Thursday, June 13, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Encore Burlington city council race: Dejuana Bigelow wins in second council outing

It may not be the length of her political resume that has endeared Dejuana Bigelow to voters in Burlington. But her life experience does seem to have struck a chord with the 3,200 residents who elevated her to the top spot in this year’s race for Burlington’s city council.

A 42-year-old billing tech for UNC Healthcare, Bigelow had made her political debut in 2021 with an unsuccessful bid for one council’s regular seats. But even back then, Bigelow was already inspiring voters with an origin story that begins with a wholesome upbringing in one of the more “marginalized” parts of the city.

Dejuana Bigelow

“Places like the community where I grew up need a voice, and I didn’t see anybody fighting for them – or fighting for poor people and for minorities.”

“. . .I want us to find ways to work together. Whether we’re Democrats, Republicans, or independents…it’s time for us to start being nonpartisan and to serve our community as a council.”

– City council member-elect Dejuana Bigelow

Bigelow spent many of her formative years along Key Street – one of the numerous small roads that honeycomb the landscape along Burlington’s Rauhut Street. Although tucked in an area that’s now known for its high crime rates and down-at-the-heels ambiance, Bigelow remembers this neighborhood as a tight-knit, resilient community whose old-fashioned values would remain with her as she grew older.

“The people who lived here were proud and hardworking,” she recalls. “They cared for each other and looked out for each other…We could jump on our bikes and ride to the store or the Mayco Bigelow Community Center without being worried about someone grabbing or snatching us.”

- Advertisement -

Bigelow’s own family inhabited a modest dwelling on Key Street that was purchased years earlier by her great grandmother – the indomitable Mae Freddie Warren Ellison. Bigelow remembers that this imposing matriarch kept a small vegetable patch outside the home, which provided her family with a ready supply of fresh produce. She also tended to her family’s spiritual nourishment with weekly pilgrimages to Clinton Memorial Church, whose sanctuary along Durham Street is located within walking distance of Bigelow’s childhood home.

Bigelow never forgot the old homestead on Key Street, and the lessons she took in at her great grandmother’s knee continued to exert an influence on her after she graduated from Cummings High School. Her appreciation of family also remained strong as she enrolled at Alamance Community College, where she met her future husband Lea Bigelow and began her own family, which currently includes Lea’s grown daughter Taleah as well as the couple’s two younger children, Zoi and Lea.

Bigelow and her husband eventually moved their young household to Hanford Hills – a comparably upscale neighborhood near Burlington’s border with Graham. Yet, Bigelow has remained cognizant of her connection to east Burlington even as it appeared to her that the city’s elected leaders were growing more and more detached from the residents in that part of town.

“Places like the community where I grew up need a voice,” she insists, “and I didn’t see anybody fighting for them – or fighting for poor people and for minorities.”

Bigelow would soon parley her concern for the voiceless into two nonprofit advocacy groups. Her first nonprofit venture, which was dubbed Women Empowering Women, earned her the kudos of the Women’s Resource Center in 2020. In the meantime, she founded another, more wide-reaching organization called Future Alamance – which, like the name would suggest, is generally concerned with the future of Alamance County.

Along the way, Bigelow also became increasingly interested in police reform – a preoccupation that led her to become a community liaison with Burlington’s police department during the tenure of the city’s former police chief Jeff Smythe. It was in this capacity that Bigelow watched the department mount what struck her as a particularly constructive response to the outrage which gripped the nation in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Bigelow also had a seat at the table when Smythe decided to form a citizen advisory board for Burlington’s police force. She would go on to serve as the chair of this Community Police Advisory Team when it was launched ahead of Smythe’s departure in 2021, and she insists that the group has remained true to its original spirit of vigorous dialogue under the city’s two subsequent police chiefs.

“You get to hear so many different perspectives,” she adds. “You only know your own lived experience. So, it’s enlightening to hear different people discussing how they see things from their lived experience.”

Bigelow continued to expand her horizons even further when she resolved to run for Burlington’s city council later that year. The first-time office seeker says she learned a great deal about the way issues like crime and economic development were viewed outside of east Burlington. In some cases, she acknowledged that the outlook of west Burlington voters was unexpectedly in synch with that their peers on the east side of town.

“It was eye opening,” she notes, “to see people in west Burlington say they want more development in east Burlington because they’ve had enough of it in their own neighborhoods.”

At the same time, Bigelow’s candidacy galvanized a lot of enthusiasm among folks from east Burlington, whose support rocketed her to second place in that year’s municipal primary, which had winnowed the six-person field of city council contenders ahead of the general election.

Bigelow’s auspicious showing in the primary was soon undermined by a coordinated campaign against Burlington’s then-mayor Ian Baltutis, who had been one of her campaign’s supporters. During his time on the dais, Baltutis had alienated some of the city’s more conservative voters with forays into divisive political issues that his critics believed were outside the city’s proper domain.

The blowback against the mayor’s dalliances, which included his public entreaties for the removal of a Confederate monument from the neighboring city of Graham, eventually trickled down ballot to other progressively-minded candidates like Bigelow. As that year’s council race entered its final stretch, Bigelow recalls that voters were inundated with text messages that urged them to halt the supposed “takeover” of city hall by Baltutis his fellow “activists.”

“A lot of voters were alarmed when they got those text messages,” she adds, “and I think they did a lot to hurt my campaign.”

These electronic exhortations ultimately drove an unprecedented surge in voter turnout that proved fatal to the two council candidates linked to Baltutis. Bigelow was particularly hard hit, finding herself at the bottom of the field after the general election – in spite of the enthusiasm that her own supporters had demonstrated throughout the campaign.

Bigelow’s incipient experience with electoral politics left her a bit wary when she decided to throw her hat back into the ring earlier this year. Although toughened by her bout with adversity, and more practiced in the art of campaign fundraising, the second-time candidate was skeptical that she’d be able to drum up the same grassroots enthusiasm that had energized her campaign in 2021.

“People who had never voted before had shown up to vote,” she recalls. “This year, I had more money. But I didn’t know how many of those people would show up again.”

In her second bid for the council, Bigelow hit on many of the same issues that she had been hammering home two years before. In addition to the redevelopment of east Burlington, she campaigned on matters like affordable housing and juvenile crime prevention, which seemed to resonate with the city’s electorate.

In the end, Bigelow not only led the field in the primary; she also took home more votes in the general election than any of her rivals. With roughly 30.15 percent of the vote, Bigelow finished comfortably ahead of incumbent councilman Bob Ward, whose second-place finish was nevertheless enough to secure him another term on the dais. She also beat out planning board member Charlie Beasley and the city’s former mayor pro tem Celo Faucette, who was repulsed in his hopes for a political comeback this year.

Once Bigelow takes her oath of office on December 5, she’ll join an exclusive club that will otherwise consist entirely of graying white men with decades of public sector experience. But even as the only black woman among this assemblage, Bigelow hopes to be part of a united front as the council takes on the challenges that face the community.

“I want us to find ways to work together,” she contends. “Whether we’re Democrats, Republicans, or independents…it’s time for us to start being nonpartisan and to serve our community as a council.”

Must Read

Elon cross country coach returns to take Duke job

By Bob Sutton Special to The Alamance News Kevin Jermyn, who has been Elon’s cross country coach and associate head coach for track and field, has...