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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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.