In 1985 Wib Gulley was elected Durham’s mayor of Durham, a position he used to improve the city’s transportation and infrastructure, always with an eye towards environmental, social, and preservation concerns. He negotiated the city’s acquisition of the local bus system from the Duke Power Company and improved the city’s streets, sewer, water, and solid waste disposal systems. He initiated Durham’s affordable housing program and led neighborhood protection and city center revitalization efforts. His time in office saw the cultivation of Durham’s cultural resources. The Durham Arts Council building was renovated, the Museum of Life and Science was revitalized, and the Historic District Commission (today’s Historic Preservation Commission) was founded to oversee the city’s new historic district ordinance. In 1986 he issued a proclamation designating an anti-discrimination week, and he endorsed the Triangle gay and lesbian pride march in Durham. This proclamation drew sufficient backlash to instigate a petition for a recall election. Enough signatures were not gathered, and Gulley won the next election handily.
Gulley also served two terms as state senator, beginning in 1993. He sponsored legislation that led to the nation’s first public financing of election campaigns for judicial office, as well as numerous other campaign law reforms. He also led the senate’s Transportation Appropriations Committee for five years, working to expand overall transportation funding with an emphasis on public transit and road maintenance.