Members of the Durham Democratic Party recommended that Governor Cooper appoint Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston to the state House seat left vacant with the death of MaryAnn Black late last month.

“It was a unanimous vote with 29 participants in the meeting,” Stephen Rawson, the party’s third vice-chair, told the INDY on Friday. 

Black, described by her colleagues as a trailblazer, was undergoing treatment for cancer when she died March 26 after three decades of public service as a state legislator and Durham County commissioner. She had also worked as a social worker for 30 years and was vice president of community relations for Duke University Health System. 

Alston’s resignation from the city council took effect on Thursday, Mayor Steve Schewel told the INDY. She will join the General Assembly when it convenes later this month. 

The party’s decision is not surprising. Alston was running unopposed for the seat in November. 

A native of Durham who grew up in Cary, Alston worked as an attorney with NC Prisoner Legal Services and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. She won her first term to the city council in 2017. That year, she was part of a 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 co-counsel for Henry McCollum, who was exonerated after 30 years in prison after he was wrongly convicted of murder in Robeson County. 

Schewel said Alston’s tenure with the city council was marked by her “exceptional wisdom and grace.” The mayor said Alston’s legacy includes her support for the affordable housing bond voters approved in November and police reforms that addressed violent crime while not discriminating against the city’s communities of color.

“She was never the loudest voice in the room, but she was usually the wisest voice in the room,” he said. “Whenever the council had differences, she was always the person who could bridge those differences.”

The process to appoint someone to the council seat left vacant by Alston will begin on Monday. The city clerk will publish an application and information for prospective candidates about how to apply.

Council member Charlie Reece posted on Facebook that notices about the appointment process will also be published in local newspapers, and the city will issue a press release about the process.

Applicants who cannot complete the application and questionnaire online can call the clerk’s office for paper copies.

The application, questionnaires, and notice of the vacancy will be available in English and Spanish

The applications will be due April 23. 

The council will select three to seven finalists for interviews during a special virtual meeting on the morning of April 27. The city council will hold a second round of online or phone interviews during another virtual meeting on April 30, then vote and swear in the new Ward 3 representative on May 4, during a regularly scheduled meeting.

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

DEAR READERS, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW MORE THAN EVER. Support independent local journalism by joining the INDY Press Club today. Your contributions will keep our fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle, coronavirus be damned.