Activist-turned-elected official Jillian Johnson has taken on a new leadership role.
Sixteen years ago, Johnson was a Duke University undergraduate student in a class taught by Steve Schewel, a professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Now he’s the mayor and she’s the mayor pro tempore.
The mayor pro tem doesn’t have more power than other City Council members, but the position does carry symbolism. Johnson, 36, stands in for Schewel when needed, either leading a meeting or representing the city at an event.
Schewel nominated Johnson for the position, and she was sworn in the same night he was sworn in as mayor, along with three new council members. The only current member with as much elective office experience as Johnson is her friend Charlie Reece, and that’s only two years.
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In an interview, Johnson said she had no idea as a student in 2001 that she would ever run for office, much less serve with a former professor. But like Schewel, she moved to Durham for college, liked it here and planted roots.
In Schewel’s class, she got an A or A- and remembers the discussions being really interesting. He chose readings to challenge students’ assumptions, she said. Schewel described Johnson as a brilliant and conscientious student.
Her community activism began while she was still a student, with efforts like the grassroots organizing group Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) and the Durham Living Wage Project.
Becoming an activist
“I think activist has a lot of different meanings. Positive, as positive change in the community. Pejorative, as spinning wheels and not getting anything done,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s the easiest word to describe community organizing.”
Durham politicians frequently describe the city and themselves as progressive rather than liberal.
“I think progressive is tricky because the word has such a positive connotation – everyone wants to be progressive. I think of progressive as having a political orientation to the left of the Democratic Party, and goes beyond liberal or neoliberal economic agenda,” she said.
“People don’t like to be called liberals. I think of the mainstream Democratic Party as liberals,” she said. As an example, Johnson said that Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, is liberal, but a progressive health-care policy would be something like single-payer.
“My partner and I named our dog Bernie Sanders,” she said. They call their dog Sandy.
The couple lives with their two sons, ages 3 and 11, in Durham’s West End neighborhood. She lived in Virginia for several years, in Charlottesville, Reston and Richmond, and spent a year of high school in Chicago.
What a mayor pro tem does
Reece, who was elected in fall 2015 said while “pro tempore” is Latin for “a little while,” former Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden expanded the role into an informal ambassador for the city.
“Jillian loves this city, is everywhere in the city,” he said. “It’s essentially a lot of ribbon cutting. The mayor is active but can’t be everywhere. I’m really excited about it; she will do a fantastic job.”
But Schewel said people also look to the mayor pro tem for leadership. Johnson has not shied away from questioning or criticizing the city, whether it be on spending for the next police headquarters or the fatal police shooting of a distraught man, “a tragedy that could have been avoided,” she said then.
“When you’re an activist outside government, you can pound one issue all the time,” Schewel said. “When you’re inside, or on city council or mayor pro tem, you must remain true to your core beliefs, but there’s a complexity. And you’re answering to new constituencies – multiple constituencies,” he said.
She will be great. She really will. She cares. She’s smart as hell. And she has great values. I have full confidence in her.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, about Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson
Schewel said Johnson will be a great mayor pro tem.
“She really will. She cares. She’s smart as hell. And she has great values,” he said. “I have full confidence in her.”
Racial equity and neighborhood stabilization
Johnson said the city has been very well run in recent years, so the issues that came up in the recent campaign were around racial equity and community policing, not routine government services like trash pickup.
One issue she is pushing is a race equity task force to look at how policies correct or cause inequities, on everything from tree canopies to new projects. She sees it as a general attitude toward governance. At the last two council work sessions, for example, Schewel has asked business leaders if they recruit employees from historically black colleges and universities.
“The city is already moving on a lot of racial equity work, Johnson said. “There has already been work, but I’d like to see it consolidated and expanded.”
Gentrification is another concern, like on Fayetteville Street, the corridor east of downtown to N.C. Central University, she said. “There need to be a way to invest in development without displacing residents, and we’re trying to figure out how to do that,” she said. “The best way is to control the land.” She doesn’t think the city should sell any land it already owns unless it’s part of buying a larger property that serves the community best.
“I don’t want downtown to become an area for the super rich,” she said. “I want us to put as much energy and investment into stabilizing neighborhoods as we did revitalization and redevelopment of downtown.”
Johnson said it took her first two years on the council to really feel comfortable with learning how the city works. Now she can push for participatory budgeting, she said, as well as the racial equity initiative.
Her other priorities:
▪ Language justice work – translating the city’s website and meeting documents into Spanish and eventually other languages.
▪ Increasing the size of the city’s summer youth jobs program.
▪ Promoting employee-owned and worker cooperatives.
Next up for the council is appointing someone to serve the last two years of Schewel’s former at-large council term. The council will narrow the field of applicants from 22 to seven in January before appointing the new council member Jan. 16.