Mayor Bill Bell Leaves the Political Stage on High Note

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Mayor Bill Bell on the roof of City Hall. Photo by Briana Brough.

Who will be the next mayor is unclear (“I’m going to endorse Cora Cole-McFadden,” Mayor Bell says. “And if Steve Schewel runs then I’ll have two friends in the race.”) but he is leaving the stage on a decidedly high note. Durham is doing well by most any metric, so we thought it was a good time to sit down with the mayor and ask him to reflect on some of the highs and lows of his time in office. Asked why he was leaving at the end of this term, he said, simply, “It’s just time.” An IBM retiree and current COO of UDI Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization, with six grandchildren, the mayor is not wanting for things to do.

Here, an edited transcript of our conversation:

You were first elected mayor in 2001. You’ve led Durham through some interesting times.

They’ve been interesting for me.

Well, you started your public service in 1972.

Yes, as a county commissioner.

What prompted you to get in the political arena in the first place?

I was president of my [Emory Woods] neighborhood association and there was a re-zoning matter that came up. As president of the association, I was asked to carry the argument before the planning committee and county commissioners. We ended up losing.

So you got the bug?

It wasn’t so much the bug. What happened was that I was young and probably naïve enough to think that if you can’t beat them, why not try to join them? So I ran for Board of County Commissioners since they were who made the decision. It was in ’72, and I was fortunate enough to get elected. So that sort of changed my direction in terms of what I was doing.

How do you like the high visibility of being mayor?

You know the thing about electoral politics is nobody forces you to do it. It’s a choice. It’s a choice between you and the voters, and if both of you agree, you’re in it, and if you don’t agree, then you’re doing something else. So in that respect I’ve enjoyed it. But being on TV or seeing my picture published or doing media interviews, with respect, is not important to me at all at this stage.

There is a brief gap in your service …

Yes. I lost an election in 1994. We had gone through merging [the city and county] schools in 1992, and of course people say that’s why I lost. But I think I lost because No. 1, I didn’t get enough votes, and No. 2, it was part of the Republican revolution.

Losing didn’t sour you on public service?

No, or else I wouldn’t have come back in ’96 and get re-elected. But I thought I was done in 2000.

Let’s talk about the City of Durham a little bit. What prompted you to run for mayor in 2001?

I wasn’t looking at doing anything politically, but I had some people who I had known over the years ask if I would consider running for mayor. That was a big decision for me because it was a personal decision and plus I knew the [incumbent]. Nick [Tennyson] and I were friends. In fact, I went to his event when he announced that he was going to run again for mayor. That’s just how far away the notion of running for mayor was in my mind.

Did you have a sense of the scope of the mayoral job?

I never really focused on it, so I really didn’t know how big of a job it was. I really didn’t.

When you came into office in 2001, this was a different city.

Durham probably didn’t have the best of images in the Triangle. The downside to living here is there is an inevitable comparison among Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Cary and all in between. Durham was sort of the stepchild in the Triangle, in my opinion. Realtors would tend to send people to Raleigh or Chapel Hill, not Durham. A lot of that had to do with the schools to a certain extent. Another thing is that RTP’s C-level executives all lived in Raleigh, Cary and so on. Not all of them. Glaxo made a commitment to Durham. I remember [a Glaxo executive] told me that he told his executives, when they looked for a house, he wanted them to look first in Durham. I didn’t know if he was putting me on. But they walked the walk.

The economic engine that we have today didn’t exist when you first became mayor.

Well, when I came here in 1972, the tobacco factories were still booming. When I first campaigned, I went to the factory to knock on the doors and stood outside. They didn’t start going down until the late ’70s, early ’80s. So you have that combination of things that were happening in our community that weren’t happening in Raleigh or Cary or Chapel Hill. So that’s another thing that didn’t make our city as attractive as other cities that people were moving to. That was Durham.

The Duke-Durham relationship seems to be as good as it’s ever been. How would you characterize it?

I’ve worked with four presidents – Terry Sanford, Keith Brodie, Nan Keohane and now Dick Brodhead – and in each of those administrations the relationship between Durham and Duke has improved.

In what ways?

I think that the lacrosse issue highlighted some issues.

I imagine that incident was all- consuming for you.

To a certain extent it got to be. The media attention was constant.

My memory is that you were always ready to talk it through to reporters.

I tried to. As well as point out the fact that we didn’t know all the facts.

What issues did the lacrosse episode raise?

I think it pointed out some issues that we had in this community, but I think it also pointed out how they could be handled in a better way. We still talked, we had meetings over at Duke’s campus, over at [N.C.] Central’s campus, and we were able to keep people involved. I remember Jesse Jackson called me and asked if I wanted him to come in. He said it looks like I handled it well, “… but if you want me to come in I can. I don’t want to throw gas on the fire,” he said. I told him no, I thought we’d be able to get through it. And we did.

And so we did. How would you characterize the current state of race relations? Better, worse? Different, same?

It depends on where you are.

Durham is proud of its diversity. Would you agree with that?

Yes, very much.

So generally speaking, how are we doing?

I think we’re doing well, considering the things that are going on nationally. We appreciate diversity and we think that it’s a positive so we try to lean on that as much as we can. The fact that you’ve got such widespread diversity at all levels of government is a positive and very unique, in my experience.

I think that makes a difference. But by the same token, it sort of also begs the question of, “Why wouldn’t you have a certain level of activism when racial issues come up?” You’re going to. But I think we learn from [incidents] as a result.

Durham handles friction well.

By being a mayor, I’m involved with mayors across the country and when I listen to some of the issues that they have and the challenges they have, I think we’re doing well.

I asked several people what they thought of your leadership skills, what your best characteristic was. One person summed it up this way: “He’s a great listener. You might not think he’s keyed in when his eyes are closed but he’s listening.”

I’ve heard that I listen well. And just because I don’t do what you said doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening. I just didn’t agree with you. I feel that we have some very intelligent people in this community. Typically, if you’re sitting around a table and an issue comes up, somebody’s going to say what you might’ve thought about saying. I often just let them say it. Where I come in is when I think the point that should’ve been raised hasn’t been raised.

Any second thoughts on leaving the stage?

No. Everything has to come to an end, eventually.


A few items Mayor Bell cites as milestones during his tenure.

  • “The revitalization of northeast central Durham and much of the Southside community.”
  • “Beginning a data-driven Poverty Reduction Initiative in northeast central Durham. Hopefully this will be an ongoing effort.”
  • DPAC and the American Tobacco Campus were started and successfully completed through a combination of public/ private partnerships.”

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