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Election Night 2019: Checking the Duke student vote

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, and Duke Professor Gunther Peck (right) chat with students at Precinct 5. Photo by Cameron Beach

The cricket chirps were especially loud outside Precinct 5 tonight. The Patterson Community Center along Crest Street was nearly empty except for the occasional passing car or student voter walking up to cast a ballot. Among the visitors were Duke Professor Gunther Peck and Democratic U.S. Rep John Sarbanes of Maryland. 

Longtime friends and former college roommates, they are avid promoters of voter rights. They dropped by the voting station to check on Duke University student voter turnout.

In the recent past, Duke students could vote at early voting sites on Duke’s campus. Like others, Peck, who is director of Duke’s Hart Leadership Program, and Sarbanes say loss of voting on a college campus can be a barrier to student turnout. Peck was a catalyst for Duke’s decision this year to provide free Lyft rides to get students who live on West Campus to Patterson, their assigning voting spot. He’s one to do anything he can to get people to vote.

“It ought to be as easy as possible. The fact that you don’t have a car shouldn’t be the reason you don’t vote,” Peck said.

This belief is what motivated Peck and Sarbanes to stand on the sidewalk outside of the precinct and ask students about their Lyft and voting experience.  Sarbanes is sponsor of “For the People Act of 2019,” a bill that passed the House but has been blocked by Senate Republicans. The bill would make Election Day a federal holiday and require more political organizations to disclose the names of donors.

“Ideally voting is and can be the most empowering thing you do as a citizen,” said Sarbanes. 

A total of 230 ballots were cast at Precinct 5 before it closed at 7:30 pm. Larry Partee, chief judge for Precinct 5, said that this was about a fourfold increase from primary voter turnout.

He noted a large number of those votes were cast by Duke students, a fact facilitated by advocates like Peck.

“We’ve seen a lot of elections that turned on just a few votes at all levels, so the notion that every vote counts is just a part of our DNA,” said Sarbanes. 

Election Night 2019: Mayor gets $95 million housing bond

Mayor Steve Schewel celebrates his re-election and a yes vote for the housing bond. Photo by Cameron Beach

Steve Schewel was elected to a second term as mayor, as expected. But he had even more to celebrate Tuesday night.

In February, during his city address, Schewel introduced a plan for a $95 million bond. An ambitious and aggressive solution to Durham’s affordable housing crisis, the bond is expected to create 1,600 affordable housing units, among other initiatives. 

Today, the bond passed with 75.89% of votes in favor. Schewel can confidently say he now has the funds and resources to accomplish his housing goals. 

The bond is a “big bite out of the apple,” for an affordable housing issue that has permeated all corners of the city, the mayor said. 

In a victory speech following incumbent re-elected candidates Javiera Caballero, Charlie Reece, and Jillian Johnson, Schewel thanked the crowd for their continued support of him as mayor and for voting to enact the bond. 

Schewel said the City Council worked to prepare the city for the bond and make the case for the affordable housing solution. “Everyone knew the problem but we needed a big, bold solution,” he said. 

The next step for Schewel and the City Council is to ensure the bond is implemented according to their five-year plan. 

“It is going to be hard, we are going to make mistakes, but with our leadership it will work,” he said.

Election Night 2019: Joshua Gunn’s non-concession speech

Joshua Gunn with a supporter Tuesday as vote tallies streamed in. Photo by Cameron Beach

Tucked away between two brick walls at the Boricua Soul restaurant on an otherwise quiet and empty American Tobacco Campus, Joshua Gunn addresses his crowd of unwavering supporters seconds after votes from all Durham precincts were reported.

Gunn had notched 18,490 votes, putting him in fourth place just below Councilwoman Javiera Caballero, with 18,885 votes. Beer bottles and a stray bag of Joshua Gunn for City Council pins sat on a nearby wooden table, under strings of glowing yellow lights. Although all precinct votes were in and Gunn is still 395 votes shy of a council seat, he spoke with determination and a cool, calm confidence.

“We have provisional ballots and we have absentee ballots, that have not been counted,” Gunn said. “We can make up this margin with those votes.”

Applause erupts from the crowd as Gunn continues. “We are far from a night of concessions, to be clear,” he said.

Earlier in the night, Gunn had slipped for a bit into third place, pushing Caballero down to fourth with 63% of precincts reporting. The margin was razor thin, as Gunn was ahead by less than 50 votes.

“I’m excited,” he said then. “This is just exciting.”

As more votes were processed, however, Gunn fell behind Caballero once again. With 95% of precincts reporting, Gunn had notched 18,076 votes against Caballero’s 18,287.

With the race drawing to a close, nervous energy and excitement radiated from the small crowd. Supporters turned their heads away from their conversations with each other to fix them on a TV screen updating results.

When the screen read that 100% of the precinct votes had been counted, Gunn didn’t miss a beat. He grabbed a microphone and spoke to a crowd still filled with hope.

“We got 19,000 votes in the 2019 general election for city council,” he said. “In the primary, we got 6,700 votes. We tripled our votes.”

Applause momentarily drowned out Gunn’s voice. The 4% margin between Gunn and Caballero is well beyond the range of a recount, Gunn said. He tells his supporters that he’s not giving up yet.

Although the first-time candidate noted he is unfamiliar with the recount process, Gunn said he believes this election warrants a double check.

On Nov. 14, the board of elections will meet to tally up any outstanding ballots, including provisional and absentee ballots. They will determine then whether a recount is called for.

About 20 minutes after Gunn made his speech, the watch party began to thin out. Gunn, surrounded by an intimate group of supporters and his wife and two young children, looked tired, but not defeated.

“It’s hard right now to appreciate the fact that almost 20,000 people voted for a first-time candidate,” Gunn said. “I’m trying to remind myself of the scale of what we have accomplished, but ultimately, you want to win.”

“I’m going to go home tonight, lick my wounds, say a prayer, and hope we wake up in the morning to some good news,” he said.

Election Night 2019: Exuberant Javiera Caballero

Javiera Caballero celebrating election results Tuesday. Photo by Cameron Beach

In a dark, loud pub on East Main Street cheers erupt as the polls close. The Bull City Alliance is victorious, with incumbent city council candidate Javiera Caballero appearing to beat challenger Joshua Gunn by less than 500 votes 

After a close vote with precinct 3 and 31 casting the deciding votes, Caballero emerges from the corner of a booth she was sheltered in, and the crowd erupts. 

“I feel good but we have a little work to do. One step forward in accomplishing the work we need to do,” Caballero says. 

Amongst the cheers, Caballero stands up on the table, the Durham city flag centered behind her. 

After being appointed to Steve Schewel’s vacant city council seat in 2017, Caballero explains that she chose to do something different with her city council appointment. She specifically chose to work with co-council members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson, also winners Tuesday. 

The three of them even campaigned on a shared Bull City Together platform. Through their 98 proposed policies, Caballero tells the crowd that they are choosing to do something “different, harder, and more courageous.” 

Caballero ends her victory speech with a deep breath and a long list of thank yous. Her family, her campaign manager, the Bull City Together team. 

Despite a tumultuous campaign, including an accusation against her citizenship with no evidence offered, Caballero says she is particularly grateful for those who stood by her campaign. “It was bullshit but also emotionally tragic,” she says.

“Pick people who love you, respect you, and hold you in dignity,” she says. 

A cheer of “te quiero” breaks through the crowd in response: “I love you.”

And as she steps off the table into the crowd of supporters, the rhythm of “si se puede,” chants and claps permeates the pub. 

“Yes you can.”

Election Night 2019: Top vote-getters

Jillian Johnson addresses her supporters Tuesday wearing a T-shirt saying Re-Elect Charlie Reece. Photo by Cameron Beach

The election night celebration at 106 Main ended in cheers, hugs and excitement as unofficial vote tallies had City Council members Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero keeping their seats.

Johnson and Reece, who maintained fairly steady leads throughout the night, expressed gratitude for getting the chance to continue to represent Durham residents.

They also addressed the discontent that some community members voiced throughout the election cycle.

“Tonight’s election shows us that there is strong public support for the Bull City Together Platform, but also that there are people in this city who don’t feel heard by our current political structure,” Reece said.  

Both incumbents spoke about the importance of direct community engagement in the next four years to address concerns brought up in the last few months. Reece made clear he knows plenty of work awaits.

Charlie Reece addressed the crowd of supporters wearing a T-shirt celebrating fellow City Council member Javiera Caballero. Photo by Cameron Beach

“I ran for re-election not because we had fixed everything in four years but because we were making great progress and we wanted to keep doing this work,” Reece said.

Probably loudest among the criticism in recent months was disappointment by some that the incumbents who won Tuesday had opposed hiring more police officers this year.

“We can do a lot more and there are a lot of good reasons for us to invest more in community engagement, I think it makes for a stronger democracy,” Johnson said.

But first it was time to enjoy a victory.

“I definitely feel relieved, it feels good to have it all over with,” Johnson said.

Gunn concedes, says he ‘stood tall’ against ‘political machine’

Joshua Gunn conceded Wednesday, clearing the way for three incumbents to return to the City Council. Although there had been questions about a possible recount because he trailed Javiera Caballero by just 395 votes, Gunn wrote a Facebook post congratulating her and fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson.  

Let’s be clear, while we may not have gained a seat on City Council, this is a victory,” he wrote. “It was 3 against 1. Three incumbents in a bloc, versus one candidate. What we overcame is incredible. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, we stood tall against the largest political machine in Durham, and without the support of many of Durham’s most influential political figures, and we came within 395 votes of winning a seat on Durham City Council!”

Gunn lost to Caballero by just 395 votes.


The reelection of Johnson, Reece, and Caballero won’t be certified until the Durham County Board of Elections meets next week. 

Steve Schewel: Progress made and not yet done from 2017 campaign

Candidate Steve Schewel reflects on his goals for Durham as he prepares for a highly likely second term as mayor. Photo by Cameron Beach

Sitting at a large oval table in his City Hall Office, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel pauses and gazes out the window at the city he first moved to in 1969. The clock on his office wall ticks as he takes time to carefully consider how to phrase his priorities for local government.  

“I prioritize them by what the needs of our community as expressed by our community,” he said. 

In his run for re-election against long-shot opponent  Sylvester Williams, Schewel’s top three priorities are ensuring Durham remains affordable, diverse and safe for everyone who calls the city home.

“We want Durham to be a welcoming city for all people and we want everyone to know that whether they are a refugee, or they have lived here all their life they are welcome here and that we love them, and we want them,” he said. 

Schewel is still working on completing the goals he promoted during his 2017 campaign, which moved him from a City Council seat to the mayor’s office. Two years ago his platform focused around eight central issues – transportation, jobs, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, police reform, housing, and trash, trees and trails. 

After two years in office, here is a loose accounting of progress made or not made from some 2017 goals.


Durham needs a mobility strategy for the next 50 years. I am proud to have led our region’s support for the 18-mile Durham-Orange light rail project, and this year we must push it over the finish line for federal funding. We must also provide an expanded, efficient bus network for our 22,000 daily riders—and it’s time to begin the work to make the system fare-free.” 

On April 8, 2019 the Durham County commissioners mournfully killed Schewel’s proposed light rail project. This vote came after Duke informed GoTriangle it would not support the project in February. A missing, needed commitment from North Carolina Railroad and a tight North Carolina General Assembly funding deadline weakened its prospects too.

Schewel said he is looking for alternatives to what would have been the core of his transit plan. He supports the Commuter Rail Transit project which would connect Durham to Raleigh on existing train tracks. Transportation development will now be integrated in the city and county’s comprehensive plan.

In this plan, Schewel still hopes to advance his second goal of expanding the local bus service so that is accessible to all residents. Expansion would include creating more routes and infrastructure such as bus shelters.

“We need a beautiful phoenix to rise from the ashes of the light rail,” he said.   

Police Reform 

Durham needs strong council and community oversight of our police force to ensure that everyone lives free from fear. I support Chief C.J. Davis’ reform of our police department and her emphasis on de-escalation and racial equity training. I will continue to work towards a police force that effectively fights violent crime while actively seeking to build the trust of our entire community and enforcing the laws free from racial discrimination.”

Despite Schewel’s support of Davis during his 2017 campaign, the mayor could not convince all city council members to give her more police officers this year. Council members rejected Davis’ budget increase request to hire 18 additional police officers with a 4 to 3 vote in June, something Schewel has said was a mistake.

That said, Schewel praises Davis for multiple changes at the police department, including enforcement of the council’s written-consent-to-search policy, decreasing traffic stops and car searches (a study before she took over detected bias against black drivers with such stops), and outreach to minority communities members, including LGBTQ groups, among other things.


We must double our local expenditure on affordable housing this year from $2.75 million to $5.5 million. We must support the redevelopment of the aging Durham Housing Authority units that serve 6,000 of our most vulnerable residents. We must leverage publicly owned land downtown to build affordable units. We must support our local non-profits as they build new units and preserve the affordability of older ones.” 

Alongside city council candidates, a $95 million-dollar housing bond will be on the ballot on Tuesday. If this bond passes, Schewel can confidently say he has money needed to tackle his 2017 housing goals. 

With these funds, Schewel outlines the city’s plans to construct 1,600 new affordable housing units, preserve 800 affordable rental units, among other construction plans.  

“It will be a really big bite out of the apple in terms of our affordable housing work,” Schewel said. 

The bond would also support first-time home buyers, efforts to house the homeless and an expansion of construction jobs in Durham. 

“If we do it right, we can leverage the affordable housing bond into a really good program of employment and economic development for low income people in Durham,” he said. 


We can support the Living Wage Project’s recruitment of businesses to voluntarily comply with the $15 minimum. We can work with the schools and Durham Tech to make sure that our young people are educated in the skills they need to get the great jobs available in Durham. We can ensure that the City’s job training programs are effective and that our NCWorks career center does a great job connecting job-seekers to local employers.” 

Despite failing to fund more police hires, the June budget approval devoted money to support local business in Durham and to expand the $15 hourly minimum wage already established for full time worker to include part-time and seasonal city employees.

With the creation of Bull City Foundation, which was a $300,000 dollar initiative, Schewel’s city council approved increased support for female and minority owned businesses through training in accounting, marketing, and finance. 

Schewel hopes his next step will be establishing a debt and equity fund over his next term that would provide financing to these businesses. However, he recognizes this big goal is “difficult to do”.  

The budget also included funds to support the Summer Youth Work Internship Program, which will allow for 50 additional students to be hired in paid summer internships in Durham. Currently 300 students have participated in summer internships, within a five-year goal of hiring 1,000 students. He hopes that skills learned in the classroom can be translated to local jobs for students in Durham. 

“We can make sure that we have a pipeline between our schools and our good jobs we have here,” he said.  

Javiera Caballero: Inclusion, housing for all, sustainability

Javiera Caballero can come off as soft spoken the first time that you hear her speak, especially in large panels such as last month’s Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum.

But when talking one-on-one, Caballero projects her concerns, her passions, her frustrations and her devotion to Durham with unfettered vigor. 

After moving from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children, the former Montessori-method teacher started her trek into Durham politics as the PTA president of Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School.

After longtime council member Steve Schewel was elected mayor, Caballero beat out 22 other applicants to take his seat in January 2018,  becoming Durham’s first Latinx council member. 

“The mayor said that he would really appreciate the spot going to a Latinx person in the community, and since I’m Latina, folks encouraged me to apply,” said Caballero, a mother of three whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was a child.

Durham’s Hispanic community has grown substantially in recent years. From 2000 to 2015, the Latinx population tripled in size, according to the American Community Survey and the Decennial Census, and the community now makes up 13 percent of the city’s population. 

The student group Plan for All invited Javiera Caballero to speak at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The group organizes events that link race, class, gender and more to planning projects.

Caballero has worked on a number of issues relevant to both Latinx and all Durham residents since joining the council.

“Javiera is a thoughtful consensus builder. She works with her council colleagues and treats all Durham residents with respect. Her efforts to reduce language barriers at city hall have served to promote a new culture of openness in local government,” reads the 2019 People’s Alliance PAC endorsement of her candidacy.

Caballero supported expanded access to applying for U visas, which can grant immigration status to people lacking it who are victims of crimes and can help law enforcement prosecute those crimes. She opposed HB 370, which would have forced sheriffs to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to hold detainees in jail. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the legislation.

Caballero has found her name dragged into spats she did not join during this campaign. One was between some Latinx and Black activists in Durham. In August, people from both groups argued over who the influential People’s Alliance should endorse. Eventually the PAC endorsed all three incumbents running for re-election, including Caballero.

Latino activist and filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman wrote a heated email after the meeting. Dorfman called City Council candidate Joshua Gunn a “black capitalist beholden to the chamber of commerce and the interests of big-time developers” and accused black activists that support him and Jackie Wagstaff of being “homophobic,” anti-Latinx, and “anti-immigrant.”

The incident upset Caballero. “We could hear the yelling and the negativity inside, and it was very sad to me,” she said of the heated People’s Alliance meeting. “This firing squad right now is not useful… it gets us nowhere in the long run…. Eyes on the prize, people.”

Last month, failed council primary candidate Victoria Peterson challenged Caballero’s candidacy at the Durham County Board of Elections, saying Caballero had “publicly stated not one time that she is a citizen of the United States nor has she stated the length of time she has lived in the State of North Carolina.”

Board members unanimously rejected the challenge, noting Peterson presented no evidence. “Javiera has faced these sorts of baseless claims about her citizenship throughout this election, and it’s time for our community to speak with one voice to say that enough is enough. Durham must be a city that works for everyone, and that must include our immigrant neighbors,” fellow incumbent candidate Charlie Reece wrote after the board vote.

Caballero wants voters to tune into facts regarding work she has tackled since she joined the council. That includes efforts to implement a new language access plan. Among other things, the plan ensures that interpreters at public meeting are fluent. “It basically streamlines and operationalizes how people see language in the community, so some of the requirements would be bilingual signage on the roads and buildings, and providing interpretation services at public meetings,” she said.

Caballero has also joined the push to preserve affordable housing in Durham. From 2001 to 2017, $1.7 billion was invested in downtown Durham. Though this economic development has been beneficial to many businesses in Durham, it has also boosted housing prices in and near downtown Durham.

A vocal supporter of the proposed $95 million housing bond Caballero said the money is key to expanding affordable housing here. “From the moment in February when the mayor came in and said that he was going to work on this housing bond,” Caballero said. “I was like ‘Yeah let’s do it.’ I’ve never wavered since.”  

During the Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidates forum on Oct. 17, Caballero noted that the bond fits into the council’s  Five-Year Housing StrategyDurham also should focus more on sustainability to respond to the rise of climate change, Caballero said. That would involve bringing new questions to many different council decisions, she said.

Caballero offered specific examples of such questions in her candidate questionnaire for the INDY. “As we develop affordable housing units, did we incorporate green building design practices? As we think about economic development, are we creating a business environment that is amenable to green energy jobs? Are we working with our local education partners in developing training for jobs in solar and wind tech?” she wrote.

Caballero is campaigning on the joint Bull City Together platform with fellow council incumbents Jillian Johnson and Reece. The five-year housing strategy and the housing bond are significant pieces of this platform.

In broadest terms, Caballero describes herself as someone looking for systematic solutions in Durham, rather than just temporary fixes.

“I’m not looking for just Band-Aids for issues that are just going to come back up in a year or two. That takes a lot of patience, which I know is frustrating for some people,” she said.

With only one and a half years in office, Caballero said she wants to keep going. “I’m hoping that I win, partly so that I can have four years to change things and work in the way that I’ve really wanted to,” she said.

At top: Javiera Caballero at last month’s Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum in Durham City Hall. Photo by Cameron Beach. 

Charlie Reece: Community safety, housing, jobs that work for Durham

At the Barktoberfest Halloween celebration at Durham Central Park, City Council member Charlie Reece scored a fun assignment. He helped judge the dog-costume contest.

Family fun in the heart of downtown is so Durham. But so are lots of extremely serious and complex problems, from a recent spike in shootings to a shrinking supply of affordable housing during a building boom. 

Seeking re-election to a second term, Reece said he wants to remain a part of it all, especially addressing the city’s toughest challenges. That will involve building on recent successes, he said.

“We’ve made real investments in the police department and infrastructure and we’re now paying all city workers a living wage,” Reece said. “But the fact that we’ve made a lot of progress doesn’t mean that things aren’t broken. They are broken, but they’re somewhat less broken than when we got here.”

As a 10th generation North Carolinian and UNC Law School graduate, Reece has planted his roots close to home. A former prosecutor trainer on domestic violence and sexual assault cases, assistant attorney general and general counsel for the family clinical-research company Rho, he’s lived in Durham for 12 years.

Reece got involved in Durham politics as the Democratic precinct chair for precinct 39 in affluent Hope Valley and southwest Durham. From there he served on the state executive committee and later as state treasurer for the state Democratic party.

When secretary of the board of the influential Durham People’s Alliance political action committee, he became the spokesperson for key policy issues including racial disparities in policing in Durham. In 2015, after two at-large incumbents on city council did not seek re-election, Reece ran and won.

Four years later, Reece wants to keep what he said is the best job he’s ever had. His campaign  touts a platform shared with fellow incumbents Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero that focuses on public safety, expanding access to housing with the proposed $95 million affordable housing bond, and bolstering the economy to bring more jobs.

The council vote in March to deny Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for more officers angered some debating over how to make Durham more safe. This issue split the council too, as a 4-3 vote ultimately tilted the scales. All incumbents on the ballot this week voted against adding more officers. 

Reece said he came to his decision carefully. “Public safety has always been a priority for me,” he said. “Over the last four years since I’ve been on the council, the council has made an unprecedented series of investments in public safety, specifically in the police department.” 

Charlie Reece campaigning during his bid to with a second term to the Durham City Council. Photo by Cameron Beach

The current city budget increased police funding, and 36 new officers have been added to the force over the course of Reece’s first four-year term, he said. Given this and the overall improvements in both the police department and public safety that Reece sees, he firmly stands behind his vote.

Reece and his colleagues have also worked to create financial incentives to motivate officers who train in Durham to stay in Durham, and spent $71 million on a new police headquarters, he said. As a result of these investments, Reece said, Durham has seen a gradual decrease in violent crimes over the past four years. 

While violent crime, including fatal drive-by shootings, is up this year, that data is compared to a record-low crime rate in 2018, Reece stressed. 

Reece wants to continue to invest in community-rooted safety initiatives. He regularly meets with members of the activist group Durham Beyond Policing to work with them to develop and fund a community wellness plan, he said.

Reece also emphasized the importance of tackling social issues contributing to crime, even during the city’s economic boom. That includes unequal access to jobs with living wages and a declining supply of affordable housing.

Reese supports a $95 million affordable housing bond also on the ballot. The most important thing it would do is provide funds to improve public housing communities in Durham that are crumbling, Reece said. The bond is also expected to help provide 1,600 new affordable housing units.

“The bond isn’t going to solve the entire problem,” he said, “but without it, the Durham that we love, the Durham of grit and drive and determination, a multiracial, multi-class city, is going to slowly disappear.”

Improving the overall state of Durham’s economy will lead to improvements in both affordable housing access and public safety, Reece said. The approach Reece supports is not the most traditional.

Reece supports a strategy put forth by the Durham Economic and Workforce Development department called Built2Last, labeled A Road Map for Inclusive and Equitable Development in Durham. Developed by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, this plan has proposed four key strategies, including a sustainability scorecard for businesses and a fund for equitable community economic development, that aim to include everyone in Durham in its economic growth.

Reece said that Built2Last works to shift the focus of economic development away from the more traditional cash-for-jobs approach of offering tax cuts or other incentives to draw or keep businesses in Durham. 

“We can instead focus our efforts internally, into the city, and imagine a world in which the city’s robust economic development budget is invested into our homegrown entrepreneurs and businesses that are owned and operated by people that live here in the city of Durham,” he said. 

Challengers have criticized Reece, Johnson and Caballero for running on a shared platform, Bull City Together. Unlike what critics have said, the shared platform is not a power play or group think, Reece said. Instead, crafting the platform helped the three incumbents develop a robust policy plan that aims to help efficiently solve problems, he said.

“There’s only three of us, and we don’t always agree,” Reece said. 

Reece admits he is frustrated with some of the criticism he and other incumbents are attracting as Election Day nears. 

“There’s a narrative that’s been pushed in this campaign that the incumbents just don’t listen to certain types of folks,” he said. “But we listen to everyone that we hear from. The problem is that on any decision that we make, whether it’s how much to spend on sidewalks, where to put a new public park or how many police officers to hire, we have to make a decision.”

No city council can ever make everyone happy, he said.

“We make the decisions that are consistent with our own values and with what we think is right,” Reece said, “Every four years, the people of Durham get to tell us whether we have made enough right decisions.” 

At top: Charlie Reece holding campaign materials describing the Bull City Together platform he worked up with incumbent City Council members Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero. Photo by Cameron Beach

Jillian Johnson: Sustainability, affordability, public engagement

At yet another Durham City Council candidate forum, three very vocal challengers were questioning the competency of three incumbent City Council members.

Among the targets was Jillian Johnson, Durham’s mayor pro tem and council member since 2015.

The challenger candidates, often joined by supporters in the audience, huffed skeptically when Johnson  dug into policy and community engagement plans like her “Beyond Policing” conflict resolution solution to gun violence in Durham. 

Johnson remained calm, unemotional and confident. “I have tried very hard to focus on the issues and to not publicly criticize other candidates positions during the campaign. We just have different policies,” she said after the October forum. 

Johnson is running for re-election for an at-large City Council seat. A big theme of her campaign is collaborative leadership, a commitment made concrete by her joint “Bull City Together” platform with fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

Johnson moved from Virginia to Durham in 1999, an 18-year-old Duke University freshman drawn to public policy and community activism. Four years later, she stayed, eager to put her newly earned degree to work for the city. 

“Durham just felt like home. It felt like a place where I could do the kind of work I wanted to do, have the kind of community I was looking for, and have my kids in a diverse and fun city,” she said.

Jillian Johnson has refrained from criticizing other candidates during her City Council re-election campaign. That held during a Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum at city hall last month. Photo by Cameron Beach

Though cool and often reserved in the council chambers, the one-term councilwoman has sparked controversy with her unashamed, leftist takes on gun violence and policing. 

In 2016, she posted on Facebook that “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.” In an interview with The News & Observer after that, she was quoted saying she believes that “the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling, and Islamophobia.”

Critics called for an apology; some wanted her to resign. But Johnson carried on.

Johnson’s 20-year history in Durham is deeply rooted in activism and the nonprofit sector. She co-founded Durham for All, a grassroots organization that works to mobilize people of all races and socio-economic status to support progressive candidates and causes.

She is the former director of operations and a current board member for the nonprofit, Southern Visions Alliance. The group supports teenagers and young adults working on social justice issues in the South. 

While on the City Council, Johnson was a primary proponent of the raise in minimum wage for part-time Durham workers in 2018. She’s also the council representative for the Durham Housing Authority, Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, and the Race/Equity Task Force. 

The Bull City Together platform points that are most important to Johnson are promoting public safety and community facilitated conflict resolution, increasing eco-friendly infrastructure, and increasing affordable housing opportunities for residents, she said.

During a council budget working session in June, Johnson was one of four council members who rejected Police Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for additional police officers. The money was better spent on wages, they concluded.

Three challengers vying for council seats criticize that move. Although violent crime dropped in Durham in recent years, the city is seeing a spike in gun violence this year. That unwelcome shift was made especially stark this week, when several shootings, including drive by assaults, killed two people and injured eight. A 17-year-old was among the murdered.

At an Oct. 17 council candidate forum, Johnson said intervention and prevention are the keys to reducing violent crime in Durham’s inner city. “Unfortunately, in North Carolina we can’t stop people from carrying their guns around, but given that, it’s very important for people to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way,” Johnson said. 

Intervention means engaging people at risk of committing gun violence on a peer-to-peer level, Johnson said. She likes gang-intervention programs like Project BUILD and Bull City United, which hires community members to try to diffuse conflicts before violence can occur. 

Prevention consists of implementing conflict resolution training,  providing workshops on bystander training and de-escalating anger tactics, Johnson said. She hopes to expand on Durham Local Reentry Council’s effort to support and help re-integrate people recently released from jail or prison.

In her campaign, Johnson also emphasizes expanding renewable energy use in Durham. A renewable energy resolution the council passed on March 25 commits Durham to switching to 80% renewable energy sources in all city operations by 2030 and to 100% renewables by 2050. 

The city recently invested in a couple of electric buses, some hybrid police cars, and solar panels on Durham Fire Station 17, Johnson said. And it will use energy efficiency infrastructure in the affordable housing council members hope to build.

“Everyone who believes in science and cares about the future is concerned about climate change,” Johnson said. 

Investing in sustainability and renewable energy infrastructure in Durham is not just an environmental issue, it’s an environmental justice issue, Johnson said. 

“We have a history of not having the same level of environmental amenities in places like east Durham,” she said, referring to the now gentrifying part of the city that for years was home to many low-income households.

Johnson’s “Housing First” philosophy depends upon passage of the $95 million Housing Bond, also on the ballot next week. “We have a $160 million five-year plan and the $95 million closes the funding gap between the money that the city gets from state and federal resources,” she said. 

The money would help the city provide housing for over 15,000 Durham residents, primarily in permanently affordable units, supporters say. In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority, the council would use the money to build more multi-family rental housing like the Willard Street apartment project, which includes 80 units of permanently affordable housing for people at or below 60% of the area’s median income, Johnson said.

City Council candidate Jackie Wagstaff has been skeptical that the City Council will create permanent affordable housing. But Housing Authority housing is by its nature permanently affordable, Johnson noted.

The city needs private developers to help expand affordable housing too, even though the units would likely remain affordable for a limited time: 15 to 20 years, Johnson said. “People need housing now, and so we might build housing with a 15 or 20 year affordability period knowing we’re not getting the permanent affordability that we really want because the trade off is we can get people into housing now,” she said. 

Johnson, Caballero, and Reece’s joint platform has not been embraced by all. Challengers accuse the incumbents of being interchangeable. Where others see weakness, Johnson sees strength.

“You can’t do anything on council on your own. I think the idea that this sort of collaboration is anti-democratic is misguided. We have to work together, we have to collaborate, we have to have a shared vision, and shared policies in order to make anything happen in the city,” she said.

At top: Jillian Johnson sits outside the Durham Co-op Market on West , the city’s food coop on West Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Cameron Beach