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Meet the candidate: Wendy Jacobs

Editors’ Note: Eleven candidates — all Democrats — are vying for five seats on the Durham County Board of Commissioners in the March 5 election. No Republicans or Libertarians have entered the contest, so the March 5 results will determine who sits on the commission. The 9th Street Journal is speaking with each candidate in the race. In coming days, we’ll bring you profiles of all 11 candidates. 

When Wendy Jacobs was a Duke undergrad, she knew that United Duke Students, an umbrella organization for activist groups on campus, needed a place to meet. Fraternities had too much alcohol, and the Flowers Building closed at 9 p.m. Jacobs proposed the creation of a new meeting spot just for students but was repeatedly shut down by university leadership. 

Jacobs persisted, wiggling her way into “Breakfast with Terry,” a casual, often one-on-one meeting with the then-president of Duke, Terry Sanford. 

“‘I know all about you and what you’ve been doing on campus,’” Jacobs recalls Sanford saying. “‘If I’m going to have students like you plotting the revolution, I want it to be in our backyard.’”

After spending her time as an undergrad connecting Duke to its surroundings, Jacobs moved on to larger community issues.

She received her teaching certification at UNC-Chapel Hill, then worked as an educator in Durham Public Schools, guiding all three of her children through the same system.

“It was very, very natural for me to stay in Durham,” she said. 

Jacobs has been on the Durham County Board of Commissioners since 2012, serving as chair for four years, and, most recently, as the vice chair. 

Now she is running for re-election as a county commissioner.

Before she ran for office, Jacobs spearheaded the New Hope Preserve initiative, which created a 100-acre regional park that spans Durham and Orange counties, and served on the Durham Planning Commission for six years. 

As a commissioner, Jacobs has championed some large-scale programs that she wants to see through, such as the Durham County Transit Plan, which lays out $1 billion worth of transit investment over the next 20 years. 

“I want to be there to make sure we actually implement the plan,” said Jacobs.

Jacobs has also battled for funding for Durham Public Schools. While she is troubled by the ongoing pay dispute in Durham Public Schools, she told The 9th Street Journal that the commission needs more information to know how to proceed.

Jacobs also says the state legislature needs to step up to provide more support for school system salaries. “It is a really unfair, frankly, unsustainable burden because we don’t have the capacity at the local level to do the job of the state,” said Jacobs. 

Her presence during board meetings is lively — Jacobs speaks with a gentle tone but frequently and with attention to detail. 

She has garnered public support through her years working in the community, including endorsements from the People’s Alliance, the Friends of Durham, the Durham Association of Educators and Indy Week.

Jacobs worked closely with former Durham mayor Steve Schewel during the Covid-19 pandemic, when she was chair of the board. Schewel praised Jacobs’ response to the public health emergency, which included implementing stay-at-home orders and directing millions of dollars into virtual learning and food relief programs. Jacobs also helped make Durham one of the first counties in North Carolina to require face coverings.

“If Wendy had not been the chair at that time, we would have lost a lot more lives in Durham,” said Schewel. 

Jacobs believes in systemic change — that is, attacking Durham’s leading issues from the ground up. She helped secure a $10 million investment for Durham’s pre-kindergarten programs in the upcoming fiscal year and supports elevating the salaries for owners of pre-K and childcare facilities and investing in childcare providers’ education.

Heidi Carter, a commissioner who is not seeking reelection, served alongside Jacobs for seven years. 

“Nobody works harder, longer or more tirelessly than Wendy does,” said Carter. 

Early voting continues through March 2, and the election takes place March 5.

Above: Photo of Wendy Jacobs by Kulsoom Rizavi — The 9th Street Journal