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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.

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.

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