On Monday night, the city of Durham did something that it has not done in 16 years—it swore in a new mayor.
Steve Schewel, Trinity '73 and Ph.D. '82, took the oath of office to fill the seat of retiring mayor Bill Bell after beating out challenger Farad Ali in November. The night also saw a major shift in the Durham City Council, with only one member retaining the same position.
“I’m feeling a big weight of responsibility,” Schewel said during the reception prior to the swearing-in. “But I’m excited to do it and I’m excited to get going.”
In his remarks to the city council chambers—which were packed enough to induce the fire marshal to keep some part of the crowd out of the room—Schewel, who has been a visiting assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, thanked his supporters and family, and did not shy away from political issues.
He said that stewardship of the community begins with stewardship of the city government, noting that in today’s world even “basic institutions” such as public schools and national parks are “battered and broken under the constant, deliberate assaults of ideology and greed.”
“We must not let that happen here in Durham,” the new mayor said.
Schewel, who has been a Durham resident for over 40 years, said he has been shocked in recent years by the fragility of democratic institutions, and said it is part of the mayor and council’s responsibility to defend the institutions of local government.
Discussing the vision he has for Durham in the future, he turned to his campaign slogan—“the city we love is a city for all.” Schewel touted a progressive agenda, calling on the city to be welcoming for all people, defend the vulnerable among it, believe science is real and “serve as a progressive beacon for the South and the nation.”
He then pivoted to address Durham’s “vulnerable communities” in particular.
Schewel said that refugees are welcome in Durham with open arms, that the city loves and respects gender non-conforming kids and that transgender people should come to Durham because “we don’t care what bathroom you use.” He spoke Spanish while addressing Latinx immigrants and—calling out President Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets—said to anyone who is Muslim that “we respect you, we stand with you, we support you and we welcome you.”
The new mayor, sporting his signature bow-tie and round-rimmed glasses, thanked everyone who voted in the elections, calling Durham a “rip-roaring democracy.”
“When [President Donald Trump] is elected based on a campaign of character assassination, Durham has got to be different,” he said. “And I’m very proud that we were different this year.”
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He also took a moment to thank his wife for her support during the long year—citing the marriage of one of their sons, caring for their aging parents, the “grueling” campaign and her support when his mother died two months ago.
“Babe, in all our 43 years together, this one might have been the most emotional,” he said.
But it was not just the mayor’s seat that saw a change on Monday. Schewel joined four other elected officials in being sworn-in to new positions at the December city council meeting, with new city council members giving the city government a “full wave of new, young energy,” said councilwoman Jillian Johnson.
In addition to Bell departing, three city council members said their goodbyes at the meeting—including Don Moffitt, Eddie Davis and outgoing Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden.
“Each one of us sits in one of these seats as stewards of our community and its well-being as long as the people will have us here, and no longer,” Schewel said. “The mood of the public can be fickle and changing—it can turn on a dime. But what will never change is the history that the four of these people have written.”
The departures made way for new council members DeDreana Freeman for Ward 1, Mark-Anthony Middleton for Ward 2 and Vernetta Alston in Ward 3. Schewel’s city council seat, which he has held since 2011, will remain empty until the council appoints a replacement following a months-long selection process.
Of the two incumbent city councilmembers, only Charlie Reece made it through the night with the same title. The first vote for the new city council was to unanimously appoint Jillian Johnson to fill the role of Cole-McFadden as mayor pro tempore at the recommendation of Schewel, who referred to Johnson as his "former student, current colleague and great friend."
Johnson said that she’s excited to not be the youngest city council member anymore, noting that Alston beats her by a year, and that she’s excited to see where Schewel takes the city. As for following Cole-McFadden as mayor pro tempore, Johnson said she can’t even imagine how she will fill the shoes of the woman who sat on the council for 16 years, but that she’s dedicated to doing the best job that she can.
“It’s exciting and overwhelming,” she said. “It’s an honor and a privilege, and I look forward to serving the city in my new role.”
As for Bell, who was swarmed by his six grandchildren as he walked out of the chambers as a regular Durham citizen for the first time in over a decade, the outgoing mayor of Durham will now have the chance to spend more time with his family.
“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “You can’t stay in a position this long and not have mixed feelings. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s time.”
Correction: This article was updated to reflect that four elected officials in addition to Schewel were sworn in, not five. The Chronicle regrets the error.