Durham County

Johnson sees excitement for ‘Bull City Together’ incumbents despite low Durham turnout

Voters in Durham who turned out appear committed to the City Council’s current course after Tuesday’s primary election results.

The top three finishers — Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero — currently serve on the council. They had a wide margin of victory over the next three candidates, who also advanced to the municipal general election Nov. 5 for the three at-large seats on the council.

The incumbents outpaced first-time candidate Joshua Gunn, former Councilwoman Jackie Wagstaff and Daniel Meier, another first-time candidate.

But turnout was light, with only 13% of voters in the city casting ballots.

Johnson, Reece and Caballero decided in the spring to run under the banner of “Bull City Together.” Their bloc — a man, an African American woman and a Latina — exhibits diversity in a city that upholds that cause, they say.

They chose five policy priorities: community engagement, inclusive economic development, housing affordability, community safety and sustainability.

It paid off with endorsements from the politically active People’s Alliance and the Durham Association of Educators.

They finished within 1,100 votes of each other, with Johnson pulling in 10,396 votes; Reece, 9,626 votes; and Caballero, 9,263 votes.

“I think people saw our platform and it resonated with them,” Johnson said. “They’re excited about the work Charlie, Javiera and I have done in Durham and are preparing to do over the next four years.”

Johnson said she’s encouraged by the primary election results.

“We’re getting more people involved with city government,” she said. “I’m excited to see that we’re trying to me a more open, more accessible and more democratic city government.”

Reece and Johnson, who are seeking their second terms, were first elected in 2015. Caballero, the first Latina on the council, is running for the first time after being appointed in 2018 to finish Steve Schewel’s unexpired term when he became mayor.

Daniel Meier, an attorney who finished sixth, said he still thinks the next election is anybody’s race.

“The problem is turnout,” he said.

Everyone assumes that the People’s Alliance controls the election, he said.

What they don’t realize is that the PA controls about 6 percent of the vote, he said, and in an election in which 10% of the population votes that is significant.

“We need to get the other 90 percent of the people energized,” Meier said.

Gunn’s fourth-place finish was good for someone who decided to file his candidacy 15 minutes before the deadline, he said Tuesday as voting results came in.

“We have some work to do, but it says that a lot of people in Durham want a change,” he said.

Gunn received 6,626 votes, about 2,500 behind third-place Caballero, and was the only other candidate to reach double-digits in voting percentage at 13.6%. He ran on a platform calling for change.

He received the endorsement of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People along with Reece. The Durham Committee did not endorse a third candidate for City Council.

Gunn, an entrepreneur and Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce vice president, also was endorsed by the Friends of Durham, a group that said public safety was its most important issue. The group also endorsed Meier.

While Gunn did not get the endorsement of the People’s Alliance, there was support for him within the group at the lengthy Aug. 21 endorsement meeting, enough that a board member believes he may have jeopardized his position in the group Tuesday.

Delvin Davis, who is the PAC Liaison, announced his support for Gunn on the morning of the election in a public Facebook post. The group recently adopted bylaws against leaders breaking with the organization’s announced endorsements, he said.

“I chose to vote for was Joshua Gunn, even though he wasn’t endorsed by the Durham People’s Alliance, a group that organizes for progressive issues and candidates,” the post said.


The six candidates will compete for the three at-large seats on the City Council Nov. 5. Two candidates for mayor — incumbent Steve Schewel and challenge Sylvester Williams — will be on the ballot, and voters will decide on a $95 million affordable housing bond referendum. Early voting runs Oct. 16-Nov. 1.

Staff writer Virginia Bridges contributed to this report.

Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.