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Posts tagged as “Durham Election”

A judge in twilight: impartiality, partisanship, and a life on the bench

Judge James Hill looks at home sitting on the bench wedged in the dim corner of Courtroom 5A in the Durham County Courthouse. A gleaming silver medallion emblazoned with the North Carolina state seal and mounted to the wall gives the space an air of grandeur. But Hill’s warmth is palpable, even with the plastic shield that separates him from the rest of the courtroom.

On a Wednesday afternoon last October, a defense attorney explains that her client is prepared to fulfill his two-day jail sentence, “but doesn’t want to lose his job.” 

The young man clasps his hands together and nervously explains that he is contracted to work an upcoming three-day shift but can’t report to his job on time if he is locked up.  

“You could go to jail right now,” the silver-haired, bespectacled Hill says, with a southern drawl. “And I could let you out at 5:00 a.m.” 

 The defendant’s eyes widen with relief, as a muscular bailiff handcuffs him. This savviness has served Hill well since he was first elected to the Durham County Court in 2002.  

For almost two decades, Hill, 71, was a fixture at the courthouse. But after losing his campaign for reelection in 2018, he now only comes to the courthouse occasionally as an “emergency” judge. Hill’s career is the story of a man who prided himself on his impartiality, only to suffer the consequences of a very public courtroom controversy – and  the arrival of partisan judicial elections. 

After being elected as judge in a nonpartisan election in 2002, he faced no opposition for his seat on the bench in 2006, 2010, or 2014. In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly put political parties on the ballot for District Court judicial elections. 

The state legislature’s decision paved the way for a Democrat to challenge Hill in overwhelmingly blue Durham County. For the first time since 2002, voters saw that Hill was a Republican and that his opponent, Clayton Jones, a former public defender and assistant district attorney in Durham County, was a Democrat.

In the race, Hill’s experience and candor on the bench were liabilities. Jones garnered 76% of the vote, while Hill won only 24%. 

The Beginnings

 Aside from the three years he spent in Alabama at Cumberland School of Law, Hill is a lifelong resident of Durham County. His road to the judiciary began when he decided he wanted to be a lawyer in 7th grade. 

 The self-described “little country boy” from Rougemont is the youngest of three, born to hard working parents who both had a 9th grade education. 

 “If you would have taken a blind look at my background, you would say that guy was never going to amount to much of anything,” Hill says. 

 He worked his way through school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a laborer and carpenter, when he estimated that cost of attendance was $2,000 a year.

 As a lawyer, Hill’s practice ranged from civil and juvenile cases to murder cases. It was good preparation for the rotating hats he would later wear as a District Court judge. 

 Before the Durham County Public Defender’s Office was established in 1990, private attorneys would sign up to represent those who could not afford a lawyer. 

 Hill “got on all the court-appointed lists,” as you did back then. 

 One of his first clients was a man with an IQ of 64, which generally indicates an intellectual disability. The man had relieved himself on the busy corner of Trinity Avenue and Mangum Street during peak morning hours and had been charged with indecent exposure. 

 Hill got the man off with a Prayer for Judgment Continued—a legal device that suspends a conviction even when defendants have been found guilty or have pled guilty. To this day, Hill considers it a win.

He looks at people straight from eye to eye,” says Judge  Archie Smith, Clerk of Superior Court. “He doesn’t consider himself any better than anybody else.”  

‘I didn’t start this race to lose’ 

 In 1994, all five of the Durham District Court judgeships and three of the four Superior Court judgeships were for the taking. Then-Chief District Court Judge Kenneth Titus told The Durham Herald-Sun that it was going to be a “wicked year.” 

 After failing to score an appointment, Hill was eager for a spot on the Durham District Court bench. The Democratic primary went into a runoff. 

 Outwardly, Hill remained hopeful. 

 “I didn’t start this race to lose,” he told The Herald Sun after the vote count.

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal, who was then a lawyer, beat Hill by some 1,100 votes in the low-turnout run-off.  

 In the years after the election, Hill, once President of the Durham County Young Democrats and treasurer of the Durham County Democratic Party, switched his party affiliation. 

 “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me,” says Hill, who declines to say much more. 

In 2001, the North Carolina legislature took political affiliation off the ballot for district court races. Hill ran again with the slogan “A judge Durham will be proud of.” He touted his 25 years of legal experience and his commitment to impartiality. 

 Hill lost the open primary, but ultimately clinched the judgeship by beating William A. Marsh III by a 12-point margin in November. 

 As for his status as a Republican, “at that time, not much was made of it,” Hill says.

 On the Bench 

 To Hill, District Court is the “people’s court,” and he says he strove to run it as such. He fondly recalls bantering about construction-related technicalities with one defendant. He remembers everyone else in the courtroom being bewildered, thinking “What in the world are you talking about?”

 “But I felt like that was good for me and him,” Hill says. “To let him know I knew what he was going through.” 

 Just a year into his courtship, Hill ruled that a North Carolina law imposing a $50.00 application fee to obtain a court-appointed lawyer was unconstitutional.

 He was the first judge in the state to do so. Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson affirmed Hill’s ruling. The North Carolina Supreme Court followed suit. He recalls this as one of his proudest rulings. 

 “I didn’t really think about political repercussions,” Hill says. “I just did what I thought was right.” 

  As a jurist, Hill presided over Mental Health Court in its infancy.  He also established and ran a truancy court—which creates legal penalties for excessive repeated unexcused school absence—for more than ten years at his middle-school alma mater, Carrington Middle School, until the idea fell out of favor with the prosecutor’s office. 

 Elections Made Partisan 

The 2018 judicial election was unlike any Hill had faced before. The North Carolina General Assembly had just recently made judicial elections partisan again, and Hill would have to run as a Republican candidate in a deeply blue district. 

In his last term, he also suffered a blow to his professional reputation. 

 Asked in a pre-election interview what decision made by the incumbent he most disagreed with, Jones, Hill’s opponent, cited a moment in Hill’s that stained his candidacy.

In a video viewed almost 20,000 times since its release by INDY Week in 2014, Hill lambasts an estranged couple at a custody hearing.

 The nearly seven-minute clip from the conclusion of a two-day hearing shows Hill repeatedly calling RiShawna and Collin Morrison “idiots.” 

 “Y’all the one that crawled into bed and had sex and made that baby,” Hill tells them. “He didn’t ask to be born.” 

 When RiShawna protests Hill’s ruling for joint-custody, Hill rattles off jail sentences, what he calls “trip[s] to the Durham County Bed and Breakfast”: first 24 hours, then 48, then 72, all the way up to 30 days. 

 “I’m going to jail for being a good mother?” RiShawana asks as chaos erupts. 

 RiShawana flails against the deputy who comes to restrain her and manages to free herself from his bear hug when he tries to handcuff her. Hill exits as others in the audience enter the tussle. 

 By the end, nine deputies have entered the courtroom. RiShawna, who Hill now calls a “good parent,” was reportedly cut and bruised. 

 After INDY Week broke the story, Hill received a public reprimand from the state’s Supreme Court for his behavior during the case. It was a finding for a minor violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Only 14 public reprimands have been issued since 2015. 

 Despite the reprimand, the commission’s team lauded Hill for his “good reputation in the community,” above average Judicial Performance Evaluation—4.19 compared to 3.56—and cooperation in the investigation. 

“My choice of words left something to be desired,” Hill says. “My goal in the hearing was to point out to them who the most important person in that hearing was, the child. What they were doing was hurting that child, who was innocent.”

“That was my goal,” Hill says. “That was my goal.”

During the 2018 race, Jones, a Democrat who called himself a proponent of “judicial activism,” brought Hill’s record into question, including the truancy courts. Jones said he would work to reduce the burden of fines and fees and expand pretrial release programs and drug and mental health courts.

“For 15 years, I just saw things—things that just didn’t sit right with me,” Jones said at a debate hosted by Kids Voting Durham. He referenced Hill’s habit of calling kids “babies” and his practice of shackling juveniles in court, which Hill claimed he did for the safety of the children.

Hill was unable to persuade Durham County voters to look past his affiliation with the Republican Party or the public reprimand. The even-keeled Jones cruised to victory with 76% of the vote. 

Judge Nancy Gordon, a Democrat elected to the Durham County District Court four years after Hill, takes issue with the politicization of judgeships, and she respects Hill for his impartiality. 

 “[Hill] tried really hard to not let people manipulate him with [his personal beliefs],” Gordon says, “and you get points for that.” 

Now, Hill only spends the occasional day in court, sometimes working alongside Jones. Otherwise, he goes on long morning walks, attends a prayer group on Tuesdays, and takes care of his grandson. 

“If you don’t stay busy, you’ll die,” he says. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Judge James Hill won three elections before being defeated in 2018, when Durham County compelled candidates for the bench to declare their political party.

 

Reflections: Should students vote in local elections?

Few journalists covered the Durham elections more closely than the student reporters of The 9th Street Journal. They spent hours with the candidates, attended campaign events, and talked with local groups about their endorsements. But despite all that effort, some members of the 9th Street staff said they still felt like outsiders in the Bull City and wondered if they should vote. In a conversation after the election, they discussed their feelings. (The transcript is edited for space and clarity.)

Bill Adair, Co-Editor: How did your journalism change the way you look at Durham?

Jake Sheridan, Student Editor: I understood Durham as a really progressive place and as a place where people cared a lot about what’s going on. And I think I expected a certain civic interest that didn’t develop, that certainly wasn’t reflected in turnout, in the general interest people had in the race. I was surprised that Durham didn’t go vote.

Bill: I wonder if the people who did vote are the people who have lived here a long time and the people who didn’t vote are the people who moved here more recently.

Jake: Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting because, as a Duke student, I’ve seen a couple of elections. When it was a national election, Duke and the areas surrounding Duke — Ninth Street — it was like a paramilitary operation to register voters and to get people to vote for Democrats. And I think Duke is particularly emblematic of that newcomer aura in Durham. A lot of the students here aren’t from here, and they’re kind of coming and going, maybe even less invested than people who live here.

Caroline Petrow-Cohen, Reporter: I’ve always kind of thought that it’s a shame that so many Duke students are not more engaged in the Durham community, and I still think that. But my roommate the other day asked me if I thought Duke students should vote in local elections and I was like, “Of course.” And she was like, “But isn’t that unfair to the people who actually live here? Why should we be voting for our interests if we’re leaving in four years?” And I thought that was interesting because my instinct is of course you should vote, you should read up on the issues and vote. But (her point) is kind of valid. Why do we deserve to have a say if we don’t really live in Durham? We’re just here for four years. I voted, obviously, because I covered it. But not many of my friends voted, even though I was like, “Look at The Ninth Street Journal and read about the candidates.” 

Becca Schneid, Reporter: Well, it’s almost worse when they vote. I think a lot of people change their address to North Carolina for the presidential election because they are from California or somewhere or Texas, so they’re like, “my vote counts more in North Carolina,” haven’t changed it back since and now are here with this power. You’re asking an important question. People have texted me and been like, “I’m going to vote right now, who should I vote for?” because they know that I’ve covered it. That’s so bad (that they have to ask me).

Charlotte Kramon, Reporter: We can’t make that decision.

Caroline: Just because we covered it doesn’t mean that I have the same interests as someone who lives in the city. I think I’m doing the right thing, but am I? I don’t think it’s ever the right thing to not vote, but maybe it is. I don’t know.

Bill: Yeah…that’s an interesting question. At what point is someone suitably up on the candidates and issues so they can make a wise decision? And some people argue, “Well, you should really know the issues and you should know the candidates before you vote.” And so therefore a low turnout is not necessarily a bad thing. It reflects people who aren’t engaged and therefore maybe should not be voting.

Julianna Rennie, Student Editor: I’m pretty sure Javiera Caballero got at least a thousand-something votes and she had dropped out of the race. So how informed are those people if they didn’t even know she wasn’t running? Or are we assuming those people made a conscious decision to vote for her because they preferred her policies?

Becca: I know some of them didn’t (support her) for her policies.

Bill:  Yeah, we probably all know at least one person who voted for Caballero.

Charlotte: When I spoke to Professor Mac McCorkle for my turnout article, he was saying 10 percent of people voted. How is this democratic? That begs the larger question if we’re saying like, “Well, maybe it’s good that the people who turned out are the ones who are most engaged.” But then on a broad level, that can also be a slippery slope to “Well, if people aren’t informed, they shouldn’t vote.” I still think that ultimately, if we’re looking for purely democratic purposes, everyone should vote and they should be informed. But if they’re not informed, the logic of “they should be excluded” can lead to other issues.

Olivia Olsher, Reporter: I think something I would have really appreciated coming into Duke would have been a kind of local news orientation – where can you get your local news, outlining here’s who you can follow on Twitter, here’s what the local government is doing, who they are, and the main issues that are happening and being discussed this year. I feel like a 30-minute debrief on Durham, where you’re going to be living for four years, would be really helpful. 

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project

Above, a sign points the way on Election Day. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

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

By Jake Sheridan, Julianna Rennie, Caroline Petrow-Cohen, and Olivia Olsher

Durham’s new mayor-elect Elaine O’Neal cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday’s municipal election.

The former judge soundly beat City Council Member Javiera Caballero, who suspended her campaign in early October. O’Neal announced she would enter the race in January and has been a favorite ever since. She will be the first Black woman to serve as the city’s mayor. 

Election Day saw big wins for the two City Council incumbents running to retain their seats. DeDreana Freeman won in Ward I, and Mark-Anthony Middleton won in Ward II. Both had decisive victories in the primary

The Ward III race — a contest with no primary and no incumbent — was the one to watch. Restaurant owner and former teacher Leonardo Williams jumped out to a strong lead when early in-person votes posted as polls closed, but the margin narrowed as Election Day results came in. 

Although community organizer AJ Williams trailed behind, Bill Withers’ hit “Lovely Day” still played at his Durham Central Park pavilion watch party. 

“We’re going to see what the people want tonight. I really believe that,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s me… I feel like there’s a lot at stake… and it will be good to see who bubbles to the top.”

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

 

Ultimately, however, the bubbles settled in his opponent’s favor. AJ brought in more votes cast on Election Day than Leonardo, but Leonardo ultimately won by more than 600 votes.

“Running for office is an exhausting, deeply gratifying experience,” AJ said while watching the election results Tuesday night.

Incumbents DeDreana Freeman and Mark Anthony Middleton held onto their City Council seats, winning with large margins. 

Turnout appeared to be considerably down in Durham this year. Only 30,231 ballots were cast in the mayoral race this year as of 10 p.m., a strong drop off from the city’s last two municipal general elections. 

Just under 36,000 voters cast ballots in the 2017 mayoral election, and nearly 35,000 did so in 2019.

O’Neal’s supporters at the Rickhouse in downtown Durham erupted into applause as former Durham mayor Bill Bell introduced the city’s newest leader. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” Bell said. “The young lady we’re going to be hearing from tonight is the epitome of style, esteem and intelligence.”

O’Neal, wearing a black dress and a huge smile, took the stage to greet her supporters. Not all the votes had been counted at that moment, but O’Neal’s victory was resounding. “I’m humbled by your support,” she said, “and grateful to be the next mayor of our fine city.”

O’Neal said her highest priority is public safety. That’s the issue many of her supporters care about most. “We need a police force,” one voter said. “A real one, not one with 20 empty slots.”

He trusts O’Neal to address Durham’s public safety needs because she understands policing and, more importantly, she understands the community. “Elaine knows the streets,” he said. 

O’Neal’s supporters also want to see her improve Durham’s affordable housing infrastructure and public school system.

Mayor Steve Schewel congratulated O’Neal on her victory. “She’s going to do a great job,” he said. “I know she’ll be able to really bring this city together.”

Things were more subdued at Durham Central Park, where AJ Williams supporters gathered.

When it was clear he narrowly lost, supporters offered empathetic embraces him. He then took to the dance floor to deliver a speech to the crowd of roughly 40 people.

“I think we can do this again!” he told the crowd, which erupted in cheers, and began chanting “We love you! We love you!”

The music started playing again, and AJ joined a group of supporters starting a shuffle on the dance floor.

“Leonardo is great,” said Pierce Freelon, the current Ward III member who had endorsed AJ. “I know Ward III will be in good hands regardless of the outcome…It’s important to have someone with roots in the community.”

At top: Elaine O’Neal gives a victory speech at her Election Day party. Photo by 9th Street Journal reporter Caroline Petrow-Cohen. 

One political mailer sheds light on Durham election dynamics

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

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

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

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

How do O’Neal and Caballero compare on policing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A window into Durham politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: A political mailer sent by the Friends of Durham political action committee endorses a slate of candidates that it suggests won’t “defund the police.” 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk. 

The 9th Street Journal Guide to the Durham city election

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

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

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

The races

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

“I congratulate Judge O’Neal on her strong performance in the primary election. I know that we share many values. She has a long record of service to the community,” Caballero said in her statement. “It is my hope and expectation that she and I will work as partners to move our city forward.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to vote

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

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

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

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

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The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

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

Just one in 10 Durham voters cast ballots in municipal primary

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

Just one in 10 registered voters cast ballots in the Oct. 5 primary, in which candidates running for mayor and two City Council seats competed. The 10.02% turnout rate is in between the turnout rate for Durham’s last two municipal primaries. 

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

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

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

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

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

The absence of voters troubles McCorkle. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

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

Caballero suspends Durham mayoral campaign; O’Neal poised to win

Mayoral Candidate Javiera Caballero is suspending her campaign, clearing Elaine O’Neal’s path to become Durham’s first Black woman mayor.

Caballero, a City Council member, announced her decision in a statement released Monday morning. While her name will appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot, she is no longer campaigning and plans to stay in her City Council seat.

Two weeks ago, many felt the race for mayor was close. Caballero held endorsements from the People’s Alliance PAC, Mayor Steve Schewel, and the Durham Association of Educators. O’Neal, a former judge and the race’s other major candidate, received endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Indy Week, Friends of Durham, and former Mayor Bill Bell.  

But then last week’s primary election brought surprising results. O’Neal toppled any illusion of equal support, garnering 68% of the vote, leaving Caballero in distant second place with only 25% of the vote. Both O’Neal and Caballero soundly beat the other five candidates on the primary ballot to advance to the November general election. 

Caballero became the first Latina city council member in North Carolina after she was appointed in 2018 to fill Schewel’s council seat. She was then re-elected to a four-year term in 2019. If she had been elected as Durham mayor, she would have been the first Latina to serve in the office in Durham or any municipality in the Southeast outside of Florida.

“I congratulate Judge O’Neal on her strong performance in the primary election. I know that we share many values. She has a long record of service to the community,” Caballero said in her statement. “It is my hope and expectation that she and I will work as partners to move our city forward.”

Schewel said he is almost certain O’Neal will win in November, and said there are multiple reasons why the primary’s margin was so large after the playing field seemed even. For one, O’Neal announced her candidacy back in January and Caballero filed on Aug. 13. He said the almost eight-month difference gave Caballero a late start she evidently could not overcome.

Further, O’Neal has prioritized fighting gun violence and violent crime in her campaign. As a Durham native and former judge, she claims to understand the community and the pain it’s endured as gun violence has risen over the past year. 

“Durham residents are really concerned about community safety and Elaine has really built her campaign around that,” Schewel said. “Elaine is a really strong candidate and has deep roots in the community and is highly respected.”

Schewel said he is proud of Caballero for her decision to suspend her campaign, and that it was the right thing to do. Going forward, he is throwing his support behind O’Neal to aid her transition to office.

“[O’Neal] is going to win in November, and she is going to be a great mayor,” Schewel said. “I’ve already spoken with Elaine this morning and let her know that I will be here to help her in whatever way I can.”

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Correction: The story has been updated to indicate that Indy Week endorsed O’Neal, not Caballero, and that O’Neal announced her intention in January but did not actually file then, as the original version indicated.

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero poses during her campaign for mayor. Caballero suspended her campaign Monday. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

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

By Julianna Rennie and Jake Sheridan

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

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

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

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

Bree Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daryl Quick

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

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

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

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

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

Jahnmaud Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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