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Durham mayoral race heats up

Mayor Bill Bell has already campaigned for his office three times in the past six years, winning more than 80 percent of the vote in the last election.

But running for his fourth consecutive term, the soft-spoken mayor of the Bull City finds himself in a new situation-not only running an election campaign but also attempting to deal with the media backlash of a lawsuit against the city.

Taking on a leadership role in the months after the lacrosse case officially ended last spring, Bell was part of a push within City Council to investigate the role of the Durham Police Department in the case. Now, months later, the city led by Bell is prepped to fight a lawsuit filed by the three falsely accused former Duke students demanding infrastructural changes and estimated monetary reparations of $30 million.

City Council member Mike Woodard said Bell has shown greater leadership than opponent and City Council member Thomas Stith over the past two years in dealing with the lacrosse case.

"I guess voters will have to ask themselves, of these two men who have been involved in this, who has shown more leadership on issues related to allegations related to the lacrosse team?" Woodard said. "Clearly, the mayor has stepped up when there were a lot of issues and immediately after allegations were made through meetings with President [Richard] Brodhead and other community leaders. I have not seen the same level of leadership from Councilman Stith."

Throughout the lacrosse case, Bell said he did not overstep his role as mayor, but instead was the liaison between the police department, the Durham community and Duke.

"We did the best we could have [in] maintaining calm and reason in the community and asking people to try and let the judicial process take place," Bell said. "[Stith] raised issues recently that implied I had much more oversight than I actually did."

Law Professor James Coleman said he does not believe that the lacrosse case will affect the outcome of the mayoral election and that Bell acted appropriately in the situation.

"The way I understand the mayor's actions, he asked for the police department to expedite the process but he also told them to be thorough," Coleman said. "Given the circumstances, I think it was responsible to ask the police to expedite the process. He didn't tell the police... to frame three innocent students."

A politician in Durham since 1972, Bell said he brings experience and understanding of the Bull City to the position.

"I think I bring the knowledge of how local governments work-both at the city and county level," he said. "The years of service in which I was in a leadership position... give me additional leadership experience at the local government level."

Since he entered political office in Durham, Bell said the relationship between Duke and Durham has improved and widened, and he added that Duke is an active and key part of the Durham community.

"I believe there is a very positive relationship between Duke and Durham," Bell said. "[In my time in Durham] I have seen the Duke-Durham relationship improve, grow and progress. Is there room for improvement? There's always room for improvement, and we're working on that."

Bell said if he is re-elected, he would continue to develop inner-city neighborhoods-one of his top priorities since his first term as mayor.

With the 2007 year-long theme of "Rebuilding Inner City Neighborhoods: a Win-Win for Durham," Bell has continued his work to develop Eastway Avenue in northeast central Durham.

The revitalization project began in July 2004 and is scheduled to finish in June 2008, with a price tag of more than $7.5 million, according to a report compiled by the Durham Community Development Department.

"I believe that strong neighborhoods make for strong cities, which make for strong economies," Bell said. "When you have those kinds of environments, people and businesses move in and neighborhoods survive and thrive. If neighborhoods thrive, then cities thrive."

The issues that Bell has focused on during his campaign have been issues that he has addressed over the past six years, Woodard said.

"Revitalizing some of our urban neighborhoods does not offer any quick fixes," he said. "The issues those communities face are chronic, and we can spend a lot of time and a lot of resources on those. It will take a strong leader to realize what efforts and resources best help us bring economic prosperity to these areas."

In addition to revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods in Durham, Bell said he plans to focus on bringing jobs into the community, developing downtown Durham, focusing more on climate protection and environmental issues and reducing crime.

As far as his chances of winning, Bell said he is confident that he will defeat Stith in the mayoral election.

"I expect to win come November," he said. "If people look at my record, they see I have experience, integrity, leadership ability and I get things done in this community."

Naureen Khan contributed to this story.

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