Durham politics is known for raucous city council meetings, contentious forums, and spirited social media threads, hallmarks of a proud and robust democracy. 

Until the polls open, that is. 

During the October primary for three at-large council seats, fewer than 9 percent of the city’s nearly 195,000 registered voters cast ballots. In last week’s general election, which also included an affordable housing bond and a mayoral election, about 18 percent of voters participated—better, but hardly good, especially for a heavily African American city at the forefront of civil rights efforts a half-century ago. 

For those unhappy with the city’s direction, that’s a bitter pill. 

Council incumbents Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero, along with Mayor Steve Schewel, prevailed. They’d netted a series of major endorsements, including from the influential—and largely white—People’s Alliance PAC. 

But rapper and businessman Joshua Gunn, backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, had fallen just short, only about four hundred votes behind Caballero, the third-place finisher, and just twelve hundred votes behind Johnson, who garnered the most support. 

Four hundred votes out of almost thirty-five thousand cast. 

Days before the election, clinical researcher Moya Hawkins, a Gunn supporter, told the INDY that the incumbents, who campaigned under the banner Bull City Together, had failed to listen to the community.

“I hope now that Bull City Together has won the election, they will listen—not only to the people who voted for them but to those who did not vote for them,” Hawkins says. “Javiera Caballero won over Joshua by less than four hundred votes. She’s vulnerable, and she needs to pay attention to how she communicates with the Durham community.”

Caballero made Durham history by becoming the first Latinx person elected to the city council. She’d previously been appointed to the board in 2018 to fill the seat vacated by Schewel when he became mayor, giving the Latinx community a voice it hadn’t had before. 

During the campaign, she faced attacks suggesting that she didn’t deserve the seat, including an evidence-free challenge to her citizenship by failed candidate Victoria Peterson that the state Board of Elections deemed “spurious” and dismissed.

Gunn’s supporters saw him as a voice for the young black men who’ve been on both sides of the recent spike in gun violence and who’ve comprised more than 90 percent of this year’s homicide victims. 

In a Facebook post the day after the election that generated more than fifty comments, Durham pastor and journalist Carl Kenney argued that the incumbents’ “victory is celebrated as an affirmation from Durham’s most marginalized population. The numbers fail to validate this position. People aren’t happy with our incumbents.” The election, he wrote, wasn’t about the candidates, but “about power, agendas, and the force of white privilege in framing the terms of a progressive agenda.”

He told the INDY that there’s a sentiment among black residents that the People’s Alliance is setting an agenda that’s disconnected from the interests of people of color. 

“I think they position themselves as the voice of black people,” he says, “and they use key black people to give the impression that they have the consensus of the black community.”

What’s emerged, Kenney says, is a “clear battle” over who speaks for Durham’s black people—the PA or the Durham Committee. 

“The People’s Alliance has positioned themselves as having a pro-black ideology, and I challenge that,” Kenney says.

“The only organization in Durham that I’m aware of positioning itself as the ‘voice of black residents’ is the Durham Committee,” Johnson counters. “The PA certainly hasn’t claimed that. I think it’s been pretty clear during this election that there was certainly no consensus in the black community. We’re a diverse people.”

Andrea Benjamin, who conducted exit polls during the 2015 and 2017 Durham elections while she was a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, says last week’s results reflect a “stark racial divide” among Durham voters. 

This isn’t new, says Benjamin, who now teaches at the University of Oklahoma and is completing a book on Durham politics. In 2017, more than 70 percent of white voters supported Schewel, while a similar percentage of black voters backed Farad Ali. 

Kenney says his concerns are part of an ongoing conversation he’s been having with African American residents.

“It’s problematic,” he says. “People are feeling like they are not tied to the issues we’re facing. They feel like their vote doesn’t make a difference.” 

Milo Pyne, the coordinator for the PA PAC, could not be reached for comment. 

Johnson told the INDY on Monday that she understands that some black voters don’t feel like the council is addressing their needs—especially given the thirty-four homicides Durham has seen this year—but she says no one has suggested a “specific action” the city should take. 

She points out that the police department has improved its response times and the city’s homicide clearance rate is above the national average. 

“I have heard the criticism,” Johnson says. “But I haven’t heard any reasoning behind the criticism. If someone would bring me specific programs and initiatives that would benefit the black community, I’m happy to listen.”  

There are two ways to effect change in Durham, Benjamin says: Run a campaign or form a coalition. If you want different results in 2021, start planning now.

“It’s still a contest,” Benjamin says. “And the person with the most votes wins.”

On Monday afternoon, Gunn conceded the election, though in doing so, he took a thinly veiled shot across the PA’s bow. 

“Before this election,” he said in a statement, “there was a sentiment that our votes no longer count. The PA’s voice had become so dominant that I was told, ‘The election doesn’t happen in November, it happens at the PA endorsement meeting.’

“We were one neighborhood away. One church congregation, one sorority away from restoring the voice of all people in Durham’s democracy. They hear us now, y’all. They see us. And we ain’t going nowhere.” 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

Clarification and updates: Due to an editing error, this story originally referred to Carl Kenney’s Facebook post as widely shared, when it is more accurate to say it garnered a lot of comments. In addition, the print version of this story was updated to include additional comments from Jillian Johnson that came in after the paper was sent to the printer.

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One reply on “Durham’s Close, Low-Turnout, but Historic Election Ends With a Bitter Pill for Some Black Voters”

  1. you worked really hard to get Mr. Gunn elected over these last few months, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you. After a week’s hard-earned recovery, it’s good to see you back on the horse! Can we look forward to many more articles that you spin up out of “widely-shared” (given how numbers were used in this election, I guess “3 shares” equals “widely-shared”) facebook posts from your good friend Carl Kenney? Would it be too much, on the journalism front, to ask you to include information about the “key black people” that Carl sneers at because they have the wrong types of views for black people, in the world of black people according to Carl Kenney? Do they have names? Are they real? Do they have views and opinions? The people await information!

    At least you were decent enough to include some quotes this time from the top vote-getter and noted Caucasian person Jillian Johnson.

    On the subject of Caucasian people, one might note that the Durham Committee endorsed two white men this time, passing over four black women in the process. Is that interesting enough for a story? Do you want to do some journalism about that? Or do you need someone to make a “widely-shared” facebook post about it first?

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