Leo Williams leaned back in his chair, a hand over his eyes.

Jillian Johnson, his colleague on the Durham City Council, had just introduced a resolution to censure their council colleague Monique Holsey-Hyman over allegations that she improperly used city staff’s time to work on her fall election campaign.

“We didn’t really discuss who was going to introduce it, so I will step up and do it,” Johnson said near the end of a contentious March 23 work session. The move came after Mayor Elaine O’Neal read a letter revealing allegations of corruption against an unnamed council member (identified also as Holsey-Hyman, four days later) at the beginning of the meeting. 

All of the council members seemed tired. 

Maybe they were worn down following the shooting of three teenagers the day before. Maybe it was the brewing debate over the controversial SCAD proposal. But no one, current mayoral candidate Williams included, was having an easy time. 

“As you disrespect us, we have a right to come up here and disrespect you as well,” James Chavis, a public speaker, said to the council from the chamber’s floor. It wasn’t the only public comment in that vein. 

Holsey-Hyman, on the verge of tears, defended her record. Williams said he was confused about whether they were debating the facts of the case against Holsey-Hyman or just the resolution to censure her. O’Neal spoke like a stern parent, chastising an unnamed council member for allegedly using her signature without permission—a reference to Johnson that foreshadowed a preoccupation from the mayor that would reemerge in the summer. (Johnson said later that she had merely included a blank line for O’Neal to sign if the resolution passed.)

Council member DeDreana Freeman, also a mayoral candidate, and mayor pro tem Mark-Anthony Middleton exchanged barbs, with Freeman saying she was “angry and disgusted.” She blamed sexism for the way her colleagues dismissed Holsey-Hyman’s explanations.

“As one of the two men on this board: What? What does that even mean,” Middleton retorted, giving Freeman an exaggerated side-eye.

“Stop being a bully,” Freeman replied off mic.

Then came the real fireworks.

WRAL cameras caught audio of Freeman launching a profanity-laced verbal tirade at Middleton after the meeting adjourned. Two eyewitnesses told the INDY that Freeman also took a swing at him, missed, and hit Williams and O’Neal, though a local pastor said no punches were thrown

The day’s embarrassing events are the most dramatic evidence of the tension, conflict, personal disdain, and conspiracy theories that have been roiling Durham politics for at least the past four years.

Amid a world historic pandemic and a national racial reckoning, O’Neal, Williams, Middleton, and Freeman won their elections in 2021 with broad public support to shift Durham’s response to a spike in murders and an ever-deepening housing crisis. 

Less than two years later, community trust is in tatters and confidence in the council is flailing. 

Despite marquee achievements like expanding an unarmed first response team and introducing a $10 million fund to improve Fayetteville Street, this council’s tenure is best known for scandal. 

Durham politics has become a morass of bitterness and resentment. Policy discussions are rancorous, government staff are often left confused, and much of the voting public seems disoriented and dispirited. Many worry the results will harm the city’s reputation, give investors second thoughts, and scare away potential public servants.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to run for office right now,” former council member Charlie Reece tweeted about the environment in March. 

“I’m going to go public about seeking therapy, because I saw what it did to me as a person,” Williams tells the INDY. “I saw what it did to me and my family.”

As the city heads into municipal election this fall, the INDY is launching a four-part investigation into what brought Durham to this point, how it’s impacting local government responses to the pressing issues of crime and gentrification, and what comes next.

How it began

O’Neal’s late-2020 announcement that she would run for mayor was meant to be a unifier in an increasingly fractured Bull City. “Durham for Everyone. United. Not Divided. Grab hands and let’s move forward into a bold and bright future for all of us,” went one campaign slogan.

So long the maligned bronze medalist of the Triangle, Durham spent decades trying to attract new capital and investment. For much of former mayor Bill Bell’s long tenure, the city’s urban center was the focus.

“We had to build up confidence in the community,” Bell says in the conference room of UDI Community Development Corporation, the nonprofit he still runs. Sepia-toned photos of the company’s long history cover the walls, and a tube TV plays the news from its mounted place in the corner of the room.

“We could do something in a positive way, and the biggest showcase, for me, was ‘What could you do in downtown?’” he says.

By the time Bell stepped down in 2017, the effort had largely succeeded. The foundations for Durham’s tallest building, One City Center, were being laid. When it opened in 2018, construction cranes simply moved across the skyline to new projects.

But for many in the predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods surrounding downtown, the changes were more threat than success. The pandemic decimated jobs and support networks; violent crime rose, incomes fell, and many wondered if they would still have a place in the new Durham.

“There’s quite a few people in city government that really want the problem to disappear, which is the materially poor Black and brown people that are embarrassing them and making their lives difficult,” says Camryn Smith, cofounder and executive director of Old East Durham’s Communities in Partnership.

Though the downtown-centric approach started under the moderate Bell, who is Black, its success became particularly visible under the progressive councils that succeeded him, starting in 2017 and led by Mayor Steve Schewel, who is white. 

Many critics placed the blame squarely on the progressives. Smith points to research by former NC Central University business professor and current U.S. Department of Energy official Henry McKoy showing that racial disparities are higher in blue counties than red ones. 

“Right now, Durham is nothing close to what it says it is in terms of a city that thinks highly progressively, where we want a lot of diversity, a lot of different ways of being, a lot of different thoughts,” Smith says. “I don’t think that’s who we are, to be honest with you.”

The racial divide began to sour local politics as the city went into the 2019 election. Javiera Caballero became the first Hispanic council member in Durham’s history when she was appointed the year before, but the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (DCABP), one of the city’s oldest political organizations, objected to the fact that Schewel had “expressed a preference for the appointment of a Hispanic or Latino applicant.”

Caballero solidified a progressive council majority alongside Schewel, Johnson, and Reece, who often voted together for their shared priorities. But many of Durham’s most prominent Black activists—often, though not exclusively, moderates connected with the DCABP—saw their votes not as a democratically endorsed mandate from voters but as an elitist bloc that cut out the people already excluded from Durham’s prosperity. 

When Caballero, Johnson, and Reece ran together in 2019 as the Bull City Together slate, opposition intensified. Johnson became a particular target of criticism.

“When we went through that whole crisis, we never saw Jillian,” says Ashley Canady, a tenant leader at McDougald Terrace, referring to the time in 2019 when the Durham Housing Authority complex was evacuated due to carbon monoxide poisoning. “She has not been around, she has not been seen. That is my biggest issue with her: she is not in community at all.”

Johnson, in response, says no matter what one does as a public official, it’s impossible to avoid criticism from opponents.

“If you show up, they call you an opportunist,” she says. “If you don’t, they say you’re disconnected from the community.”

Still, there’s plenty of criticism to go around.

“When this bloc came together, the unfortunate part about it—in my belief, from the people I talk to—is that they were only going to be accommodating of a certain segment of the population of Durham,” says former council member Jackie Wagstaff. “And that would most likely be people that agreed with them. The other people: you’re on your own.”

The distrust grew so large that the year’s now infamous People’s Alliance (PA) endorsement meeting launched a fight about whether someone used a Nazi slogan. (The People’s Alliance, a four-decades-old grassroots political organization, is also one of the city’s most influential PACs.)  In the end, the progressives won the endorsements and the election, completing a decade in which only a single municipal candidate endorsed by the historically white PA lost. 

Though the progressives passed major pieces of ambitious, popular legislation aiming to combat the inequalities plaguing Durham—including shepherding a $95 million housing bond, at the time the largest housing bond in North Carolina history, through a public referendum in 2019 and launching the Department of Community Safety two years later—the racial battle lines became entrenched. 

“Something was lost in that election cycle that took a long time to build,” says the Latino filmmaker and activist Rodrigo Dorfman, who played a central role in the endorsement meeting brouhaha. 

Some criticisms of Johnson and other progressive Black figures also veered into claims that they weren’t “really” Black, say many PA supporters.

“Durham has been treading dangerous territory in terms of questioning the Blackness of our Black leaders like [Johnson] based on notions that themselves are deeply rooted in white supremacy,” says Nana Asante-Smith, one of the PA PAC coordinators. 

That was the Durham O’Neal was elected to unify—one in which accusations of racism abounded as murder rates rose, income inequality grew, and housing costs soared.

After Schewel announced he wouldn’t seek a third term, O’Neal swept into office with nearly 85 percent of the vote, facing only a last-minute challenge from Caballero, who suspended her campaign after the primary. 

Freeman, Middleton, and Williams all won DCABP endorsements, and only Middleton had also received the PA’s support. Their ultimate victories were a clear statement that Durham voters wanted a change.

Though much of the campaign focused on debates over moderate and progressive approaches to police reform, O’Neal’s popularity had less to do with any policy position than with her relationships—particularly with the people who felt shut out by the progressive majority.

“It’s her history with the community that made people trust her,” says Wagstaff. “She’s always been that type of person that you can have confidence in. People knew her and trusted her, and that’s what we wanted to see up there.”

What they’ve done

After a scandal-plagued two years, the people who most wanted a change find themselves deeply disappointed.

“The Black community in particular had high hopes in the leadership, given that you were electing the first African American female mayor,” says Bell. “And it turns out six out of the seven council people were African American. I just think it was felt there was going to be more cordiality among the council members in terms of getting things done. At a minimum, people thought the mayor and the mayor pro tem [Middleton] would be on the same page.”

The disappointment doesn’t mean O’Neal’s backers blame her, however. One of the new divides in Durham politics is about whom to blame for the divides on the council.

According to O’Neal’s staunchest supporters, she and her allies Freeman and Holsey-Hyman were undermined and made to look weak and ineffective by an oppositional majority composed of the other four.

But the obvious fact is that a majority vote in an elected body is not a nefarious plot. It’s the way democracy is supposed to work.

The majority isn’t actually a majority, either. There are also divisions between the progressives, such as Caballero and Johnson, and the moderates, such as Williams and Middleton.

“The four of us who vote to approve housing developments do it for somewhat different reasons,” Johnson says. “It’s not like a pro-business ethic that gets me there, where for other folks it might be. So what looks like a voting bloc is actually people coming together across difference.”

The allegations against Holsey-Hyman suggest that such political differences are only partial explanations, though. Simply, some council members just don’t like each other. 

Most troublesome for DCABP activists and others who cheered the 2021 election returns is that the most vicious fights haven’t been between the moderates and the progressives, but among the moderates. Freeman yelled at Middleton, after all, not at Johnson.

The explanations for the acrimony quickly devolve into conspiracy theories that wouldn’t be worth considering if they weren’t amplifying the hostility among elected officials.

The theories range from mundane political ambition (that Middleton hoped to be mayor), to baseless allegations of corruption (that Williams is being paid by developers), to outlandish and convoluted setups (that Middleton manufactured the claims against Holsey-Hyman as punishment for not voting with him).

The source for most of them—by her own admission—is Wagstaff.

“I believe that Mark-Anthony Middleton orchestrated this,” she says. “If he were standing here looking at me, I would tell him that. I’m not one of those people that’s going to sit around and throw a rock and hide.”

An effective organizer with deep ties to various Black communities across Durham, Wagstaff also has a history of controversy over her long political career, including being censured and suspended by the DCABP in 2013 for being “insubordinate, uncollaborative, and extremely impolite.”

But she remains a close and prominent ally of O’Neal, Freeman, and Holsey-Hyman.

“It’s just nonsense,” Middleton says. “And unfortunately, some of it is being driven from the dais, which should be the paragon of sensibility and rationality and the chief brand ambassadors of our city.”

Middleton even wrote an email to his council colleagues in March alleging that “one or more members of the city council” shared a claim that “meets the legal standard of slander” with “prominent members of the Durham community.”

If O’Neal, Freeman, and Holsey-Hyman have retained support, it’s largely among those who believe the unflattering media reports and allegations are untrue. Instead, those supporters believe they are just another example of the long-running sexist and racist status quo.

“It bothers me that everybody is so quick to pathologize a Black woman, but then they want to have Black Lives Matter signs in their yard, and then they want to say #TrustBlackWomen,” says Camryn Smith, the East Durham activist and a Freeman ally. 

“There’s a lot of people that know DeDreana in this community,” she adds, pointing to the conflicting accounts of Freeman’s altercation with Middleton. “We’ve never seen her hit or do that, so why did you believe that so quickly? Because of the trope of the angry Black woman.”

“What folks try to label as toxic,” Freeman says, “is the discomfort they feel when people challenge their racism, their sexism, all of those -isms.”

Because Middleton, in particular, has grated on his political opponents, the response has found purchase in some parts of Durham. 

A dominant force on council—he received more votes in the 2021 election than anyone else—Middleton is prone to long speeches and sharp rebukes such as the eight-minute explanation he gave at the March 23 work session of what a censure is and isn’t and the need for moral rectitude on council.

Opponents have found such rhetoric more fitting for the church he pastors than for council chambers, and Freeman was not the first to call him a bully.

“There’s that saying, ‘Everyone can’t tell the same lie,’” says Whitney Maxey, executive director of the progressive group Durham for All. (Disclosure: I was formerly a volunteer member-leader with the group.)

Middleton, for his part, thinks he’s just doing his job by asking “pointed” questions. “Some of those meetings where I’ve been accused of talking down or putting people on trial? I think that was due diligence,” he says. “I think it would have been malpractice for me not to ask.”  

With three divided blocs, allegations of federal crimes, and a populace growing desperate, the council was in clear need of a leader—someone who could unite the various factions, or at least keep the conflict behind closed doors. 

O’Neal proved incapable of the task.

Sources inside city hall report that members from each bloc barely speak to the others outside of public meetings. 

While past mayors Schewel and Bell would act as facilitators for the everyday work of governing, O’Neal doesn’t hold regular one-on-one meetings with most council members. Instead, she approaches the work the same way she approached her time as a judge and law school dean: by trying to build community relationships.

Other council members were left in the dark about key efforts, like her attempt to negotiate a truce among gang members.

“I have no idea,” Johnson says about it. “She did all that on her own.”

The approach allowed divisions to deepen and conflicts to fester. Then they’d explode into public view, like with the clear confusion over whether the council would censure Holsey-Hyman, whether they were voting on the resolution at all, and who had approved the draft language, or with this summer’s surprise vote on additional raises for firefighters and police officers at the start of a heated budget meeting

That siloed, suspicious environment helps explain the quixotic quest against Wikipedia that O’Neal, Freeman, and Holsey-Hyman launched to reveal who was adding unflattering details—or a simple signature, in O’Neal’s case—to their biographies. The broken trust is undeniable.

Only Williams was able to maintain cordial relationships across all three council blocs for any length of time, often acting as the point of contact between them. Holsey-Hyman even noted that he was the only council member of the four-person voting majority to call her before the March 23 work session (though she missed the call).

What comes next

Now, O’Neal is leaving office after a single term. The long-serving Johnson is leaving too. Holsey-Hyman is running to retain her council seat but with an ongoing State Bureau of Investigation probe hanging over her. Freeman and Williams are rivals in the mayoral race, and, whatever happens this fall, they’ll still have to work together on the next council. 

In the midst of such chaos, all sides are relying more heavily on the network of people they already know. Who better to trust than the people you already work with, who talk like you, went to the same school you did, live in the same neighborhood? 

But the fundamental issue is that Durham’s racial politics are undergoing a generational shift that such segregated networks can’t manage. 

For decades, the city’s two most influential political organizations—the progressive, historically white People’s Alliance and the moderate Committee on the Affairs of Black People—negotiated political power along Black-white racial lines.

“In the old days,” Johnson explains, “they would meet up for fried chicken and decide who were going to be the city council members.”

Today, a cohort of younger activists—including Black and Latino activists—are diversifying the PA and pushing it in even more progressive directions.

But the PA still has prominent skeptics who believe the organization’s many leaders of color are little more than figureheads. The membership, they believe, represents a subsection of Durhamites who are wealthier and whiter than the city as a whole. 

“It would be really nice to see them shift,” Freeman says. “Equity is more than tokenism. It’s not just the loudest voice in the room. It should actually be something of substance. The identity-politics era needs to go.”

For those PA leaders, though, such criticisms amount to complaints from those who didn’t get the PA’s influential backing.

“The reality is PA—supported statistically and with data—has truly evolved in its membership as it pertains to age, race, and engagement, to name a few characteristics,” says Asante-Smith, the PA PAC coordinator.

But even if the PA is replacing a largely white old guard with a more diverse group of young members, it still represents a particular social group—as does the DCABP. Half of the PA’s current leadership are alumni or employees of Duke, and only one has ties to NCCU. The ratios are nearly perfectly inverted in the Committee’s leadership. 

Working-class people are often left out of both.

“The history of Black Durham is highly stratified by class, by color, by education, and by which family you came from,” says Smith. 

The tragedy of it all is that nearly every person involved in Durham politics agrees that nothing can be solved by Durham’s government alone. No amount of power the PA or the DCABP can gain will be enough to meet their agendas, which require organizing for state-level policies as well. And all the recent controversy, toxicity, and scandal risk a crisis of confidence that undermines efforts to build toward larger political change.

“In an institution of public trust, maintaining that public trust is the most important thing,” Johnson says. “If someone does something that violates the public trust—regardless of who they are—a transparent and robust response is necessary or you risk the integrity of the entire institution.”

After roughly 40 minutes of bickering, hectoring, and occasionally speaking to the issues at hand, O’Neal brought the March 23 work session to a close. 

“These are the people you elected, Durham, and it’s up to you to hold everybody accountable,” she said. “We should be ready for that, whatever that looks like. 

“I don’t know where Durham is poised and where it is going, but I do hope that Durham city is paying attention to all of us.”

Correction: Nana Asante-Smith is a People’s Alliance PAC coordinator, not chair. The story has been updated.

This is the first story in a four-part series covering Durham’s upcoming municipal election

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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