Mayor Steve Schewel retires Monday after 40 years on the Bull City’s political scene.
He helped shape Durham’s rise as one of the South’s most progressive cities, a journey that he says started for him in 1969 as a Duke University freshman.
“Durham, even back in the ‘70s, was a very politically interesting town,” Schewel said in an interview. “It was a gritty town and already had racial power sharing. There was already a counterculture that was strong here.”
Schewel, 70, grew up during segregation in a liberal, Jewish family in conservative Lynchburg, Virginia, a time and place that fostered his concern for civil rights.
“I don’t want to focus on that too much,” he said. “But I do think that my family and my Judaism, helped me understand a little bit — very little — what it was like to not be in the majority culture.”
“My parents were politically brave, and it gave me the confidence to try and operate in the world like that,” he said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in English from Duke, he obtained his master’s degree in English from Columbia University and a doctorate in education from Duke. Aside from his time in New York, he’s been in Durham ever since.
Before his two terms as mayor, Schewel was a Durham City Council member from 2011-17 and vice chair of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. He’s served on the boards of the Durham Tech Community Foundation, the Durham Arts Council, the Rural Advancement Fund and Urban Ministries of Durham, among other organizations.
He’s also been a visiting assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke and founded The progressive Independent Weekly newspaper, now called INDY Week.
“I started the Indy in ‘83 as apart of that counterculture to build a different kind of progressive community here,” Schewel explained. “There were a lot of political and cultural institutions forming at that time aligning with the African-American community, and I cherished that.”
Schewel participated in civil disobedience several times. But it was after he was arrested and went to jail for eight days following an anti-nuclear demonstration that he and friends saw a need for a local paper to cover racial justice politics in a different way.
“We had a little, tiny office on Hillsborough Road. It was down and dirty, but it was a great little office,” Schewel said.
At its height, The Indy distributed 50,000 copies a week across the Triangle.
Schewel sold the paper in 2012 but says it gave him a platform to spearhead his progressive brand of politics.
Former City Council member Eddie Davis recalled Schewel’s early days, as community members thanked the mayor for his service during a recent council meeting.
“If I go back 50 years ago when I was a student leader at one of the HBCU campuses here in North Carolina, our organization was working to get support for our HBCUs in the state,” Davis said. “We didn’t really have any, but we did get support from Duke University, where Steve Schewel was a student leader.”
Schewel said he has tried to emphasize equity in his political work.
The city has created a Mayor’s Commission on Women, a Workers Rights Commission and a Racial Equity Task Force, chaired by now Mayor-elect Elaine O’Neal who will take office Monday night. The city has striven to make its boards and commissions more representative of Durham’s diversity.
Residents also are benefiting from the development of a language access program, newly funded immigrant and refugee coordinators and an immigrant legal defense fund for Durham residents facing deportation, Schewel said.
“Whatever your race or language or country of origin, we want you here in Durham,” he said. “If you are a refugee fleeing foreign despotism, we want you here. Whatever your documentation status, we want you here — and we embrace you.”
Schewel said the city’s “most ambitious and impactful work has been on affordable housing.”
In 2019, Durham passed a $95 million affordable housing bond with support from 76% of the voters, the largest housing bond in the history of North Carolina. Between local and federal tax dollars, the city has a $160-million, five-year affordable housing plan to put and keep people in homes they can afford.
Realtor and longtime friend John Parker compared Schewel’s leadership in getting the bond passed to jumping out of an airplane.
“I really got to know Stevie in 1975 when we were both taking skydiving lessons at the airport where we learning how to jump and land,” Parker said during the council meeting. “And, Stevie, that kind of embodies you. I hope that people can learn how to jump and take risks from you.”
In addition to housing, this year, Durham is spending $16 million on sidewalks, $6 million on bicycle infrastructure, and $5.7 million to bring high-speed broadband into the apartments at every Durham Housing Authority community.
“There’s not going to be a better city to live in America than Durham in the next 10 years,” Schewel said. “Our quality of life is second to none because it’s so livable, but we have to get a regional transit system.”
Schewel called the failure to launch the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project a “tremendous disappointment.”
In 2011, Durham and Orange counties began collecting half-cent sales taxes to help pay for the planned 17-mile rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill
But the effort failed, in part, when Duke would not sign on because of concerns about construction and light rail cars running outside its hospitals,
In the N&O interview, Schewel explained while he grew up privileged and had “a great childhood,” he has spent much of his political career thinking about the many people who have not benefited from similar circumstances.
Among his biggest challenges as mayor was the downtown gas explosion and fire the morning of April 10, 2019. Two people died and 25 were injured.
“I was at City Hall when it happened,” Schewel said. “And when I got there, that fire knocked out windows at the Mutual Life building — that’s how powerful the blast was.”
“We were putting people on the stretcher. There were people lying on the ground bleeding, and I just remember feeling so uncertain,” he said.
Public safety has dominated the city’s political conversation in recent years, from the explosion to gun violence to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schewel is proud of Durham’s response to the coronavirus, which included the city’s jointly funding 45 community health workers to increase vaccinations.
“Now look at us: 94% of our residents 12 and over have had at least one shot, and almost the entire increase has been in our Black and Brown communities,” he said. “This work is saving lives, and I am grateful to my colleagues for making it possible.”
State Rep. Vernetta Alston, a former City Council member, said when Schewel decided not to run again, there was “an immediate outpouring online.”
“My response was ‘everyone chill out’ he still has six more months left and there more to do,” she told Schewel during the council meeting “Since then you have done just that and more. Collectively, you all continue to lead us through this pandemic. And while I do appreciate your public service as mayor, I have personally marveled at your effectiveness policy maker and leader.
“You are a seemingly bottomless well of compassion, and your vision for this city is having real impact,” Alston said..
Policing and community safety
As he steps down, Schewel said he remains “frustrated” by the gun violence that has taken a record number of lives this year.
Thirty-eight people had been fatally shot and there had been 44 total homicides in Durham as of Nov. 13, the most since at least 1995, according to Durham police records.
The city has responded to the violence by expanding violence interruption teams and funding a new Community Safety Department, among other measures.
Schewel supported a request from former Police Chief C.J. Davis two years ago for more police officers, a request the City Council rejected in a 4-3 vote. But at the same time, he said he recognizes the need to explore alternatives to policing in certain situations.
“For many other calls from members of our community who are in crisis, a different response is the best response, sometimes a mental health clinician, sometimes peer support, sometimes a multi-disciplinary team, sometimes a co-response with police,” he said..
In May, Schewel announced he would not be seeking a third-term as mayor.
He is looking forward to spending time with family. He has a wife, two sons and a daughter-in-law and a new grandchild, Josephine.
“Yes, my position has affected me personally,” he said, “but it has been an absolute honor and privilege to do this work.”
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