Schewel’s Out

May 28, 2021: Durham’s mayor won't seek third term + Hannah-Jones might sue UNC + the urgency to fix democracy


1. Mayor Schewel Won’t Seek Third Term

I was introduced to Steve Schewel six years ago with words to this effect: “Steve knows everyone in Durham. He was probably in the room when most of them were born.”

That’s hyperbole, but it’s not wrong. Take a walk downtown with Schewel, and every 10 or 20 seconds, he’ll recognize someone, or someone will recognize him, and he’ll stop and say hello and ask about their kids or their job or their business.

But the thing I’ve found remarkable is that, for someone who spent 30 years in local media and almost 20 years in local politics, I can’t recall meeting anyone who didn’t like him. I’m not sure it’s possible.

If he ran for a third term, he probably would have won. But I suspect he knew it would have been an uglier fight than he wanted. He saw the racial divisions when the county dismissed its manager earlier this month and knew the municipal election was unlikely to escape the same vitriol. He loves being mayor, but not on those terms.

At least, that’s what you might call informed speculation. Here’s what Schewel told me when I asked what he’s going to do with himself:

  • “Be a granddaddy, travel some, enjoy dinner with [his wife] Lao, and figure out some good work to do. I’m not quite sure what that is yet, but it will come to me. Meanwhile, I’ve got six more months to be mayor, and I want to do a great job of that.”

You can watch his press conference here. Read the N&O’s write-up here.

A few semi-random notes about Steve Schewel:

  • On one candidate questionnaire, I asked a generic question about affordable housing. Schewel’s answer was about 4,000 words.

  • He’s leaving City Hall in December, but he’ll stay involved. He can’t help himself.

  • For you old-timey Durhamites, here’s a pic of Schewel from 1983, with the first crew of the Independent after (I believe) the publication of its first issue.

So … who’s running? Judge Elaine O’Neal has already announced and appears to be the Durham Committee’s choice.

Who else:

  • O’Neal’s entry probably precludes council member Mark-Anthony Middleton from having a go.

  • If council member Jillian Johnson wants the job, I think it’s pretty much hers. But she might not. I’ve heard she’s eyeing David Price’s congressional seat (should Price ever leave).

  • If Johnson doesn’t run, I don’t have a great sense of who else will. (Tips? Gossip? Wild-ass speculation? Here’s my encrypted email.) When Bill Bell stepped down, everyone knew Schewel was next in line. There’s no one quite so obvious this time.

RELATED: Just before Schewel’s announcement, the city council voted 6–1 to freeze 15 vacant police positions, which will probably be transferred to the new Community Safety Department.

2. Nikole Hannah-Jones Might Sue UNC

Lawyers representing Nikole Hannah-Jones sent a letter to state lawmakers reminding them of their “legal duty to maintain, preserve, protect, and not destroy, alter, or manipulate any and all documents and data, both electronic and hard copy, that may be relevant” to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ decision not to grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

  • “We are considering all legal recourse to fully vindicate Ms. Hannah-Jones’s legal rights, including possibly initiating a federal action against UNC, the Board, and/or affiliated entities and individuals.”

The N&O’s Kate Murphy and Lucille Sherman, who scooped the letter, employ understatement here:

  • “Some think conservative politicians may be behind the effort not to grant her tenure as UNC’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.”

  • Some also think the Earth revolves around the sun.

  • Oh wait. Berger’s spox denied any involvement.

  • Hannah-Jones told the N&O she wanted to “ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of Black writers is protected to the full extent of the law and to seek redress for the University of North Carolina’s adverse actions against me.”

  • “As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights.”

RELATED: The UNC System won’t require applicants for fall 2022 to submit SAT and ACT scores, extending an exemption put in place because of the pandemic.

  • “Board of Governors member Temple Sloan said this waiver is necessary to keep things fair because North Carolina students had inconsistent educations last year, with some in classrooms and others in virtual classes.”

  • The University of California system eliminated the test requirement permanently last year. Critics say SATs are inherently biased toward rich white and Asian-American students and can be gamed by private coaching.

3. If Dems Want to Save Democracy, the Time Is Now

For your Memorial Day weekend suggested reading, two pieces that touch on the same theme: Democracy is in trouble, and many Democrats don’t realize how dangerous the threat is.

First, political scientist David Faris—who wrote a column for me when he was a Ph.D. student in Philly a decade ago—explained to Vox why Democrats need to pass democratic safeguards now.

My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024. I’m deeply concerned about the direction that the Republican Party has taken, especially over the last year or so. Things were bad in 2018, but the basic problem in 2018 was that we had structural factors working against the Democrats and you had a Republican Party that was fundamentally trying to keep people from voting.

The most destructive thing that Trump did on his way out the door was he took the Republicans’ waning commitment to democracy and he weaponized it, and he made it much worse to the point where I think that a good deal of rank-and-file Republican voters simply don’t believe that Democrats can win a legitimate election. And if Democrats do win an election, it has to be fraudulent.

So 2020 felt like a test run. The plot to overturn the 2020 election never had a real chance of working without some external intervention like a military coup or something like that, which I never thought was particularly likely. But the institutional path that they pursued to steal the election failed because they didn’t control Congress and they didn’t control the right governorships in the right places.

So I worry complacency has set in on the Democratic side and people are lulled into thinking things are normal and fine just because Biden’s approval ratings are good.

In The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein reports on voting-rights advocates who don’t think the White House is taking the GOP’s authoritarian menace seriously enough.

Anxiety is growing among a broad range of civil-rights, democracy-reform, and liberal groups over whether Democrats are responding with enough urgency to the accelerating Republican efforts to both suppress voting and potentially overturn future Democratic election victories.

With the congressional calendar dominated by President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar spending proposals, these activists are expressing concern that neither the administration nor Democratic congressional leaders are raising sufficient alarms about the threats to voting rights proliferating in red states, or developing a strategy to pass the national election standards that these groups consider the party’s best chance to counter those threats.

These worries haven’t yet reached a breaking point: The wide range of activists I spoke with almost uniformly consider Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi personally committed to combatting the red-state offensive. Most of them also expressed cautious, if wavering, optimism that Democrats can still find a way to pass into law at least some election-standards provisions, which are stalled in the Senate, primarily because of resistance from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. And a senior White House official I spoke with insists Biden is focused on the threat, even if the administration doesn’t view it in terms as dire as most liberal groups.

Even so, these activists have become more and more uncertain that Democratic leaders have a strategy to overcome Manchin’s hesitance, not to mention his (and other Democrats’) refusal to pare back the filibuster, which Republicans are certain to employ against any voting-rights legislation. What’s more, these activists fear that by focusing relatively little attention on red states’ actions, Democrats aren’t doing enough to create a climate of public opinion in which Manchin and others could feel pressure to act on the issue of voting rights if and when Senate Republicans filibuster against it.

“From my conversations, I believe they understand” the magnitude of the problem in the White House and the Senate, Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil-rights group Color for Change, told me. But “I have not yet seen it being addressed at the level it needs to be in order for us to deal with the problem.”


The White House will propose a $6 trillion budget for the next fiscal year. It doesn’t contain new proposals so much as fold in the ones already out there.

  • “The budget stacks together the numerous policy initiatives that Biden has already offered in his first four months in office. He has called for a $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, a $1.8 trillion education and families plan, and $1.5 trillion in proposed discretionary spending, though some of this money would be spread out over several years.”

  • “This new spending would keep the budget deficit above $1 trillion for the rest of the decade. Even though Biden is proposing numerous tax increases and other changes that he has said would raise revenue, these measures would not be enough to wipe out the gap between spending and revenue through 2031.”

  • Republicans, who voted to blow up the deficit on a $2 trillion tax cut for rich people a few years ago, say Biden’s budget costs too much.