A guide to the Durham city council and mayor candidates for Tuesday's municipal election

The 2019 Durham Municipal Election is today. 

Today, Durham voters will head to the polls to cast ballots for candidates running for mayor and three at-large seats on the City Council, as well as a referendum on a $95 million bond for affordable housing. Voters can find their polling location on the Durham County’s Board of Elections website.

Here is information about the candidates for mayor and city council.


Steve Schewel (incumbent)

Steve Schewel, Trinity '73 and Ph.D. '82, is running for his second term as mayor, with affordable housing at the forefront of his platform. He proposed the $95 million housing bond, which voters will either approve or deny on Tuesday, during his State of the City address in February. 

In addition to this five-year housing plan, Schewel aims to reduce violent crime and cultivate healthy relationships between law enforcement and local communities, particularly communities of color. He also wants to improve public transportation in the aftermath of the failure of the Durham-Orange Light Rail project.

Prior to his election in 2017, Schewel was an at-large member of the Durham City Council from 2011 to 2017 and held a seat on the Durham Board of Education from 2004 to 2008. He was vice chairman of the Board of Elections from 2006 to 2008.

Before his career in politics, Schewel was known for starting and running The Independent, an alternative Durham weekly paper now known as IndyWeek, until he sold it in 2012. He also co-founded Durham’s Hopscotch Music Festival in 2010. 

Schewel moved to Durham to study at Duke, earning a B.A. in English in 1973 and later a Ph.D. in education in 1982. He returned to Duke in 2011 and taught as a visiting assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy through Spring 2017.

In his State of the City address, Schewel emphasized his vision for Durham as a trailblazer and a model for other cities around the country. 

“We will create an inclusive downtown in Durham, a racially diverse downtown, the impossible dream for growing American cities,” Schewel said

Sylvester Williams

Sylvester Williams has run for mayor three times before, but the losses have not discouraged him from trying again. Getting his vision and platform into the community is just as important as becoming mayor, he said. He credits himself with starting the conversation on affordable housing in 2017, and he shares similar views with the rest of the candidates on gentrification. 

A self-proclaimed “born-again Christian pastor,” Williams is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion and the teaching of evolution in schools. 

To Williams, the LGBTQ+ agenda “is not really an agenda of [the] LGBTQ [community], it’s an agenda of money being pushed around to push different folks out of communities.”

Williams worked for more than 30 years as a financial analyst for First Citizens Bank, according to his LinkedIn. As chair of economic development for the Durham Business and Professional Chain from 2008 to 2014, he helped increase business participation and job opportunities for black business professionals in Durham. He currently serves as a pastor for The Assembly at Durham Christian Center.

City Council At-Large

Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece (incumbents)

The incumbents for Durham City Council At-Large, Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero, teamed up this past spring to run together under the mission of “Bull City Together.” They wrote a joint policy platform that outlines their five priorities of “democratic community engagement, inclusive economic development, housing access and affordability, community safety and sustainability.”

All three candidates support the proposed housing bond.

Reece and Johnson were elected in 2015, while Caballero, the first Latinx member in Council history, was appointed in 2018 to serve the rest of then-Councilman Schewel’s term after he was elected mayor. 

Johnson also serves as mayor pro tempore. 

The three secured endorsements from the People’s Alliance PAC, the Durham Association of Educators and IndyWeek. Additionally, they each received the three highest shares of the Oct. 22 primary vote.

“We’re getting more people involved with city government,” Johnson told The News & Observer after the primary election. “I’m excited to see that we’re trying to me a more open, more accessible and more democratic city government.”

Critics of Bull City Together have questioned the trio’s commitment to crime prevention and public safety after they voted in June to give part-time city employees a living wage of $15 per hour instead of funding a requested expansion of the police force to address increasing crime rates. 

Caballero explained that there was only enough funding to either expand the police force or raise the minimum wage for part-time workers without raising taxes. Since crime was on a 20-year decline, the council sided 4-3 with the part-time workers.

At a September city council candidate forum, Reece specifically referenced how the three are in favor of investing in the police department, adding affordable housing and adding more living-wage jobs. He added that Durham is “safer than it was four years ago.”

Jaqueline Wagstaff, former councilwoman and current council candidate, raised a general question about the three running together—why the council needs three people who “think alike.”

Johnson pushed back against this, asserting that they don’t agree on every issue. Caballero agreed and encouraged Durham residents to examine their votes on zoning to see how the candidates differ the most.

“It took us months to write our platform. It’s only the things we could agree about moving forward,” Johnson said at the forum. “I do think it is important for us to move those things forward that we can agree on.” 

Joshua Gunn

Joshua Gunn and his family have lived in Durham for four generations. Gunn is a founder of the Black August in the Park Festival and is a strategic partner at Provident1898, a “contemporary, multi-industry co-working space” with an emphasis on diversity. He is also the vice president at the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce and is on the Board of Directors for the Durham Public Schools foundation. 

Gunn has earned endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham. 

Some might also know Gunn as rapper “J. Gunn” or as a star on BET’s “Music Moguls” series. 

Daniel Meier

Daniel Meier is a private attorney specializing in criminal defense who markets himself as a political outsider immune to partisan politics and the pull of Durham’s special interests. 

“I understand that we need a comprehensive approach, and won't let ideology stand in the way of doing what is best,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

Meier’s platform focuses on public safety and reducing crime and argues for greater police presence in a growing Durham. He is in step with the other candidates in calling to promote affordable housing and curb gentrification. Meier has earned an endorsement from the Friends of Durham, a group that values public safety.

Jacqueline Wagstaff

Jacqueline “Jackie” Wagstaff is running for city council again because she is dissatisfied with its current leadership. Formerly a member of the city council and school board, Wagstaff is a Durham resident of 38 years.

“I’m not happy with the leadership that we have now,” she said at the Sept. forum. “I’m running as an individual. I’m not running as a team because I believe that if you have three people who say they eat alike, think alike and sleep alike, you don’t need all three of them to get that one thing done. You take the one you can tolerate.”

She told IndyWeek that Durham residents are our “customers” who deserve better, citing the three most important issues facing the city as sustainable jobs, affordable housing and safety and justice.

Bre Bradham contributed reporting.


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