Durham city council member Vernetta Alston is gearing up a campaign for the General Assembly.

On Tuesday, Alston filed to run for the District 29 seat in the House of Representatives.

A native of Durham who grew up in Cary, Alston has worked as a staff attorney with NC Prisoner Legal Services and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

She’ll be vying for the seat left vacant by Mary Ann Black, who was appointed to the position in 2017 after Governor Cooper made longtime state rep Larry Hall the state’s secretary of military of veterans affairs. 

Alston is a steely, reserved, tough-minded defense attorney who won a first term to the city council in 2017 by beating out attorney Sheila Huggins. Earlier that year, she was part of the CDPL defense team that won a life sentence for Nathan Holden in Wake County—the eighth capital case in a row in which a Wake jury chose life without parole over a death sentence. She also served as the co-counsel for Henry McCollum, who was exonerated after thirty years in prison. 

On the city council, Alston has supported a high-profile $95 million affordable housing bond that is, by far, the largest in the state’s history. She is also one of five council members who rejected Police Chief CJ Davis’s request this year for more officers despite a rise in violent crime. 

Alston’s sexual orientation—she is married to a woman—became an issue in February when she was invited to speak at the Immaculata Catholic School as part of the school’s Black History Month program. The invitation was rescinded and the school closed for the day following reports of protests against the council member’s appearance. An Immaculata alum, Alston issued a statement in response, saying that the school’s decision sends “a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children—that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character.”

After a backlash, she was soon reinvited to speak to students—and she did a month later

Alston will appear on the March primary ballot. Given the partisan composition of District 29 in Durham—which Black won 88–12 in 2018, and which didn’t change in the recent redistricting—whoever wins the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to win in November. To date, Alston is the only candidate—Democrat, Republican, or third party—to file for that seat. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. This story has been updated to clarify that Durham Beyond Policing does not make endorsements and to correct an erroneous statement that MaryAnn Black is running for state Senate. 

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