Joshua Gunn conceded Wednesday, clearing the way for three incumbents to return to the City Council. Although there had been questions about a possible recount because he trailed Javiera Caballero by just 395 votes, Gunn wrote a Facebook post congratulating her and fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson.
“Let’s be clear, while we may not have gained a seat on City Council, this is a victory,” he wrote. “It was 3 against 1. Three incumbents in a bloc, versus one candidate. What we overcame is incredible. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, we stood tall against the largest political machine in Durham, and without the support of many of Durham’s most influential political figures, and we came within 395 votes of winning a seat on Durham City Council!”
The reelection of Johnson, Reece, and Caballero won’t be certified until the Durham County Board of Elections meets next week.
“Local elections actually matter. Everyone focuses on the presidential elections, but whoever the president is has nothing to do with our law enforcement policy, whoever the president is has nothing to do with us getting a new bike path,” Meier said.
Despite polling last among the six candidates who won October’s primary, Meier is working hard to reach voters. The criminal defense attorney’s platform focuses mostly on reducing crime and equal opportunity for Durham residents.
Like other challengers to three incumbents seeking re-election, Meier said he is frustrated with the current city council. “The current city council says, ‘Let’s just ignore the short-term solutions and focus on long term.’ And I say no we can do both,” he said.
Reducing crime is Meier’s biggest priority. He understands this problem better than most, he said, due to both his profession and his wife’s work. After a long career in the Durham Police Department, Leslie Meier is now a county deputy sheriff. Despite decreasing in recent years, violent crime in Durham increased in 2019, with 35 homicides in the last nine months. The second-quarter crime report released by police chief C.J. Davis revealed a 16% increase in violent crime within the first six months of this year compared to 2018.
“There are three components to crime: ability, opportunity, and desire. Everyone has the ability to commit a crime so you can never do anything with that. You need to take away the opportunity to do crime,” said Meier, who studied law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Meier supports hiring more police officers in Durham. The city council rejected Davis’s budget increase request to hire 18 new police officers with a 4 to 3 vote in June. Instead they approved a budget that provided an increased minimum wage for city employees.
That vote inspired Meier to run. “What really pushed me was the tone-deaf response to the rise in crime and request for more law enforcement officers,” he said.
Friends of Durham cited Meier’s understanding of crime in Durham, where he has lived for 17 years, when endorsing him. The business-oriented political action coalition noted Meier’s commitment to furthering ties between police and residents of Durham as essential.
“No one else on the Council or running for a Council seat can speak to the public safety and community engagement aspects of the law enforcement community like Daniel can,” the endorsement reads.
Also endorsed by the Durham Fraternal Order of Police, Meier acknowledged racial discrimination and bias in local law enforcement and the judicial system during his 2018 run for district attorney. He recognizes the necessity to rebuild trust between community members skeptical about the police’s role in Durham. “Right now in society there is an awful lot of us versus them, but we really are all in this together. The community members want law enforcement, law enforcement wants safe communities,” he said.
Long-term solutions to many problems are embedded in the economic and social development of Durham, he said. These efforts also go hand-in-hand with crime reduction. “If you have a stable job, if you have stable housing, you are less likely to engage in criminal activity,” he said.
In addition to three at-large city council seats, a five-year $95 million dollar affordable housing bond is on the ballot Nov. 5. The bond proposes construction of 1,600 new affordable housing units as well as the preservation of 800 affordable rental units. Proposed construction projects are intended to benefit the homeless and homeowners, as well. A main component of Mayor Steve Schewel’s affordable housing platform, the bond is strongly supported by the three incumbents.
Meier opposes the bond, which Schewel introduced in February, not on principle but in its current form, he said. He recognizes that fast-growing and gentrifying Durham has an affordable housing shortage. But he said he found planning for the bond too rushed. “I don’t like high-pressure sales, it sounds kind of like I am trying to buy a used car and they are saying do it now, do it now, do it now,” he said. “It might be something that is really needed, but I don’t know why we can’t wait six months on it, I don’t know why we can’t wait a year on it and make sure it is right,” he said.
In 2018 Santana Deberry beat Meier and incumbent Roger Echols to become district attorney. After his 2018 loss, Meier said a voter turnout of 15% made him realize the importance of voter engagement. “One of the things I still regret is an inability to communicate with the 85 to 90% of people who don’t vote,” he said.
Meier hopes support for his ideas motivates more people to vote this time.
Like challengers Joshua Gunn and Jackie Wagstaff, Meier is not afraid to take aim at incumbent council members running for three at-large council seats.
“In my mind, it has become increasingly clear on certain things like public safety and some of the economic developments, the current city council is out of touch. They are focused on national issues and a national agenda rather than Durham,” he said.
That said, he is willing to find a common ground with council members if elected through open and frank discussions, he said. By nature his job is argumentative; by training he has learned to negotiate. Both skills holding equal value when enacting policies the city needs, he said.
“I work with people I disagree with every day. That is my job,” he said. “You can be adversarial without being disagreeable.”
At top: Daniel Meier at Riverside High School. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal
Sylvester Williams lowers his voice and leans across the booth in the dimly lit basement of Triangle Café. “I’ve had a prophet tell me…” – he pauses – “‘Sylvester, you’re going to be the mayor of Durham.’”
It’s a hopeful prophecy for Williams, who has already run for mayor three times and lost decisively every time. In 2017, he received less than 2% of the vote. And this year, he faces Mayor Steve Schewel, who is expected to win by a large margin.
Why run again? Williams says that as a black man who has spent his entire life in Durham, he understands the plight of the city’s disenfranchised. The black community remains “the face of poverty” in Durham and continues to suffer despite the city’s newfound prosperity.
“Nothing has really changed…the poverty rate hasn’t really changed, the homelessness, affordable housing. Those issues are still at the forefront of life here in the city of Durham.”
Progressive voters would certainly rally behind this call for greater socioeconomic and racial equality. But many of his beliefs would give them pause.
Williams, a former financial analyst and current pastor at The Assembly at Durham Christian Center, represents an anomaly in the liberal city of Durham. As a born-again Christian, he remains faithful to a strict interpretation of scripture that rejects many progressive social mores.
Williams, 64, has come under fire for his staunch opposition to gay marriage, abortion and the teaching of evolution. He has described homosexuality as a path of deviance, argued it is incompatible with Christianity, and linked same-sex marriage to Durham’s crime and gang violence.
Williams insists that he’s not homophobic. He doesn’t hate people in same-sex relationships. They just need “saving.”
“I know that there are some that try to present this false narrative about me… ‘He’s full of hate, he’s homophobic.’ No. There’s nothing hateful that I’ve said, no hateful quotes that I’ve made about anyone, ’cause I realize I’m a son of sin saved by grace too. Had my mistakes, had my issues. I wasn’t always with the Lord Jesus.”
Williams lived a life of “rebellion” prior to turning to Christ. He grew up as the son of a preacher in East Durham but did not devote his life to the “Lord Jesus” until his early 20s.
Since then, Williams has preached living and learning Christ’s word – at least his interpretation of that word. He believes the education system has failed its students by neglecting to include biblical teachings. “Pretty much as I went through the school system, I didn’t hear anything about Christ or God…they brainwashed a whole generation of people believing that there’s no truth to the Christian faith.”
He describes the Bible as a matter of “fact” rather than “faith,” and doesn’t want students to learn about evolution. “There was no science behind it,” he says. “Evolution teaches you one race evolved more than the other race.”
He’s just as fervent when it comes to discussing the issue of abortion. Williams says he would support the Trump administration if the president were to come “at us saying he supports ending abortions.”
While Schewel has a Wikipedia page and a robust website outlining his stances on the issues, Williams primarily runs his campaign through his personal Facebook page.
Still, Williams says that he’s in touch with Durham. “I believe that my message has resonated…a lot of the candidates are just there for PR, they’re not really invested in the community.”