By Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi
With its reputation as a burgeoning hub for young creative professionals, Durham stands out amid the conservatism dominating North Carolina. But for mayoral candidate Steve Schewel, navigating the city’s growth will be pivotal to maintaining its progressive political identity.
Addressing an undergraduate journalism class at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Schewel outlined his vision to make Durham a “city for all” – especially as its economic revitalization continues.
“Durham is prospering for 80 percent of the people,” Schewel said. “But 20 percent of the people in Durham are not sharing in that prosperity. They are overwhelmingly people of color. So how do we ensure that as we grow, everybody is able to share in the prosperity?”
According to the Durham City-County planning department, the city’s population is projected to increase by more than 130,000 over the next 30 years.
Durham’s recent growth has brought new residents, who are often young white people with higher incomes, into historic neighborhoods. This gentrification has resulted in a spike in home prices and increased rental costs, forcing some longtime residents to leave the city.
Schwel said he will work to ensure that low-income, African-American and Hispanic communities will continue to have access to affordable housing, transportation and employment opportunities.
Schewel also spoke of the need for Durham to assert its progressive values in spite of a conservative state legislature and President Donald Trump’s “reckless” administration. While the city’s role in changing state or national policies may be limited, there are still possibilities for Durham to project its progressive values locally – a tactic Schewel coined the “Durham workaround.”
One example of this was the city council passing a resolution to support El Centro Hispano’s Faith ID program. Due to state laws, undocumented immigrants cannot obtain driver’s licenses or other government-issued identification, which means that they have no means to verify who they are. In Durham, undocumented residents may obtain and use a Faith ID as a form of identification that is recognized by the Durham’s police department, schools, libraries and other public institutions.
Schewel’s fight for a progressive agenda has been lifelong. After graduating from Duke in 1973, he worked as a co-director for the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group and advocated for consumers against special interests. He served on the Durham Public Schools Board of Education and is in his second consecutive four-year term as a city council member.
Schewel was endorsed for the mayoral campaign by the People’s Alliance, Durham’s major progressive political action committee. No candidate endorsed by the People’s Alliance has lost since 2007.
Schewel, Farad Ali, a former city councilman and chief executive officer of The Institute, and Pierce Freelon, hip-hop artist and activist, are considered the leading candidates in the mayoral race. The city’s current mayor of sixteen years, Bill Bell, is not seeking reelection.
Schewel’s mayoral platform echoes his 2016 city council re-election platform that also focused on promoting policies that increase affordable housing, employment opportunities and green spaces.
Out of the six remaining mayoral candidates, Schewel is the only white candidate. He strongly objected to the idea that his race would impede his ability to represent marginalized communities he may not be part of.
“I know what [my race] obliges me to do,” Schewel said. “I understand what white privilege is and what that implies about the work I need to be doing all the time and the consciousness I need to bring to it. But I don’t think that being white in Durham means you can’t be mayor or on the city council.”
Durham has a diverse community and the task of the mayor is to bring together people who may disagree or have different values, he said.
A grueling campaign schedule, which includes 25 forums for mayoral candidates, has demonstrated citizens’ enthusiasm for dialogue and political engagement. For Schewel, this is an example of what sets the city apart.
“What you have in Durham is a civic discourse that is second to none,” Schewel said. “It is democracy at work. I don’t know that there’s any other city that can match it.”