Durham County

Does it matter how old the mayor of Durham is?

At 36 years-old, Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson, pictured here at a 2016 rally, is the youngest person on council. That could change this election.
At 36 years-old, Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson, pictured here at a 2016 rally, is the youngest person on council. That could change this election. mschultz@newsobserver.com

Does it matter how old Durham’s mayor is? One of the candidates keeps bringing up age.

Pierce Freelon, 33, is asking Bull City “elders” to hand over the torch. In an email to supporters and media on Monday titled “A Message to My Elders,” he talked about his reverence for Maya Angelou and other elders. But he also wrote this:

“Durham City Council’s median age is 62 years old — almost twice the median age of the general population in Durham. My voice will echo across this generational chasm as I put the wisdom of our elders into practice for all ages.”

Throughout his campaign, Freelon has cited the council median age. But there’s already a next generation in the council chamber. Jillian Johnson is 36. Charlie Reece is 47. Both are in what is generally considered Generation X, or on the Generation X-Millennial line for Johnson.

Two older council members are not running for re-election this fall – Mayor Bill Bell, 76, and member Eddie Davis, 68. So regardless of whether someone in their 30s became mayor, the median age on the council will drop anyway.

Pierce Freelon2
Pierce Freelon, 33, is the youngest mayoral candidate. He’s pictured here greeting people to the People’s Alliance PAC endorsement meeting in August. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Incumbent Don Moffitt, 61, began serving on the council in 2013 and is running for re-election.

In Bell’s case, age carries a lot of political experience.

Bell was younger than Freelon when he began his political career in 1972 on the Durham County Board of Commissioners. Bell was elected mayor of Durham in 2001, the same year Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden was first elected to the council. With Bell not running again, if Cole-McFadden wins re-election, she will have the most experience on council. Cole-McFadden, 71, represents Ward 1 and is being challenged by Brian Callaway, 34, DeDreana Freeman, 39, and John Tarantino, 60.

Council member Steve Schewel, 66, has been on the council since 2011 and served previously on the Durham school board. Schewel is running for mayor against Freelon, Farad Ali, 50, Tracy Drinker, 56, Shea Ramirez, 44 and Sylvester Williams, 62.

Schewel, who was 53 when he was elected to the school board, thinks “young people have an incredibly important role to play” in government and are needed in elected office. In terms of the mayoral race, he said voters should ask who can bring Durham together to make the changes they need.

Freelon is not the only Millennial running for Durham office and not the youngest candidate overall – that’s council candidate Dolly Reaves, 27. Plus there are council candidates LeVon Barnes and Callaway, both 34; and Robb Fluet, 33. And the field is full of Generation X candidates, too, who have not held elected office yet.

With Davis leaving, the Ward 2 seat is a race without an incumbent. All of the candidates are Generation X and Millennials. Fluet, Reaves and Barnes are competing for votes with DeAnna Hall, 40, Mark-Anthony Middleton, 49, and John Rooks Jr., 48.

In Ward 3, Moffitt faces challengers Vernetta Alston, 35, Shelia Ann Huggins, 49, and Lenny Kovalick, 35.

Early voting in Durham’s nonpartisan muncipal primary begins Thursday.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan