Two Triangle alumni put themselves on the political line

Steve Schewel '73, Ph.D. '82 and Charles Francis J.D. '88 talk about running for mayor in Durham and Raleigh.
February 7, 2018

Steve Schewel ’73, PH.D. ’82 used to carry in his wallet a picture of Terry Sanford holding a bullhorn, addressing a crowd of students who in 1970 had staged a sit-in on the traffic circle. In the wake of the Kent State shootings two days before, Schewel, then a freshman, had joined the crowd that stopped traffic to protest the war and the shootings.

Sanford, inaugurated as Duke’s president only seven months before in the hopes that he could manage just such crises, showed serious leadership cred. “President Sanford came out with a bullhorn and asked us to meet him at the chapel,” Schewel recalls. “We all marched down to the chapel.” At the chapel—and in other meetings in Page Auditorium during those hectic days— Sanford discussed what the students wanted. Students, upset by the war and stunned by the violence against them by the National Guard at Kent State, could see no point in returning to class, and they raised a proposal that Sanford brought to the faculty. “The faculty voted, and Sanford supported the idea, that students could stop taking classes before the end of school. They would get a pass-fail in class rather than a grade, if you wanted to kind of work your conscience on the war.”

With the faculty and the president on board, Schewel says, “for hundreds of us, school ended that day. We cut our hair, and we canvassed in Durham,” on behalf of two amendments to congressional spending bills that would have required the United States to withdraw its forces from Cambodia and Vietnam.

The bills never passed, of course, but Steve Schewel had taken his first steps on the five-decade path that, in November, led to his election as mayor of Durham. On that same day, Charles Francis J.D. ’88 stood for mayor of Raleigh, Durham’s partner and rival in the Triangle.

Schewel won; Francis lost. Francis, a Raleighan by birth and choice, says he’s far from done running for office in his home city and has a cheerful, “wait ’til next year” demeanor. Schewel, whose win advances him from a city council seat he won in 2011, bears the weight of power he saw Sanford wield.

“There’s a difference between mayor and city council,” he says. “Now I do have the bullhorn. And using it wisely is important.”

Neither Schewel's nor Francis’ runs would surprise those who know them: Both come from political families, both have been deeply involved in their communities throughout their lives, and both look to experiences at Duke as foundational to their lifelong commitments. At the pleasantly disheveled dining room table of his book-lined home in Durham’s Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood, Schewel thinks back on that picture. And though he looks back now at Sanford’s leadership with that bullhorn, the years he carried that color photograph had more to do with the crowd than the leader. “I think that he made a really good decision under really tough circumstances,” Schewel says, but “I carried it because of the kids.

“You know: us.”

Us. The world was changing, and Schewel felt that change right on the Duke campus. He remembers his English class reading Yeats when the Kent State shootings happened. “I had a wonderful English professor, Ron Butters, and I remember he read ‘Easter 1916’ [Yeats’ meditation on the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Ireland] right after the kids were killed. And I just remember the tears were streaming down his face. It was just a time when the campuses were really fraught with change. The war was right outside our doors.”

About those days Schewel quotes Wordsworth—accurately— from memory: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ but to be young was very heaven!” Schewel identified so strongly as a Duke student in those turbulent times that he served as president of the student government. “It was a time of tremendous ferment in the country,” he recalls: The Kent State and Jackson State shootings came after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. “But you felt there was a time for a lot of positive change and a lot of possibilities for that.” And something important to remember, he says, is that “a lot of that happened.” Earth Day. The environmental movement. The women’s movement. The peace movement. Continued progress on civil rights. “So for me rather than a time where I thought things were terrible, it was a time when things were really hard, this war is awful, and we need to make changes.”

When he graduated, he went to Columbia and gathered up a master’s degree in English, though perhaps the main thing he learned was that “I didn’t want to be an English professor.” He returned to Durham, working first as a teacher, then for a news service, and then for N.C. Public Interest Research Group, which focuses on the rights of consumers in relation to influences like large banks and corporations, and then returned to graduate school, in 1982 getting a Ph.D. from Duke in education. He spent part of 1975 helping his father run a successful campaign for Virginia state senate (Schewel grew up in Lynchburg; his father, Elliot, served as state senator from 1976 to 1995), and it was his activity in Durham and North Carolina politics that led him to the work for which he has been most known, as the founder and publisher of the North Carolina Independent, (now Indy Week), Durham’s longstanding alternative newsweekly. Protesting the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, Schewel engaged in civil disobedience “and went to jail for eight days in Wake County.” Throughout the trial, “we kept saying we didn’t like the way the newspapers were covering what we were doing,” he recalls, “and why didn’t we start a newspaper?”

So he did, with David Birkhead ’69, once editor of The Chronicle. “I had a baby, got my Ph.D., so it took us a while to do it,” he says. “But in April of ’83, we published our first issue.

“So I was publisher and majority owner for the next twenty-nine years.”

He’s proud of the Indy’s decades of service to Durham and the state, recalling breaking stories on abuses by the state Department of Transportation, work on the death penalty, stories on workers’ rights. The struggle to keep the paper in print was always a challenge, but Schewel thinks of the paper more generally. “There were a couple gifts the Indy gave,” he says, “one of which was helping to create an alternative culture in the Triangle, both in terms of politics and art.”

“We promoted all these local musicians for thirty years,” to say nothing of local artists, playwrights, and artisans, he says. “And we published thousands of freelance writers who made their bones at the Independent. That’s something I’m really proud of.” By the time he sold his interest in the paper in 2012, he had served on the Durham board of education for a term and run successfully for Durham city council in 2011.

He had also in 2000 begun teaching in the Hart Leadership Program at the Sanford School. There, along with Alma Blount, now director of the program and also the first photography editor of the Independent, he most recently taught “Political Participation and Leadership.” And if Schewel has always been unapologetically liberal, as a teacher he plainly reaches even students who identify as “outspoken conservatives.” Sophomore Mitchell Siegel, reflecting on Schewel’s teaching in a November column for The Chronicle, expressed “the utmost respect” for Schewel and characterized him as “an advocate for learning and listening to diverse perspectives,” a teacher who “demonstrates political acumen by facilitating constructive discourse and connecting with people on a true, personal level.”

Siegel says Schewel “is not a phony politician who has his own self-interest at the forefront”—high praise, given that Schewel has been in politics since the early 1970s, when he worked on the first political campaign of one Bill Bell, who served as county commissioner for twenty-eight years and then mayor of Durham for sixteen. When Bell decided to retire, Schewel was one of many ready to step forward.

The current political moment reminds him of his college days—there’s significant turmoil, but he sees great opportunity. One of the things he appreciates about his run for mayor was that he and his opponents differed mostly in degree. They all seemed to agree on the basic issues Durham faced: “The issues are the issues in most urban areas: affordable housing, gentrification, crime and policing, and what will our quality of life be as we grow. Let’s make the city we love a city for all. We are prospering, but 20 percent of our population is not sharing in that new prosperity. How are we going to change that? How are we going to embrace all the different people here in Durham?

“Farad [Ali, Schewel’s final opponent] and I had differences in emphasis, but Farad’s slogan was ‘One Durham.’ I think we were very much on the same page in terms of vision, of our city as an inclusive place where everybody needs to share in our newfound prosperity.”

Standing up for inclusiveness and doing things that mattered were things Schewel learned growing up in Lynchburg. People ask Schewel whom he models himself after and he answers quickly. “My parents. My father was a Democrat from Lynchburg at the time Jerry Falwell was in his heyday. He and my mom were Lynchburg civil-rights liberals in the ’50s and ’60s, running against a very difficult segregationist tide.” Along with his father’s decades in the state senate, his mother was such a passionate volunteer and activist on behalf of women’s rights, racial justice, the arts, and education that when she died in September 2017, the Lynchburg News & Advance ran a piece headlined “Lynchburg loses ‘a wonderful friend.’ ” She helped found, among other things, the Lynchburg public library and a local chapter of the League of Women Voters. She died only months before her son was elected mayor of his adopted town.

Strong women played a powerful role in the education of Charles Francis, too. Francis’ father died when Francis was nine, but his mother, who has an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, was far from his only example. “My aunt, Vivian Irving, who ran the [family] printing business, was one of the founders of Democratic Women of Wake County, and she along with others integrated the League of Women Voters here,” he says, in a conference room in the downtown Raleigh historic home he has renovated for his law practice. A registrar for the Wake County Board of Elections for thirty years, Irving would check in during elections. “I remember hanging around polling places when she was looking after me,” Francis laughs now.

The printing business, Francis says, was where “we mixed commerce and politics and civic service—printing jobs and talking politics,” with a parade of Raleigh political heavyweights, especially from the African-American community. Francis remembers seeing in the shop Clarence Lightner, Raleigh’s first publicly elected mayor and the first African-American mayor of a Southern city larger than 50,000 people. He also remembers John Winters, the first black city councilman, and people like now-congressman David Price, who also taught political science at Duke. “That type of political involvement was just something I came up with.” ]

His great-grandfather, James Irving, was a freedman, born in Onslow County and a slave until he was twenty-five. Francis’ grandfather, Charles Irving Sr., was born in 1896—“the same year as Plessy v. Ferguson, ironically,” Francis notes. “The first sixty years of his life he was living under the veil of segregation, but still he rose.” From a large family, Charles Sr. went from being farmed out to work in wealthy people’s homes throughout the county, to boarding school, to training in Kinston, where he got a community-college certification as a printer, though from college he went to serve in World War I. Returning from the war, he came to Raleigh to set up his printing business—“ but they were hiring at the post office,” Francis says. Charles Sr. could recognize a good gig when he saw one, so he had stable employment all through the Depression. When he retired from that—and from a side business as an impresario, bringing performers like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington to Raleigh—he formed the printing business, eventually run by his daughter, Francis’ Aunt Vivian. Charles Sr.’s certificate of his training in printing still hangs in Francis’ office.

Francis’ mother, Florence, graduated from high school at fourteen and college at eighteen, and in those days of Jim Crow had, Francis notes wryly, “all the qualifications to go to business school at Chapel Hill, except for one.” She went instead to the University of Chicago, and Francis notes that under arcane laws trying to retain Jim Crow before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, states refusing to allow African- American students to attend their schools commonly paid the difference between state tuition and the tuition charged elsewhere. So the state of North Carolina helped pay for his mother’s University of Chicago M.B.A.: “I know a number of people in their nineties who had their graduate education paid for by various Southern states,” he says. As a college administrator and teacher at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, she met Francis’ father, a student there, and they married, moving first to Antigua, where Francis’ father was from, and then back to Raleigh just before Francis was born in 1963.

His father died young but that didn’t stop Francis. Princeton. Duke Law. A judicial clerkship. A couple of years as a U.S. attorney in the Middle District of North Carolina, where he was happy, “but I proposed marriage to my co-clerk, and she didn’t want to stay in Winston-Salem,” so they moved to Raleigh. Practicing law at an international firm, he quickly got back into the work of running the city of his birth: Raleigh Planning Commission, then an appointment to a vacant position on Raleigh City Council at age twenty-nine, a seat he ran to retain, though he lost. “So I thought this would be a good time to leave the big firm and start a law firm. So that’s what I did.”

And with roots running as deep in Raleigh as his did, Francis found that running his own law firm also meant constant community activity: years on the boards of the Democratic Party of Wake County and the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association; membership on the board of directors of North Carolina Advocates for Justice and the Wake County Bar Association. He has served on the board of the YMCA of the Triangle—the same Y he hung around when he was growing up—and the Centennial Authority, which built the entertainment and sports arena now called the PNC Center. He was a director of Rex Healthcare and Rex Hospital and then, when it was sold to UNC Health Care, he served as a trustee of the John Rex Endowment, which manages the proceeds of that sale: “We have given away $40 million over sixteen years,” he says, broadly targeting health care for low-income people, and the principal from the sale still remains.

Francis still serves on the board of the Research Triangle Park Foundation and was a founding director and remains vice chair of North State, a community bank.

With all that involvement, and with his kids growing up and moving out, he felt moved to get back into politics—for almost the exact same reasons that Schewel mentions. “Most of the problems are the challenges of growth,” Francis says. “How we’re going to keep the public infrastructure up with the sixty or so people moving here every day, and how we can include more people in the blessings of growth.

“It was clear to me that some parts of town and many people in town were not being included in growth. Growth should not just be for buildings and population—it should be for people who live in the city now, and for their quality of life.”

Just like Durham, Raleigh is experiencing enormous growth and prosperity, but the growth raises “a larger conversation that progressives need to have on the future of progressive politics.”

More starkly, “the lack of diversity on Raleigh City Council, which has existed for over fifty years, has policy implications. I think if we had a more diverse and representative council there would be more equity in city budget decisions.” John Winters—one of the people who frequented the family print shop—was Raleigh’s first black councilman. “And here we are fifty-five years later, and there’s one African-American city councilman. And Raleigh is far more diverse now than when I grew up here.”

The matter of the map comes up—a map widely publicized after Francis lost the race for mayor, showing the precincts in Raleigh’s prosperous north and west uniformly voting for three-time incumbent Nancy McFarlane. To the less prosperous (and less white) east and south? Uniform support for Francis. Francis doesn’t accuse Raleigh—or McFarlane—of racism. But “the community is not reflected in the council,” he says, and he believes that affects policy decisions.

Schewel, meanwhile, believes though the Raleigh precinct map got a lot of attention, Durham’s map would look similar. In fact, it does show an almost exact copy of Raleigh’s distribution. The prosperous and white center and west precincts voted for Schewel; those on the east went for Ali. “Race is still the dominant overlay in American electoral politics,” Schewel says.

Looking at his time at Duke, Francis recalls his financial-aid package, arranged in decreasing amounts—a good deal of aid his first term, diminishing to nothing his final semester. “I’m not that good at math,” he says, “but I quickly realized I was going to run out of money if I didn’t do something.” He became an RA, contemplating such questions as “Why the hell would water be coming through the ceiling in the basement?” The answer: After the men’s soccer team’s national championship, kids in the room above his had a sauna party.

But you don’t make a public servant by asking him to clean up after sauna parties. “The two classes that formed the biggest impression on me both pointed me in the direction of public service,” he says. One was a third-year practice clinic. He worked with the Orange-Chatham District Attorney’s Office, and once a week he handled the office’s needs in District Court in Pittsboro. “I saw just the range of people that came through Pittsboro”—a growing Latino community, the people who had been there for decades, the university community. The sense that justice involved serving every segment of a community left a lasting imprint.

His most powerful Duke experience, though, was Walter Dellinger’s course in constitutional history. Dellinger, who as solicitor general argued many cases before the Supreme Court, taught the portion of the course on the constitutional convention; John Hope Franklin—“who was a family friend,” Francis notes—taught the portion about the constitution’s changes after the Civil War and Reconstruction; and William Leuchtenburg, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on Franklin Roosevelt, taught the portion about the Depression and the New Deal. “A trio of giants,” Francis calls the professors, and, he says, “That type of teaching and scholarship whetted my interest in public service. I would stay after class and talk with Dr. Franklin for as long as he would talk.”

That’s a long time ago; many elections have come and gone since then. And Francis plans to run again for office, though which office he hasn’t yet specified. Schewel, meanwhile, holding that metaphorical bullhorn in Durham, sees in the turbulence of today’s politics something not dissimilar to what he saw in his days as a student activist. “It was a time of tremendous ferment and opportunity,” he recalls. People believed they could make change then, and Schewel believes they can now. “And we can,” he says. “That was the thing. We can.”

Does he have any advice for Francis, or even for the victorious McFarlane? “The last thing either of them would want,” he says, laughing, “is advice from me.”

Au contraire. “I would like to speak with Steve Schewel,” Francis says. They share a background at Duke, a deep commitment to the good of their communities—and the willingness to put themselves on the line. They both took lessons from their time at Duke. And now that Schewel, at least, has that bullhorn in his hand, he feels the same optimism he felt on the Duke traffic circle: The challenges are great, but he knows the people can make change. In fact, after decades of experience, he thinks he knows something more.

“The difference between now and then is that I still know that we can,” Schewel says. “But I hope the difference now is that now I know how.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.