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.