Elaine O’Neal made history on November 5 when she became the first African American Woman to become mayor of Durham, winning on a platform of unity and community safety.
“I really believe that I can unify us so that we can get through these hard times, by focusing on some of our most pressing issues as a community,” O’Neal said. “I really want to stress and emphasize unifying us as neighbors again, knowing that neighbors care about each other.”
Growing up in Durham shaped her ideology. “‘Caring about our neighbors’ is the term that I grew up on,” she said. “That’s the term that trained me, I’m a product of that phenomenal system.”
O’Neal believes that this message is important now more than ever.
“All election years are pivotal, but we are at a really pivotal time in my mind,” she said. “I have been in politics for so long, and it seems to me that we are at a place of fragmentation that I have never seen before, because COVID has impacted our ability to interact with each other. This at so many levels; economically, socially, and definitely with wealth.”
She underscored these issues when discussing her plans surrounding community safety.
“You want to be safe in your home,” she said. “When you talk about community safety you have to acknowledge that a lot of our communities are not safe because they are impoverished.”
O’Neal believes that the poverty that threatens community safety cannot be addressed without improving affordable housing and education.
“We want people to be able to not just survive, we want people to thrive, and we people to live in a place called home that is safe and decent,” O’Neal said. “And when we talk about that we need to speak both in terms of the issue, and in terms of all of the connectors.”
O’Neal has never lived outside of Durham, and her passion for the city runs deep.
“You can’t help but love Durham if you’re from Durham,” she said.
After graduating from Hillside High School, O’Neal earned her bachelor’s degree and law degree from Central Carolina Community College. From there, she served as an attorney in private practice, and for the city as the Chief District Court Judge and a Superior Court Judge.
“I was also the first female to be a chief district court judge in Durham county, and the first female to be a superior court judge in Durham county,” she said.
Her experience as a judge will bring a unique perspective to city leadership.
“There’s a whole different world of people that frequent the criminal courts, and that world can be hidden,” she said. “If you don’t want to see it you don’t have to.”
Through this lens O’Neal hopes to bring visibility to the issues of some of Durham’s most distressed communities, including hopelessness, joblessness, and lack of opportunities. “I’ve seen it, I’ve worked in it, and lived in it for 24 years. I can help to address some of those issues that a lot of our district’s community members face,” she said.
O’Neal plans on using her platform as mayor to provide pipelines for young people to be successful. She cites her ties with the organization Made in Durham, which ensures that every young person that lives in Durham, by the age of 24 has a postsecondary credential or some type of a trade or skill.
“I want you all to have you to be able to say, ‘I can do this in Durham, I can be all that I can’t be in Durham, and Durham will support me in doing it,’” O’Neal said. “That’s why [I ran].