The Durham Mayor’s Race Is Taking Shape, Though Not How We Expected | Durham County | Indy Week
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The Durham Mayor’s Race Is Taking Shape, Though Not How We Expected 

click to enlarge Nnenna Freelon kisses her son, Pierce Freelon, at the end of a launch event for his Durham mayoral campaign

hoto by Alex Boerner

Nnenna Freelon kisses her son, Pierce Freelon, at the end of a launch event for his Durham mayoral campaign

When Mayor Bill Bell hinted in 2015 that he would not seek a ninth term, the stage for Durham's next mayoral race was set. It would be Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, a longtime council member and city employee, versus Steve Schewel, a four-year councilman, former school board member, and an activist.

In less than a month, that's all changed.

On April 3, Cole-McFadden announced during a city council meeting that she would seek reelection to her current seat rather than run for mayor. But Schewel wasn't unopposed for long; that same night, former councilman Farad Ali threw his hat into the ring. Then, two weeks ago, Pierce Freelon, a musician, professor, and entrepreneur, made it a three-way race.

All three candidates stress the need to make sure that Durham's growth benefits all of its residents. And all three have a sense that the city is at a critical juncture.

"I like them both a lot," Schewel says of his competitors. "And we're not the only three candidates. There are going to be others."

Freelon, thirty-three, is the least traditional candidate in the race thus far, although he's not exactly a dark horse. He's taught at UNC and N.C. Central, is the front man of jazz/hip-hop group The Beast, and heads up Blackspace, an arts and tech hub for black youth. He's also the son of Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon and Phil Freelon, an architect who designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and, on Friday, received a key to the city from Bell.

It's Freelon's first bid for elected office. He's unbothered by the fact that his competitors have political experience—and by those who say he should seek a lower office before the mayor's seat. He believes his experience collaborating as an artist and member of the Nasher Museum and N.C. Arts Council boards will translate to city council.

"There is a movement emerging that includes a change of guard," he said during a campaign launch event Sunday at Beyù Caffè. "I don't think now is the time for a status quo maneuver."

He stressed the need for police reform, youth programs, thoughtful growth that does not leave out "the most vulnerable of the population," and policies of acceptance. He said he wants to expand Bell's poverty reduction initiative, support the Movement for Black Lives, and implement the FADE Coalition's recommendations to the Durham Police Department.

Schewel and Ali, meanwhile, have in common a record of public service.

In announcing his mayoral campaign, Ali called Bell and Cole-McFadden "mentors and friends" who "have led the incredible growth in our diverse city."

Ali sat on the city council from 2007–11. He has chaired the Duke Regional Hospital board of trustees, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce board of directors. He's currently president and CEO of the Institute of Minority Economic Development and chairman of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport Authority.

Like a city, he points out, the airport has police and fire departments, contracts to award, a budget to balance, and policies to hammer out.

"I believe my work experience, my community involvement, [and] my public service are a track record of my ability to lead, and I believe I have a reference point for leadership," he says.

Ali says he wants to "enhance" the city's poverty reduction efforts and expand affordable housing. He has a vision for "one Durham" that makes "the people, the place, and the economics all work together." It's a mission he says he's familiar with not only as a council member but also as president of the Institute of Minority Economic Development, which works to grow the wealth and assets of women and minorities through business development.

The same voters who may be attracted to Freelon's desire to shake up the status quo may also identify with Schewel. In its 2015 endorsements, the People's Alliance PAC said "there has not been a more consistent progressive voice on the city council than Steve Schewel."

Schewel served for four years on the Durham Public Schools Board of Education before joining the city council in 2011. He cofounded the Independent Weekly, which he sold to the INDY's current owners in 2012, and cofounded the Hopscotch Music Festival. He is also a visiting professor at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy.

"Durham is on the cusp of a golden age, and what we need to make sure of is that everyone gets to share in that," Schewel says. That requires affordable housing, policing "free of any hint of racial profiling," robust public transit, job training with an emphasis on those returning from prison, financial programs that help residents build their assets, policies welcoming to refugees and immigrants, and investments in bike lanes, parks, and Durham's tree canopy.

"Especially at a time when we are prosperous, we need to invest in infrastructure that will make our city healthier and we need to make sure that is equitably distributed across our city," he says.

The primary is October 10.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Game Is On ."

  • A primer on the three announced candidates so far: Farad Ali, Pierce Freelon, and Steve Schewel

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