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