For the past nine years the biennial mayoral race has been a snoozer.
Mayor Bill Bell has won his seat without breaking a sweat, collecting 77 to nearly 87 percent of the votes.
That will change in 2017.
Bell has decided not to run again after serving 42 years in public office, 26 as a county commissioner and 16 as mayor.
“I just thought it was an appropriate time,” he said.
The open seat will likely attract numerous candidates, Bell and others said, due to pent up demand. Candidates don’t register until July, but at least two people have said they are running: City Council members Steve Schewel and Cora Cole-McFadden.
The change comes as the the Bull City continues its nationally recognized transformation from a university-town with a blighted downtown to a technology-driven urban hub with foodie restaurants and high-end cocktail bars. But the shift is leaving some behind, pricing renters and longtime homeowners out of their neighborhoods and bringing in jobs that they don’t qualify for. Durham’s next mayor is going to be key in guiding inclusive change, which makes the mayoral election one of the top stories to watch in 2017.
“It is going to be a barnstormer,” said Omar Beasley, chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. “Turnout is going to be the word of the day. Who comes out to vote. Who has the better ground game. That is what is going to matter.”
And like most local races, Beasley said, the outcome may also depend on who gets endorsements from Durham’s active political action committees, including the People’s Alliance, the Durham Committee, and the Friends of Durham.
Last close contest
The last close mayoral race was a decade ago.
The 2007 contest between Bell, a Democrat, and challenger Thomas Stith III, a Republican, was a mud-slinging, money-spending, partisan battle for the nonpartisan seat.
Stith, who raised and spent more than any previous candidate for office in the city, attacked Bell’s record on crime in mailers and TV ads, depicting Durham as a crime-ridden city and Bell as a failed leader.
Still, Bell won 58 percent of the vote to Stith’s 42 percent. Stith most recently served as Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff.
Schewel and Cole-McFadden said they plan to run a civil race.
“We are both mature adults,” Cole-McFadden, 71, said. “My campaign will focus on me, and his campaign will focus on him.”
“We are friends and we are great colleagues,” Schewel, 65, said. “The campaign needs to be about issues and our ability to move the city forward.”
Schewel’s and Cole-McFadden’s decision to run will open up one space on the council if not two.
If Schewel wins, the City Council would vote to appoint a replacement to his at-large seat. If he loses, he returns to his City Council seat.
But Cole-McFadden’s term for Ward 1 expires this year. So that means her decision to run for mayor opens up one seat. If she loses her bid for mayor, she would no longer be on council.
“I’m taking a risk,” said Cora Cole-McFadden, who serves as mayor pro tem on the council, “because I have been training for mayor for over 10 years.”
While the mayor has one vote just like everyone else on City Council, he or she sets the tone for meetings and the city.
“People tend to look at the mayor as being sort of the leader of the city,” Bell said. “You’ve got a bully pulpit to espouse your ideas and your views.”
Bell managed to bring the community together to meet significant challenges, Cole-McFadden and Schewel said.
“He set a tone for progress,” Cole-McFadden said.
“A steady hand on the tiller,” Schewel said. “If there was a Mount Rushmore for Durham, I don’t know who the other three people would be, but I know Bill Bell is one.”
Bell and others said he has used the opportunity to support the renovation of the American Tobacco Campus, the construction of the Durham Performing Arts Center andthe revitalization of Southside.
“They are visions that I have had, but still they can’t come to fruition if you don’t have colleagues on the council that are willing to support it,” Bell said. “And even beyond that is to have an administration that understands it as well as is willing to implement it.”
A fresh look
Milo Pyne, a People’s Alliance PAC coordinator, said a new mayor means someone to take a fresh look at a different Durham.
When Bell came into office, Durham was a different place. Much of his 2001 campaign centered on revitalizing the city with balanced growth and breathing new life into a downtown that many were afraid to visit after dark. Inner-city neighborhoods were plagued with substandard and vacant homes, some of which the city owned.
But Durham’s revitalization has shifted the challenges to affordability, displacement and gentrification.
People tend to work on the issues that they have been working on, Pyne said, and the issues are so different.
“Not that he hasn’t done a good job,” Pyne said, “but it helps to have a new set of eyes.”
Bell said he plans to support Cole-McFadden, who he said has been very supportive of him during his tenure.
“First off I think she is capable of doing the job,” Bell said. “As a backup to that, I indicated that if she chose to run, I would support her. “
Cole-McFadden said she would set a tone for hope.
“Working together for the good of the citizens in Durham, zeroing in on the future, our children, a tone for cooperation among all facets of the population,” she said. “Whether it is making sure N.C. Central gets the same kind of attention that Duke does. Whether the people in McDouglad Terrace, Cornwallis and other low-income communities, making sure they are involved in the process as the people who have.”
She said she wants to focus on include affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, positive police-community relations and programs for young people.
“I believe children, our youth, will gain a lot from my leadership as a mother and understanding the needs of kids from a female point of view,” she said.
For Schewel, the tone will be set by listening to a multitude of voices “in an effort to bring people together for some common goals. “
“I believe that the most important job is working with other people to create a vision for the city, and then working hard every single day with those people to make that vision a reality,” he said.
Durham is in on the cusp of its Golden Age, Schewel said, and the two main questions are whether “everyone will share in its prosperity” and “whether the area can maintain the same small-city quality of life that we have enjoyed.”
The issues behind those questions center on affordable housing, how to have effective unbiased policing, and ensuring Durham residents qualify for and get the jobs coming to Durham, he said. Then there are the livable community issues such as investing in public transportation, sidewalks, ball fields and tree canopies, and making sure they are equally distributed across the city.
“I have a vision for the city, and I would like to bring people together to make this a better city, and I feel like I know how to help get us there,” Schewel said.
About the candidates
A city employee for 23 years, Cora Cole-McFadden started as a community services supervisor and retired in 2001 from the position of an equal opportunity/equity assurance director. That same year Cole-McFadden, who also serves as mayor pro tem, ran and won the Ward 1 seat.
Steve Schewel co-founded the publication Independent Weekly, now Indy Week, in 1983 and sold it in 2012. He served on the Board of Education from 2004 to 2008 and was elected to his first term on the City Council in 2011. Schewel is currently a visiting assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
In 2015, Schewel emerged the top vote getter in both the primary and general election for three at-large seats in the City Council. Ten people ran in the primary, and six were on the ballot in the general election. Schewel received 15,011 votes in the general election compared to second-place winner Jillian Johnson’s 12,497.
In 2011, Schewel came in second behind Dianne Catotti in the general election in which six candidates sought three at-large seats. Schewel received 15,116 votes compared to Cattoti’s 16,285.
In 2013, Cole-McFadden ran unopposed. In 2009 Cole-McFadden beat two opponents in the primary, and won the general election against Donald Hughes. Cole-McFadden received 8,092 votes compared to Hughes’ 2,526.
City Council responsibilities
The City Council has seven members. One is the mayor. Three members are elected from specific wards. Three are at-large members. The mayor is elected every two years. The four-year terms for City Council seats are staggered. Municipal elections are held every odd year.
The council serves as a policy-making body that oversees three employees: the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk. All members of the City Council have one vote during meetings.