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Voters tap newcomers for Durham county commission

On Tuesday, voters expressed that they were ready for fresh faces on the Durham County Board of Commissioners. Three newcomers, Michelle Burton, Mike Lee and Stephen Valentine, will join the five-member board. Meanwhile, just two incumbents, Wendy Jacobs and Nida Allam, retained their seats. 

One incumbent, Heidi Carter, did not seek reelection. Two other incumbents, Nimasheena Burns and Brenda Howerton, fell short in their reelection bids. Burns finished seventh while Howerton, who has served on the board since 2008, finished sixth, about 1,000 votes behind Valentine. 

The incoming commissioners secured critical local endorsements. The Durham Association of Educators and the People’s Alliance PAC, a progressive organization, threw their support behind Allam, Burton, Jacobs, and Lee, while INDY Week endorsed all five victorious candidates. 

Many of the candidates’ platforms stressed education reform, a key issue for voters in light of recent pay disputes at the Durham Public Schools. One member of the current school board, Jovonia Lewis, was among the commissioner candidates but did not succeed in her bid for higher office.  

The incoming commissioners will serve four-year terms. Among other duties, the commissioners set the annual county property tax rate and provide a significant portion of the local public schools budget. 

Jacobs, who polled first with 15.23% of the vote, has served on the board since 2012. A former educator, she hopes to continue to fund and expand Durham’s pre-K programs and create a county-wide literacy initiative. Jacobs also lists affordable housing, public transit, and community health as top priorities. 

Endorsed by the People’s Alliance, she expressed support for the group’s other picks at a watch party at Viceroy Tuesday night.

“This is a team effort,” Jacobs said, gesturing around the room. “This is a room full of everyone who has been instrumental and a part of this process. Because as an elected official, you cannot achieve anything on your own.” 

Polling in second place was Nida Allam, the current chair of the board who has served since 2020. During her historic first term as the first-ever Muslim woman to hold office in North Carolina, Allam helped to raise Durham’s minimum wage and secure tax relief for low-income residents.  

Like Jacobs, newcomer and third-place winner Michelle Burton has a strong background in education. A school librarian and former teacher’s union president, she began her foray into labor organizing in 2013. She advocates for affordable housing, raising pay for public school teachers, remodeling outdated school properties and investing in educational technologies.

“I know my daddy is so excited right now,” she said as she took the stage at the Viceroy watch party. “I just wish my mother was alive to see this— that little girl that she raised on the South Side of Chicago. I never would’ve imagined I would be here today.” 

Another newcomer, Mike Lee, brings a combination of business expertise and public service experience to the table. Lee, who holds a doctorate in business administration, currently works as a customer service executive at a tax and compliance software company. Lee is also a DPS parent and served for 8 years on the school board, in addition to participating in mentorship and athletics coaching. 

Finally, Stephen Valentine took fifth place with 9.55% of the vote, narrowly defeating incumbent Brenda Howerton. Valentine, who served in Iraq, has a passion for gun reform, social work and securing justice for fellow veterans. He currently works as the director and supervising attorney of the NCCU Veterans Law Clinic. Valentine serves on the Durham City-County Planning Commission.

Gabrielle Lazor and Esme Fox contributed reporting to this story.