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Posts tagged as “Durham City Council”

Proposed social district in Durham would allow you to carry open alcohol

Leonardo Williams was pleasantly surprised one evening when, while vacationing in Savannah, a bartender let him know that he could enjoy his drink outdoors. Sipping leisurely as he browsed through the Historic District’s array of shops, the Durham city councilman was struck with an idea. 

I thought it would be, you know, just something cool to have in Durham,” Williams said. “I think it’ll be appropriate with our local culture here.”

In social districts like the one in Savannah, Georgia, people can consume alcohol outdoors and on city streets within defined boundaries. After Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 890 last September, these districts are now coming to North Carolina. Supporters say social districts bolster local economies, drawing customers to breweries and other businesses that rely upon foot traffic. 

They’ve already popped up in Greensboro and Kannapolis. And on July 5, the Raleigh City Council approved a pilot social district along Fayetteville Street, which is expected to kick off August 15. Now, Durham may be next.

“I’m sure many of you can’t wait for this to happen in Durham,” Williams tweeted on July 6 in response to the news about Raleigh. “I’m with you and good news, it’s hopefully coming soon. We provided this as a legislative ask and are now in the process of making it policy for Durham.” 

Downtown Durham, Inc., a nonprofit working toward downtown revitalization, is leading his initiative. DDI leaders recently visited the Downtown Greensboro social district with city officials, where they gained valuable insight. For instance, Greensboro authorities report that litter has not been an issue as feared. DDI also collected ideas for graphics and signage, which would identify participating businesses and the boundaries of the district. 

DDI President and CEO Nicole Thompson hopes to see Durham’s social district cover most of downtown. The current proposed map draws borders at Foster Street to the north and Highway 147 to the south. The district’s eastern and western edges would lie along Wall Street and S. Buchanan Blvd., respectively.  

“Our restaurants are spread out through that entire district, so [we’re] not wanting to prohibit or limit businesses being able to take advantage of this,” she said. Thompson added that hours would likely follow Raleigh’s model, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m daily. 

In addition to requiring cities to set aside specific hours for social districts, House Bill 890 mandates clearly labeled cups and imposes drink size limitations. Patrons may not bring their own drinks into the district. 

DDI has reached out to local business owners to better understand their feelings and concerns. A March 2022 survey of 93 business owners revealed that nearly 80% endorsed a downtown social district. In a second survey that went out to the public, responses were similarly enthusiastic. Of the 671 individuals surveyed who live, shop and/or work downtown, 94% said that a social district would be “a good idea for downtown Durham.”

Durham business owners, many of whom struggled during the pandemic, welcome a social district, Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery. 

“The damage and destruction that happened in the previous two years, it’s going to take five or more years to try to recover from,” said Gross, who also owns Pompieri Pizza. I think it’s absolutely critical to helping our downtown.”

Chris Creech, who co-owns The Glass Jug Beer Lab with his wife Katy, was also excited about a social district. It could help brewery businesses like his own, he said, and encourage people to enjoy the scenery the city has to offer.

For example, The Glass Jug sits just across the street from Durham Central Park. “Folks could buy beer from our taproom and walk out into the park and have the beer with a picnic or doing whatever they want to do in the park,” he said. “Eating, drinking, playing games.”

The benefits may extend even to businesses that don’t sell alcohol.

Maybe people grab a drink at one of the lovely establishments next door and then come and mosey on to us,” said Megan Cain, owner of The ZEN Succulent, a plant and gift store with locations in both Raleigh and Durham. Both she and Creech hope to see the city install recycling bins and educate the public about this proposal.

Some business owners fret that social districts would make downtown unsafe for kids and families, the survey found. They worry that relaxed alcohol policies could increase bad behavior and place an additional burden on police.

“I really think it’s going to be essential for when this rolls out that we have plenty of great messaging,” Cain said. “But also plenty of great signs downtown, letting people know where the district starts, where it ends, so that we’re not having a strain on our already strained law enforcement.” 

Thompson doesn’t expect downtown Durham to morph into the next Bourbon Street. “This is not going to be Mardi Gras,” she chuckled, emphasizing that existing alcohol laws will remain in place. 

“I want to be very clear that the social district does not supersede ABC laws. It’s just allowing you to carry an open container,” she said. “So I don’t foresee the ability to carry an open container changing downtown, overnight, to a rowdy experience.” 

City staff plan to present a proposal to the city council at a meeting in August. If it is approved, Thompson thinks the Bull City could launch a social district as soon as fall

The pandemic might have dealt a heavy blow to the city’s nightlife. But by Labor Day, the plaza of American Tobacco campus could teem with people relaxing with their drinks. Checkered picnic blankets could break up the brilliant green of Durham Central Park. 

I do think that it’ll create more of a vibrant culture,” Williams said. He added, “I think it’s going to draw people from all over to come to Durham.”

Above: A proposed social district would allow people to walk around with open containers of alcohol in downtown Durham. The envisioned area would encompass the American Tobacco Campus. Photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal. 

Charlie Reece bids adieu to Durham City Council

After nearly seven years of public service, Charlie Reece will join his last Durham City Council meeting in less than a week. The city clerk will present Reece’s letter of resignation to the rest of the council at its next meeting on Monday, March 7. 

Reece, who was first elected as an at-large council member in 2015, is resigning in order to move to Paris with his family. He announced his resignation on Feb. 21. 

Reece’s wife Laura Helms Reece is the CEO of their Durham-based clinical research company Rho, which recently acquired a European business. The family will relocate for Laura’s job with their two children, Gwyn, 10, and Rose, 13, at the end of this school year. 

The Reeces plan to return to North Carolina eventually. “Even while we’re living far away for a little bit, Durham will always be our home,” Reece said in a statement last week.

“I’ll miss it like you wouldn’t believe,” Reece said of leaving his position on council. “It was the hardest decision I’ll ever make as a politician. But at the same time, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made as a husband and father.”

Reece’s resignation will allow him to support his wife and their business while keeping their family together, he said. His alternative option – to remain in Durham with his children while Laura works in Europe – didn’t line up with his priorities. 

“That’s just not the family life we all signed up for,” Reece said. 

Reece was re-elected as an at-large council member in 2019, and his current term was set to end on Dec. 4, 2023. 

In his statement to city council and constituents, Reece expressed appreciation for his colleagues and his time serving Durham. Announcing his resignation was “emotionally challenging,” Reece said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. But he said he’s leaving Durham in capable hands. 

“I am confident that this council is moving our city in the right direction,” Reece said. “I know that they will appoint someone who loves Durham as much as I do, and that’s what matters.” 

Once Reece officially resigns next week, city council will have 60 days to appoint his successor, as required by Durham’s city charter. The council will choose a replacement from a pool of applicants. Any adult living within city limits and registered to vote in Durham is eligible to apply. 

The process of appointing Reece’s successor will be quite similar to previous years’, according to Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton, who will oversee the procedure. The council had to fill a vacancy in 2018 when Mayor Bill Bell retired, and again in 2020 following council member Vernetta Alston’s resignation.

Council will post an application online shortly after Reece’s last day, Middleton said. The list of applicants will be made available to the public, he added.

Durham citizens will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on candidates for Reece’s seat, Middleton said. Finalists selected by city council will be invited to an interview with current council members, he said, and each finalists’ interview will be broadcast online.

After the interviews are complete, citizens will be able to submit comments as in past years, Middleton said. In 2018, the council held an in-person public comment session. In 2020, due to the pandemic, Durhamites were instead invited to call in or email their comments regarding the finalists. 

After receiving public comment, council members will vote to select Reece’s successor. A finalist needs four votes from the six council members in order to be appointed.

“I think it’s a really strong process,” Reece said. “It provides transparency and allows anybody who wants to to apply, and it allows the public to weigh in with us about their thoughts and concerns about the various applicants, especially at the finalist stage.”   

Reece said he chose to announce his resignation now so that his successor will have ample time to get acclimated to the role ahead of city budget decisions this June. 

“I want the appointee to have enough time to dig into what is a pretty dense process,” he said. 

While his wife conducts business with their company’s new partners, Reece does not plan to work when his family arrives in Europe. He will miss serving Durham immensely, he said, but he’s ready for the change. 

“I’m going to be a stay-at-home dad for the next little while,” Reece said. “There are pleasures and rewards for that life as well, and I look forward to discovering them.” 

Above: Durham City Council member Charlie Reece, who won reelection in 2019, will depart the Bull City later this spring. Photo by Cameron Beach – 9th Street Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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.”

***

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.

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.

Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero envisions a Durham for all

Until a few months ago, Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero had no plans to run for mayor. She was in the middle of serving her four-year term on the council when Mayor Steve Schewel unexpectedly announced he would not be running for reelection. After years of public service, Caballero decided to take her leadership to the next level.  

“It created an opportunity and an open seat that I felt compelled to at least try for,” Caballero said of Schewel’s retirement. She’s motivated to continue the mission she began on the City Council to make Durham more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. The city is on the cusp of unprecedented progress, she believes, and there’s important work to be done.

Durham’s most pressing challenge is still COVID-19, Caballero said. She and her fellow council members are working hard to vaccinate Durhamites and distribute resources to every neighborhood. 

Beyond the pandemic, Durham faces a web of interlocking issues that Caballero is determined to face head-on, from gun violence to affordable housing to the need for green infrastructure. 

Caballero moved from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children. The city has transformed since then, but some of the biggest changes are still to come, including the implementation of a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond and the development of a new community safety department that offers alternatives to policing. 

Caballero worked on both these initiatives as a city council member and is determined to see them through. “It’s so important that the things we’ve passed actually get implemented effectively,” she said. “I want to ensure that the work I have helped to start continues at the kind of expansive level I know it can.”

Caballero’s vision for Durham revolves around community engagement and collaboration. Both are necessary to confront challenges like public safety and affordable housing access, she said. If elected mayor, she promises to prioritize transparency and communication.

“Our systems are designed to be opaque, but we can be intentional about including folks,” Caballero said. “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”

Caballero’s ability to connect with all pockets of the Durham community is one of her greatest strengths, said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who serves on the City Council with Caballero and has endorsed her in the mayoral race. “Javiera is able to reach out into communities that have been underserved and unheard in government for a long time,” Johnson said. “She really cares about everyone who lives here.”

Javiera Caballero became the Durham City Council’s first Latina member when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Jan. 2018. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Caballero, whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was young, would be the first Latina mayor ever elected in North Carolina. That representation is important, especially in Durham, where Latinos make up nearly 14% of the population. On the City Council, Caballero has advocated for improved language access programs and legal aid for immigrants. 

Schewel, who endorsed Caballero for mayor last month, praised her deep knowledge of Durham and its people. “There’s no doubt at all that Javiera is deeply rooted in our community and knows the community inside and out,” he said. “She wants to make the city we love a city for all, and I think she knows exactly how to do that.”

Caballero has also been endorsed by the People’s Alliance, an influential Durham political action committee. Caballero is “policy centric and detail oriented,” the endorsement reads. Community organization Durham for All and the Durham Association of Educators have both endorsed Caballero as well. 

Both Schewel and Johnson describe Caballero as extremely hardworking and productive. She wants to get things done for Durham, they said, and that will remain true whether she’s elected mayor or not. 

If Caballero doesn’t win, she’ll continue to serve her current term on the City Council, which ends in 2023. She’s deeply invested in continuing the work she’s started, she said, and refuses to slow down. 

“Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot to do,” Caballero said. “In either seat, I will keep on doing the work.”

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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 the top: Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero poses in her campaign t-shirt. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.