People’s Alliance
Candidate Forum
at MotorCo

We learned a little something about the Durham Mayoral candidates at the People’s Alliance (PA) Candidate Forum this week at MotorCo. I believe that for such a critical election for our collective future as a community, there is a dearth of information.

The Indy Week published an article early this month under the heading “Everything you Ever Wanted to know about Durham’s Municipal Candidates.” In said article, beneath the subtitle “Mayor”, the Indy devoted 113 words (the most of any candidate) to Steve Schewel, 89 to Farad Ali, 86 words for Pierce Freelon, a spare 70 for Shea Ramirez, only 62 words for Sylvester Williams, 80 for Tracy Drinker, including his job description, and finally 110 for Michael Johnson.

Seven Mayoral Candidates, about 650 words. This isn’t to disparage the author Sarah Willets or the Indy Week. Doing local media in a capitalist world off of your ad revenue with a free product is HARD. Damn hard. And the Indy Week has to cover Raleigh and Chapel Hill, too.

We know it to be hard. Personally. Fiscally.

I shared my standard short rap about this independent media situation once or twice at the PA Forum. ‘The local newspaper didn’t die because people don’t care about local news. People care deeply about local news. The newspaper died because Craig’s List killed their classified ad revenue.’

To be fair, Willets and Indy have written several other excellent articles about the campaign.1

I know I want more. And most everyone I talk to wants to know more about our Mayoral Candidates.

2017 Durham candidates photo by John Laww

2017 Durham candidates photo by John Laww

So the bummer last week was that we only got three minute stump speeches from the Mayor candidates. And the City Council candidates were not allotted microphone time. The compensation was to be had in the schmoozing, mixing, and mingling with the candidates in an informal setting without a campaign donation as the barrier to entry.

That worked. MotorCo was a great setting.

With seven or eight minutes to go to official start time, I was worried about turnout. There were maybe thirty people in the room. And 75% of them were gray hairs, or at least fifty-five year-olds (guessing).

Maybe it was just that 6.30pm was close to the end of the work day. Or maybe it reflected the increasingly crowded parking in the DIY District.

Shortly after I saw Pierce Freelon arrive in a suit jacket and sandals, followed by Councilman Charlie Reece in a suit jacket with jeans and sneakers, there were suddenly lots more people piling in.

Good thing, too, because the People’s Alliance put on quite a spread in the form of free food, from Parts and Labor’s cheeseburger sliders to their fabulous samosas.

A friend commented, “Well, I’ve heard they [the PA] do have quite the war chest.”

The Durham political royalty, aside from Mayor Bell2, surely turned out. PA head, Planning Commission Member, and former Preservation Durham leader, Tom Miller, introduced them from the podium.

In attendance at MotorCo; Sharon Davis, the Register of Deeds, District Court Judge, Fred Battaglia, County Commissioner, Brenda Howerton, the aforementioned nattily dressed, Councilman Charlie Reece, School Board Member, Steve Unruhe, in his signature hat, State Senator Mike Woodard, along with a host of PA hierarchy. At the end of the litany someone pointed out, unmentioned Councilman Steve Schewel, whom Miller cracked, “Well, we’re planning to introduce Steve later.”

Schewel and Woodard clearly garnered the loudest rounds of applause.

The Senator later self-deprecatingly told me when I pointed out that he had the loudest applause, “I think it was because they described me as long suffering in the [Republican dominated NC] legislature.”

Schewel’s round of applause was nearly as enthusiastic. [As a more than thirty year member of the People’s Alliance, he had what you might call home court advantage in this room.]

The PA had the Council and Mayoral candidates come forward and introduced them all, including Schewel again.

Miller pointed out the purpose of this meeting was for the PA to determine which candidates to endorse, after its “strong, careful, deliberate” determination.

My friend whispered to me, “That’s where the war chest really comes in handy. They print almost as many flyers with their endorsements as the candidates print themselves, especially for council.”

Councilman Steve Schewel and Candidate Pierce Freelon photo by Aaron Mandel

Councilman Steve Schewel and Candidate Pierce Freelon photo by Aaron Mandel

The PA moderator, Attorney Nana Asante, invited the Mayoral Candidates to speak. Pierce Freelon was to go first. I thought simply because he was standing furthest to stage right. He quipped, “Are we going youngest to oldest?”

Freelon’s stump speech was excellent. Detailing how he first became interested in politics via Harvey Gantt in the 1990’s when his family lived in the Morehead Hills section of Durham. He said he rocked a Harvey Gantt t-shirt as a youth. Gantt vainly ran against arch-conservative, Senator Jesse Helms. Freelon said Gantt’s resistance was relevant to him today. He said that Durham was outlier in a state that allowed HB 2 and supported Amendment 1. Freelon said Durham had to continue in that role.

To that end he said, we need visionary leadership. He noted the median age in Durham is thirty-two years-old, while the median age on the Durham City Council is sixty-two.

A self-evident disconnect.

Freelon asked the crowd, “Y’all feelin’ me?”

As noted, the crowd had swelled. There were easily over a hundred people in the room by that time. And the old-ster presence had been thinned to where maybe 60% of the room was over fifty.

Still Pierce’s “Y’all feelin’ me?” was met with weak applause.

Candidate Pierce Freelon photo by John Laww

Candidate Pierce Freelon photo by John Laww

He concluded he by saying he wanted to have inter-generational conversations, to represent young and old, LatinX, black, and all of Durham as mayor.

Steve Schewel was next up and as he took the MotorCo stage and microphone with his usual gee-whiz, aww-shucks manner, he noted that he had “been a PA member longer than the median age of Durham (thirty-five years)”.

Steve Schewel photo by John Laww

Steve Schewel photo by John Laww

Schewel’s stump speech is polished. He said Durham faces three main challenges.

One, shared prosperity, can we make this a city for all? Can we make sure prosperity is shared with our African-American and Latino communities?

Two, Trump and our ultra-conservative State Legislature. Can we continue to project Durham’s progressive values? Can we be beacon on issues from gun laws, to sustainability, to misdemeanor diversion programs?3

Three, our small city quality of life. Can we keep our small city quality of life while expanding? Can it be offered to all? Sidewalks, parks, busses, and transport, equitably distributed?

Schewel said (paraphrasing) ‘We want to the City we love to be a city for all.’

After Schewel spoke the moderator noticed Mayor Pro-Temporare Cora Cole McFadden and Judge Marcia Morey had arrived and they were introduced to the crowd.

The next most prominent candidate, former city councilman Farad Ali, couldn’t make it.

Mayoral Candidate Shea Ramirez greeted us, “Hello, beautiful people,” before introducing herself and telling us she had six teenage daughters.

Shea Ramirez poses with Major the Bull photo from her Twitter page

Shea Ramirez poses with Major the Bull photo from her Twitter page

Ramirez is an North Carolina Central University graduate who has been in Durham since 1991. She said Durham has empowered her, taught her self-confidence, and self-esteem. She said her platform was built around children: children being able to dream and achieve those dreams. She said that the community is suffering. She forcefully offered that in her view leaders had to step up [duty bound was implied] and others will follow.

Next up, Tracy Drinker, a retired police officer circa NYPD, as well as Durham PD. Drinker said that the barbershop got him into politics. I’m not sure if he meant proverbially or literally, but he explained to the MotorCo crowd, those kind of conversations motivated him. Same as the nail salon he offered, I think with an implied nod toward gender equality.

Tracy Drinker photo by John Laww

Tracy Drinker photo by John Laww

Drinker joked that he was overdressed, the only candidate in a suit, and took off his jacket theatrically before explaining to the crowd that he felt we were “doing central Durham, but neglecting the edges”. He said he was a children’s advocate and that there is a mental health crisis for Durham teens ages eight to twenty-one years-old.

Editorially, I believe that last bit to be true. So many Durham kids are living in neighborhoods that are chronically unsafe. Of course, that is going to make a certain percentage mentally unstable. They are quite literally in a war zone. These areas in Durham are the minority by both by demographics and square mileage. But these areas exist and they are known. They are inhabited by people. And we ignore them at our peril. Not to mention, the implicit moral abasement of our Durham society for knowingly standing by callously to the suffering of others.

Back to Drinker, whose comments wandered. He may be in the Mayoral race just to raise consciousness, but he is doing it. His final line (un-sourced, but not necessarily inaccurate) was a claim that 25% of the Durham Jail’s population is mentally ill.

Next up was Michael Johnson, the most casually dressed candidate wearing gym shorts, made a plea on behalf of the police. He said that the Durham police are scheduled in twenty-eight day blocks, wherein they work twenty-one days and have seven days off. He said he wanted to be a voice of the officers. He added that they needed reduced schedules and psychiatric care. He said officers were afraid to speak up and that some police had been made to work twenty-one days straight.

He also added in a somewhat rambling address that we needed more money for parks, pools, and theatres.

He closed saying we need to investigate high ranking city officials for corruption.

I don’t know what to conclude. But when you hear people like the last two candidates speak, you must know however well it is going downtown there are parts of Durham are positively in CRISIS.4

Three minutes a candidate.

I don’t if this article helped if you couldn’t make it to the event.

I put the final crowd at 140 +/-. If you know somebody in the People’s Alliance, maybe they made it and you could ask about it.

I saw Durham movers and shakers and influencers including, but not limited to, Cicely Mitchell of the Art of Cool, Jackie McLeod of Liberty Arts and the Bull City Sculpture Show, Heather Cook, Hip-Hop artist, John  Laww aka The Real Laww, Saleem Rashwamwhala (camera in hand, child on his shoulders). Duncan Webster of Beauty World and Hammer no More the Fingers was doing sound.

Ask them what they thought. I’m sure they’d be down to talk with you.

That’s what we need Durham. More conversations. More interaction. More co-participation in  civil society.

Toward that we are working with some of Durham’s finest to help organize topical Mayoral panels on things like policing, development, equality, and affordable housing.

More details to follow.

* Full Disclosure: Councilman Steve Schewel co-hosts a YouTube show on the Clarion Content channel called Town Hall.


1 I would have struggled to find the spelling of all of the candidates’ names without the Indy Week. The INDY is a free resource, people.

2 And no Justin Laidlaw, either.

3 Speaking of misdemeanor diversion programs (I know that I saw Judge Shamieka Rhinehart early in the evening, but don’t remember her being introduced from the podium.

4 Ask around.

Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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