Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Local government”

Gray Ellis: Family lawyer, transgender man, state Senate District 20 candidate

In his state Senate campaign, Gray Ellis did not land an endorsement from either of Durham’s most influential political action committees.

But the local lawyer hopes that voters will educate themselves on individual candidates, rather than passively voting with a local PAC. 

“The bottom line is I spent my career working with people, not with PACs, not with a political agenda. I’m focused on people, service to people,” said Ellis. 

In Tuesday’s primary, Ellis is running against fellow Democrats Pierce Freelon, a former mayoral candidate and arts organizer, and Natalie Murdock, a Durham Soil and Water Conservation supervisor with work experience in multiple facets of public policy. 

Because it’s extremely unlikely the district will elect a Republican in November, whoever wins will very likely become a state senator. 

Ellis is the first openly transgender man to run for the General Assembly in North Carolina. If elected, he would be the first openly transgender senator in the United States, he says. 

Ellis transitioned seven years ago, at age 40, and experienced no negativity in Durham following this “very public” change in identity, he said. He wants voters to consider all of him.

“I’m a lot of things, I’m a dad and a partner, I’m an attorney, I’m a volunteer, I’m a philanthropist, I just happen to be a trans guy too,” he said.

Gray Ellis speaks at a campaign event. Photo from Gray Ellis for North Carolina State Senate, Facebook

On many issues Ellis aligns with Murdock and Pierce, endorsed by The People’s Alliance and the Committee on the Affairs of Black People, respectively. But one of his major platforms sets him apart: a passion for mental health treatment reform. 

As a family law attorney, Ellis said that he often sees “families falling apart” because one or more of the members has a mental health issue and they do not have adequate access to treatment. 

“Not only am I seeing that in my day-to-day practice, but I’ve dealt with that in my own extended family, having grown up with someone who has significant mental illness,” said Ellis, who grew up in Columbus County and has lived in Durham for over 20 years. “We need to make it a state priority.”

Ellis often says: “I am someone who believes we have a lot more in common than we do different.” In the North Carolina General Assembly, he could work with Republican lawmakers to get legislation passed, he said. 

Despite recent resistance to gun-control legislation in the GOP-controlled state legislature, Ellis said he thinks he could find support on both sides of the aisle for common-sense gun legislation. Mandatory safety training for gun buyers, broader background checks, registering guns, red-flag laws, and banning assault rifles are all necessary, he said.

Ellis was endorsed by the Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ people, as well as LEAP Forward and Durham’s Partners Against Crime.

“I know he will be a voice on LGBTQ issues as they arise. It is a lot harder to knowingly vote to discriminate against people when you’re sitting next to them,” said Annise Parker, the president and CEO of the Victory Fund. 

Equality NC, which works to defend the rights of the LGBTQ community in North Carolina, has endorsed all three candidates.

Longtime Durham state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. resigned from the District 20 seat early this year after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed him to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

McKissick has praised Ellis’ law training, though the former senator said he also sees value in his replacement having previous government service, which Ellis so far lacks.

“When 95% of what you’re looking at is laws, being a lawyer can be a major advantage. I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law,” said McKissick, also a lawyer. 

A North Carolina State University graduate, Ellis originally moved to Durham to attend law school at North Carolina Central University. Nearly 18 years ago he founded Ellis Family Law, which has offices in Durham and Chatham County. 

Ellis is also the vice president of the non-profit Meals on Wheels of Durham, an organization that delivers meals to the elderly with limited mobility. Four years ago, Ellis started the Feed the Need gala to address a long waitlist for meals, he said.

Ellis emphasized his work and personal experience at last week’s candidate forum. Photo by Corey Pilson

During a candidate forum at Duke last week, Ellis said he believes that his upbringing in southeastern North Carolina will help him work with senators from more rural areas. 

“I’m from Whiteville, North Carolina. I grew up on a pig farm,” he said, making his point by deepening his southern accent beyond his usual speaking voice. 

Ellis also says his age is an asset. He is 47 and Freelon and Murdock are both 36. “I’ve got life experience and I’ve got the professional experience that actually translates to the job,” said Ellis.

At last week’s candidate forum, Murdock closed by citing numbers to call attention to the lack of young black women in the North Carolina General Assembly.

“Four. There are only four black women in the state senate. Zero. I’m 36 years old, there are zero black women in the house or senate that are under 40,” she said. 

Ellis followed up.

“If you want to talk about underrepresented — zero in human history,” he said, making a circle with two fingers. I will be the first, if elected, trans senator in U.S. history.”

9th Street Journal reporter Jake Sheridan contributed to this report.

At top: Gray Ellis at the North Carolina Senate District 20 Democratic Forum held at Duke University last week. Photo by Corey Pilson.  

Pierce Freelon: Educator, community organizer, state Senate District 20 candidate

Pierce Freelon leaned on the lectern in front of North Carolina Central University’s Thursday evening “Black Women’s Activism” class. As he spoke, the state Senate District 20 candidate drifted between stump speech and lecture, connecting current politics and history.

As he lauded activism by black women, including the 1957 Royal Ice Cream Sit-in on Dowd Street, the class’s professor, Baiyina Muhammad, mentioned Takiyah Thompson was taking the course when she toppled a Confederate monument in Durham in August 2017.

“Of course she was,” said Freelon, a smile spreading across his face. “Doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Freelon told the students about his 2017 Durham mayoral campaign. He lost, but his policy visions, like a jobs guarantee and support for a now-abandoned light rail plan helped give him momentum to enter a state race, he said. 

“When you come up and present ideas that are truly visionary, people are going to look at you funny,” Freelon said. “That’s what trailblazing is. It’s the person in the front with the machete, they’re getting all the scratches and the bruises.”

The 36-year-old candidate is an arts entrepreneur, community organizer, college lecturer and politician. He is the son of Nnenna Freelon, the Grammy-nominated jazz singer, and the late Philip Freelon, a renowned architect who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

In a primary race against two Democrats — attorney Gray Ellis and Durham County’s Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Natalie Murdock — Freelon has been endorsed by some of Durham politics’ biggest names and organizations: Mayor Steve Schewel, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Triangle Labor Council, Mayor Pro-Tempore Jillian Johnson and Bill Bell, Durham’s former longtime mayor.

The candidates are vying for a seat vacated by veteran state Sen. Floyd McKissick, who resigned in January to serve on the state’s public utilities commission. Whoever wins Tuesday’s vote is likely to become senator since voters in District 20, which includes Durham, are highly unlikely to send a Republican to Raleigh. John Tarantino, a former teacher who has lost several races for local seats, is the GOP candidate.

Pierce Freelon watches presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham rally in February. Photo by Jake Sheridan

The three Democrats share many views, Freelon said, like support for Medicaid expansion, teacher raises and environmental protection.  

But Freelon — who calls himself “the lefty of the bunch” — thinks he goes further, pointing to his stances for greater police accountability and marijuana decriminalization.

“My positions on criminal justice aren’t things that I see being adamantly pursued by the other candidates,” said Freelon, who recently opened for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham presidential campaign rally.

Some of his platform’s major goals include: reparations, which are payments or other amends for descendants of enslaved people or others treated unjustly; an end to gerrymandering in North Carolina through independent redistricting; a $15 minimum wage; abolishing the death penalty; automatic voter registration; and campaign finance reform.

The death of his father last July from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) had a major impact on his stances, particularly around healthcare. 

“You have principles — things you believe in — and then you have experiences that give you a front-row seat to how policy is relevant in people’s daily lives,” Freelon said. “That was a front-row seat in many ways: to health care, disability… the right to die.”

Freelon said he is passionate about education, and has long supported more funding for historically black colleges & universities and state-wide equity in public school spending. 

In 2013, he founded Blackspace, a digital makerspace that teaches local black and brown children about music, filmmaking and coding, and has developed alternative hip-hop high school curriculums. Freelon also is artistic director for  Northstar Church of the Arts, which he founded with his parents. 

He said he believes being the only Durham native candidate helps him stand out. 

“I have skin in the game that puts me in a unique position to lead in the city that produced me,” Freelon said. 

The ongoing crisis at Durham public housing complex McDougald Terrace, where 270 families were evacuated last month due to carbon monoxide leaks and other dangers, was “personal” for Freelon. He said he grew up with some residents and now mentors children there. McDougald Terrace Resident Council President Ashley Canady has endorsed him. 

Pierce Freelon carries signs and campaign materials for the state senate race. Photo by Jake Sheridan

Longtime Democratic state Rep Mickey Michaux, who was temporarily appointed to fill McKissick’s senate seat after he resigned, has endorsed him.

But McKissick—who held the seat for 13 years—told 9th Street he has some concerns about Freelon’s lack of experience. 

“I think he’ll be at a serious disadvantage were he to be elected not having any of the city government experience or academic training,” he said. “I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law.”

Freelon served on the NC Arts Council and is vice chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission, but has no elected office or law experience.

McKissick’s criticism doesn’t deter Freelon. “I think that one of the unique skill sets I bring given my background as an artist as an ability to communicate with a fluency that I don’t see in a lot of people trained in law school,” he said. 

He added that his arts residencies throughout conservative rural North Carolina showcase his work to bridge ideological gaps.

Schewel told 9th Street in an interview that he thinks Freelon has “experience as a leader.” He praised him for his progressive agenda and good-natured 2017 campaign, calling Freelon an “exceptionally open person.”

“He extends his warmth and his amazing creative powers to really embrace so many people and so many communities,” Schewel said.

Freelon’s ability to lead and communicate seemed to work in the NCCU class. Towards the end of his mini-lecture, he made a plea to the room of all black women.

“We need you,” Freelon said. “And I will be your ally, because I’ve been trained and raised by radical black womanists who I carry with me.”  

When he finished, he pulled out a sign up sheet and offered the students an opportunity to work for his campaign. Nearly half put their names down. 

Top photo: State Senate District 20 candidate Pierce Freelon speaks at a forum at Duke University. Photo by Corey Pilson

What has Durham learned from last year’s fatal gas pipeline explosion?

Nearly a year ago, a natural gas pipeline exploded in downtown Durham, killing two people, injuring 25 others and damaging more than a dozen buildings. 

One of those buildings was Saint James Seafood. When the pipeline blew up, the restaurant’s glass windows shattered and gold chandeliers crashed to the ground. 

After 10 months of work repairing the building and worrying what the future held for him and his employees, Saint James owner Matt Kelly reopened the restaurant in late January.

He held a dinner for first responders who were there the day of the explosion to thank them for risking their lives. 

“I don’t think anyone could ask more of what that group of people did that day,” he said. 

Those responders say they’ve learned from the disaster and have outlined ways to help prevent it from happening again. 

In November, Durham County Emergency Management released a “Lessons Learned Report” about policy changes that have taken place since the deadly explosion, including improving communication with the public and other agencies in times of disaster and educating the public and responders about natural gas as downtown Durham grows. 

“The way that Durham’s building up, it is kind of changing our way of thinking, knowing that we’ve got a huge shift in population to downtown and everything that goes along with that,” said Jim Groves, the city’s emergency management director. 

Natural gas pipeline leaks and incidents are fairly common throughout the U.S.; most are caused by excavation work like digging utility lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. North Carolina has had 44 natural gas-related pipeline incidents in the past 20 years, but April’s explosion were the first deaths ever recorded in the state.

While laying fiber optic cable on North Duke Street on the morning of April 10, 2019, Optic Cable Technology hit a ¾-inch natural gas pipeline distribution line at the intersection of North Duke Street and West Main Street, causing a gas leak. 

About an hour later, the pipeline exploded, nearly leveling the block. Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee was killed, and Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC Energy worker, died two weeks later. 

A Durham fire department investigation found that the explosion was an accident. But the contractors working that day faced some responsibility: The North Carolina Labor Department fined Optic Cable Technology $7,000 for failing to immediately contact authorities after damaging the line, and another $7,000 for failing to dig a test hole to determine where the pipeline was.

The agency also fined PS Splicing $2,100 for failing “to perform frequent and regular inspections of the site” and PSNC Energy, a subsidiary utility of Dominion Energy, $5,000 for “ineffective response procedures” that exposed a first responder to fire and hazards. The energy company disagreed with the state’s findings. 

The fire department’s report stated that communication systems between city, county, and state agencies about such incidents need to improve. Groves said that on the day of the explosion, Durham public information officials were distracted by the city’s 150th anniversary celebration party downtown, which slowed communication with the public. The delay in reporting the leak made response difficult and more dangerous. 

City and county managers have also developed an initiative for a joint crisis communication plan to more efficiently and uniformly release emergency information to the public through social media and public information officers—a process that was too chaotic on the day of the explosion, according to officials. 

After 10 months of repairs from the natural gas pipeline explosion, Saint James Seafood reopened in January. Photo by Corey Pilson

Still, city policies for the supervision of contractors working near natural gas lines “haven’t changed” since the explosion, said Durham city manager Thomas Bonfield. The state government has jurisdiction over underground development like laying fiber, so the county and city have no authority to send inspectors to monitor work more closely, he said. 

Groves said he wants Durham residents to feel safe downtown, because although natural gas lines can burst or leak, they can typically be prevented if they are reported immediately. 

He said if people “smell [gas], or if they hear a loud hissing, when they call 911 and law enforcement gets there and they give them directions to evacuate — listen and take immediate action.”  

Durham Fire Department chief Robert Zoldos said the fire department came up with 11 points of improvement since the explosion, including more training for hazardous materials situations like the pipeline leak and assigning full time drivers to the hazmat units.

The department also reopened a downtown fire department unit, Rescue One, which specializes in rescues above general expectations of a firefighter, including hazardous material cases. 

“All of those things will provide us with a little better response than we had before—not perfect, but much better than we had,” Zoldos said.  

The Lessons Learned Report offered some closure to Saint James and other businesses. 

“When that came out it was definitely a relief that there was a direction of some blame and that what happened was very thoroughly investigated,” Kelly said.

The block remains quiet since several businesses in the area are still closed. The United Way of the Greater Triangle is hosting fundraisers and looking for grants to help businesses get back on their feet. Kelly said he and others are optimistic the city can keep moving forward.

“We encourage people to come back,” Kelly said. “The Brightleaf area really just wants normalcy, and we’re waiting for our friends next door, Torero’s, to reopen, and get this block back in business.” 

Top Photo: Emergency responders on the scene of the April 10, 2019 fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in downtown Durham. Photo by Katie Nelson

Displaced McDougald Terrace residents make City Council members listen

On paper, the agenda for Tuesday night’s City Council meeting seemed to do a lot of good.

Sister Cities of Durham, a non-profit connecting Durham to cities around the world, announced its upcoming trip with two City Council members to its new Sister City, Tilaran, Costa Rica. 

City Council Member Charlie Reece stood to recognize the upcoming Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, a tribute to Japanese Americans who challenged forced internment during World War II. 

But for people evacuated from McDougald Terrace, the unsafe public housing complex, the agenda was lacking. For one, they weren’t on it. And Costa Rica and the 1940s are vastly remote from their plight.

“I know there are several people here who are interested in making comments regarding the situation at McDougald Terrace,” Mayor Steve Schewel said early in the meeting. “That is not on our agenda.” 

Schewel said he would talk with any residents who wanted to discuss the status of the housing complex, some of whom spoke to Council members on Jan. 6, after the meeting.

Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton soon reported his understanding that McDougald residents will not return home as quickly as some had hoped. “It’s going to be at least a couple more weeks,” he said.

Before Schewel could move to the “priority items” on the agenda, residents and supporters erupted, shouting that the mayor should change the agenda.

“They’re eating like peasants!” one yelled.

“Y’all let us eat macaroni and cheese cups every day,” McDougald Terrace Resident Council President Ashley Canady yelled as she stormed toward the exit. “We tired, we fed up, and we are tired.”

After residents left the meeting room in a rage, Schewel requested that the glass doors separating the council chambers from a lobby be closed. The mayor then pushed on with the meeting.

Residents circled Canady in the lobby, while local news cameras recorded. “You think we want to live like this? We don’t want this, we didn’t pick this,” she yelled.

When Canady broke down into loud sobs, a small group of women comforted her. Young boys and girls ran restlessly around the lobby and other residents shouted at council members through the doors.  

“I should be able to cook a home cooked meal for my son,” McDougald Terrace resident Shimey Harvey said, choking back tears. 

Even if Harvey had access to a stove rather than the microwave in the motel that she and her son have been temporarily relocated to, the food stipend provided by the DHA isn’t enough, she said, and everyday tasks have become so much harder.

For Harvey, that means calling in a favor from her friend who works as an Uber driver to take her son to school. She then uses part of her food stipend to cover the cost of gas of picking him up at the McDougald Terrace bus stop at the end of the day and driving him back to the motel. 

“That’s where my little money that they give us goes to. Gas and fast food,” she said. 

Canady’s sobs did not last long. Soon she was leading chants in the lobby. “Enough is enough,” residents and their supporters yelled, raising their fists.  

“Our babies living in hotels, while you fly your ass to Costa Rica,” one protestor cried. 

After a vote to alter outdoor lighting rules about an hour into the meeting, Schewel relented.

“I’m going to reverse my previous decision. I thought that a meeting afterwards would be suitable to have a good discussion with folks but apparently, they don’t think so,” the mayor said before inviting McDougald residents and protestors back. 

Each was given two minutes to speak, the standard time for public comments during Council meetings. Some residents used the opportunity to complain about their children’s lack of access to healthy food. Others focused on their children’s inability to be active inside the hotels. 

“My kids keep thinking we’re going home, then they hear that we have more weeks to be in a hotel? I’m tired of it, my kids are tired of it,” one mother said, adding she’s fearful her family will get “put out” if their playing disturbs others.

The mental health of children and their parents should be a primary concern, resident Laura Betye said. “We have an emergency situation on our hands,” she told Council members. “We desperately need mental health counseling.”

Some who had visited their McDougald Terrace apartments said they were disappointed with the lack of renovation progress. “I have holes in my walls, mold. How can you say you’re gonna fix something and you’re not even gonna fix the foundation?,” one woman said. 

After listening, Schewel spoke. “I can really appreciate that this uncertainty is really difficult to live with. I understand that and I really feel for each of you all who are in that situation, that’s a terrible situation,” he said.

Schewel then thanked the residents. “I appreciate you all being here… and appreciate your patience, and appreciate your sense of urgency as well,”  he said.

During her time on the podium, Canady made it clear that she is out of patience. 

“If I have to disrupt every city function, every county function, I want all the smoke. I want it,” she said. “Because if they disrupt our lives, we about to disrupt theirs.” 

City manager not keen on sending Durham police to Charlotte for Republican National Convention

Durham’s city manager says it’s unlikely he will recommend sending Durham police officers to Charlotte to help with security during the 2020 Republican National Convention. 

During the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, more than 2,800 officers from North Carolina and across the country helped the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, including officers from Durham. 

City Manager Tom Bonfield on Monday offered two reasons for likely recommending that Durham sit out this time. Durham police have plenty of demands that keep them busy at home, he said. And he suspects that policing the convention could be difficult for officers.

“I think there’s a high likelihood that the officers are going to be put in some pretty difficult exposures,” he said. “It’s just not worth it to us to have to do that.”

Bonfield has spoken generally with the Charlotte city manager regarding the convention, he said. But Durham has not yet received an official request from Charlotte asking for police.

Bonfield would consult further with Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis if Durham receives a request, he said. “I would want to hear from the chief,” Bonfield said. “We’ve talked generally about it, but I don’t think I would be recommending that we send anybody down.” 

When asked if this would be violating a norm of nearby city police departments helping each other out, Bonfield said such decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis. This would not be the first time Durham opted not to send their officers to another community, he stressed.

When protests over the Silent Sam confederate statue on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill campus flared, Durham was asked to help out but declined to send officers, he said. “We didn’t want to put our officers in a problem,” Bonfield said. “Every situation is different and every circumstance is different depending on what’s going on.” 

Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue has said that policing months of intense protests near that statute, which was removed in August 2018, took physical and emotional tolls on officers.

Like it did for the 2012 Democratic Convention, the Department of Homeland Security has classified next year’s Republican Convention a National Special Security Event. Such events, which include presidential inaugurations and the Super Bowl, are considered prime targets for multiple types of security threats, including terrorism and crime. 

Some on the ground in Charlotte expect keeping the peace there next August may be tougher than it was in 2012, when Democrats nominated former President Barack Obama to run for a second term. 

In a recent video report, longtime North Carolina political reporter Jim Morrill said street protests during the Republican National Convention could well be more intense than they were in 2012. 

“The protests themselves were pretty subdued. I don’t think that would be the same thing in 2020, not with the Republican convention here and the likelihood that President Trump would be renominated,” he said.

Neither Chief Davis nor a spokeswoman for the Durham Police Department responded to multiple calls inquiring about this issue.

At top: Protesters block an intersection in Charlotte during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Photo from Voice of America

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.