No matter which candidate wins, the Durham City Council Ward 3 seat will be filled by an African-American woman who’s an attorney who went to N.C. State University for undergrad and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law.
Vernetta Alston and Shelia Ann Huggins won the most votes in the municipal primary, with Alston receiving 50 percent of the vote and Huggins, 26 percent.
The primary pushed incumbent Don Moffitt, with 21 percent of the vote, out of the running for the Nov. 7 general election. He has endorsed Huggins for his seat, calling her “experienced and deeply informed on the issues.”
Why they’re running
Alston, 35, would be the youngest member of the City Council. Current member Jillian Johnson is 36.
Alston doesn’t consider herself a Millennial, but rather that generation that falls on the Generation X line. She and wife Courtney Alston are parents to a 9-month-old girl, Reese. Vernetta Alston is taking a break from practicing law this year while running for council. She worked for five years at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, where she served as co-counsel for Henry McCollum, who was exonerated after spending 30 years in prison.
Representing McCollum made her angrier at the system and more committed to speaking up for the vulnerable. After the fall 2016 election, Alston said she felt an urgency to be more outwardly committed to her values.
“Durham, as apparent to a lot of people, is at a crossroads. We’re growing at a rapid pace,” she said. It’s time for Durham to decide what kind of city it wants to be, Alston said, pledging to bring a framework of being very committed to social justice and equality.
Huggins, 50, decided to run for City Council after first considering going after the N.C. General Assembly seat of the late Paul Luebke. Her law office is just down the block on Mangum Street from City Hall. She practices business law, which is mostly contracts, she said. But until 2014, she worked for the city.
She said she knows what it’s like to prepare a presentation and answer elected leaders’ questions.
Huggins started working for the city’s General Services Department in 2006 handling special projects, then moved to Neighborhood Improvement Services and finally to the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Before that she was an environmental chemist for the state.
What they say about downtown
Huggins was working for the city before downtown revitalization and remembers when the Cupcake Bar on East Chapel Hill Street was a building with a leaky roof.
“You envision what your city can become, but you’re also concerned about divestment in the rest of the city,” Huggins said. It bothers her that the sign on N.C. Mutual Life Insurance, the historic African-American owned company, will be coming off the building NC Mutual no longer owns. To her, it’s symbolic that Durham is not as progressive anymore.
“I think council needs to get behind the black community,” Huggins said. “What are we going to do about black businesses?”
Huggins said the council needs to make sure growth benefits the city as a whole.
Alston is also concerned about changing Durham.
“I want Durham to thrive, to grow, be an active and engaged community. But I don’t support growth at the expense of our people,” Alston said. “Downtown’s great, but [we need to put] just as much resources and time into making sure folks aren’t displaced,” she said. That means thoughtful investments in downtown so folks have what they need and can be part of the city’s prosperity, she said.
Alston’s mom’s family lived in Hayti, and her dad’s family off Plum Street. Her paternal grandmother ran a daycare, so Alston still runs into older folks in the black community who knew Virginia Alston, she said.
“Unfortunately the legacy of revitalization in the ’60s and ’70s hit my family quite hard. Mom lost her home, and that still has lasting impact today,” she said. Alston’s maternal grandmother’s house was torn down to build the Durham Freeway, she said.
Alston’s mom once worked at IBM for Durham Mayor Bill Bell. Alston has a baby shower card from Bell. When Alston was a little kid, her family moved to Cary. She graduated from Cardinal Gibbons Catholic High School in Raleigh and went on to N.C. State. She moved back to Durham in 2010. Alston’s brother, Derrick Green, runs the Deluxe Barbershop on Fayetteville Street.
Huggins grew up in Greenville and both her parents have served in local government. Her dad, Rufus Huggins, served multiple terms on the Greenville City Council in the 1980s. Her mom, Ann Huggins, is currently a Pitt County commissioner.
After going with her mom to the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Huggins decided she wanted to become a member of the Democratic National Committee. And last year she took her daughter Emerson, 16, a student at Cardinal Gibbons, to the convention.
For Alston, Durham doesn’t face one issue, but rather choices about how it moves forward and who it prioritizes. She sees affordable housing as a priority as well as policing, the environment, parks and recreation and public transit.
“We need to increase the number of bus shelters. There’s no justification for people standing out in the rain,” Alston said. She’d like to see Durham buses become fare free, and wants to explore funding options.
“I’d like to explore it at the very least,” she said.
Huggins said the big Durham issue of affordable housing is about affordable land. “Land isn’t getting any cheaper,” she said.
But you can’t get a house without a job to pay for it, Huggins said, so job training, education and skills are needed to break out of generational poverty.
Early voting in the Durham municipal election continues until Nov. 4. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.