Editor’s note: After publication, candidate Nate Baker objected to several points in the story. Subsequently, INDY changed language in two sentences to be more precise: clarifying the context of a July 2022 meeting with the Inter-Neighborhood Council (INC) and indicating that while Baker has the support of INC members, INC as an organization does not officially back political candidates.
It’s a Friday morning in early September, and Mike Woodard is sitting, legs crossed, at a table in front of Samuel & Sons barbershop. Dressed in the standard uniform of male politicians trying to look casual—khakis, a button-up, no tie, and no socks—he seems at ease. Like the front-runner he was assumed to be when he entered Durham’s mayoral race two months before.
The state senator and former Durham City Council member chose the Angier Avenue barbershop as a starting point for a tour of the surrounding East Durham neighborhood. The eponymous Samuel Jenkins is an old friend of Woodard’s. Later, the barber delivers water and chastises Woodard for throwing away a half-smoked cigar Jenkins left on the table.
When the tour begins in Woodard’s silver Audi, he turns off the jazz station and points to businesses, old and new, lining Angier and Driver Street. There’s Samuel & Sons, of course, which will soon be taken over by a nearby Latino barbershop after Jenkins retires. Ideal’s is a trendy sandwich spot whose patrons begin lining up before it opens each day. Joe’s Diner is a stalwart restaurant owned by Mayor Elaine O’Neal’s ex-husband, Joseph Bushfan; it now focuses on catering and hawks hot dogs from a tent out front.
Woodard loops past the newest businesses, Mike D’s BBQ and Congress Bar & Cafe, before pausing at an empty lot around the block.
“Just a couple years ago, we had an open-air homeless place,” he says. “They took over this lot right here. This has just gotten cleaned up in the last couple of weeks. But you had four or five tents, guys sitting out here all day. Addicts were living here, is what we think was happening, but the dealers were coming and dealing fentanyl.”
A few blocks away, Woodard stops again in front of the encampment’s new location. Across the street, workers are building a row of nine new homes.
As Woodard concludes the drive, circling back past Rofhiwa—the Black-owned bookstore and coffee shop that’s still boarded up after a car crashed through its front window in a reported drug deal gone bad—it’s not entirely clear what impression he hopes to give. Is Durham on the right path? Does it need to change direction?
“I still think it’s both/and,” Woodard says.
“I thought it’d be helpful to see some of the investments and some of the things we have done,” he adds, getting out of the car. “And the challenges. What is the balance? I don’t know.”
On the cusp of early voting for the primary, Durham seems split on the question, too. With a surprise strike by the city’s sanitation workers adding yet another twist to an already divisive election, consensus isn’t likely anytime soon.
The core issues shaping what voters think of the balance—city council scandals, holistic policing strategies, and ways to manage growth—were covered in the first three parts of this series. This final piece raises four key political questions. How voters answer them this fall will shape Durham’s future.
What matters more, policy or personality?
When her city council colleagues were debating whether to censure her for allegedly misusing city staff time to support her reelection campaign, Monique Holsey-Hyman was affronted.
“It’s troubling my heart,” she said during a March council meeting. “I put my name in the hat to help people, and I’m going to be 58 and I have won major awards. I have never in my life been sanctioned anything about ethics—in my entire life.”
“When I came on council, a lot of this was going on in terms of the tension,” Holsey-Hyman tells the INDY. She was selected, she says, because her training as a social worker allows her to navigate emotionally fraught situations.
“That’s what people say to me: ‘Dr. Hyman, you listen to us. You treat us with respect,’” she says.
Holsey-Hyman tells a story about the funeral of a murdered Hillside student to showcase what she’d like her campaign to focus on.
“Some of the young men came in,” she says. “They had ski masks. You could tell they were part of gangs. I said, ‘If you really want this man’s life to be something that you uplift, you’ve got to go back and do the right thing.’ And when I finished speaking, do you know that those same young men who came in with their pants down and their ski masks, they came and they hugged me? Because I’m someone that comes from the communities they are coming from.”
But Holsey-Hyman hasn’t been able to focus on those stories because her reelection campaign has unfolded under the shadow of scandal due to the censure, the Wikipedia ordeal, and the ongoing investigation into allegations that she solicited a bribe from a developer. (On Tuesday, after the INDY went to print, Durham District Attorney Satana DeBerry in a memo said that a state investigator had found no evidence of wrongdoing on Holsey-Hyman’s part relating to both the extortion allegation and the claim that she solicited a city staffer to work on her election campaign.)
Her ally, council member and mayoral candidate DeDreana Freeman, is in a similar position. Also caught up in the Wikipedia scandal, and still dogged by allegations that she threw a punch at fellow council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, Freeman joins Holsey-Hyman in arguing that their policy positions and backgrounds are unfairly overshadowed.
In July, before she declared her intention to run for mayor, Freeman told the INDY she wants the election to focus less on candidates. “The issues stopped being the driver, and we have to get back to that,” she said.
It was never likely, given the context. As if to prove the point, someone has begun attaching placards to her campaign signs that read, “She’ll fight for Durham.”
Questions of character have shaped the election for every other candidate, too.
“I was surprised with how many interviews I went on for endorsements that asked about temperament,” says Khalilah Karim, a city council candidate running for one of three at-large seats.
Has behavior become a priority over ideology and policy preferences?
The Friends of Durham—the most conservative of Durham’s major PACs and historically the home of the white business interests—endorsed progressive council member Javiera Caballero, who is seeking reelection, despite targeting her in the last election with a mailer claiming she and her progressive allies were putting the police “under assault.”
“Those of us who have known Javiera for a while now feel that she’s really matured into a complete council person,” says Dan Jewell, a long time Friends of Durham member who helped with their endorsements. “She gets it. And she seems to have shown the temperament in the last couple of months to at least not get riled in public and participate in all of the shenanigans.”
The group also chose not to endorse council member and mayoral candidate Leo Williams, a small business owner they backed in 2021, even though Jewell admits he “fulfilled all of our expectations, if not even more.”
Instead, the Friends of Durham endorsed Woodard. They reasoned it would allow them to bring in more people with the right personality because Williams’s council seat is not up for election this year, meaning he’ll stay on council if he loses the mayoral race.
“We felt we needed as many steady hands and reasonable voices on the council as we can have,” Jewell says. “To us, it is a win-win.”
But Williams gained two other endorsements that seemed unthinkable before the campaign began. The self-described centrist is the progressive choice this year, winning recommendations from both of Durham’s progressive PACs, the People’s Alliance (PA) and Durham for All.
Positioning himself as a candidate able to unify Durhamites of all stripes, given the role he played for much of the past two years as the go-between for city council’s various blocs, it’s not a stretch to say Williams won their backing because of his basic competence and ability to maintain cordial relationships.
“He’s proven to be someone who’s steady and straightforward,” says Durham for All executive director Whitney Maxey. “We’ve never had to guess what his stance is. It’s important to have someone who has that kind of consistency but also has been reliable in his willingness to engage even if we don’t start out on the same page.”
Much of the opposition to Williams stems from feelings that the exact opposite is true.
Supporters of Freeman, his opponent in the mayoral race, have frequently used public comment periods at city council meetings to criticize Williams for what they see as rudeness. Even Holsey-Hyman echoes the complaint, though she doesn’t name Williams explicitly.
“That’s one thing I’ve had a little problem with,” she says. “The residents sometimes are not treated with respect when they come to our meetings.”
On the other hand, planning commissioner and city council candidate Nate Baker, a progressive who frequently names capitalism as the source of injustice, failed to receive endorsements from either progressive PAC. He’s seen as too friendly with problematic people with whom he aligns on development issues, sources say.
Activists connected to the InterNeighborhood Council (INC) and others have spread groundless or disproven conspiracy theories targeting their political opponents, including Williams and Caballero.
As early as July 2022, five months before the Planning Commission voted on whether to recommend SCAD, the controversial amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance, Baker met with INC and discussed how to organize against it.
Baker has not propagated any of the conspiracy theories himself, but sources who attended the PA and Durham for All endorsement meetings report that he lost both votes due to his perceived connections to those who had. Baker wouldn’t address these sentiments in interviews.
“I have never had bad interactions with fellow planning commissioners,” Baker says. “In general, the planning commission has not been a toxic place. That is a body that has had a lot of very positive conversation.”
Are the PACs still the center of political power?
Going into the 2021 election, the PA was on a decade-long winning streak. Only a single of their endorsed municipal candidates had lost since 2009. In 2021, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (DCABP) slate dominated. After a tumultuous two years, the question is whether 2021 was a sea change, a blip, or a sign of something else altogether. The person best positioned to answer it is a man who has been endorsed by both organizations in eight previous elections: Mike Woodard.
Coming back to Durham politics after 10 years in the state senate, Woodard’s pitch to voters is that he can bring a veteran presence the city needs to navigate this period—or perhaps just be the adult in the room.
On our tour of East Durham, he’s in his element as he rehashes the work done during his time on city council: small business grants, streetscape improvements, a failed pilot with an early ShotSpotter-like technology, the creation of the Holton Resource Center.
But experience hasn’t resonated the way many expected.
Though Woodard received the Friends of Durham endorsement, the group’s influence has waned. Only the PA and DCABP have real sway in Durham elections now, and for the first time in his career, neither supported Woodard. Himself a part of the PA’s old guard, Woodard received even fewer votes at the group’s endorsement meeting than Freeman, the paragon of the PA’s current opposition.
But Woodard is unfazed.
After O’Neal announced she would not seek reelection, Woodard says, he started getting phone calls. He kept a tally on a card that he stashed in his jacket pocket. After the 40th call, Woodard says he stopped counting.
“I know the people who contacted me and asked me to run,” he says. “And I’m out in the community talking to folks, so I don’t worry about it a bit. I did not expect either of those two endorsements.”
Having raised more money so far than either Williams or Freeman, Woodard’s campaign is a test case in whether there’s an alternate route to the mayor’s seat. Instead of the major PACs, his campaign is premised on the support of influential community members, though Woodard declined to name anyone who asked him to run.
He’s not the only candidate trying to create a new base of political support outside the PA and DCABP either.
Freeman heads an unofficial slate of candidates who all have close ties to INC, including Bonita Green, INC’s president, who declined to participate in any endorsement process; Sherri Zann Rosenthal, a former assistant city attorney; and Baker.
“My feeling is that this is going to be a very different type of election than any other that Durham’s had,” Green says. “I don’t think this is an election that money can buy.” (Disclosure: Green and I are both board members of Dataworks NC.)
The likelihood of Green winning a seat seems remote—money may not buy an election, but it helps, and Green has raised less than $1,000. Rosenthal is faring better, raising just under $18,000, but that’s still only sixth most among the city council candidates.
The fundraising leader is longtime PA activist Carl Rist, with over $80,000 to his campaign thanks to deep connections across Durham. It’s enough to give the PA reason to believe it has righted the ship after 2021.
If the backing of INC members alone isn’t enough, though, it might help push other candidates over the edge. With INC providing a tailwind alongside a DCABP endorsement, Baker’s campaign doesn’t seem particularly troubled without the PA. He’s second in money raised with nearly $40,000.
By combining support from development-skeptical progressives, INC, and DCABP, Baker’s candidacy raises a related but distinct quandary alongside Woodard’s: Are the centers of political power shifting?
In recent years, DCABP, the historic home of Black business and middle classes, has been aligned with Friends of Durham. Their endorsement lists have largely overlapped with moderate, business-friendly candidates pushing an enterprise- and building-centric approach to community development.
But as the current council has divided over housing and development, the slate DCABP endorsed two years ago split down the middle with O’Neal and Freeman on one side, joined by Holsey-Hyman after she was appointed, and with Williams and Middleton on the other.
This year, DCABP members seem split as a result, producing a variable slate of endorsed candidates. The Committee recommended Williams for mayor but Holsey-Hyman and Baker for city council, along with Shelia Huggins, an attorney and former Friends of Durham board chair.
“Our slate is like a holistic approach,” says DCABP PAC chair Cassandra Stokes. “Each candidate brings a different skill set that will be beneficial to the council.”
There isn’t a single substantive issue in Durham politics that the whole slate agrees on, from housing policy to police reform, but Stokes says that’s by design.
“All of those candidates in their expertise speak to a different issue that Durham has seen over the years,” she says. “That’s what makes a successful city council. Our slate reflects Durham—we have a mix of different backgrounds and people in different fields.”
But others say that it’s the result of an organization that’s become as contentious as Durham at large. The most notable critic is one of their own slate: Leo Williams.
“There are more good people who care about our community in the Committee than not,” Williams said in an interview with the INDY on the day he announced his candidacy for mayor. “But I would be a fool if I were to pretend that there were not toxic people tarnishing the history and purpose of the Committee. That has implications. It wasn’t as bad when I was endorsed by the Committee [in 2021]. It’s really bad now.”
Who’s the progressive leader after Jillian Johnson leaves office?
When Jennifer Carroll, a member of Durham’s Community Safety and Wellness Task Force, was first getting involved in local politics, she knew little about the city council. “But I knew who Jillian was, because I live in Durham and I have eyes,” she says.
Since she was first elected in 2015, Johnson has been a dominant force in Durham politics—and not just among her progressive allies. She’s long been the boogeyman for political opponents, whether for her policy choices or influence in progressive organizations. After a contentious budget vote in June, Freeman even alluded to her as one of the two puppet masters of council, along with Middleton.
Now, Johnson will be leaving office. Her absence will shape both the city council and Durham’s progressive movement.
Observers are already pointing to the relatively short tenure of the current council members as one reason for its visible dysfunction and tension.
Johson has served the longest.
“You didn’t have a wealth of experience at that council,” says former mayor Bill Bell, who served 26 years as a county commissioner and 16 years as mayor.
“Even though I haven’t been on council in 11 years, I still have more council service than anybody else running,” says Woodard, who served from 2005 to 2013.
With community trust at a low point, the question is whether anyone can fill the gap.
Middleton, who succeeded Johnson as mayor pro tem, was assumed to be Durham’s next mayor-in-waiting before this election cycle. But he didn’t run, and he’s found himself in an antagonistic relationship with citizens at recent council meetings, telling critics repeatedly to run against him if they don’t like his positions and often eliciting jeers from the crowd.
Freeman, whose stature and influence grew during O’Neal’s term, is another possibility, should she become mayor, but her failure to receive major PAC endorsements indicates her support runs narrow, even if it also runs deep.
In either case, neither Middleton nor Freeman have had easy relationships with Durham progressives centered around the PA and Durham for All, so they’re looking for a way to transition into their next era. Still, progressives will have to replace their figurehead, and there’s no apparent successor.
Johnson has promised to stay involved in local politics but will have to support fellow progressives without the built-in bully pulpit of the council dais.
Caballero is a popular incumbent in her own right, and Rist’s fundraising haul speaks for itself, so there’s reason for Durham progressives to feel optimistic heading into the election. But a burden of uncertainty falls on Khalilah Karim. A former labor organizer now with the League of Conservation Voters, Karim is not nearly as well known as Caballero and Rist. She’s been labeled “the new Jillian” by supporters and opponents alike, and she seems to embrace the characterization.
“People have been talking about it,” Karim says. “I don’t take it in a negative way. I think about what Jillian has done in her terms on council, and I’m like, if only I can be as lucky to get as much done.”
Karim’s background—and Johnson’s support—were enough to win the PA and Durham for All endorsements, but PA sources say Baker nearly beat Karim to the third spot on the slate.
Baker has won supporters among moderates and progressives alike by taking a more critical view of development issues that have been central to this election thus far. With growth taking center stage as Johnson steps out of the limelight, there’s reason to question whether her influence will carry as much weight as it once did.
Johnson spearheaded a successful slate with Caballero and Charlie Reece when she was on the campaign trail herself in 2019, but her support wasn’t enough to give Marion Johnson much success when she challenged Freeman in 2021. Rist, who earned her endorsement this year and supports the PA and Durham for All slate, says Johnson’s absence will leave a vacuum.
“From an organizing and intellectual perspective, she’s been a true leader,” he says.
Karim is focused on trying to carve out the space to be her own candidate.
“New leadership in itself doesn’t have to be bad,” she says. “A lot of the time people get used to seeing the same people in office, and I think we need to change that up, actually. We need to give space for a lot of different folks to run.”
What can voters realistically expect from city council?
Ten years ago, Durham was in the midst of an ugly political fight over development with many of the same talking points—and people—as today.
It started in 2005 with a change to Jordan Lake’s watershed boundaries, which enabled Southern Durham Development to plan a 1,300-home project called 751 South that made a long and tortured journey through local government over the next eight years.
In June 2013, city council voted against annexing the project into city limits—the second time the request was denied. Southern Durham Development wanted annexation because it meant the city would provide water and sewer service. They weren’t taking no for an answer, and ultimately the General Assembly forced Durham to annex the property. 751 South officially became part of the City of Durham this June, around the same time that state lawmakers forced municipalities to extend utilities to charter schools after Durham’s city council refused to do so.
For many of Durham’s elected officials, those cases provide an essential lesson. It’s not just that North Carolina law strictly curtails local governments’ powers; it’s that lawmakers are quick to jump on the chance to punish blue cities that go too far.
The General Assembly can repeal a city charter, effectively legislating the city out of existence without the city’s residents getting a say in the matter, if it pleases. With a Republican supermajority in the legislature and control of the courts, things are only worse now.
Statements about fiduciary responsibility make for uninspiring campaign speeches, even when they’re true. But even those taking a more fiery approach admit the constraints.
Freeman says she would provoke a fight with the General Assembly in order to push the envelope on new strategies, especially around affordable housing—but only if voters are willing to bear the consequences.
“A thousand percent,” Freeman says, when asked if she’d be willing to risk a lawsuit. “As long as the city is willing to be taxed.
“You’re going to end up in court. And I would say that because the way the courts are in North Carolina, and now the Supreme Court in the country, it’s not likely that we would win, and so it would be an exercise in futility. But I’d be willing to be a test case.”
Her colleague on the council, Caballero, takes a different view.
“If you want to go poke the bear, go poke the bear,” she says. “I’m not going along with you on that suicide mission. Not now.”
But a city can control its budget, and that became a central issue this month as sanitation workers launched an unexpected strike.
Ironically, the strike gave a lifeline to Freeman and Holsey-Hyman while putting progressives on the back foot.
The seed was planted at the budget vote in June, when O’Neal belatedly asked for a raise for firefighters, less than two weeks before the city was required by law to have passed a balanced budget. It doesn’t appear the request was ever raised during budget negotiations, but at the meeting, confusion ensued. Council members asked if the raise was only for firefighters, other first responders, or all city staff. A majority—Johnson, Caballero, Williams, and Middleton—said they didn’t want to raise taxes beyond the increase that the county had already passed, especially without a clear plan.
Eventually, the council approved the budget without the additional raises, with the understanding that there would be a pay study and requisite wage increases next year.
It was the responsible option, the majority said.
The sanitation workers didn’t want to wait that long. UE150 (which didn’t make any specific budget requests earlier this year), showed up to the September 7 work session demanding immediate $5,000 bonuses, that temporary workers be hired as permanent staff, and that employees get paid for work outside of their official duties.
“There were three of us that saw this day coming back in June,” O’Neal said at that meeting. “We had the opportunity and we tried, so I won’t take that it’s all of us. I won’t bear that burden. That has to be exactly where it is: on four.”
In the face of such direct attacks, the majority responded with appeals to pragmatism.
“If I’m being honest, I think we’re being borderline irresponsible right now,” Williams said to the workers. “I don’t want to position us to where we have a momentary sensation and fall apart later.”
The smarter thing to do, Williams argued, was ensure that any raise was sustainable, which required time. But ultimately, implementing the demand isn’t up to the council: day-to-day operations of city government are left to staff.
This weekend, city manager Wanda Page presented her plan, which calls for bonuses of up to $3,000 for all city workers. The lowest paid receive the most, but the union isn’t satisfied.
“Members of the Durham City Workers Union … are sticking with the demand for the $5,000 bonus for all city employees making less than $75,000,” the organization said in a statement, noting their plan would cost roughly the same as Page’s.
If a compromise is reached that leaves all parties reasonably happy, Williams, Caballero, and their allies may end up looking like effective politicians who were able to usher protest into policy. But if the union remains unsatisfied, the council members’ critics will have the ammunition they need to write the next chapter in a story about Durham politicians being out of touch with the city’s working-class Black residents.
“We will proceed in regular order tonight,” Middleton said, presiding over a council meeting Monday in place of the absent O’Neal. It was a message to the sanitation workers lining the first row of council chambers following a pre-meeting rally: there would be no vote on the bonuses.
“We want to encourage everyone who can to attend on Thursday … when her honor the mayor will be back and the full council will be in session to engage and do what we said we were going to do when we passed the budget,” Middleton told them.
It’s the same day early voting begins for the primary.
“Yes, you do deserve it,” Middleton added.
The meeting was paused as the workers filed out of the room. Then the council returned to the rest of its business and a mostly empty gallery. On the agenda: four public hearings on new development cases.
This is the fourth story in a four-part series covering Durham’s upcoming municipal election.
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