Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, Trinity ‘73, Ph.D. ‘82, announced May 27 that he would not be seeking a third term.
Schewel was first elected in 2017 after serving on the Durham City Council since 2011. He also served on the Durham school board, founded IndyWeek and served as a visiting assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy.
“I love my city. It’s an amazing city,” Schewel told The Chronicle. “As mayor, I have the opportunity to articulate a common vision that we hold for who we are and who we want to be, and try to encourage people to reach for that vision and make it real.”
During his first term, he emphasized maintaining the quality of life of Durham residents, supported a referendum for affordable housing, advocated for the Durham-Orange light rail project and sought solutions to traffic congestion utilizing a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“I’m very proud of our affordable housing work,” Schewel said. “We passed the largest affordable housing bond in the history of North Carolina, almost twice as large as any other affordable housing bond, and we’re in the midst of what is going to be an enormous affordable housing program. It’s already started.”
Schewel earned reelection in 2019 with a platform that emphasized his continued commitment to affordable housing and expanding public transportation. A few months into his second term, Schewel issued a stay-at-home order to curb the spread of coronavirus in Durham, and he cited the city’s coronavirus response as one of his greatest triumphs.
“When you take a job like this, you don’t think something like that is going to fall to you,” Schewel said. “But it did, and I’m proud of the decisions we made.”
Schewel emphasized that Durham was one of the first cities to adopt a mask mandate and highlighted the support the city provided for small businesses, homeless individuals and residents at risk of eviction during the pandemic. He also pointed out the fact that Durham’s daily COVID-19 cases are now in the single digits for the first time since March 2020.
Despite these successes, Schewel said he “remains disappointed” that the Durham-Orange light rail fell through and that “it’s critical that our region have a backbone of a commuter rail.”
He described Duke’s relationship to Durham as “complicated,” with the light rail being an example of how the University can make decisions that “aren’t the best for the community.”
On the other hand, Schewel described the University as “an incredible force of good.”
“When Duke does something like raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all employees, that sets the table for wages throughout the city,” Schewel said. “Without renting hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space downtown, we would not have had the downtown renaissance that we’ve experienced.”
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Schewel also highlighted the University’s support for affordable housing in Durham and the work of the Duke University Health System during the pandemic.
“Duke Health has just been amazing in terms of working with our community, on testing, tracing, care and vaccine efforts,” Schewel said. “They’ve been a great partner in the pandemic.”
Schewel’s immediate goal before leaving office is passing the city budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year, which is slated for adoption June 21 and will go into effect July 1. The draft budget includes a new Community Safety Department which would fund alternatives to policing, police reform also being one of Schewel’s goals.
Schewel said he will continue to be civically engaged, and he plans to support the next generation of leaders and “help them succeed in any way [he] can.” He recently supported the Duke University Press Workers Union in their efforts to gain legal certification.
Once he leaves office, family will be a major priority.
“My son and daughter-in-law are expecting a child. I’m very much looking forward to hanging out with my first grandchild and having dinner every night with my wife,” Schewel said. “I’ll also be figuring out what other kind of work I’d like to do. I’m only 70, and so I’d like to do some other kind of work. I’ve been very lucky in my career.”