In a surprise press conference Thursday afternoon, Durham mayor Bill Bell threw his support behind former city councilman Farad Ali to serve as his successor.
Bell had already made a public endorsement in the Ward 1 city council race, supporting incumbent and mayor pro tem Cora Cole-McFadden, but had yet to weigh in on the mayor's race, which will see Ali go up against current city councilman Steve Schewel. In a primary earlier this month, the two earned the most votes out of seven candidates on the ballot. The general election is November 7 and early voting is underway.
At Ali's campaign headquarters on Parrish Street, Bell said both Schewel and Ali were qualified and that making the endorsement was a difficult decision between two longtime friends. But ultimately, he said, Ali's election would ensure at least four people on the council have experience.
He said Ali has continued to be "a catalyst for bringing economic benefits to Durham" after his four years on the city council.
"Because of his successes, Farad's been sort of a go-to man for large industries, small industries, businesses, nonprofits, and he has facilitated great collaboration between the city and county," Bell said. "He has never wavered in his commitment to deliver results that put Durham first."
Bell, who has served as mayor for sixteen years, spoke as much about the candidate's experience as he what his election would mean for the makeup the seven-member body, composed of six council members and the mayor. It is too critical a time in Durham to not have experience on the council, he said.
Schewel, whose term on the city council doesn't expire until 2019, would retain his council seat if he is not elected mayor. If he wins, however, the rest of the council would appoint someone to fill his seat.
"The election is not over if that happens, and I think it's just too important that we not let that happen in the city of Durham," Bell said.
Council members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson are not up for reelection. Wards 2 and 3 will have new representatives, and the Ward 1 race comes down to the incumbent Cole-McFadden and challenger DeDreana Freeman. This means that if Schewel is elected mayor, at most, the council could see three new members post-election who would then take part in selecting a fourth new member.
"By electing Farad Ali as mayor, we will be assured that at least four of our seven city council members will have had city council experience—not only important but crucial in setting policy and direction for the city and the city administration, which will have to execute those policies as decided by the majority of the city council," Bell said.
Bell said he had attended as many candidate forums as he could to see the candidates in action and help inform his decision, but he wanted to wait until after the primary to make an endorsement.
Bell said he isn't endorsing any other candidates at this time. "No one else has asked me," he said.
Ali, who is president and CEO of minority economic development firm The Institute, also serves as chair of the Raleigh Durham Airport Authority. He is also serving on a task force trying to lure Amazon
to build its second headquarters in the Triangle. He has been endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham, and the N.C. Sheriff Police Alliance.
Schewel, who has served on the council since 2011, took about 51 percent of the votes
cast in the October 10 primary, with Ali winning about 29 percent.
Ali said he was honored to receive Bell's endorsement. He learned Wednesday Bell would be endorsing him, after hearing he was interested in giving his support. Also present for the announcement were former Sheriff Worth Hill; Patrick Byker, a lawyer with the Morningstar Law Group; and Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer and former deputy attorney general for the state, among others.
"I feel like Bill is Moses," Ali said. "He's a trailblazer ... I just pray I can be Joshua."
You can read questionnaires by all the candidates here
and find early voting here