Retired Durham superior court judge, former law school dean, and racial equity champion Elaine O’Neal is running for mayor.
O’Neal, who is a lifelong Bull City resident, told the INDY on Monday that she is excited about the city’s growth, but she’s worried that the city is not unified.
“I recall a different downtown in the ’60s,” she said. “Downtown was never as segregated as it is now. I love the changes and the look of the city, but there’s a wide divide not just by race, but by class.”
Durham’s current Mayor Steve Schewel, who served on council from 2011 until being elected mayor in 2017, told the INDY that he would “have an announcement of my plans soon” about whether he’ll run for reelection this year. He declined to comment further on O’Neal’s announcement. (Schewel founded the INDY but is no longer involved with the paper.)
O’Neal says there is enough prosperity in the city “for everyone to be fulfilled, enough room for everybody to be productive, there’s room at the table for all; everyone should have a decent standard of living.”
O’Neal points to the disparities between $1 million apartments on one block, and homes on the next where residents are “doing without.”
“That bothers my spirit,” she said. “That bothers my soul.”
Omar Beasley, the former chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, called O’Neal’s decision to toss her hat in the political ring, “beautiful.”
“I think she’s the voice that Durham needs right now as the head of the city,” he said. “She’s Durham born, Durham bred, and during her life she’s seen all the changes, gentrification, the gun violence, and changes in the schools. She saw it as a child, as a young adult, and on the bench. No one will bring the perspective that she brings. She’s seen it all. She is Durham.”
The Durham native attended N.C. Central University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a juris doctorate from the NCCU School of Law.
O’Neal returned to the law school in 2018 and served as interim dean for two years during a period when the school was having accreditation issues. Prior to her stint as law school dean, she worked as a Durham County Superior Court judge from 2011 until 2018. She served as a district court judge from 1994 until 2011, with the last eight years of her tenure as the county’s chief district court judge.
For the past two years, O’Neal co-chaired the city’s 17-member Racial Equity Task Force that in July submitted to the Durham City Council a visionary 60-page report that challenged the city and private institutions “to not be merely anti-racist in thought, but actively and continuously in deed.”
O’Neal says during the pandemic, she has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the people she used to see in her courtroom during her 24-year career as a judge.
“As a judge you listen,” she said. “And I wonder how they are doing. The elderly faced with housing enforcement, the babies in Durham social services’s custody, the fathers in criminal court, and others who were being evicted, young men who could put their hands on a gun faster than they could get something to eat, and I wonder how they are surviving. That experience in the courtroom, I still live it. I have to act on it. I can’t be still with that kind of stuff.”
Beasley says concern about gun violence is reverberating throughout the city, and he doesn’t think there’s a better mayoral candidate to address the issue.
“We had more shootings last year than we’ve ever had, and it’s going up and up,” he said. “This is not a knock on Steve [Schewel], it’s just that she brings a different tone. She commands respect. Not that Steve doesn’t command respect, but it’s akin to that mother in church you don’t want to cross. That’s her.”
O’Neal says that now that she is no longer bound by the judiciary, she can act on what she has seen in the courtroom.
“The court system is a reactive system,” she explained. “This is my opportunity to be proactive and help our citizens.”
While serving as a law school dean, O’Neal participated in the Square One Project, a national initiative with the aim of re-imagining justice in long-neglected communities beset by chronic poverty and racism.
“I can re-imagine Durham,” she said. “I can really see that—young Black men that I’d see in the courtroom walking on Dowd and Holloway [streets], on their way to work, smiling and being productive. But in reality, I really went to a lot of funerals, so many that I forgot their names. I can imagine my boys doing good things. Folks who are struggling, black and white; I can imagine them doing well.”
O’Neal, who lives in her childhood home in the West End, is deeply concerned about gentrification.
“I see it,” she said. “How is it that we cannot figure out how to help people have a decent place to live? I don’t think that’s rocket science. We need to figure out what our priorities are.”
O’Neal says her father—who died in 2018 at the age of 103—moved from Johnston County to Durham. He was able to find a job, make a living, and purchase a home for his family, not unlike what other Black people were doing in the West End at the time.
“Now you’re telling me with all the money the city is making, we can’t find a way to make that happen again?” she asked. “I happen to believe most people want to be good people and want their neighbors to live well. You can’t tell me that can’t happen again if it’s the will of the people.”
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