Last December, after he was sworn in as mayor of Durham, North Carolina, Steve Schewel laid down his vision for a city where elected officials work alongside residents to resist regressive state and federal policy.
Durham, said Schewel—a bowtie-wearing former alternative-newspaper publisher—should be a city “that puts racial and economic justice at the top of our civic agenda; that defends the vulnerable among us; that cherishes robust, respectful debate on difficult questions; that believes science is real; that embraces nonviolence.” He peppered his English with Spanish and Arabic and spoke directly to refugees, undocumented immigrants, and LGBTQ folks. “If you are a gender-nonconforming kid who’s trying to figure it out, we embrace you in Durham. We want you and we love you. If you are a transgender person, come to Durham, because we don’t care what bathroom you choose.”
This was welcome language in a state that has seen a raft of legislation rolling back civil rights and voting rights, and shredding the social safety net. And hardly a person in the chamber would have disagreed with Schewel. A month earlier, after a spirited campaign, voters elected a city council with deep roots in social-justice activism. (Council terms are staggered, so the process began in 2015.) Every one of the seven-member council, which includes the mayor, belongs to a racial, ethnic, or religious minority. Two are queer-identified African-American women, including Jillian Johnson, who in December was unanimously selected by her colleagues as mayor pro tempore.
The November election took place at a time of high municipal ferment, when local governments are increasingly claiming their place as counterweights to the inhumane policies coming out of Washington, DC, and many state capitals. Johnson calls these cities “the last oasis,” and argues that the progressive wave that swept Durham was no coincidence. “Some of it is the political moment,” she says. “It’s pushing back against Trump, and wanting leaders who are willing to take risks. It was not enough to have regular Democrats steady-rolling with the status quo on City Council. Voters wanted people who were going to push the envelope.”
But what does it mean to push the envelope in a place like Durham? When a large blue-state city like San Francisco pledges to limit cooperation with the federal government on immigration enforcement, it carries both economic heft and the good will of state government. Durham, population 264,000, is not only more economically vulnerable because of its size; it’s also handcuffed by a Republican-controlled state legislature that has been quick to preempt local powers—down to specific land-use decisions—and punish cities that try to exercise autonomy.
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“The right is very smart; it is strategically undermining sources of alternative political power,” says Richard Florida, director of cities for the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “Blue cities in red states are horrifically screwed.”
Durham officials know the obstacles they face. They also believe that circumventing those obstacles is their biggest charge—whether by using their existing powers more robustly, by finding what they call “Durham workarounds,” or by judiciously confronting the powers-that-be in the state legislature. And the stakes are high: figuring out how to make policy that actually protects the vulnerable at a moment when the higher orders of government are not only failing to protect the vulnerable but are also the ones who are often leading the attack.
“Now we’re in power,” says Mark-Anthony Middleton, a newly elected council member and a minister involved in faith-based social-justice organizing. “So what do we do? Governance is a lot different than activism. And I tell my friends: Listen, I’m a progressive, but I want to be a governing progressive.”
Durham was, for much of the 20th century, a segregated mill town, but its activist roots go back well before the civil-rights movement. Starting in 1927, the city supported an African-American newspaper, the Carolina Times, whose editor, Louis Austin, fulminated against the conditions of black schools and called out “reactionary” black leaders who favored slow progress. Austin supported the nation’s first lawsuit to desegregate higher education, filed in Durham in 1933. The case, involving a young man who applied to the University of North Carolina’s pharmacy school, divided black leaders and ultimately failed, but it packed a local courtroom for several days and laid the groundwork for victories elsewhere.
Since then, the struggle for racial justice has compelled generations of Durhamites. Mayor Schewel, who is 66, white, and Jewish, cut his teeth during the 1970s-era campaign to keep the city’s main freeway from obliterating an African-American neighborhood called Crest Street. Against long odds, a biracial coalition succeeded in getting the government to realign the highway, spare the local church, and rebuild the community for those planning to stay. Their efforts also helped foster one of Durham’s first black-white political alliances, opening the door for almost four decades of interracial power-sharing. (Disclosure: I worked for Schewel’s newspaper during the 1980s and ’90s.)
Today, activism in Durham often centers around its newfound, but uneven, prosperity. Downtown—hollowed out in the late 20th century by factory closures—today buzzes with tech startups, breweries, and locally owned restaurants. But the success is not shared equally. Rising housing costs are displacing people of color from the central core. The poverty rate for children is more than 25 percent. African Americans bear the brunt of misdemeanor marijuana arrests and traffic-stop searches. And young black and Hispanic men in Durham are murdered in outsized numbers.
For all their desire to rectify the inequities, however, council members have limited tools, thanks to a state legislature that uses its preemption powers freely. The council cannot compel developers to provide affordable housing. It cannot offer inexpensive community broadband. It cannot remove Confederate monuments without permission. It cannot pass broad anti-discrimination protections. It cannot release police body-camera videos. It cannot regulate firearms.
Local officials feel shackled. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s more important to people in Durham than diminishing the amount of gun violence that we have in our city, which especially affects neighborhoods where people of color are living,” says Schewel. “But the legislature requires us to allow guns in parks, on trails, in restaurants, in school parking lots, and in bars.”
Even core city functions are subject to legislative veto. When the council refused to expand its boundaries into a watershed so that a developer could build a large mixed-use neighborhood at a booming edge of town, lawmakers in 2013 forced the city to annex the land and extend its water and sewer lines.
“That’s the environment we’re in,” Schewel says. “But there’s also a lot we can do.”
The first step, say many council members, is to build a tighter partnership between city government and the residents it serves. “Historically marginalized communities of color: Make sure they’re at the forefront of the conversations,” says council member DeDreana Freeman, who was elected in 2017 based, in large part, on her neighborhood organizing around issues of gentrification and displacement.
One concrete way to achieve that is through “participatory budgeting”: giving residents direct control over a portion of the municipal budget after brainstorming and research. The process has been used elsewhere: Last year, for instance, 102,800 New Yorkers, divided by council district, voted to spend $40 million on improvements like school technology, park equipment, security cameras, bus-countdown clocks, and tree plantings.
Johnson, the mayor pro tempore, expects to initiate a pilot project this year in Durham. “The work of bringing the community together to do participatory budgeting has the potential to engage people who are generally left out of local government and politics,” she says. That includes teenagers, low-income families, noncitizens, and people with criminal records.
Inclusive government, of course, doesn’t touch the preemption problem. For that, local officials rely on what Schewel calls “Durham workarounds.” Essentially, Durham is playing the unpredictable mole in a game of legislative whack-a-mole.
In 2015, for instance, the state legislature barred local police departments from recognizing consular identification cards issued by the Mexican government as valid forms of ID. (Conservative disparage the cards as “IDs for illegals.”) Durham police, with the City Council’s blessing, responded by recognizing ID cards issued by a local nonprofit called El Centro Hispano. “It is a way for someone to have an official identification card in encounters with law enforcement, so that they’re not unidentified and therefore taken down to jail,” Schewel says.
Council members are now talking about workarounds to deal with gentrification. The City currently dedicates $5.6 million in annual property tax revenues to affordable housing, but the money is not nearly enough. “If we put our entire city budget into housing, we still couldn’t solve the problem,” says Johnson.
One system used by some cities—including New York; Washington, DC; and Portland, Oregon—is called inclusionary zoning: requiring certain developers to set aside a percentage of their housing as permanently affordable. Research analyzed by Virginia-based housing expert Lisa Sturtevant suggests that inclusionary zoning, particularly when imposed on all developers who build a certain number of units, creates affordable units without driving up market-rate prices. The gains from inclusionary zoning are often modest, and vary widely depending on policy details and local markets.
But North Carolina cities do not have the explicit right to enact mandatory inclusionary zoning, and last year the legislature failed to act on a bill that would give Durham that power.
One workaround is called a density bonus. To explain how it works, Schewel points to Durham’s light-rail system, which is expected to open in 2028. “People who develop in those eventual station areas are going to want density,” he says. “We’re not going to be up-zoning the land to the ultimate density that everyone wants there. Instead, if developers want a higher density, they can come to us for a rezoning. They can go up in density by right, without going through a big process, if they will include affordable units.” In February, the council voted to create interim bonuses near several planned light-rail stops until a long-term plan is developed.
Some municipalities have been more outwardly defiant of the federal and state governments. Pittsburgh, for example, not only banned natural-gas drilling in 2010 but also declared that the city would not recognize “personhood” rights granted to gas companies under the state and federal constitutions. The ordinance included language threatening to secede from Pennsylvania if the state tried to invalidate the measure.
Durham officials understand the virtue of this type of in-your-face governance, but question whether it makes sense in North Carolina. “If I, as an individual, engage in civil disobedience and I’m hauled off to jail, that’s one thing,” says Middleton, whose community activism has focused on policing reform and housing access. As a council member, though, “is it OK for me to take my predisposition to civil disobedience and now make it writ large for city? It’s a real question. Philosophically, I struggle with it.”
The problem, of course, is retaliation. Not only can state lawmakers pass preemption laws, but they can also withhold funding for needs like light rail. “What we have to be constantly measuring is, to what will extent the legislature come in and punish us?” Schewel says. “They’re not above that. They’re happy to do that.”
The Feds, too. It might be tempting for the City Council to declare Durham a sanctuary city, but that could hurt the very people city officials are trying to protect by provoking federal raids. Last year, in a four-day sting called Operation Safe City, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested nearly 500 people in jurisdictions like Los Angeles and Denver they deemed insufficiently cooperative. “It won’t be us they’re hauling downtown,” says Middleton.
If Durham does confront the state government, it’s likely to come in collaboration with other cities. “I don’t think we can do it alone,” says Johnson, who has been talking with progressive elected officials elsewhere. “I think that it is possible for cities to push for more authority, for the capacity to push our own agendas, as a united front. And I would be excited about also using the courts more.” During the “bathroom bill” fight, for instance, lawmakers casually threatened to disband Charlotte’s city government, according to a report published by Bloomberg. “But it would be much more difficult for them to dissolve the charters of 10 of the major municipalities in North Carolina,” Johnson says. “It would hard for them to legitimately threaten that nuclear option if we had a stronger coalition.”
Coalitions are coming together throughout the country. “Increasingly, what we’re seeing is cities and municipal policy-makers working together to build alternatives in policy and governance,” says Sarah Johnson, codirector of Local Progress, a network of progressive city officials staffed by the nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy. In Texas, for example, a group of local governments—including Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, and the border town of El Cenizo—collectively sued the state over a crackdown on sanctuary cities. (That lawsuit is ongoing.) “When it’s just one city fighting by itself,” Sarah Johnson says, “it’s obviously a very different calculus.”
Freeman, the Durham council member, hopes her city will become part of the national pushback against policies that harm the vulnerable. “One city can’t stop it,” she says. “And one city in every state can’t stop it either. This has to be a grassroots, organized method of infection—complete and total infection. We cannot survive without each other.”