Steve Schewel and Farad Ali came out on top in Durham's crowded mayoral primary Tuesday.
Even if you expected those results
, the margins may have come as a surprise.
Schewel won 51 percent of votes cast and Ali 29 percent, enough to advance both to the November 7 general election. The winner of that contest will be Durham’s first new mayor since 2001, when Bill Bell was first elected to the seat.
Pierce Freelon was the third-highest vote-getter, with about 16 percent of the ballots. Sylvester Williams, Shea Ramirez, Tracy Drinker, and Michael Johnson rounded out the field, in that order.
Schewel has served on the city council since 2011. His current term expires in 2019, so if he is not successful in November, he will retain his council seat. Schewel founded the Independent Weekly
and sold the paper in 2012. He has also served on the Board of Education for Durham Public Schools and teaches at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Schewel won the endorsement of the People’s Alliance
as well as the Triangle Labor Council and the Sierra Club.
Ali is the CEO of The Institute for Minority Economic Development and the chairman of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority board. He served on the city council from 2007–11. Ali was endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham, and the North Carolina Sheriff Police Alliance.
Like in Tuesday's council primaries
, early voting provided an indicator of how the final results would shake out in the mayor's race. Among the nine thousand or so early ballots cast, Schewel won 52 percent, Ali 29 percent, and Freelon 15 percent.
Even Schewel was even a little surprised by the lead.
"I feel like I'm in good shape going into the general election, but I've got a hell of a lot of work to do," he said. "I thought I would do well, but I've done better than I thought."
He spent the evening at home with volunteers, eating Middle Eastern takeout from International Delights. With about half of precincts in, he headed over to a watch party hosted by Freelon at Palace International to congratulate his opponent on what he called "an awesome campaign" and give him a hug.
"He's an amazing candidate and I think in a lot of ways he set the tone for the campaign," Schewel said. "What he does so incredibly well is he articulates a progressive message as well as anyone I've ever heard on any stage."
Freelon, for his part, said learned from watching the November 2016 general election play out in Durham County not to call a race until every precinct had reported.
The musician, professor, and entrepreneur said campaigning has been an all-consuming effort most comparable to raising small children. "It's both exhausting and rewarding. It's challenging and fulfilling," said the father of two.
Through a grassroots campaign, Freelon set out to engage new voices and new voters in Durham government. On Tuesday night, he said his team had accomplished that goal.
"I'm so proud," he said, with about half of precincts reporting. "I think we've pushed the conversation in a progressive direction. I think we had the most progressive ideas, most creative ideas around addressing serious issues facing Durham right now."
Ali watched results from Will's Social Bistro and Lounge along with the three council candidates also endorsed by
the Durham Committee On the Affairs of Black People. Awash in neon green light and the glow of nine flat-screen televisions displaying the results, this was a confident group even with just a third of precincts reporting.
Bell was in the crowd and watched the results closely. But by ten p.m., on his way out the door, he wasn't up for an interview. Asked why he came to this particular event he said, "I was invited." The mayor got several shout-outs from the Durham Committee candidates, including from Ali, as he talked about his "One Durham" platform.
"Durham is in a place where it's pivoting and great things are happening," he said. " ... We're going to build on Bill Bell's legacy. A sense of prosperity is what we're talking about sharing because there is
prosperity. So as we start talking about what's going to go in Durham for the future, it's important we understand how we maximize Durham's assets. One is taking this economic development model that's been working and saying, how do we also make more people involved so we can build community while we do economic development?"
Ali said this campaign was really no different than his bid for the city council. Both required rising to the top in a crowded field of candidates. On Tuesday, that effort included visiting fifteen to twenty polling places, he said.
Voter turnout, though still low, increased from previous primaries. About 13 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, compared with just under 8 percent in 2015. About a third of those ballots were cast during the early voting period.
The mayor’s race has drawn heightened interest from voters and candidates alike looking to shape Durham’s trajectory post-Bell. Throughout the campaign season, issues of equitable development, fair policing, and access to affordable housing have dominated candidate forums and political discussions.
The race was also one of Durham’s most expensive
ever. As of September 25, Ali had brought in about $132,000 in donations, Freelon about $105,000 and Schewel about $92,000.
The fun starts again
on October 19, when early voting ahead of the November 7 election begins.