Zweli’s Kitchen owner Leonardo Williams is running for mayor

Two-year Durham City Councilmember Leonardo Williams is running for mayor in the 2023 election cycle. Williams has lived and worked in Durham for over two decades and said his experiences as a teacher, businessman and elected official have prepared him for the mayoral race. 

Williams moved to Durham in 1999 to study at North Carolina Central University and receive his bachelor’s degree in music education.

With his degree, he began teaching as a band director at Shepard Magnet Middle School and received his first Teacher of the Year award in only his second year.

“It was a great experience! I really enjoyed it,” Williams said on his time at Shepard.

Williams later spent four years as the assistant band director at Hillside High School. He was then promoted to serve as the director of bands at the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability, where he earned his second Teacher of the Year award. 

Coming off a decade in the school system, he became involved in education advocacy and policy, which led him to become the chair of the North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children. He continued to serve as chair of this foundation until he decided to go back to NCCU for his master’s in education leadership. 

After completing his master’s, he worked as an assistant principal in Durham and senior district official in a neighboring county. During this time, he wrote a curriculum for Durham students that was even recognized at the state level.

“It was really successful, and I got recognized by Raleigh, our state government,” Williams said.

This led to Governor Cooper’s administration recruiting Williams to be a consultant in the Department of Public Policy. 

However, after his years in education and consulting, he said it was time to try something new: restaurant ownership.  

“It was after doing that consulting work, that I resigned and became my wife’s delivery boy, and that’s when we got into the restaurant industry,” Williams said. 

Leonardo’s wife, Zweli Williams, had prior restaurant experience. Together, with the retirement fund from Leonardo’s years in education, the couple decided to open a Zimbabwean restaurant, Zweli’s Kitchen.

Leonardo’s transition from restaurant owner to public servant came soon after the business got off the ground. 

When the pandemic hit and small businesses started closing, Leonardo said he decided to bring people together and do something about it. 

“I’m not going to let anyone else lose their business because I know what it takes to start it,” Leonardo said.

Following multiple failed attempts with the city to get money for small businesses, Williams eventually raised $3 million with his Small Business Fund to save business during COVID-19 with the help of the City Council. With this money, Williams said he was able to stop the closure of every single small business in Durham simply by doing community work as a private citizen. 

“It was after that when I said, you know, I should probably just run for office,” Williams said. “I’m putting all this groundwork into creating policy as a private resident, let me just do it at the policy level.” 

That led Williams to begin his political career on the City Council in 2021, according to his City Council page. Even with only two years on the council, Williams said that his past experiences and ability to communicate with anybody qualify him for mayor. 

“Going from educator to entrepreneur and all the things that I’ve experienced in between, also being a consultant in policy, really set me on par to be an effective contributor to the policymaking process,” Williams said. 

Some issues that Williams said he would continue to tackle as mayor are affordable housing, transportation, crime, supporting small businesses, and overall making Durham a more affordable and sustainable place to live. From educator to entrepreneur to elected official, Leonardo is committed to serving Durham.

Election day is Nov. 7, 2023, according to the Durham Board of Elections site. If Williams is not elected as mayor, he will continue to serve on the Town Council until 2025. 

Edited by Isabella Reilly and Victoria Osborne

Emma Hall is a senior Media and Journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also a writer for the City & State desk at the Daily Tar Heel.

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