For the first time since 2001, Durham officially has a new mayor. Steve Schewel, Trinity '73 and Ph.D. '82, was sworn into office Monday. He recently sat down with The Chronicle’s Ben Leonard to discuss some of the challenges he faces as a new mayor. 

The Chronicle: You are replacing Bill Bell after his 16 years in office. Does that put more pressure on you or affect how you will act in office, especially in the beginning?

Steve Schewel: No, not really. I know Bill really well. We’re good friends. I’ve been on the council for six years that he’s been mayor. I watched him and know what he did and totally respect him, but I don’t feel any extra pressure replacing Bill. I feel a great sense of responsibility to the people of Durham that elected me and that weighs heavily on me, but that doesn’t put any extra pressure on me. 

TC: All but one of the members on city council is changing positions. Do you anticipate that having any sort of effect—will it be a steep learning curve at the beginning? 

SS: Well first of all, two other council members besides myself will still be on the council. We’re getting new people, but three of us are there from the previous council. We have three totally new members and will be appointing the new member to my seat, so four of the seven will be totally new. That does present a real challenge, which is that there’s a huge learning curve when you’re new. It’s going to be really challenging for the new council to get up to speed on all the issues and procedures. It’ll be a lot to learn. 

TC: The council will have to appoint someone to replace you. Do you have any favorites at this point?

SS: I definitely have not decided on any specific candidates to support. In Durham, we’ve done a great job of having racial power-sharing on city council, on county commission, on our school board, in our legislative races and our local offices between African Americans and whites. But, we’ve never had a Latino officeholder in Durham. Our population is about 15 percent Latino. I’m very interested to see if we get some good, qualified Latino applicants. I would certainly look very favorably on them. But I have not made up my mind and will be open to all applicants. 

TC: What’s the single-most important issue facing Durham today and why?

SS: We need to work on affordable housing. That work is ongoing—the city is doing a lot of work on it right now—but we need to continue to do that and to do more of it. There’s a big community commitment to that. We need to succeed in implementing a lot of our affordable housing [policies]. 

TC: When you were sworn in, you called Durham a “rip-roaring democracy.” Some have said that North Carolina doesn’t meet the definition of a democracy because of gerrymandering of a lot of its districts—how do you feel about the state of democracy in North Carolina as a whole? 

SS: Democracy in North Carolina is definitely under attack from the Republican majority in the state legislature. There are two things going on. One is the gerrymander. The other is other forms of voter suppression. I agree that the robust democracy that we have in Durham and that we cherish in Durham is under attack from the state legislature. 

TC: What do you think of the new redistricting plan that has been proposed by Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy professor of law at Stanford Law School? 

SS: It’s an improvement. 

TC: Is it enough?

SS: He had a fairly narrow mandate from the courts, and within that narrow mandate, he did a great job. It reduces the gerrymandering somewhat, but the effects of the gerrymandering are still going to be very powerful.