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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 . 

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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 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.

City Council divided on best response to gun violence surge

Kenneccia Woolard was in her North Carolina Central University dorm room when she heard gunshots outside. Just as she was about to look out the window, a stray bullet shattered the glass and sent splinters flying. 

“I was just inches away of losing my life,” the visibly shaken student told City Council members on Oct. 8.

“I believe that we need an action plan immediately, because our campus is not safe from the residents and criminals that are surrounding our community,” Woolard said after describing the September incident. “I am facing this trauma each and every day, the anxiety, the fear.”

Woolard is one of a growing number of people demanding that Durham leaders take action to reduce rising gun violence, which has soared here over the last twelve months. As cities across the nation confront a rise in violent crime this year, Durham is facing a surge that is a stark reversal of a downward trend since 2017.

Stories of tragedies involving students, children, and elders are emerging from communities most vulnerable to daily gunfire, which residents say makes them afraid to go outside or sleep at night.

At the same virtual meeting where Woolard made her plea, NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye emphasized the need for city leaders to act to reduce the dangers posed by gunfire. “Doing nothing at all is not an option,” Akinleye said.

City Council members agree a response is urgently needed. But they haven’t reached consensus on what to do, in part due to long-standing disagreements over policing.

Gangs, guns, coronavirus

Data makes clear that gun violence is surging in Durham. 

From Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020, 1,081 people were reported as victims of shootings. Police define victims as people close enough to be hit by a bullet, including people in rooms that bullets fly through. That figure is up 56% from 693 victims in the previous twelve month period.

The number of people shot in Durham has also soared 59% during the past twelve months to 221 people. One out of every six gunshot victims in Durham during that time was younger than under 18, including eight children under 12.

On a recent City Life broadcast, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said city residents are increasingly encountering “random gunfire” coming from “neighborhood conflicts and individuals warring with each other” on city streets.

A collage of a fraction of Durham Police Department descriptions of shootings posted on Twitter this month.

Many of these conflicts are motivated by gang activity and are fought with weapons reported as stolen from legal gun owners, Davis said.

The pandemic is also playing a role. Jails are releasing inmates to reduce coronavirus exposure risks, children are at home rather than attending school in person, and some community programs that diverted teens from joining gangs have been paused, Davis said.

“This is just an environment that has allowed for various gangs in the city to wreak havoc,” Davis said.

Numbers don’t come close to conveying the scope of this problem, which disproportionately harms Black families and children, said City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton. He has made it a personal mission to try to reduce daily gun violence.

“We saw a major stakeholder in our city come forward saying, essentially, that this is a state of emergency,” Middleton said, referring to the statements from NCCU students and administrators.

City Council reacts with debates

Middleton supports five recommendations that Chancellor Akinleye presented to the City Council on Oct. 8. Fellow council members DeDreana Freeman and Pierce Freelon also voiced support for all of the initiatives during the meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said she supported Akinleye’s request that NCCU police be allowed to patrol neighborhoods surrounding their East Durham campus. She said she wanted city staff to research and prepare a report on the other four recommendations.

Akinleye also urged the city to increase its own police patrols nearby and install speed bumps around campus, which is near neighborhoods the city has identified as hard-hit by violent crime.

The city should accept a six-month trial of ShotSpotter, an automated service that alerts police when shots are fired, something that residents who hear shots so often don’t always do, he said. Akinleye also pushed for the city to appoint an NCCU administrator to serve on the city’s new public safety task force.

The City Council rejected ShotSpotter in 2019 and again in September. Council members Javiera Caballero, Charlie Reece, Freelon, and Johnson cited the unclear evidence for its effectiveness and the $195,000 the city would need to pay each year.

They also said they were reluctant to embrace a tool they felt would lead the city to continue depending too much on police to solve problems. 

Middleton, a longtime backer of trying ShotSpotter, reiterated during an interview last week that the six-month trial would at least give the city valuable data for free. He also rejected the idea that ShotSpotter would lead to over-policing of already-vulnerable neighborhoods.

“We know that unreported gun violence is a problem,” he said. Refusing to invest in tools to measure the extent of that problem, he said, was “morally indefensible.”

For Mayor Pro Tem Johnson, solving the problem of gun violence means tackling deeper “root causes” in the community, rather than reflexively expanding the police. 

“There will be less violence in Durham if people can stay in their homes and not be evicted, if people can find jobs that are safe,” she said during an interview the day before the Oct. 8 meeting. “It’s not a lack of policing that causes our economic and social disruption.”

Johnson said she feared that continued job losses linked to economic disruption from the pandemic, a coming wave of evictions, and other problems caused by the pandemic will fuel an increase in crimes, like selling street drugs, that often turn violent. 

The city set aside $5 million for its COVID relief fund and poured another $1 million into Durham County’s housing and rent relief program. But Durham doesn’t have the scale of resources to offset residents’ financial distress, she said.

“What we really need, number one, is more federal support,” Johnson said. “We’ve been watching very closely the situation with the federal relief bills.”

In addition, City Council members haven’t taken a close enough look at alternatives to increased policing, she said. 

Johnson pointed to Bull City United, a “violence interrupter” program overseen by Durham County. Paused during the pandemic, the program trained workers to identify and defuse potentially violent conflicts in McDougald Terrace and the Southside neighborhood, two communities especially affected by gun violence.

“Those conversations need to continue,” she said.

Two Durham Police Department cruisers downtown with lights flashing. Photo by Henry Haggart

Tracking gangs, tracing guns

The police department is working to reduce the surge in gun violence by focusing on the gang members who are committing most of the shootings, Chief Davis said.

Officers are being trained to identify shooters linked to gangs, she said, adding that she wants her department to focus on tracking and stopping repeat offenders rather than “casting a wide net on communities.”

A serious challenge is the widespread availability of stolen guns used during violent conflicts, said Davis. She estimated that 40% of the guns recovered by her department were reported as stolen. 

The department is trying to educate gun owners on ways to store their weapons more securely, hoping to stem the flow of illegal firearms onto the streets.

Davis said she agrees that gun violence is a problem that requires more than a police response. Many of the people involved in violent conflicts are teenagers between 15 and 17, she said.

“There have to be other entities involved in helping to redirect our young people’s activities on a daily basis,” said Davis. She noted that officers are working on building relationships with residents by being more visible in communities, including by attending neighborhood events.

Programs in the works

City leaders are making plans, Johnson said, to develop and fund an expanded violence interrupter program run by the city, an initiative Middleton supports.

City staff are also analyzing 911 calls to identify tasks like responding to mental health crises that could be redirected to other city departments, freeing up police resources to address violent crime, Johnson said.

“The police department has a very specific mandate from council to focus their resources on violent crime,” she said.

The city is still working with the county and school board to launch the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force, a group of residents and researchers tasked with recommending alternatives to policing, which Johnson has said will be more successful at reducing violence compared to “reactive” tools like ShotSpotter.

“If we don’t deal with root cause issues, the need for police will actually increase,” she said.

But for Middleton, too much is at stake to not act more aggressively now while discussions about long-term interventions continue. 

“Every time somebody says root causes, I want somebody to point to our budget and say here’s a root-cause initiative, and here’s the amount of time it’s going to take for gun violence to come down in our city,” he said.

9th Street reporter Cameron Oglesby contributed to this article. 9th Street reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at charlie.zong@duke.edu

At top: Data shows a surge in overall shootings as well as gunshots between Oct. 2019 and Sept. 2020. Shooting victims increased by 56% to 1,081 people. The number of people shot increased even more by 59%, reaching 221 gunshot victims. Data provided by the Durham Police Department. Graphic by Charlie Zong

 

Jillian Johnson: Sustainability, affordability, public engagement

At yet another Durham City Council candidate forum, three very vocal challengers were questioning the competency of three incumbent City Council members.

Among the targets was Jillian Johnson, Durham’s mayor pro tem and council member since 2015.

The challenger candidates, often joined by supporters in the audience, huffed skeptically when Johnson  dug into policy and community engagement plans like her “Beyond Policing” conflict resolution solution to gun violence in Durham. 

Johnson remained calm, unemotional and confident. “I have tried very hard to focus on the issues and to not publicly criticize other candidates positions during the campaign. We just have different policies,” she said after the October forum. 

Johnson is running for re-election for an at-large City Council seat. A big theme of her campaign is collaborative leadership, a commitment made concrete by her joint “Bull City Together” platform with fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

Johnson moved from Virginia to Durham in 1999, an 18-year-old Duke University freshman drawn to public policy and community activism. Four years later, she stayed, eager to put her newly earned degree to work for the city. 

“Durham just felt like home. It felt like a place where I could do the kind of work I wanted to do, have the kind of community I was looking for, and have my kids in a diverse and fun city,” she said.

Jillian Johnson has refrained from criticizing other candidates during her City Council re-election campaign. That held during a Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum at city hall last month. Photo by Cameron Beach

Though cool and often reserved in the council chambers, the one-term councilwoman has sparked controversy with her unashamed, leftist takes on gun violence and policing. 

In 2016, she posted on Facebook that “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.” In an interview with The News & Observer after that, she was quoted saying she believes that “the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling, and Islamophobia.”

Critics called for an apology; some wanted her to resign. But Johnson carried on.

Johnson’s 20-year history in Durham is deeply rooted in activism and the nonprofit sector. She co-founded Durham for All, a grassroots organization that works to mobilize people of all races and socio-economic status to support progressive candidates and causes.

She is the former director of operations and a current board member for the nonprofit, Southern Visions Alliance. The group supports teenagers and young adults working on social justice issues in the South. 

While on the City Council, Johnson was a primary proponent of the raise in minimum wage for part-time Durham workers in 2018. She’s also the council representative for the Durham Housing Authority, Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, and the Race/Equity Task Force. 

The Bull City Together platform points that are most important to Johnson are promoting public safety and community facilitated conflict resolution, increasing eco-friendly infrastructure, and increasing affordable housing opportunities for residents, she said.

During a council budget working session in June, Johnson was one of four council members who rejected Police Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for additional police officers. The money was better spent on wages, they concluded.

Three challengers vying for council seats criticize that move. Although violent crime dropped in Durham in recent years, the city is seeing a spike in gun violence this year. That unwelcome shift was made especially stark this week, when several shootings, including drive by assaults, killed two people and injured eight. A 17-year-old was among the murdered.

At an Oct. 17 council candidate forum, Johnson said intervention and prevention are the keys to reducing violent crime in Durham’s inner city. “Unfortunately, in North Carolina we can’t stop people from carrying their guns around, but given that, it’s very important for people to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way,” Johnson said. 

Intervention means engaging people at risk of committing gun violence on a peer-to-peer level, Johnson said. She likes gang-intervention programs like Project BUILD and Bull City United, which hires community members to try to diffuse conflicts before violence can occur. 

Prevention consists of implementing conflict resolution training,  providing workshops on bystander training and de-escalating anger tactics, Johnson said. She hopes to expand on Durham Local Reentry Council’s effort to support and help re-integrate people recently released from jail or prison.

In her campaign, Johnson also emphasizes expanding renewable energy use in Durham. A renewable energy resolution the council passed on March 25 commits Durham to switching to 80% renewable energy sources in all city operations by 2030 and to 100% renewables by 2050. 

The city recently invested in a couple of electric buses, some hybrid police cars, and solar panels on Durham Fire Station 17, Johnson said. And it will use energy efficiency infrastructure in the affordable housing council members hope to build.

“Everyone who believes in science and cares about the future is concerned about climate change,” Johnson said. 

Investing in sustainability and renewable energy infrastructure in Durham is not just an environmental issue, it’s an environmental justice issue, Johnson said. 

“We have a history of not having the same level of environmental amenities in places like east Durham,” she said, referring to the now gentrifying part of the city that for years was home to many low-income households.

Johnson’s “Housing First” philosophy depends upon passage of the $95 million Housing Bond, also on the ballot next week. “We have a $160 million five-year plan and the $95 million closes the funding gap between the money that the city gets from state and federal resources,” she said. 

The money would help the city provide housing for over 15,000 Durham residents, primarily in permanently affordable units, supporters say. In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority, the council would use the money to build more multi-family rental housing like the Willard Street apartment project, which includes 80 units of permanently affordable housing for people at or below 60% of the area’s median income, Johnson said.

City Council candidate Jackie Wagstaff has been skeptical that the City Council will create permanent affordable housing. But Housing Authority housing is by its nature permanently affordable, Johnson noted.

The city needs private developers to help expand affordable housing too, even though the units would likely remain affordable for a limited time: 15 to 20 years, Johnson said. “People need housing now, and so we might build housing with a 15 or 20 year affordability period knowing we’re not getting the permanent affordability that we really want because the trade off is we can get people into housing now,” she said. 

Johnson, Caballero, and Reece’s joint platform has not been embraced by all. Challengers accuse the incumbents of being interchangeable. Where others see weakness, Johnson sees strength.

“You can’t do anything on council on your own. I think the idea that this sort of collaboration is anti-democratic is misguided. We have to work together, we have to collaborate, we have to have a shared vision, and shared policies in order to make anything happen in the city,” she said.

At top: Jillian Johnson sits outside the Durham Co-op Market on West , the city’s food coop on West Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Cameron Beach