As Mayor Steve Schewel leads me up the stairs from the lobby of Durham’s City Hall to his office, it’s easy to notice how little there is to notice. The halls and chairs outside his office are empty. New plexiglass has been installed to separate employees from visitors, but right now, it’s protecting nobody.
Ours is the first in-person meeting Schewel has taken in his office in almost 14 months, but it’s not obvious. He moves about checking mail and lounging in the leather seats in front of his desk, an air of ease emanating. It’s natural for him to be here; it’s been his workspace for the better part of four years, but in about six months, he will be on his way out.
“After hours and hours and hours on Zoom every day, helping our businesses and our people get through the pandemic, it’s been hard,” Schewel says. “But I’m proud of us, and this feels like a natural breaking point.”
Last month, Schewel announced on the steps of this same building that he won’t run for a third term as mayor. He has a long history in Durham, as newspaper founder and publisher, to working on the county school board and city council, to his time in office helming the city. He’s experienced successes, such as passing the affordable housing bond; disappointments, including the death of the light rail project; and unexpected struggles, most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic.
After almost 40 years doing public service work, and with his first grandchild on the way, Schewel says he is ready for new adventures.
Since arriving in Durham from Virginia in 1969 to study English at Duke University, Schewel has enmeshed himself in Durham’s political sphere. Back in 1983, he founded this newspaper, originally called the North Carolina Independent, later renamed INDY Week.
Schewel looks at this part of his past with pride; his work as a newspaper publisher is one of the first things he reminds me of as we walk up to his office. The work, he says, gave him the tools he used later as an elected official: communication skills, and community building, too.
“We were doing journalism that no one else was, and when you do that, you get to know the community really well,” Schewel says. “It was an opportunity to love Durham even more.”
Schewel also taught public policy at Duke and at North Carolina Central University while raising his family in Durham. A commitment to his children’s education pushed him to run for a position on Durham Public School’s (DPS) Board of Education for the first time at the age of 54. He would eventually lead the board as vice chair.
“I started late, which is, I think, a good thing,” he says. “I was very deeply embedded in my community. I had been involved in so many things already.”
Schewel worked on a DPS task force to merge the city and county public schools systems, and that investment drove him further into public service and the desire to commit his life to Durham
In the midst of Bill Bell’s 16-year tenure, Schewel says he didn’t think about the possibility of being mayor. Once his kids were out of DPS, he left his position on the school board and took a break from public office. Then, an opening on Durham’s City Council became available. He ran, and before he knew it, had served six terms.
In 2017, Schewel ran for, and was elected, mayor. He built a campaign on a vision of Durham as a progressive beacon of the South—a place to celebrate inclusivity and diversity.
Schewel points to progressive environmental policies, police reform, and affordable housing as sectors where he saw a need for leadership, progress, and most important, unity.
“I’ve said many times: whatever your language, whatever your race, whatever your documentation status, we embrace you, we will have you, we love you,” Schewel says. “So that was both a political slogan, and a very deeply held belief that I have, and that’s the root of why I ran.”
Schewel has a knack for budgeting and for communicating, political observers say. For instance, he lobbied hard to pass the $95 million affordable housing bond, the largest bond ever in North Carolina history. It was approved at the end of 2019, with 83 percent of the vote.
Schewel describes his advocacy for the bond as an exercise in building consensus over time, a skill he honed during his stint on the school board. Patience and persistence, he says, lead to results.
“Before we tried to get it passed, we built up to it. We first had a penny for housing on the tax rate, and then two cents on housing on the tax rate,” Schewel says. “We were able to start building affordable housing in our community and supporting our nonprofits.”
Schewel has built relationships with multiple political groups within Durham in order to solidify support for his policies and to facilitate hard conversations. Even critics of progressive policy, such as the right-leaning Friends of Durham PAC, think he’s run the city well, according to David Smith, the PAC’s secretary and past chair.
The prominent People’s Alliance PAC is another such group that’s worked closely with Schewel.
“He brought some measure of harmonic effectiveness to the school board and to the council,” Milo Pyne, a coordinator for the PAC, told the INDY of Schewel’s skills as a mediator. “He has this unique ability to bring people together under a common goal.”
Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners until last year, is one of Schewel’s close partners. The two worked together on multiple joint city-county efforts, including creating an eviction diversion program and a rental assistance program, signing the Paris Accords to end HIV/Aids, creating a joint City-County Youth Services Department, and a joint Confederate Monument Commission back in 2017.
“People have needs and problems and issues that the government needs to address and people frankly don’t really care if it’s the city or county that gets it done. They just need it to get done,” Jacobs says. “Because of the collaboration, we’ve been able to do some really transformative work together.”
In tandem with these highs, though, Schewel experienced his fair share of disappointments.
Schewel knew upon his entry into this office that Durham’s public transit system leaves much to be desired. Soon into his mayorship, Durham received a blow: the official death of the light rail project. In April 2019, the county commissioners unanimously voted to discontinue work on the Durham-Orange Light Rail line, following a recommendation from GoTriangle, the transit agency spearheading the $2.47 billion project, after it was clear that major stakeholders, including the state and Duke University, wouldn’t be on board.
By the time Schewel entered office, the light rail project, which would have connected Durham and Orange counties via a two-mile rail corridor, had been in development for almost 20 years. Schewel spent a year in office trying to salvage what he could but to no avail.
“It was a personal disappointment for me,” Schewel says.“But more than that, it’s a disappointment for our community; we need to have this. Now we’re back on the drawing boards, we’re considering a commuter rail system and other kinds of regional transit.”
Schewel has also seen gun violence rise within the past year, mirroring national trends. Though shootings in Durham reached a historic low, with only 189 people shot in 2019, the numbers rose to 319 in 2020.
“Every time a bullet hits someone, it goes not only into their body, but it hurts their family, their, their neighborhood, our whole community,” Schewel says. “And it’s critically important that we do everything we can to stop it.”
Schewel says he and the other council members are continuously looking for ways to mitigate this crisis, and that a mix of good policing, mental health programs, and alternative responses are key. Though he has made some strides, Schewel says it will be up to the next mayor to continue the fight.
While crime, transit, and housing are generally typical issues within the realm of what city mayors can expect to deal with, one of the greatest challenges that Schewel faced while in office—the COVID-19 pandemic, an international public health crisis—was decidedly not.
Schewel’s response to the pandemic broke new ground for the mayor’s role. For many years, the job had been primarily ceremonial: cutting ribbons, speaking at churches and religious festivals, showing face in support of community events.
But in the last year, Schewel had to make serious decisions around controlling the spread of the virus. He points specifically to Friday, March 13. Much of the country was beginning to shut down, and cases were cropping up across the state, but the Durham Performing Arts Center was still set to host a live show of Les Misérables.
With little guidance from the state and other regional governments, and without consulting the Durham City Council, Schewel made the executive decision to shut down the show. He declared a state of emergency at 5 p.m. that day, and by the next month, Durham became the first city in North Carolina with a mask mandate. For many Durhamites, Schewel’s forceful response was a positive. He received support on social media, and his partnership with members of the county’s board of commissioners grew stronger.
For some, though, Schewel’s grip on the city felt like an attack on their freedom. Hate mail was a regular occurrence throughout 2020. Schewel recalls a moment when he was in the middle of his regular walk on the American Tobacco Trail; a man running past him yelled, “You little dictator.”
“What really hurt was that they called me little,” Schewel quips with a smirk.
Schewel says it was hard to know what to do in the pandemic’s early days, but, he says, he knows where his priorities lie: with the people of Durham, and their safety and prosperity.
This isn’t all to say, though, that Schewel isn’t aware of his mistakes in office. On the contrary: when asked if he can think of times he has made mistakes while in office, or about any regrets he has, he says he can’t think of just one example.
“It happens all the time,” he says. Before coronavirus was ever here, whether it was a development he voted for or voted against, or a rezoning he approved that he’s come to regret, these moments happen.
But, it’s less about the mistakes, Schewel says, and more about how to deal with them after.
“You have to just pick yourself up and soldier on,” he advises. “Be transparent about your mistakes. You’ve got to be able to admit them, and then you’ve got to move on.”
This last year was painful in ways that go beyond the pandemic, however, and it’s difficult to gauge how muchnewly inflamed tensions over racial justice and police brutality contributed to Schewel’s decision to move on. When asked about these issues, and the accelerating gentrification that has contributed to anger and bitterness directed at politicians who are seen to exemplify the status quo, Schewel demurs. He points to the diversity of the members of the city council who, though they have their differences, are united in a common vision for Durham.
“My view is, you just have to be a good person, and let the chips fall where they may,” Schewel says.
In January, Judge Elaine O’Neal announced her intention to run for mayor of Durham. Her run represents a new era for Durham politics.
“I’m a Black woman from Durham,” she told the INDY of her decision. “That’s my perspective, and it’s a perspective we don’t see much. And then there’s also my perspective from the bench.”
If Schewel had decided to run again, it would have pit two popular, highly qualified, progressive candidates against one another, and potentially divided the city further along racial lines. A similar racially divisive scenario in Durham government already played out this year, when the two white members on Durham County’s Board of Commissioners voted to oust Wendell Davis, the county’s former manager, who is Black. (Commissioner Nida Allam, who is of South Asian descent, also cast a vote against renewing his contract.)
O’Neal is loath to criticize Schewel but she says she has seen a fragmentation among Durhamites, one that’s grown over the course of her adulthood. She speaks of a community groundedness that she grew up with, that supported her through her education and law practice. She says she fears now that not everyone in Durham feels that same love and connection that she has, and some of those fears have been confirmed by young people she’s spoken to.
Still, she’s quick to tell me, she thinks it’s not her job to definitively judge how others have led the city. It’s not about cutting out old voices, but about including new ones.
“It’s gonna take a lot of people to know what Durham needs, and not just pointing fingers,” O’Neal says. “The more people we can include, the better, and that’s why I felt the need to step up.”
As he prepares to leave office, Schewel’s immediate goal is to see the city budget implemented for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. As he discusses the new city budget, Schewel’s eyes grow animated. He waves his arms to describe the broad changes that are expected, and he smiles, repeating how “fantastic” it is.
The budget creates a new Community Safety Department in Durham, an alternative to police response to crisis intervention. It will also work to provide legal funds for lawyers to support undocumented residents, and allocate tax revenues towards green and equitable infrastructure, new sidewalks, and bus shelters, especially in historically Black neighborhoods. And 2019’s affordable housing bond will see its initial implementation, with funds aimed at eviction diversion work through legal aid as the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of July.
On that point, Schewel is apprehensive. Though the city just received an additional $10 million in aid for rent relief from the federal American Rescue Plan, he hopes the continued federal assistance, the city’s efforts, and the city-county eviction diversion program will be enough to help hundreds of families stay in their homes.
On a broader scale, Schewel knows that Durham is still struggling with many of the same issues it was upon his entering office. Durham is still without a regional transit system. Despite affordable housing work, gentrification is still a major problem within the city, especially post-pandemic. And, as the vaccine rollout continues, vaccine equity and herd immunity issues are still at the forefront.
County Commissioner Jacobs calls Schewel’s exit “bittersweet.’’ Though she says she wishes he could continue in his role and see through all he has proposed for the city, the two have built a deep friendship through working together, and she is excited for his new role as grandpa.
“This moment is certainly well deserved,” Jacobs says. “Honestly, it’s been the highlight of my life to work with him. He’s a mentor to me.”
Currently, O’Neal looks to be the frontrunner to follow in Schewel’s footsteps. And whoever assumes the role will have their work cut out for them.
But Schewel reiterates that he is ready to move on, and is confident in the city’s ability to progress. At the end of an exhausting year leading the city through the pandemic, and as he enters his 70s and prepares to meet his first grandchild, Schewel says he is ready to leave his post and embark on new adventures.
If the city and country weren’t headed towards the back end of this pandemic, Schewel says, he wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving. As it stands, he knows he’s leaving the city in capable hands.
“There are still things to be done, of course, but Durham is 152 years old, so that will never cease,” Schewel says. “There’s a new generation of leadership headed our way.”
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify that the two white members on Durham County’s Board of Commissioners voted to oust Wendell Davis, the county’s former manager, but Commissioner Nida Allam, who is of South Asian descent, also cast a vote against renewing his contract.
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