Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Elaine O’Neal”

Festival celebrates Black culture, draws hundreds

The day was hot, sunny and humid, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from attending the 52nd Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival in Durham last Saturday, May 21. The event, held at Rock Quarry Park this year, celebrates the art, history and culture of Africa and African-Americans. Vendors sold paintings and jewelry, among other wares. Children painted their faces. And there was lots of music and dancing. Here’s what the day was like, rendered in photos:

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal (wearing sunglasses) joins festival organizers, community elders, and members of the African American Dance Ensemble cut a ribbon to mark the reopening of Rock Quarry Park and the launch of the festival.

 

In the festival’s arts and crafts tent, children string beaded necklaces (after getting their faces painted, of course).
Balloons in red, green and yellow (the colors of Pan-Africanism) line the walkway leading to the park’s entrance.
Takenya Feaster and her son Zayah Feaster enjoy a mainstage performance. Here, in response to the performers, they shout, “Peace, love and respect — for everybody!”
Festival goers could choose from an array of clothing vendors, including African Beauty, Jewelry and Artifacts, owned by Dan and Betha Orange.

PHOTOS TAKEN BY MADDIE WRAY, THE 9TH STREET JOURNAL

Analysis: 3 Takeaways from the Durham Municipal Election

Although the contest started with a big surprise — a top mayoral candidate suspended her campaign just weeks before Election Day — there were very few shocks at the end of last night’s Durham municipal elections. 

Elaine O’Neal, Durham’s new mayor elect, was sure to become the first Black woman to serve as the city’s mayor. Last night only made it official.

Former Judge O’Neal received 25,604 votes, or 84.69% of the total. Her challenger, City Council member Javiera Caballero, remained on the ballot after halting her campaign and won 4,385 votes, or 14.50% of the total, Durham County’s unofficial election results site showed late Wednesday.

Here are three key takeaways from Durham’s municipal election. 

1. Low election turnout from Bull City citizens once again.

Turnout is always low in Durham’s municipal elections, but this year was even worse. The number of people who voted appeared to be considerably down. As of Wednesday night, just over 30,000 ballots were counted in the mayoral race. That number could rise modestly as a few mail ballots trickle in, but won’t go up much. In the 2017 and 2019 municipal elections, around 36,000 and 35,000 votes for mayor were cast, respectively. 

There was a slow start to voting this election cycle, even in the primaries. Just one in 10 registered voters cast ballots in the Oct. 5 primary, in which candidates running for mayor and two City Council seats competed. The 10.02% turnout rate was in between the turnout rate for Durham’s last two municipal primaries. The primary showed a slight upshift in votes compared with 2019, back when Mayor Steve Schewel was running for re-election and 8.96% of Durham registered voters cast ballots. 

This year’s low turnout could have something to do with what was on the ballot. Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero suspended her campaign, and decisive primary victories told a relatively clear story of who would win Ward I and Ward II. 

2. Incumbents dominated in Ward I and Ward II

Unsurprisingly, City Council incumbents Mark-Anthony Middleton and DeDreana Freeman won by large margins. This was expected after decisive primary wins by both candidates. 

Freeman won an impressive 71.17% of the vote against the more progressive community organizer Marion T. Johnson. Johnson was no pushover: she received a big endorsement from the People’s Alliance, as well as Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson. and led a hard-fought campaign that included call canvassing and yard signs across the city.

Still, Freeman’s work on the council, including efforts to fight child poverty and support environmental justice initiatives and small businesses owned by people of color proved robust enough to easily grant her another term. 

Middleton won a whopping 87.57% of the votes to continue as Ward II representative. He beat the decidedly more conservative pastor and former financial analyst Sylvester Williams. As a City Council member, Middleton has supported progressive initiatives like the Community Safety Department, basic income pilot program, and preservation of Durham’s historically Black neighborhoods.

3. Progressives took a hit

With incumbents and clear primary wins in the races for mayor, Ward I and Ward II, it was Ward III that truly proved the night’s most suspenseful contest. Community organizer AJ Williams and Zweli’s restaurant owner and educator Leonardo Williams both ran extensive campaigns, splitting key endorsements from throughout the city. Pierce Freelon, who was appointed to the seat in 2020, endorsed AJ Williams earlier this year. 

After a tense night, though, Leonardo Williams won by just 635 votes. 

His win followed a trend. The somewhat more moderate candidate also won in a Ward I race where both candidates campaigned hard. Same goes for the mayoral race, where Elaine O’Neal won the primary so decisively that her more progressive opponent effectively called it quits. 

In the end, the most progressive candidates lost in Durham yesterday, excluding Middleton, and a more moderate Durham won. The People’s Alliance PAC, the most progressive endorsing PAC with significant influence in Durham, endorsed Caballero, Johnson, Middleton, and AJ Williams. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a more moderate body, endorsed Elaine O’Neal, Freeman, Middleton and Leonardo Williams. 

Caballero had also been endorsed by Mayor Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro-Tempore and At-Large City Council Member Jillian Johnson.

Every single candidate on DCABP’s endorsement list won their election on Tuesday night. There are many factors at play in why a candidate wins: incumbency, effort in campaigning, positionality on significant issues. Yet, still, the most progressive candidates in Tuesday’s races did not come out on top.

At top, Mayor-elect Elaine O’Neal, right, campaigns outside the Main Library on Election Day. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One political mailer sheds light on Durham election dynamics

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

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

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

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

How do O’Neal and Caballero compare on policing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A window into Durham politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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?”

***

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.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

New to politics but fluent in Durham, judge Elaine O’Neal vies for mayor

For former judge Elaine O’Neal, running for mayor of Durham is not an issue of politics. It’s an issue of the heart. 

“I’m a daughter of this city, and I’m an example of what it can produce,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal has watched the city shift, grow and divide before her very eyes, she says. She saw the best and worst of human nature while serving as a district court judge from 1994 to 2011, and as Durham County Superior Court Judge from 2011 until 2018. 

Through these experiences, most notably her tenure as judge, O’Neal says she has witnessed a disunity in Durham like she has never seen before. That division motivated her to run for office.

“My plan was originally to retire,” she said. “But as I began to look around the political landscape from my perspective on the bench and lived experience here, I saw that a lot of young people were getting cut out of the conversation – like they’re invisible.”

O’Neal also worked as interim dean for two years at her alma mater, N.C. Central University Law School. Though she often says she is decidedly not a politician, she does have experience at the city level as appointed co-chair of Durham’s Racial Equity Task force organized by City Council last year. She and the 17-member team produced a 60-page report urging the city to set up a reparations program to address the racial wealth gap and to confront inequity in the legal system, public health, housing and education.

During an interview with The 9th Street Journal, she pointed right outside to Main Street, noting how within a few blocks, there are disparities between million dollar apartments and Title IX affordable housing complexes. She nodded her head towards the door, where across the street sat half a dozen unhoused people.

“We’re going to let Durhamites in wheelchairs sit on the street? Is that what we’re doing now? Is that who we are?” she asked. “That’s not the Main Street I know. We were more inclusive.”

The Hillside High School graduate is quick to admit that though she is an expert in law, she is not an expert on housing. She has put herself in “housing school,” as she puts it.

“What I’ve been doing is going to experts and learning more. So, do I have an answer on what my plans are about housing? No, because I’m still learning,” she said.

She also admits she’s not incredibly well-acquainted with the political sphere in Durham, something she says she must rectify if she is to win the office of mayor. 

What O’Neal does seem to know, though, is Durham its residents and the issues burdening them, from gun violence, to housing insecurity, to systemic racism, to poverty. 

“All of these issues are interconnected and layered,” O’Neal said. “I see so many young people in this city that want to do better, but there are these roadblocks, and they don’t know what the roadblocks even are or how to navigate them.”

The registered Democrat is staunch that building trust and unity within Durham’s various populations will allow her to achieve her goals.

She hopes to connect people in power with people who feel voiceless. She asks questions like: When was the last time that apartment building developers and houseless people actually sat at the table together and talked? To some, this might sound unreasonable and even completely unattainable. But not to O’Neal.

“We put a man on the moon didn’t we?” she said. “These issues will not be solved overnight. But will we find solutions? Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Mayoral candidate and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks with a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Transportation is another prominent issue on O’Neal’s agenda. The city’s public transit system is less than perfect, and the 2019 demise of the light rail project only compounded shortcomings. If she is able to connect Durhamites with jobs in the newer technology businesses entering town, she says figuring out transit is an essential piece.

“What would it look like to have our own version of Lyft that is specifically designed to go into neighborhoods where we don’t have transportation to get them back and forth from jobs?” O’Neal asked.

She points to her work with gun violence in Durham as a top priority as well, noting her personal closeness to the issue. Her own 22-year-old cousin was killed by gun violence in November 2020, and that was not the first time gun violence personally affected her. She’s certainly not alone: though shootings in Durham reached a historic low in 2019, they rose with 319 people shot in 2020. As of Aug. 14, 158 people had been shot in Durham in 2021.

“I can go to the Southside. I can go to the West End. I can go to Braggtown. I can maneuver in places that most people cannot,” she said. “I know these people. They may not have agreed with my rulings in court, but they know where my heart is.”

She’s hopeful that economic growth in Durham will be a net positive for native Durhamites. Growth may bring jobs to Durhamites in need, she says, and thereby decrease both poverty rates and gun violence. 

Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell says that gun violence is one reason he endorsed O’Neal for mayor. A couple weeks ago, Bell met a man who said Judge O’Neal changed his life by putting him on probation instead of giving him jail time.

“The whole issue of public safety and crime is one of the most important ones in Durham right now, and she is the perfect fit for dealing with that issue,” Bell said. “She knows all sections of Durham.”

Some of Durham’s prominent political action committees are supporting her for similar reasons. Both The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham endorsed O’Neal.  Antonio Jones, the Committee’s chairperson, echoes Bell’s statements, saying that her presence in the community, her qualifications and her familiarity with life here pushed them towards endorsement.

“She was doing restorative justice work before it was a cool thing, before it was a fad. She wants to really get out there and see who has been left out of the growth,” Jones said. 

O’Neal was the first to announce her candidacy for mayor, announcing her candidacy back in January, before current Mayor Steve Schewel decided he would no longer be running for reelection. 

The move seemed like an obvious statement of dissatisfaction with the current political climate in Durham. O’Neal says she wasn’t trying to stir up drama or make an announcement – she just figured if she was going to run, she might as well get a head start.

“When people look at me, I just want them to see what Durham has produced,” she said. “All I can present is who I am, and Durham has to decide what it wants, because the options are very clear.”

***

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 and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks to a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Durham elections: O’Neal, Caballero split endorsements. Who’s backing who?

The Durham mayoral race is heating up, and two candidates are emerging as front-runners after winning key endorsements. 

Former judge Elaine O’Neal has been backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham, and former Mayor Bill Bell. 

City Council member Javiera Caballero has received support from Mayor Steve Schewel, the People’s Alliance, and the Durham Association of Educators. 

Durham’s political action committees (PACs) endorsed different candidates for City Council in Ward I and Ward III. The PACs act as trusted advisors for many Durham voters. Some also raise and spend money to promote candidates through ad buys, signs, and mailers.

Since 2017, the People’s Alliance PAC has spent nearly $240,000 to support chosen political candidates, according to watchdog database Transparency USA. The Durham Committee has dished out over $165,000, and Friends of Durham has expended nearly $20,000. 

Seven candidates are running for mayor, and three City Council seats are up for election. The primary election is Oct. 5. After that, the top two vote-getters in each race will face off in the Nov. 2 general election. 

The People’s Alliance

People’s Alliance PAC coordinator Milo Pyne said many members who attended a 400-person online endorsement meeting Sept. 1 wanted the organization to support O’Neal, but the group ultimately chose Caballero in part because of “continuity.” 

“We agree with a lot of what the current council has done and the initiatives they’ve taken,” Pyne told The 9th Street Journal, pointing out that Caballero would be Durham’s first Latina mayor if elected. 

The group set continuity aside in the competitive City Council Ward I race, however, endorsing community organizer Marion T. Johnson over incumbent DeDreana Freeman. Freeman received the People’s Alliance’s endorsement during her successful 2017 City Council campaign. 

“DeDreana has a good record of service, but our members just feel like it’s time for a change, and that Marion has a unique set of experiences working with the community,” Pyne said. 

The People’s Alliance also endorsed incumbent Mark-Anthony Middleton in the Ward II race, as well as community organizer AJ Williams in the Ward III race.

While major endorsements are split so far in Ward III, the two candidates — AJ Williams and entrepreneur and former Durham Public Schools teacher Leonardo Williams — won’t be squaring off in the Oct. 5 primary. Their names will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 2 general election.  

The Durham Association of Educators

The Durham Association of Educators, a local affiliate of major state and national level teachers’ unions, similarly endorsed Caballero for mayor and Johnson in Ward I. 

The association’s endorsement press release cited Caballero’s experience working with schools and uniquely specific education plans. It also praised Johnson’s “deep understanding of how white supremacy drives the educational outcome gap” and her advocacy for collective action in schools. 

The group backed AJ Williams for Ward III, but didn’t endorse a Ward II candidate after two of the three people running didn’t respond to questionnaires and interview requests. 

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People endorsed O’Neal in part because she was born and raised in the Bull City.

“She understands the history of Durham,” committee chair Antonio Jones told The 9th Street Journal. “She understands how Durham has grown. She understands who’s been left out of that growth.” 

Jones said the committee backed Freeman in Ward I because of her track record on equity and expertise in land use. 

The committee endorsed Middleton in Ward II and Leonardo Williams in Ward III.

Friends of Durham

The Friends of Durham — a bi-partisan, Durham-focused PAC made up of community members and business people — endorsed the same slate of candidates as the Durham Committee.

O’Neal’s experience sentencing and offering guidance to people who came through her courtroom qualify her for mayor, Friends of Durham Chair Alice Sharpe told The 9th Street Journal. The group endorsed Middleton for Ward II and Leonardo Williams for Ward III. 

For the contentious Ward I race, Friends of Durham is supporting Freeman.

“We think she has shown an ability to focus in on issues, and she has grown into her council position,” Sharpe said. 

Durham for All

Durham for All, a progressive group of multiracial organizers and activists, is backing Caballero for mayor. The group cited her efforts to expand access to local government by pushing for city materials to be in Spanish in its endorsement page

In Ward I, Durham for All endorsed Johnson. 

“As the current chair of the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, she has organized to expand democratic, grassroots decision making in Durham,” the group wrote. 

Durham for All endorsed AJ Williams for Ward III, crediting his work organizing for community-based alternatives to policing, as well as his willingness to fight for workers’ rights and against developers that contribute to gentrification. It did not make an endorsement in Ward II. 

Former Mayor Bill Bell and Mayor Steve Schewel

Durham’s two most recent mayors split their endorsements. Bill Bell, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2017, endorsed O’Neal. 

“She knows Durham and its people but, just as importantly the people of Durham also know Elaine,” he wrote in a statement posted on O’Neal’s Facebook page. 

Schewel called Caballero brave, kind, wise, whip-smart and collegial in his Facebook endorsement. 

“Her work ethic is daunting. Her care for the people of Durham is immense. Her vision for our city is radically inclusive, and she has shown that she knows how to make that vision real,” he said. 

Schewel also endorsed incumbent Middleton in the Ward II race. 

City Council member Charlie Reece told The 9th Street Journal he endorsed Javiera Caballero. 

“She is smart, she is strong, she is courageous, and she is ready to lead as mayor on day one,” he said. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said she endorsed Caballero for mayor, Johnson in Ward I, and AJ Williams in Ward III, but is not making an endorsement in Ward II. Current Ward III City Council member Pierce Freelon endorsed AJ Williams in the Ward III race . 

***

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 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: A sign encourages Durhamites to vote in the 2019 city election. 9th Street Journal photo by Cameron Beach. 

This story was updated to include Durham for All’s endorsements.