In his first remarks as mayor of Durham, Steve Schewel delivered a vision of the Bull City as a “progressive beacon” that is inclusive and welcoming to all.
“We the people of Durham envision a prosperous, innovative, green, walkable city that thrives on diversity and difference, that puts racial and economic justice at the top of our civic agenda, that defends the vulnerable among us, that cherishes robust, respectful debate with difficult questions, that believes science is real, that embraces nonviolence, that embodies the belief that all residents get an opportunity to share in our prosperity, that serves as a progressive beacon for the south and the nation,” he said. “It’s our job—not just the city council, not even most of the city council but all of us in this room and all of us in this city—to make that vision real.”
The speech included three languages and quotes from an anti-lynching activist and a Talmudic scholar. Schewel thanked everyone who voted in the municipal elections and implored Durham residents to stay engaged and “find your own way to advocate and serve.”
“I feel very deeply that I and my new colleagues and my veteran colleagues on this council have the good wishes and deep support of the people of Durham,” he said. “Everywhere I’ve gone since the election, I have been met with kinds words of encouragement and requests for selfies.” (Disclosure: Schewel founded the Independent Weekly and sold it in 2012).
Along with Schewel, three new council members were sworn in—DeDreana Freeman in Ward 1, Mark-Anthony Middleton in Ward 2, and Vernetta Alston in Ward 3. Council member Jillian Johnson was voted mayor pro tem.
But first, the council recognized its outgoing members: Bill Bell, who served sixteen years as mayor; Cora Cole-McFadden, who represented Ward 1 since 2001 and was defeated in her reelection bid last month; Eddie Davis, who held the Ward 2 seat since 2013 and did not seek reelection; and Don Moffitt, who represented Ward 3 for four years but lost in the primary.
Bell recognized Davis, a former educator, as “the historian for the city of Durham,” Moffitt as thorough and intentional, and Cole-McFadden as a true friend and public servant.
“A lot of folks feel like I should be sad about this. I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything,” said Cole-McFadden.
Outgoing and incoming council members alike thanked Bell for his leadership and service.
“I think we all know that we are in the presence—in Bill Bell, of one of the greatest Durhamites who has ever lived,” said Schewel. ” … Bill Bell is not only a great public servant, but he’s a great human being and friend. I’m so proud to call him my friend.”
Tuesday morning, Congressman G.K. Butterfield honored Bell on the House floor.
Before the council meeting, a crowd of about three dozen people rallied outside City Hall to celebrate the election of new, progressive council members, encourage voters to stay engaged, and pledge to hold the council accountable. The rally included members of Durham For All, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Fight for $15, and Durham Association of Educators.
Not only can the community see themselves in the new council (four members are African-American and two identify as LGBTQ), they can identify with their politics, said Durham For All organizer Laila Nur.
“This is amazing. We want to celebrate this victory of getting possibly the most progressive city council body across the South,” Nur said.
Senator Mike Woodard, who served as a Durham City Council member for seven years, says the body could be the most progressive in the state but noted “Durham has a lot of company now” after younger, more diverse officials won municipal elections statewide last month.
“I think it certainly is Durham’s most progressive council,” he said. “I’m very excited for these new council members, and Mayor Schewel and I really look forward to some of the ideas they bring forward.”
The new council will get to it quickly, with a work session on Thursday.