"Why mayor?" we asked Steve Schewel
Steve Schewel will spend the next two years on the Durham City Council, either finishing the two years left in his current term or moving over to the mayor’s seat if he wins the Nov. 7 municipal general election.
The job of a mayor, as Schewel sees it, is to convene people across differences of opinion.
“That’s the main job and I look forward to doing it,” Schewel said. Retiring Durham Mayor Bill Bell did that really well getting downtown redeveloped, he said.
But the days of downtown development incentives will be mostly gone if Schewel has his way. They’d be rare and have to meet many goals for employment and minority contracts, he said.
Incentives Schewel wants are around affordable housing.
“We can’t require developers to include affordable housing units when they build. We should use our incentives,” he said, such as a property tax break for five years if a developer is willing to provide 15 percent of units as affordable housing units.
Coming to Durham for Duke
Schewel’s last name might be familiar beyond Durham because of the Schewel Furniture Company, which is owned by his cousins. His great-grandfather came to the United States from Lithuania in 1896, fleeing anti-Semitism. Then he brought family over, including Schewel’s grandfather, and settled in the small Jewish community in Lynchburg, Virginia, because it needed a rabbi and a Kosher butcher.
Once a week, Schewel’s grandfather would ride to Durham to cut meat for Jewish cigar rollers. Eventually he pushed a cart selling furniture which grew into the business. Schewel’s father sold his half of the business to cousins decades ago. Schewel’s stint in the company was to work the store’s toy department between Halloween and Christmas as a high school student.
Schewel moved to Durham to be a Duke University student because he didn’t get into Harvard. He received a bachelor’s degree from Duke in 1973 and a doctorate in 1982. In between he got his master’s degree from Columbia University.
Now Schewel teaches at Duke as a visiting assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson is one of his former students. Schewel has held an at-large city council seat since 2011.
He has taught classes since 2000 on leadership policy and change, social movements and social change, religion in politics, terrorism and a series on the Vietnam War. Schewel is also the founder and former publisher of The Independent alternative weekly newspaper, now called Indy Week, which he sold in 2012.
Schewel said he has nothing but good things to say about his opponent, Farad Ali. “Farad is a great guy and has made a great contribution to the community. We agree on many things,” Schewel said.
Schewel received 51 percent of the vote in the primary and Ali 29 percent.
“I have a heavy emphasis on affordable housing and advocating for neighborhoods. I’m interested in protecting neighborhoods from commercial encroachment and sometimes that comes into conflict with developers. We need development in Durham, but not at the expense of our quality of life,” he said.
Schewel has lived on West Club Boulevard for 27 years. When he was in New York for a year as a grad student in the 1970s, he realized how badly he missed the South. He fell in love with Durham right away, he said.
Being an elected official
Schewel has been on the city council since 2011 and previously served a term on the Durham school board. He said in long meetings sometimes your mind can wander, but he’s fascinated by what they do.
“If you’re interested in policy and good government and policing and housing and trails, this is the opportunity to listen to what’s happening and influence change,” he said.
Schewel thinks Bell has been a great mayor and that they mostly agree on council decisions. Some votes are close calls, Schewel said.
“I’m sure that sometimes I’m wrong. We all are. Sometimes we need a course correction,” he said.
Durham’s municipal general election is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Early voting continues through Nov. 4.
Candidate for Durham mayor Steve Schewel
Watch an hour-long Facebook Live video interview with Steve Schewel at https://www.facebook.com/theheraldsun/videos/1501978586527431/.
Read Schewel’s platform at stevefordurham.com/issues/