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Meet the candidate: Brenda Howerton

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. 

Brenda Howerton has never lost an election for county commissioner. And the long-time public official says she doesn’t plan to start now. 

Howerton is one of 11 Democrats vying for five seats on the Durham County Board of Commissioners. She has served on the board since 2008 and chaired the group from 2020 to 2023. Howerton says her years of experience are what set her apart in the race.

“If I’m elected, I come in and hit the ground running,” she said. “No tutorials. I just go to work.” 

The native North Carolinian came to Durham in 1986 amidst a boom in the Research Triangle. Balancing education, work and raising four children as a single mother, she found a passion for executive coaching and leadership development. She worked with clients ranging from Rolls Royce to local Triangle-area businesses. “I have that groundedness of working with people and really listening, hearing what people say,” she said. 

Tragedy rocked her family in the 1990s when she lost two sons to gun violence in separate incidents, one of which involved a police officer.

The experiences fueled Howerton’s interest in improving the lives of Durhamites. She got her political feet wet on the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation District Board before running for commissioner. 

In 12 years, Howerton’s priorities have remained largely unchanged. She has long championed children’s issues, education and affordable housing and has worked on initiatives ranging from criminal justice to economic development. 

Howerton says education is especially important this year, as Durham Public Schools are in turmoil over budget issues. 

The district revoked raises for around 1,300 classified DPS staff in January, causing protests and school closures. It is now $9 million short as it looks to fund those promised raises through the end of the fiscal year. Some classified workers have called on the Board of Education to request funding from the Board of County Commissioners. 

Asked about the school pay dispute, Howerton responded by email, “If you check over the last three years as the Chair of the Board of County Commissioners I have supported totally funding DPS and if I am elected I plan on continuing in that capacity.”

Though her priorities have remained consistent, Howerton’s perspective has shifted over her 16-year tenure. 

“When I was first elected, you know, you have this idealistic thinking that you can cure all ills,” she said. “And then you get on the board and you realize they’re larger than you ever imagined. You work and you work and you work, and I would like to be able to say that you can work yourself out of a job, but it’s no such thing. The issues, still, are there.”

That realism has not tainted Howerton’s optimism. “You just keep taking off small bites,” she said. “You get something accomplished and then you move to the next level.” 

Howerton’s leadership experience extends beyond the Board of County Commissioners. In October 2023, she became the first Black woman to chair the board of trustees for GoTriangle, the Triangle’s regional public transportation provider. She learned the importance of accessible, well-connected public transit during her first years in Durham when she drove an unreliable used car to get to work. 

Though her appointment with GoTriangle is a large responsibility, Howerton says the new job has only deepened her commitment to the Bull City. She hopes to bring new state and federal-level partnerships to improve transportation in Durham. 

To critics who say it’s time for a new face on the commission, Howerton says, “It’s not an easy job, but it’s a satisfying job when you do the work. And I do the work.”

Howerton has received endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham, among other groups. 

The primary election will take place on Tuesday, March 5. Early voting is underway and continues through March 2.