A young candidate runs for mayor of Durham, taking on older incumbents and promising a new direction: it’s a common scenario, and one that thirty-three-year-old musician Pierce Freelon hopes echoes earlier iterations. Later this fall, Freelonwho has been endorsed by Run for Something, a group that encourages millennials to run for officelooks to become Durham’s youngest mayor.
That distinction is currently held by Dan Edwards, a World War II veteran who, at age thirty-five, rode the votes of a coalition of labor and black voters to one term at the helm in 1949.
In more modern Durham history, the title of youngest mayor belongs to Wib Gulley. In 1985, in something of a sea change for Durham politics, he won the top officeat the stately age of thirty-sevenas part of a biracial slate of progressive candidates. At that time, the council was made up of a “white, conservative, male establishment” that “worked very closely with the business community,” Gulley says.
On Gulley’s campaign team was Steve Schewel, three years younger than Gulleyand, all these decades later, himself running for mayor. After organizing together for progressive political causes for years, Schewel and Gulley were close personal friends. Gulley remembers returning from a trip up north “and Schewel came over and said, ‘You need to think about running for mayor.’ I said, ‘What, did you run out of candidates?’”
Durham’s landscape has shifted considerably since 1985, when Freelon was two years old. Schewel has spent decades in the city’s politics, morphing from wunderkind to elder statesman. A wider shift has taken place, too. Durham’s city council is now majority black, and achieving citywide office as a conservative is next to impossible. (While the council may no longer be conservative and white, Freelon notes that the average age of council members is sixty-two. Millennials, he says, need to “have some skin in the game for the future that we’re building for ourselves.”)
Embodying those changes, to a degree, are the more experienced candidates Freelon is running against. In addition to the progressive Schewel (who founded The Independent Weekly in 1983 and sold it in 2012), Farad Ali spent four years on the city council from 2007–11 and has a wealth of experience in the private sector. He’s chaired the Raleigh-Durham International Airport Authority, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. Much of his foundation work centers on minority-led businesses, although he says that is far from his sole focus. His campaign has drawn the support and funding of the business and development communities.
Three other candidates have declared for the race: Tracy Drinker, a retired police officer with a particular interest in mental health issues; Shea Ramirez, a tax preparer and talent agency owner who believes talented youth is a key to Durham’s future; and Sylvester Williams, a retired financial analyst who hopes to battle institutional racism.
Gulley notes broad differences in the contours of his campaign and the current race, which is widely viewed as another inflection point in the city’s history. Running against incumbent Charles Markham, Gulley’s campaign was more obviously about a conflict of ideas. They disagreed on how to manage growth, neighborhood preservation and affordable housing, and public transportation. (In that race, the so-called Pickle Building, University Tower, had just been erected by a Texas developer in a more moneyed area out on U.S. 15-501, Gulley recalls, so even wealthier residents were thinking about protecting neighborhoods.)
Today, the clash of ideas seems less stark, at least explicitly, and the style and experience questions more highlighted. Nearly every candidate this year has some version of a vision of “Durham for all,” and they all hope to extend Durham’s prosperity more widely throughout its population.
In 1985, the tobacco industry was on its last legs in Durham, with nothing apparent coming in behind to replace it. And while there were stirrings of new investment, Gulley says, “Durham felt sort of bypassed, economically stagnant.” Now, after heavy public and private investmentespecially downtownDurham’s economy is humming, with a vibrant arts and culture scene, renowned restaurants, and tech businesses moving in. But that boon for Durham has not been a boon for all Durhamites. Despite a renaissance during Mayor Bill Bell’s fourteen-year tenure, the city’s poverty rate has increased. And alongside inequality comes its usual handmaidens: gentrification and displacement.
The candidates widely agree on these issues, but their rhetoric in addressing them diverges. That divergence is instructive in differentiating where the candidates are coming from. Schewel, who spent four years on the school board before his time on city council, points to working groups convenedfor equitable tree coverage, for public parks and trailsand to housing plans drafted that have steered recent city housing policy.
“Leadership is the ability to bring people together, with different values and ideas, and help them solve a common problem or meet a common challenge,” he says. “I like to pull people together to figure out how to solve problems. And help them get focused on what we need to do, and then come up with a common way to do it.”
Ali looks around Durham and sees a fragmented problem-solving landscape. Noting the disconnect between the high poverty rates and the rapid economic development, he thinks of the issues in terms of jobs, which he says his business acumen suits him uniquely well to address.
“It’s important that we have a community that we really value all of our assets,” Ali says. “And minority businesses and the growth of entrepreneurship is important. Not just to the economic fabric of our community, but also to the social fabric of our community.”
Freelon, by contrast, avoids elevating any particular issue above others, although he’s particularly troubled by Durham’s sky-high eviction rate. He speaks instead in the language of intersectionality, which recognizes that different pieces of identity each shape a person’s relationship with power, and in which “all oppression is connected and our liberation is bound up together.” He posits a vision, first articulated by Maya Angelou, of “clean and well-furnished schools, safe and nonthreatening streets, and employment that makes use of our talents but doesn’t degrade our dignity.”
Gulley, for his part, sees this as a mark of Freelon’s relative inexperience, noting that the city council and thus the mayor don’t do much of anything with schools. Gulley points to his early political experience on the city’s Board of Adjustment and Mayor’s Committee for Downtown Revitalization as preparation for his run. Like Freelon, though, he never held elected office in the city before running for mayor.
In Gulley’s first race, as a progressive challenging a more business-friendly incumbent, the battle lines of a biracial slate of progressive candidates against a white, conservative, business-friendly council were clearer. This year, the business-friendly candidate is black, and the progressives are now in Durham’s mainstream.
Still, in many ways, the city’s challenges are similar to those it faced three decades ago. Gulley recalls a campaign ad of his with the punch line, “Not just a great city, but a good city.”
“It’s not enough to just have some economic vitality,” Gulley says. “It’s got to be a city that works for everyone. It’s got to be a city that provides everyone a chance at a better life, economic livelihood, a good job, a safe neighborhood to live in. I think in fundamental ways, that’s still the point in Durham.”