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Posts published in “City elections 2021”

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.

Durham voters choose O’Neal as mayor and City Council incumbents by large margins; Leonardo Williams wins close race in Ward III

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.”

Supporters of City Council candidate AJ Williams watched as election results trickled in. Photo by Olivia Olsher – The 9th Street Journal

 

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. 

One political mailer sheds light on Durham election dynamics

The flyer that arrived in Durham voters’ mailboxes had an urgent message: “Don’t defund the police!” it said in capital red letters. “Law enforcement is under assault.” 

The mailer, distributed in September by the Friends of Durham political action committee, endorses Elaine O’Neal for mayor, incumbents DeDreana Freeman and Mark-Anthony Middleton for City Council Wards I and II, and Leonardo Williams for Ward III. 

Friends of Durham supports the slate of candidates for one specific reason, the mailer says: “These City Council candidates will keep our police funded.”

In reality, it’s not that simple. Many of Durham’s candidates hold nuanced views on police funding that the mailer’s definitive language doesn’t capture. But the mailer itself and the candidates’ reactions to its pointed messaging offer a revealing window into the world of Durham politics. 

How do O’Neal and Caballero compare on policing?

Since Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in May 2020, the nation has wrestled with violence and racism pervasive in law enforcement. In Durham, large swaths of the community called to defund or abolish the police. 

Throughout the summer following Floyd’s death, Durhamites took to the streets to protest traditional policing and racial injustice. In June 2020, during the public comment period of a City Council meeting regarding the city budget, activists urged Durham’s leaders to decrease police funding.

The city launched a new Community Safety Department in response last May. The department will run pilot programs aimed to determine effective alternatives to policing, including responding to 911 calls with unarmed mental health professionals. Still, despite public pressure to do so, the current City Council has never decreased the police budget. 

Friends of Durham chair Alice Sharpe said that her organization’s mailer was prompted by Javiera Caballero’s statements during a City Council meeting on June 15, 2020. Caballero, who is currently serving as an at-large City Council member, suspended her mayoral campaign on Oct. 11 after receiving far fewer votes than O’Neal in the primary.

 “I wholeheartedly believe in defunding the police,” Caballero said at the meeting. “I know what I want in the future of Durham, and I want less police.”

Later in the meeting, Caballero still voted with the rest of City Council to unanimously approve a new city budget that included a routine increase in police funding. 

More than a year later, Sharpe and Friends of Durham have not forgotten Caballero’s statements. The organization sent out the mailer because it wanted voters to know which candidates would fight to keep the police funded, Sharpe said. 

But in contrast with the mailer’s black-and-white language, O’Neal’s position on policing isn’t very firm. And it might not be too different from Caballero’s own stance. 

Both Caballero and O’Neal have said they support community-driven alternatives to policing, like the ones that will be tested by the Community Safety Department. They also both want to keep the Durham Police Department sufficiently funded, at least until there are proper structures in place that would allow the department to function with less resources. 

“I do believe that it’s necessary for us to continue to support our police until we can build up community capacity,” O’Neal said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “We don’t have to choose between being supportive of our law enforcement agencies and also being innovative with public safety. We can do both in Durham.”

Caballero, whose current City Council term ends in 2023, said she ultimately wants the Community Safety Department to take over a significant portion of the police department’s responsibilities. She’d like police to focus exclusively on violent crime, while the Community Safety Department addresses Durham’s other needs, she said. 

If executed properly, this plan eventually would lead to defunding the Durham police, Caballero said. She clarified that defunding, in this case, doesn’t mean abolition or even slashing the police budget to shreds. It just means diverting resources away from the police once they are no longer needed. 

O’Neal has provided fewer details about her vision for the role of the new department. It’s not meant to replace the police, she said, but she can’t predict how things will unfold. When asked if she thought the Community Safety Department might eventually have the capacity to relieve police officers of some of their traditional duties, like responding to medical emergencies or domestic disputes, she declined to speculate.

“That’s like asking me if I have a crystal ball,” O’Neal said. “I would hope one day we could get to the place where we could manage without armed citizens … but that’s a hope. Whether that would actually become a reality, I’ll wait till we get there.”

A window into Durham politics

Technically, the Friends of Durham mailer is accurate: O’Neal has no plans to defund the police. Neither does City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who’s running for reelection and is also endorsed on the mailer. 

Like both Caballero and O’Neal, Middleton doesn’t think the Durham Police Department should be the city’s only approach to public safety. He wants a robust, fully-funded department, he said, but he understands the flaws in policing, too. 

“A fully-funded police department does not preclude us from having other tools in our toolbox that will help us keep Black and brown people and mentally distressed people alive,” Middleton said. “That’s my position. It’s not either or, it’s this and that.” 

In an interview before she withdrew from the mayoral race, Caballero said that the Friends of Durham mailer over-simplifies the question of police funding and fuels polarization. “Clearly, this is the issue that they’re creating a wedge with,” she said. “I think that folks are trying to create division, and that’s politics.” 

Marion T. Johnson, who’s challenging DeDreana Freeman in the Ward I City Council race, also found the mailer’s messaging unnecessarily divisive. “I was disappointed when I saw it because I don’t think that it really serves our communities at all to lean on that sort of politics of fear,” Johnson said. 

Johnson is “committed to no longer investing in a system that generally over polices and over criminalizes Black and brown folks.” But abolishing the police overnight will not make anyone safer either, she said. 

The challenge of community safety requires careful discussion and attention to detail, Johnson said, not an all-or-nothing approach. “All of us who are running for office are fully capable of — and really committed to — having nuanced conversations about what true community safety is and what our communities need,” she said.

The Friends of Durham mailer doesn’t encourage those nuanced conversations, but that probably wasn’t its intention, Caballero said. As a political action committee, Friends of Durham is entitled to frame its messaging however they please, she said. 

Sharpe acknowledged that the mailer was likely to antagonize some people. It takes a strong stance, she said. To influence Durham voters, that might be an effective strategy. 

“It may be pointed, I’ll grant you that,” Sharpe said of the mailer. “We were trying to make a point.” 

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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: A political mailer sent by the Friends of Durham political action committee endorses a slate of candidates that it suggests won’t “defund the police.” 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.

The 9th Street Journal Guide to the Durham city election

Don’t let the headlines fool you. Although Durham’s election might look like a snooze – yes, the race for mayor is essentially uncontested – there are still three City Council races to be decided on Tuesday. 

The Nov. 2 municipal general election comes after a primary election in which just one in 10 Durham voters cast ballots. The Durham County Board of Elections reports that 6,190 voters – or, just 3.03% of registered voters – have already cast early in-person ballots in the general election as of Oct. 26.

While mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal will likely coast to victory over Javiera Caballero, who suspended her campaign, there are three City Council seats to settle: Marion T. Johnson and incumbent DeDreana Freeman in Ward I, Sylvester Williams and incumbent Mark-Anthony Middleton in Ward II; and AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams for an open seat in Ward III. 

The races

In the race for Mayor, former judge O’Neal will appear on the ballot next to City Council member Caballero. The race, however, has been all but decided. After O’Neal won more than 68% of votes cast in the primary, Caballero announced she was suspending her campaign. 

“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.”

In the Ward I race, current City Council member DeDreana Freeman is running for re-election against community organizer Marion T. Johnson. 

The two progressive candidates split several key endorsements. Freeman found support from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the Friends of Durham PAC and INDY Week. The People’s Alliance, the Durham Association of Educators, Durham for All and Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson are backing Johnson. 

Freeman collected 69% of the votes cast in the primary, but Johnson, who received 27% of the primary votes, has continued an energetic campaign. She spoke at a candidate forum covered by The Duke Chronicle last week, and one 9th Street Journal reporter even received a voter-aimed voicemail from her campaign soliciting support. 

The Ward II race features City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who brought in 86% of the vote in the primary against Sylvester Williams, who received 9% of primary votes. 

Middleton is a major proponent of the Community Safety Department and has backed progressive ideas like a guaranteed basic income pilot program. Williams, a pastor and former financial analyst who ran unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2017 and 2019, also supports efforts to fight poverty and build affordable housing, but has more conservative ideas, including adding more officers to Durham’s police force. He has opposed gay marriage and expressed other homophobic ideas.

The Ward III race is a battle of people named Williams. Community organizer AJ Williams faces small business owner and former educator Leanorado Williams. With no incumbent running and no primary results to signal a frontrunner, Ward III is the race to watch. 

Current Ward III City Council member Pierce Freelon, who was appointed in 2020 and isn’t running to remain in the seat, endorsed AJ Williams, a progressive who works as director of incubation and ideation labs for Southern Vision Alliance and is a member of Durham Beyond Policing and other abolitionist organizations. 

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s, is chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and an executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators. Check back with The 9th Street Journal for an in-depth profile of the Ward III race coming later this week.

How to vote

Voters can cast ballots in-person on Election Day. Polls open at 6:30 am and close at 7:30 p.m. You can find your polling place by visiting Durham County’s election website here

You can also vote in-person before Election Day at five locations across the city, including the East, North and South regional libraries, the Main Library and the NCCU Turner Law Building. Hours and addresses for the early voting sites can be found here. Early in-person voting ends on Oct. 30, and early voting sites allow same day registration. 

The deadline to request a mail-in absentee ballot has already passed. Absentee ballots received after 5 p.m. on Election Day will only be counted if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election. Absentee ballots can also be returned in-person at the Durham County Board of Elections office or at any early voting site. 

Correction: The story was updated to clarify that Pierce Freelon was appointed and not elected to his seat in 2020

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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: Signs promoting City Council and mayoral candidates stand in downtown Durham. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

Election season is here, and candidates want your vote. Do signs matter?

Clusters of campaign signs across Durham vie for people’s attention. Some display slogans or a picture of the candidate, but all were designed to capitalize on the split second of attention they receive from voters.

Mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal’s signs are the simplest, with a light blue background and “O’NEAL” in large white letters. Javiera Caballero, who suspended her mayoral campaign on Oct. 11, hired a local designer to create her signs based on input from her supporters. They say “VAMOS BULL CITY-JAVIERA FOR MAYOR” in white lettering with a purple background. (Caballero’s campaign materials always have a purple theme). 

Ward III City Council candidate AJ Williams’s signs are decorated with several colors, slogans such as “Honor the Legacy”, and a photo of himself. They differ from the other simpler signs. From the start of his campaign, he saw yard signs as key investments. “Yard signs are a way to really maximize your ability to be seen across the city, even if you can’t knock every door, or make every phone call,” Williams said. “Durham is a city of over 300,000 people and the truth of the matter is, you’re not going to be able to contact all 300,000.”

Williams believes his nearly $5,000 investment in signs paid off in significant ways. People recognize him from his signs, even when he wears a mask. The vibrant graphic, combined with the image of his face, was intended to stand out. “I’m glad we made the decision to really do something different,” Williams said.

Durham voter Jimmy Lamont wishes more signs had photos of the candidates. He voted in the primary because his son knows one of the mayoral candidates. He’s unfamiliar with many of the other candidates, but he thinks adding pictures to campaign signs would help. “I don’t know none of these people,” Lamont said, gesturing toward the signs.

In the book “Winning Elections: Political Campaign Management, Strategy, and Tactics,” Becky West of Campaigns & Elections advised candidates to use simple yard signs and logos that emphasize their names. She added that signs should include minimal colors and bold lettering so that voters can see the candidate’s name. “Plan for simplicity,” she wrote. “An effective logo needs only the candidate’s name, the office sought, and possibly a simple graphic symbol.”

Signs may not be the decisive factor in a campaign, but they have a measurable impact. One study found that signs “had an estimated effect of 2.5 percentage points.”

Zach Finley, Javiera Caballero’s campaign manager, explained that campaigns try to place signs in strategic locations to “get the most bang for your buck.” Areas like intersections have high traffic rates, making them optimal locations for signs. He added that engaged supporters “really enjoy” putting signs up in their yards.

The cost per sign depends on various factors, but usually hovers around $2-$2.50. Finley said that Caballero’s campaign signs were more expensive than average due to their unique colors and material. Her campaign spent $2,433 on yard signs. O’Neal’s campaign spent $4,239.

Many Durhamites say that while signs boost visibility, candidates should prioritize engaging with constituents in more meaningful ways. “I had a hundred and something signs,” said Jan Oartie, who previously ran for Durham Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor. “But it’s more about me going out to meet people. I’d go to a farmers market and give out water. I’d be downtown when they had events.”

Charlitta Burruss, who lost her bid for Durham mayor in the recent primary, sees signs as expensive and unnecessary. She believes that candidates waste money on signs without showing voters that they’re willing to tackle important issues. “When I say ‘know’, I mean not just your name,” Burruss said. “I mean know who you are …  What is your agenda — your real agenda?”

Instead of spending money on signs, Burruss’s campaign strategy centered on news coverage and word-of-mouth. She relied on being a familiar face in Durham after years of working and volunteering in the city. “I feel like I market myself in many different ways,” Burruss said.

Signs may be a crucial tool for candidates lacking name recognition, but some believe that voters should get to know a candidate in other ways, too. Geneva Ennett, a Durham judge, said that candidates should have several years of experience working in the community so that voters are familiar with their names and what they plan to do in office. Still, “[signs] do make a difference,” she said. “They really do. They trigger people’s memories.”

John Weisman, who voted in the primary election at the Durham County Library, is not swayed by signs. Weisman prefers to read profiles, newspapers, and questionnaires and attend candidate forums. However, he does notice when opposing candidates have more signs around the city than his preferred candidate. “It’s more of an observation than a worry,” Weisman said. “There are segments of the voting population who are influenced by different things, so you need multiple strategies.”

Weisman can’t put up his own signs because he lives in a condominium. However, his friends display them in their front yards to show solidarity and boost their preferred candidates’ visibility.

 Still, Durham voters ultimately support candidates who are integrated in the community, understand their struggles, and strive for solutions. “Everyone gets these signs,” Oartie said. “But are you out there in the community?”

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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: Signs promoting Durham mayoral candidates are popping up around Durham. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

Just one in 10 Durham voters cast ballots in municipal primary

When Durham held its municipal primary election last Tuesday, most registered voters didn’t show up. 

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 is in between the turnout rate for Durham’s last two municipal primaries. 

An even smaller 8.96% turned out in 2019, when Durham Mayor Steve Schewel was running for re-election. In 2017, 13.47% of registered voters cast primary ballots. 

Duke public policy professor Mac McCorkle expected turnout to be low, he said, because local elections in Durham are not partisan. Voters are less concerned about preventing threatening opposition candidates from winning, said McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant. 

“Durham, being a one party town, is overwhelmingly Democratic,” he said. “You’re not going to get partisan conflict that you would in other races.”

There were also few policy conflicts to activate voters, he said. McCorkle named crime as the main area of difference among candidates, but said even “moderate verses progressive battles” still fall within the Democratic party. 

“That’s not a recipe to get lots of engaged voters out in a race,” he added. 

The absence of voters troubles McCorkle. 

“There’s this question about, “Gosh, is this democratically legitimate? This is so low,” he said.

Since 9th Street spoke with McCorkle, mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero suspended her campaign, citing wide margins in the primary. Although Caballero’s second place primary finish advanced her to the general elections, she was far behind  former judge Elaine O’Neal in votes received. Caballero’s campaign suspension means the primary effectively determined the outcome of the mayoral election, which O’Neal is now poised to win. 

Durham County elections director Derek Bowens said that local elections typically don’t get many voters. 

“I think low turnout is in part attributable to less national and state visibility and limited third party outreach,” Bowens wrote in an email to The 9th Street Journal.

When Durhamites voted in the March 2020 primary, which included heated races for president, senator and governor as well as several local elections, 39.97% of registered voters cast ballots. 

National elections receive more media coverage and there are more efforts to engage voters through tactics such as canvassing and TV advertisements, Bowens said. He expects turnout for Durham’s Nov. 2 election will be similarly low.

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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 Durham voter casts a ballot at Lakewood Elementary in the Oct. 5 municipal primary. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

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.

Meet the seven candidates running for Durham mayor, including Bree Davis, Daryl Quick, and Jahnmaud Lane

By Julianna Rennie and Jake Sheridan

There’s one week left for Durham voters to cast their ballots before the primary election on Oct. 5. The outcome will determine the two finalists in each of the four City Council races. 

There are seven candidates vying for the mayor’s seat. Durham’s current mayor, Steve Schewel, is not seeking reelection. 

The 9th Street Journal recently profiled some of the candidates. Check out our stories on City Council member Javiera Caballero, former judge Elaine O’Neal, housing advocate Charlitta Burruss, and youth minister Rebecca Harvard Barnes

Here’s what you need to know about the remaining three candidates: Bree Davis, Daryl Quick and Jahnmaud Lane.

Bree Davis

Born in sunny South Florida, Bree Davis comes from a family of changemakers. Her father worked as a Baptist minister and coordinated outreach for Haitian and Cuban refugees. 

“This is kind of my legacy,” she told the 9th Street Journal.  

After moving to Durham 12 years ago, Davis experienced houselessness, food insecurity, and underemployment. As a single mom and bisexual Black woman, Davis says she knows what it feels like to fall through the cracks.

If elected, Davis promises to make sure that all Durham residents benefit from the city’s recent economic boom. 

“The goal has been achieved, but now we have to pick up the folks that have been left behind,” she said.

Her other policy priorities include affordable housing and community safety. In her INDY Week candidate questionnaire, Davis wrote that she would fully fund the Durham Police Department while exploring alternatives to policing through Durham’s new Community Safety Department. 

Davis currently works as a research coordinator for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started her own social media consulting company, Social Media Phobia Solutions, in 2011. She’s also a collage artist and filmmaker

Daryl Quick

Daryl Quick is pledging to “make a better Durham by getting back to the basics.”

Throughout the campaign, Quick has talked openly about his experiences growing up in public housing with family members who struggled with drug addiction. 

A native Durhamite, Quick hopes to inspire children experiencing poverty to dream of running for public office.

His platform addresses violent crime, social services, and infrastructure.

Quick promotes his campaign heavily on his Facebook page. In a Sept. 8 post, he wrote, “No more status quo! No more gentrification! No more low wage paying jobs! No more kids can’t play! No more walking past a homeless person downtown!”

Jahnmaud Lane

Jahnmaud Lane isn’t just a rare Durham Republican: He’s a highly followed conservative commentator. 

His Facebook page, “Mind of Jamal,” has over 300,000 followers. The clips regularly stretch over an hour. 

In his videos, the adamant Trump supporter pours over a range of far-right topics. He recently criticized coronavirus vaccines and workers’ unions, decried calls for national political unity, and urged his followers to “break out the Old Dixie” because “this union stuff aint working.” Lane often speaks in front of a Confederate flag. 

He streams videos on YouTube, too, but the apparently associated “MindofJamal” Twitter account has been suspended. 

Lane did not reply to a call requesting an interview. He described himself as a former “no-good, piece-of-trash drug dealer” in an interview with The News & Observer

The article noted that he was charged in 2001 with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Two years later, he spent over a year in a state corrections facility for assaulting and seriously injuring another person, the article added. 

In the News & Observer piece, Lane also acknowledged that he attended the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, though he said he didn’t enter the Capitol building. 

On Lane’s campaign website, his platform focuses on addressing a rise in violent crime. He would like to pay police officers more. His other policy ideas include building more affordable housing and more intensely inspecting public housing facilities for tenant damage.

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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: Bree Davis is one of seven candidates running to be Durham’s next mayor. Photo provided by Bree Davis.

Burruss banks on ‘boots on the ground’ experience in her mayoral campaign

As mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss showed us around her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms, she stopped at the road in front of her house and pointed to the ground where bullet shells had strewn the street the night before. 

“I picked up 15 shells from this parking lot,” said Burruss, shaking her head. 

Having served on the resident councils of several Durham Housing Authority communities – she previously lived in Calvert Place – Burruss is familiar with the gun violence and affordable housing crises facing the city. 

Through her campaign, Burruss hopes to encourage others from low-income neighborhoods to run for political office. She said people like her, who have relationships with residents of Durham’s often-overlooked communities, have an important perspective to share. 

“We don’t consider people who are actually boots on the ground, that are actually in the community and making a big impact,” Burruss told the 9th Street Journal. 

In June this year, after hearing gunfire every night from her home in Edgemont Elms, Burruss organized a community barbecue, inviting district police and local families to spend time together and build relationships. In addition to her resident council responsibilities, Burruss is a member of the Residential Advisory Board of DHA and chairperson for the Consumer Family Advisory Committee of Durham.

In 2018, she received a Neighborhood Spotlight Award for her community outreach effort in Durham, which included organizing food and toy donations and community events. 

This campaign marks Burruss’s fourth attempt at running for political office in North Carolina. She was a candidate for mayor of Monroe in 2007; town council in Marshville in 2011; and city council in Durham in 2019, receiving 1,258 votes. 

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1959, Burruss comes from a family of preachers. After working many different jobs to support her son, Burruss decided to pursue higher education in her late 40’s, receiving an associate’s degree in Human Services from South Piedmont Community College in 2004 and a Bachelor of Sciences in social work from Gardner-Webb University in 2006. 

Though she has never held a political office, Burruss is an experienced community leader; she said her roots in the community give her an advantage over other candidates. For example, Burruss has become frustrated by what sees as broken communication channels between DHA residents and local government officials. In her experience, the local government makes a dangerous presumption that all DHA residents have access to  computers and internet required to find information about affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“Durham officials don’t realize not everybody can afford internet access, and older people are not using computers,” said Burruss. 

Alternative methods of communication, such as electronic billboards and posters containing updates from the local government, could be a better way to reach those without internet access, she said. 

Patching the communication gaps between low-income residents and the Durham mayor’s office, Burruss said, is a vital prerequisite to addressing the issues she is most passionate about — crime, affordable housing, and employment. 

Addressing crime and poverty would be Burruss’s main priority as mayor. She believes investment in education and parental support in communities with high crime rates can help break this cycle. 

Burruss does not support defunding the police in Durham. Rather, she believes police officers should be retrained to better communicate with residents and those with mental health conditions. She also supports paying police officers more so they don’t leave to find work in counties offering higher salaries.

She says her experience as a liaison between local residents, police, and the Housing Authority positions her well to improve city relations as mayor. If elected, Burruss plans to spend time in Durham, speaking to people “on the ground” to inform her policy decisions. 

“If I were in the mayor’s chair, you’d be able to put your hands on me,” said Burruss. 

At the top: Mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss serves on the resident council for her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.