He said Duke’s Graduate and Professional Student Government, a group he is a part of, hopes to raise awareness about local government this year. They plan to invite the winners of the mayoral primary to come speak at one of their meetings.

Through two days of early voting, 648 early voting ballots had been cast, according to the Durham County Board of Elections unofficial count. That number falls well short of the over 27,000 ballots cast in the first two days of early voting for the high profile 2020 general election. 

During early voting, Durhamites can go to any site and register to vote through same-day registration and update their names and addresses if need be.

If you want to register, you will need to bring valid identification, including a North Carolina Drivers license, a government photo ID, or a document that proves the name and address of the citizen.

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: A sign marks the Durham County Main Library early in-person voting location, where a few voters cast their ballots in the municipal primary Friday morning. 9th Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid.

New to politics but fluent in Durham, judge Elaine O’Neal vies for mayor

For former judge Elaine O’Neal, running for mayor of Durham is not an issue of politics. It’s an issue of the heart. 

“I’m a daughter of this city, and I’m an example of what it can produce,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal has watched the city shift, grow and divide before her very eyes, she says. She saw the best and worst of human nature while serving as a district court judge from 1994 to 2011, and as Durham County Superior Court Judge from 2011 until 2018. 

Through these experiences, most notably her tenure as judge, O’Neal says she has witnessed a disunity in Durham like she has never seen before. That division motivated her to run for office.

“My plan was originally to retire,” she said. “But as I began to look around the political landscape from my perspective on the bench and lived experience here, I saw that a lot of young people were getting cut out of the conversation – like they’re invisible.”

O’Neal also worked as interim dean for two years at her alma mater, N.C. Central University Law School. Though she often says she is decidedly not a politician, she does have experience at the city level as appointed co-chair of Durham’s Racial Equity Task force organized by City Council last year. She and the 17-member team produced a 60-page report urging the city to set up a reparations program to address the racial wealth gap and to confront inequity in the legal system, public health, housing and education.

During an interview with The 9th Street Journal, she pointed right outside to Main Street, noting how within a few blocks, there are disparities between million dollar apartments and Title IX affordable housing complexes. She nodded her head towards the door, where across the street sat half a dozen unhoused people.

“We’re going to let Durhamites in wheelchairs sit on the street? Is that what we’re doing now? Is that who we are?” she asked. “That’s not the Main Street I know. We were more inclusive.”

The Hillside High School graduate is quick to admit that though she is an expert in law, she is not an expert on housing. She has put herself in “housing school,” as she puts it.

“What I’ve been doing is going to experts and learning more. So, do I have an answer on what my plans are about housing? No, because I’m still learning,” she said.

She also admits she’s not incredibly well-acquainted with the political sphere in Durham, something she says she must rectify if she is to win the office of mayor. 

What O’Neal does seem to know, though, is Durham its residents and the issues burdening them, from gun violence, to housing insecurity, to systemic racism, to poverty. 

“All of these issues are interconnected and layered,” O’Neal said. “I see so many young people in this city that want to do better, but there are these roadblocks, and they don’t know what the roadblocks even are or how to navigate them.”

The registered Democrat is staunch that building trust and unity within Durham’s various populations will allow her to achieve her goals.

She hopes to connect people in power with people who feel voiceless. She asks questions like: When was the last time that apartment building developers and houseless people actually sat at the table together and talked? To some, this might sound unreasonable and even completely unattainable. But not to O’Neal.

“We put a man on the moon didn’t we?” she said. “These issues will not be solved overnight. But will we find solutions? Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Mayoral candidate and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks with a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Transportation is another prominent issue on O’Neal’s agenda. The city’s public transit system is less than perfect, and the 2019 demise of the light rail project only compounded shortcomings. If she is able to connect Durhamites with jobs in the newer technology businesses entering town, she says figuring out transit is an essential piece.

“What would it look like to have our own version of Lyft that is specifically designed to go into neighborhoods where we don’t have transportation to get them back and forth from jobs?” O’Neal asked.

She points to her work with gun violence in Durham as a top priority as well, noting her personal closeness to the issue. Her own 22-year-old cousin was killed by gun violence in November 2020, and that was not the first time gun violence personally affected her. She’s certainly not alone: though shootings in Durham reached a historic low in 2019, they rose with 319 people shot in 2020. As of Aug. 14, 158 people had been shot in Durham in 2021.

“I can go to the Southside. I can go to the West End. I can go to Braggtown. I can maneuver in places that most people cannot,” she said. “I know these people. They may not have agreed with my rulings in court, but they know where my heart is.”

She’s hopeful that economic growth in Durham will be a net positive for native Durhamites. Growth may bring jobs to Durhamites in need, she says, and thereby decrease both poverty rates and gun violence. 

Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell says that gun violence is one reason he endorsed O’Neal for mayor. A couple weeks ago, Bell met a man who said Judge O’Neal changed his life by putting him on probation instead of giving him jail time.

“The whole issue of public safety and crime is one of the most important ones in Durham right now, and she is the perfect fit for dealing with that issue,” Bell said. “She knows all sections of Durham.”

Some of Durham’s prominent political action committees are supporting her for similar reasons. Both The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham endorsed O’Neal.  Antonio Jones, the Committee’s chairperson, echoes Bell’s statements, saying that her presence in the community, her qualifications and her familiarity with life here pushed them towards endorsement.

“She was doing restorative justice work before it was a cool thing, before it was a fad. She wants to really get out there and see who has been left out of the growth,” Jones said. 

O’Neal was the first to announce her candidacy for mayor, announcing her candidacy back in January, before current Mayor Steve Schewel decided he would no longer be running for reelection. 

The move seemed like an obvious statement of dissatisfaction with the current political climate in Durham. O’Neal says she wasn’t trying to stir up drama or make an announcement – she just figured if she was going to run, she might as well get a head start.

“When people look at me, I just want them to see what Durham has produced,” she said. “All I can present is who I am, and Durham has to decide what it wants, because the options are very clear.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks to a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.