Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: Schewel is a man with a plan

After arriving early at the Mad Hatter to interview Durham City Council member Steve Schewel, I debated with my desire for a delectable baked good to complement the conversation.

Before I could decide, Schewel arrived, more or less decked out in professorial attire. I had not known that he’s long been a visiting assistant professor in the Hart Leadership Program at Duke.

I checked his gray tweed-like garment for elbow patches but saw none, thankfully.

When he talks, Schewel is unexpectedly soft-spoken for someone with such strong convictions. I informed him that our interview would be edited for clarity and brevity.

“I trust you, Gaspo,” he all but whispered.

That may have been his first mistake. But as a former overseer of writers at the The Independent, which he co-founded, Schewel knows how these things work.

I gulped some tasty coffee and got going.

“So Steve, I haven’t been able to come up with anything especially negative about you.”

Schewel: “Well, let’s hope it stays that way.”

“Today is a tough day. The cartoonist-journalists in France have just been murdered.”

Schewel: “And there are more hostages being held. It’s unbelievable. Is this what we have come to in the world?”

“You’ve taught a seminar on terrorism. How are you qualified to teach that subject?”

Schewel: I have a great boss. I get great latitude. I don’t have to be an expert.”

“The name of the course?

Schewel: “Terrorism.”

“Well, that cuts right to the heart of it.”

(Decades ago, Schewel spent eight days in jail after being convicted for trespassing during a protest against nuclear power. He’s been involved in many protests since. Schewel bares this fact like a badge of honor.)

“Where did you get this activism from?

Schewel: “First, my parents. They were incredibly involved in the community where I grew up.”

(I discovered that Schewel and I were raised about 50 miles from each other in Virginia.)

Schewel: “A lot of it also comes from my brand of Judaism. It’s very oriented toward having a social conscience.”

(The Watts-Hillandale resident has also run marathons, coached soccer and adores the Avett Brothers. Their 2013 album release: “Magpie and the Dandelion.”)

“Your bio also says, ‘he fancies himself a pretty good cook.’”

Schewel: “Well, I love to cook.”

“A favorite dish?”

Schewel: “Anything from ‘Jerusalem: A Cookbook.’

“From a distance, I’ve been getting this feeling you’re cooking up a run for mayor of Durham.”

Schewel: “I support Bill Bell 100 percent. But after he finishes, whenever that is, I’d like to take a crack at it, yes.”

“Interesting. Are we breaking some news here?

Schewel: “Possibly.”

“Have you talked to Mayor Bell about it?”

Schewel: “Well, he knows he has my full support.”

“Will you have his full support?”

Schewel: “I don’t know.”

(Schewel has spoken and written with emotion about recent protests on the streets of Durham tied to police treatment of minorities here and elsewhere, DN, nando.com/tz)

“So what do you really think about Police Chief Jose Lopez?”


“Take your time.”

More thinking.

“I didn’t mean that much time.”

Schewel: “He’s got some really good qualities and some things he needs to improve on.”


No reply.

“Should Durham police wear body cameras?”

Schewel: “They will be. The city manager is all about it now.”

(The first-term council member has ridden on municipal garbage trucks. He stood on the back, jumped down, rolled the cans, and then climbed back up.)

Schewel: “Yep. One route has 700 cans. I learned how hard those folks work. I also found out I should have worn hard-toed shoes.”

(Schewel is married to Lao Rubert, who directs the Carolina Justice Policy Center. The couple has two sons.)

Lao Rubert is sort of an exotic name.”

Schewel: “Yes, but she’s a good ‘ole Missouri girl. She’s named after someone who was named after Lao-tzu.”

(Lao-tzu was a legendary philosopher from ancient China. One of the near-countless quotes attributed to him: “I have just three things to teach: Simplicity, patience, compassion. Those three are your greatest treasures.”)

“You and Ms. Rubert seem like soul mates, philosophically. Where did you meet?

Schewel: “In the shallow end while coaching youngsters. I still remember the first day I saw her in the pool.”

“What are three words you would use to describe Durham?

Schewel: “Can I have six?

“You’re pushing it.”

Schewel: “We need to be for everybody.”

“OK, that’s six words. Clever. Do you have a Twitter account?”

Schewel: “No.”

“If you run for mayor someday, that will probably change.”

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.