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Meet the candidate: Nimasheena Burns

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. 

When Durham County Commissioner Nimasheena Burns was growing up in rural Tar Heel, North Carolina, her dad served as chief of the volunteer fire department. Her family had a routine when a fire broke out in a neighbor’s house.

“At a really young age, my dad would get a white envelope, and him and my mom would figure out in their budget what they could give,” Burns said. “But then dad would come into me and my sister and brother’s room and ask, ‘What do you want to give out of your piggy bank?’”

As Burns grew up, her perception of politics came from television shows like “The West Wing,” watching characters like C.J. Cregg and Maxine Shaw. 

“So here were these two smart, sexy women that communicated” and were in government, Burns said.

These contrasting models of public service shaped Burns’ approach to government. In 2020, was elected to the Durham County Board of Commissioners. She currently serves as vice chair and this year, she’s running again.

Burns, who earned her bachelor’s in communications from UNC-Chapel Hill and her master’s in public affairs from North Carolina Central University, began her time in local government as a communications specialist for the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. A former consultant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Burns now works as an external affairs liaison for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. 

As a commissioner, Burns is perhaps most proud of a disparity study to address inequality in Durham. She’s currently working to implement the study recommendations, which focus on women and minority businesses and workers.

“We don’t want you to bring a company here that is not paying above a living wage,” she said. “And we don’t want you to come here unless you can commit to working with women and minority businesses.”

Burns is also watching the payroll crisis that has enveloped Durham Public Schools. After DPS classified staff were given raises in October, the school board learned that the raises would cost $9 million over budget. With workers’ pay rates in dispute, the district has been rocked with protests and school closures. 

Many Durhamites are looking to the county commissioners for clarity. Burns disagrees. 

“People are like, ‘Oh, y’all been quiet.’ It is on them,” Burns said of the school board.
Burns says she thought threatening to revoke the raises was a big mistake, and she was “hurt” when Superintendent Pascal Mubenga stepped down. 

She also says she recognizes that mistakes happen in local government, and she believes that the school board is taking necessary action to investigate.

“So it does seem like there have been some steps that were taken. Found this out, told a chair, got a consultant coming, review this, find out what happened…” Burns said of the school board’s reaction.

Burns is pushing for more staff in the Durham Public Schools central office and better mechanisms to track district funding streams.

Burns’ energy and attention to detail started early, according to Larry Hall. Burns worked with Hall when he was secretary of the N.C. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. While there, Burns helped to create a new program called the N.C. Defense Industry Diversification Initiative.

“Obviously the department got a lot of credit for what she did, and I got credit for it, too,” Hall said. “But by no means was I the driving engine on that. All I did was be smart enough to hire her and get out of her way.”

Burns hopes to continue to work on affordable housing initiatives and on expanding Durham’s public transportation, including continuing to electrify the bus system and adding more stops.

At night, Burns comes home to a room overflowing with books — including her favorite, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston — and an impressive rock and mineral collection. Burns tumbles the rocks with her own machine.

As a county commissioner, Burns doesn’t have as much time for those hobbies. But that doesn’t stop her from seeking out another term.

“It’s not time to be a spectator. It’s time to be a gladiator,” Burns said. “So I’m jumping in!”

Early voting continues through March 2 ahead of the election on March 5.

Above: Photo of Nimasheena Burns by Esme Fox — The 9th Street Journal