Durham County Candidate Questionnaires

Bill Bell
James Lyons
Tammy Lightfoot
John Everett Council:
Jillian Johnson
Charlie Reece
Steve Schewel
Mike Shiflett
Juan Alva
Philip Azar
Ricky Hart
Robert T. Stephens
John Tarantino
Sandra Davis


In a word, that’s what Raleigh’s Oct. 6 election is about: how much to grow, where to grow, how to create infrastructure that keeps up with growth, how to ensure that the prosperity accompanying growth is distributed equitably.

Within that one issue, growth, are myriad related issues: affordable housing, gentrification, density, historic preservation, public transportation, poverty, downtown development. This year’s hottest political fights have centered on a hated rezoning process and new rules to rein in downtown rowdiness.

In Durham, you see a similar story: affordable housing, gentrification, economic inequality, concerns about the boring, fancy-hotel direction downtown seems to be taking. There’s also anxiety about gun crime and the contentious relationship between the police and communities of color, which probably contributed to Chief Jose Lopez’s ouster.

(Programming note: We’ll endorse in Orange County races Oct. 21.)

The challenges are certainly real. Still, we believe that both cities are generally moving in the right direction. Raleigh’s and Durham’s downtowns are thriving, and with them our culinary and cultural scenes. The Triangle’s unemployment rate is well below the state average. We top all manner of quality-of-life rankings and best this-or-that lists.

The question for this election is how to keep that momentum goinghow to build on our positives and address our negatives.

Both Raleigh and Durham are fortunate to have a number of smart, engaged, progressive candidates for office. Some races proved difficult to decide; we’re not supporting a few candidates we like very much. But in the end, we believe the individuals we’ve endorsed best align with the INDY‘s mission of making the Triangle a more just, livable and interesting place.

Endorsements, of course, are by their nature subjective. This is not: In October 2013, turnout in Wake County municipal elections was an abysmal 15 percent; in Durham city elections, 10.5 percent. That’s not good enough. This is your home, and your home is at a crossroads. We can’t afford for you to sit this one out.

Vote for our people, vote for someone else, write in Scrooge McDuck or Homer Simpson or Donald Trump or some other cartoon character. Doesn’t matter. Just vote.

Due to an editing error, a reference to Durham City Council candidate Philip Azar was accidentally omitted before we went to press. It’s unfortunate because Azar’s work with Habitat for Humanity, Clean Energy Durham and the Inter-Neighborhood Council deserves a lot of credit. We also failed to mention that retired doctor Juan Alva dropped out of the Council race in late July.


We endorse Bill Bell for reelection to his eighth and final term as mayor.

Bell describes himself as a pragmatist and stresses his belief that politics is “the art of the possible.” And with that, he says, comes flexibility. We’ll add one more characteristic, as demonstrated by his remarks at the Sept. 10 Council work session: caution.

The self-described “social progressive and political conservative” rankled many affordable-housing advocates that afternoon as he appeared to shoot down a proposal from Self-Help Credit Union to build 80–100 affordable units on a 2.15-acre city-owned lot next to the Durham Station Transportation Center, a project that would align neatly with the city’s affordability target of 15 percent of units within a half-mile of transit hubs. Currently there are none.

Bell argued that he didn’t want to fast-track the decision to meet the deadline for Self-Help to apply for tax credits. That’s a reasonable argument, and he wasn’t alone in opposing the fast track. But then he added that he doesn’t want to “warehouse poor folks” and risk creating “another Cabrini-Green,” referring to the notorious project in Chicago. That’s a bad analogy; more important, it doesn’t bode well for any affordable-housing developments downtown.

Bell has instead suggested subsidizing rents for those at 60–80 percent of median income to move into existing units, which has merit but targets a better-off cohort than Self-Help’s proposal.

Bell’s opinion is not cemented, he says. He’s waiting for a report from Enterprise Community Partnerships, a firm hired by the city to analyze affordable housing downtown. Based on his lengthy record, we’re confident that Bell will view the findings with a pragmatist’s eye and achieve a commendable compromise with (we hope) some new social progressives on next year’s Council.

Under his watch, Durhamespecially downtownhas transformed from a dirty, dangerous place into a destination renowned for its nightlife and culture. Bell deserves credit for that. In recent years he’s focused on neighborhood revitalization and a much-improved rental inspection program. Through it all, Bell has developed a reputation for being fiscally prudent (the city has a AAA bond rating) and someone who’s willing to both assert his views and compromise to get things done.

Bell has earned a final term. But even if that weren’t so, Bell’s three opponents are all political newcomers who do little to inspire confidence.

James Lyons, a Democrat, works for Time Warner Cable. In 1998, the Durham native founded Keys to Life, a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring and tutoring teens.

According to his website and answers to our questionnaire, he’s concerned about a lot of the right things: affordable housing, crime and racial profiling. Unfortunately, he’s light on details when it comes to proposing solutions.

Tammy Lightfoot, a personnel manager at Walmart in Morrisville, has never voted in Durham, according to the N.C. Board of Elections. Democrat John Everett is a retired self-employed construction contractor.


At-large (three seats)

With Eugene Brown and Diane Catotti leaving, these Council races will play a major role in charting the city’s course over the next several years.

There are nine newcomers and one incumbent vying for three at-large Durham City Council seats. That’s a lot of candidates, and many of them have impressive résumés.

It wasn’t easy settling on three. We balanced experience, priorities, having a diversity of talent and ideas and, more generally, whether the candidates could best serve constituencies that need robust representation on Council.

Jillian Johnson fits that bill. Johnson is director of the Southern Vision Alliance, a grass-roots facilitator for youth-centered organizations that seeks to promote social and education justice as well as gender equity and LGBTQ rights.

Johnson is a tireless advocate for lower-income central Durham residents who feel like they’re getting pushed toward the exits by downtown’s resurgence. She supports Self-Help’s affordable-housing proposal and argues that the city’s affordable-housing plan must address issues of racial equality.

Johnson also wants to improve relations between the community and the police. She says she’ll work to reduce racial profiling and ensure that profiling statistics for traffic stops are consistently monitored. She supports the alternatives to drug enforcement recommended by the FADE coalition, such as making marijuana a lowest-level priority. Those policy goals speak to the desires of many longtime, committed Durham residentsas well as ours.

Charlie Reece, recently appointed treasurer of the N.C. Democratic Party, is an attorney for the contract medical research organization Rho. He previously served as assistant attorney general at the N.C. Department of Justice and as assistant district attorney for the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office.

Like Johnson, he lists affordable housing as a top priority, arguing that the developers building luxury condos downtown should also contribute to building affordable housing there and throughout Durham.

Reece says he worries about violent crime in Durham, echoing the concerns of many residents, especially in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. One solution, he told the INDY, is to repair the damaged community-police relations, in part by implementing “true community policing,” meaning cops walking beats instead of just responding to calls.

Reece has been active with the FADE coalition, and he’s critical of Council’s punt on Self-Help’s proposal. Affordable-housing issues are often more complex than many advocates acknowledgethis case is no differentbut Reece’s heart is in the right place, and he would help bolster the Council coalition that wants to turn the city’s longstanding promises on affordable housing into action.

That coalition’s loudest voice is incumbent Steve Schewel, the INDY‘s founder and longtime former publisher. Sure, we’re biased, but on the merits, Schewel has easily earned a second term.

Schewel believes the city is generally on the right track. He praises the work of City Manager Tom Bonfield and his staff, as well as the quality of city services and the city’s AAA bond rating.

But there are some areas that need improvement, Schewel addsand in these, he’s spot-on. Schewel understands the need to maintain and improve infrastructure. He acknowledges that Durham lags behind in trails, bike lanes, parks, ball fields and tree canopies. He has ideas about reducing landfill waste. And he’s a strong supporter of light rail.

When he first ran in 2011, Schewel had served one term on the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, two years as its vice chair. On Council, he’s served as liaison to the Durham Housing Authority, the Recreation Advisory Commission and the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission. He’s also on the city’s Audit Services Oversight Committee.

In short, Schewel is everything you want in a Council memberplugged in, responsive, energetic, progressive. So yeah, four more years.

Regrettably, endorsing Schewel, Reece and Johnson means not endorsing Mike Shiflett, whom we like very much. The retired owner of the American LAbor/LAB ACM medical lab equipment company is endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham and the Sheriff and Police Alliance. His list of community activism is astoundingly long. And as a co-founder of Durham-Orange Friends of Transit, he’s an expert on the subject and an outspoken backer of the light-rail project.

Shiflett would make for a very good councilman, and omitting him from our endorsements was a very close call.

The other candidates in the race include Ricky Hart, a lifelong Durham resident who served 12 years in the U.S. Army; Robert T. Stephens, director of Alumni Teacher Leadership at Teach For America and a Black Lives Matter organizer; Juan Alva, a retired doctor who founded the inner-city Vickers Clinic; John Tarantino, a perennial Republican gadfly; and Sandra Davis, who has often spoken before Council about conditions at the Lynnhaven apartment complex in Southeast Durham.

Of these, Hart and Stephens bear special note. Hart, who works for Orange County’s Child Support Services, is a former chairman of the Durham Human Relations Commission, where he gained insight into the police department’s racial-profiling practices. He once appeared before Council with 34 recommendations to fix the problem. We wish he offered the same specificity in his answers to our candidate questionnaire, some of which were vague. Still, he’s backed by Friends of Durham and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, and he has the background to be a good Council member someday.

The same goes for Stephens, who shares the priorities of our endorsed candidates in the areas of policing and affordable housing. Give him a few years.

Where to Vote Early

Early voting for the Oct. 6 municipal elections runs from Thursday, Sept. 24, to Saturday, Oct. 3. Here is a list of sites by county.


Board of Elections

201 N. Roxboro St., Durham

9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sept. 24-25; 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sept. 26; 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sept. 28–Oct. 2; 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Oct. 3.

South Regional Library

4505 S. Alston Ave., Durham

9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sept. 24–25; 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sept. 26; 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sept. 28–Oct. 2; 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Oct. 3.

East Regional Library

211 Lick Creek Lane, Durham

9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sept. 24–25; 9 a.m–1 p.m. Sept. 26; 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sept. 28–Oct. 2; 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Oct. 3.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Vote! (OR STFU)”