The independent news organization of Duke University

An early look at the eight candidates running for Durham mayor

On Nov. 7, Durhamites will vote to elect a new mayor to serve for a two-year term. A primary election on Oct. 10 will narrow the field to the top two candidates.

Eight candidates — Mike Woodard, Leonardo Williams, DeDreana Freeman, Charlitta Burruss, Jontae Dunston, Nick Pettiford, Marshall Williams and Sylvester Williams — have registered as mayoral candidates with the Durham Board of Elections. Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal announced in late June that she will not seek reelection.

Here’s an early look at the candidates. 

Mike Woodard

Woodard, Trinity ‘81, is a Durham native and Democrat with a long career in North Carolina politics. He is currently serving his sixth term representing Duke and Durham in the North Carolina State Senate, a position he has held since 2013. 

Before becoming a state senator, Woodard served on the Durham City Council from 2005 to 2012, where he was known for attending the most events in Durham out of all the council members. He has also worked as an analyst in Duke's Administrative Systems Management office.

During his tenure as state senator, Woodard’s policy platform has revolved around effective education, accessible and affordable healthcare and fostering a strong state economy.

Leonardo Williams

Williams currently serves as a member of Durham City Council, a seat he was first elected to in 2021. His current term expires in 2025, and he will not need to resign the seat to run for mayor.

Alongside his wife, Williams co-owns Zweli's Kitchen and Restaurant, which has a location within Duke Divinity School as Zweli’s Cafe. Williams is also a former teacher and school administrator, having been awarded Durham Public Schools Teacher of the Year twice.

During his 2021 run for city council, Williams’ platform focused on promoting holistic community safety and well-being. He previously told The Chronicle that he has lived in Durham for much of his life, experiencing the city as a citizen, student, educator, parent and advocate.

DeDreana Freeman

Freeman is currently serving on the Durham City Council, a seat she was first elected to in 2017. Her current term expires in 2025, and she will not need to resign the seat to run for mayor.

During her 2021 City Council reelection campaign, Freeman focused on five priorities for the city — community health and safety, environmental justice, environmental stewardship, jobs and economic growth, transportation and sustainable housing. 

In March, allegations of extortion were made against Councilwoman Monique Holsey-Hyman, who works closely with Freeman and O’Neal. During a work session addressing the allegations, Freeman reportedly accused Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton of bullying Black women and physically attacked him. While trying to attack Middleton, Freeman reportedly struck Councilman Leonardo Williams twice in the face and O’Neal once in the face. She later apologized for the incident.

It was announced in September that Holsey-Hyman would not face state charges for the allegations after an investigation by the State Bureau of Intelligence found "no evidence."

Charlitta Burruss

Burruss is a minister who has run for office in North Carolina four times before, including for Durham City Council in 2019 and mayor in 2021.

She believes that her “boots on the ground experience” living and working alongside people in low-income Durham neighborhoods provides an unique perspective that will better enable her to serve as mayor. Through her experiences, Burruss is focused on the city’s poverty, crime and affordable housing crises.

Burruss received a Neighborhood Spotlight Award in 2018 for her work to benefit the Durham community, including organizing events and a children’s toy drive. She has also served on the resident councils of several Durham Housing Authority communities. 

Jontae Dunston

Dunston is a Durham native who often speaks at City Council meetings. In September 2022, Dunston spoke in support of Bull City United, a violence intervention program, after the program came under scrutiny following the arrest of one of its employees.

On July 20, Dunston wrote on his Facebook page that a “new citizen mayor is coming soon.”

Nick Pettiford

Pettiford is currently a regional market manager at DTLR, a lifestyle retailer with over 250 stores across 19 states. He holds a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central University.

Marshall Williams Jr.

Williams Jr. is currently a member of Durham’s Workforce Development Board and on the board for Preservation Durham. He is also a virtual sales specialist at Cisco and has previously worked in sales at BMC Software and Zimmer Biomet. Williams holds a bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University and was previously a professional football player for the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts in the National Football League. 

Sylvester Williams

Williams is a pastor, Durham native and Independent who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Durham in 2011 and 2013. He has been described as a “perennial candidate for local office.” 

Williams has served as vice chair for economic development for the Durham Committee on The Affairs of Black People and chair for economic development for the Durham Business and Professional Chain. He also believes that his work as a pastor will make him an effective mayor because it has exposed him to a diverse array of life experiences. 

When Williams ran for City Council in 2021, he named “affordable housing, poverty and the escalating rate of homicides and shootings” as his top three priorities. He emphasized the need for more positive interactions between local police and citizens and advocated for hiring police from local communities. He also highlighted the importance of creating employment in low-income areas and working to end discrimination in the city.

Zoe Spicer profile
Zoe Spicer | Staff Reporter

Zoe Spicer is a Trinity sophomore and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


Share and discuss “An early look at the eight candidates running for Durham mayor” on social media.