In many ways, it has been said, most political campaigns are no different than a student government election in grade school. People still tend to vote for the candidate they know, regardless of the issues.
That being the case, it’s no surprise Steve Schewel was elected mayor of Durham, North Carolina, last fall with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Since settling in Durham — the fourth-largest city in North Carolina — after graduating from Duke University, the Lynchburg native has founded and run an influential weekly newspaper (the Independent), taught classes at Duke and North Carolina Central University, been elected to the city school board, helped start the popular Hopscotch Music Festival and served as a board member of the Durham Arts Council , the Rural Advancement Fund, the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and the Urban Ministries of Durham.
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“I would advise anybody who wants to enter local politics to first become involved in their community,” Schewel said. “Get out and get to know as many people as possible.”
Which, to Schewel, means more than simply shaking their hands. The real question last November wasn’t “Who does Steve Schewel know?” as much as “Who doesn’t he know?”
All of the aforementioned connections also would have been comfortable niches for Schewel’s Lynchburg parents, Elliot and Rosel Schewel, who passed their progressive political views and passion for community involvement along to children Steve, Michael and Susan.
“My folks took me to my first civil rights demonstration when I was 13,” Steve Schewel recalled.
Elliot Schewel began his political career on Lynchburg City Council, then spent 20 years as a state senator before retiring in 1995. Despite his frankly liberal views in a town with a decidedly conservative lean, he repeatedly was re-elected, often without an opponent to contend with. And when he did face opposition, he relied on a low-key, almost professorial style to make his case to voters.
“Dave Birkhead and I were among 17 people who got arrested while sitting in at the corporate headquarters of Carolina Power & Light Company,” he has written. “We were there to protest the construction of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in the wake of the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
“We protesters held romantic notions of our own importance. After our arrests, we dubbed ourselves the ‘Raleigh 17,’ and we didn’t like the way the local newspapers labeled, discounted and ignored us. As Dave and I rode from Durham to Raleigh to be tried for our act of civil disobedience, we ranted about the media for a while and then I said, ‘Let’s start a newspaper of our own.’ And he said yes.
Lanier Blum, who has worked with Steve Schewel on the issue of affordable housing, called him “a magnet for people from every walk of life who want to do something for Durham. He still has a great sense of humor, and he listens really hard and really kindly to people who want to share their ideas. His total commitment to the city and what’s possible here is infectious — it makes all of us who live here want to get active and find a way to help.”
“Steve recruited new board members and a highly qualified and capable new director for the Durham Housing Authority,” said Blum, “and helped them acquire a 20-acre site for future development, start an ambitious refinancing program for rebuilding apartment communities and meanwhile make programmatic improvements to attract more landlords to accept tenants who can pay rent with DHA rental assistance if they keep the homes in good repair.”
Of course, Steve Schewel’s political life hasn’t been completely free of conflict. As a councilman in 2013, he took some criticism from the local black community for what was perceived as his support of the Durham police after a fatal shooting by officers and the resulting public demonstrations. But he since has worked with police chief C.J. Davis — an African-American woman — on ways to reduce the impact of police/citizen interaction.