Danville City Hall. Photo by Grace Mamon.

If either Maureen Belko or Petrina Carter is elected in November, she will be the first woman on Danville’s City Council since 2010. 

Covington is the only other city in Virginia with an all-male city council. The other 36 independent cities in the state have at least one councilwoman. 

The last woman on Danville’s City Council was Ruby Archie, who served on council from 1994 until her death in 2010. She was Danville’s first and only female mayor from 1998 to 2000. The Danville public library was renamed after her in 2018. 

Belko and Carter are running against four male incumbents – Mayor Alonzo Jones, Vice Mayor Gary Miller, James Buckner, and Bryant Hood – for the four open council seats. 

Danville council candidates

Six candidates are seeking four seats – four incumbents and two challengers. In alphabetical order:

Maureen Belko
James Buckner, incumbent
Petrina Carter
Bryant Hood, incumbent
Mayor Alonzo Jones, incumbent
Vice Mayor Gary Miller, incumbent

But neither Belko nor Carter is running on a “woman’s platform.”

“I don’t think just being a woman makes you qualified to be a city councilperson,” Belko said. “I’d be good at the job for other reasons.”

Carter, who ran last election cycle but did not win, has a similar mindset. 

“I would not tell people to vote for me because I’m a woman,” she said. “Vote for me because I’m a qualified candidate running for Danville City Council.”

Both candidates said that having a woman’s perspective on city council is important, but it’s not the reason they’re running. 

Belko works for IT services and consulting company Noblis in Danville. She’s also served as vice president of Danville nonprofit Middle Border Forward, and as president of Collidescope, an organization that supports the LGBTQ+ community. 

“[Being a woman] adds to my campaign, but it’s not the focus,” Belko said. “It’s not even a main pillar.”

Instead, the New Jersey native is passionate about retaining young people in Danville. She moved to Danville after graduating from college seven years ago and has seen many of her friends in town move away since then. 

“The hard part is that a lot of them liked Danville and wanted to stay, but they couldn’t for some reason,” Belko said. “They either couldn’t find the next step in their job, or there were a ton of entry-level positions, but that second level wasn’t there, and their network wasn’t strong enough to find another job nearby.”

Finding friends and dating can also be difficult for young people in Danville, she said. 

“It seems like little things, but after you’re here for several years and these are still problems, that’s when people start saying, alright, I need to go somewhere else to find all these aspects that I want in my life,” Belko said. 

Belko said that Danville doesn’t have someone with this perspective on city council, and she has ideas for how to keep young people in town. 

A wider variety of concerts, more adult programming, and trust among residents that the programming will be beneficial and well-attended are all things that could help build a better community for younger folks, she said. 

And not being a native to the city gives her a unique viewpoint too, she said. 

“I really had to get involved and meet everybody from scratch,” Belko said. “There was no framework, and I’m really well-versed with the struggle of getting a start from zero.”

She said a huge issue in Danville is the lack of communication about resources and events. Moving to the area helped her become aware of how the city can improve this. 

On the flipside, Carter has been in Danville for over 25 years. Carter is the president and CEO of the Tri-County Community Action Agency, which focuses on strengthening Halifax, Mecklenburg and Charlotte counties. 

She was also previously senior manager at Danville’s Virginia Employment Commission local office. These roles, as well as her time on the board of Danville’s Institute for Advanced Research and Learning and other local organizations, make her a well-rounded candidate, she said. 

 Two of the most important issues to Carter are housing and public education in the city, she said. 

“We cannot have economic development without education,” she said. “And we can’t have strong education without strong housing. Because the social determinants of health include having safe, healthy affordable housing in your community.”

Carter has worked with Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority in the past, and said she brings expertise about how to solve the housing crunch, which she called an “immediate” issue. 

“I am in the process of developing housing, going into neighborhoods and helping those residents to revitalize and build affordable housing for a whole community,” she said. “I bring that expertise.”

There’s not enough housing for middle-income families and individuals in Danville, Carter said. Housing prices have shot up in recent years, she said, though Danville is still considered to have a low cost of living. 

“It used to be really, really cheap,” Carter said. “You could buy a house in every income bracket, but now that’s not so.”

Carter said improving housing and public education are the keys to economic growth in the area. “When we get those two things, that’s it,” she said. “Talk about an unstoppable city.”

Belko added that increasing housing is also a good way to get people to stay in Danville. 

“A lot of my peers, they’re open to [buying a house]” she said. “They got a pandemic dog, they’re ready for a yard. And if you’re living in Danville, you’re not really looking for the hustle and bustle of the city, you kind of like a slower pace, so why not have a house too? If houses were available, I think they would get bought.”

Both Belko and Carter emphasized their love for Danville and their desire to stay in the community and make a positive change. 

Belko said she graduated from college with $120,000 in student loan debt, and was able to buy a house two years ago because of the low cost of living in Danville. 

“I can’t even express how I would’ve been stuck in a debt hole for decades if I didn’t live here,” she said. “The other thing that I like is how Danville is kind of like a blank canvas. It’s whatever you make of it.”

It’s rewarding and exciting to be a part of the change that’s happening, not “just watching from the sidelines,” which is not something you can get in most other places, she said. 

Carter also mentioned the ability to be very engaged in the community. 

“People feel like they are just one step away from the decision makers in their town,” Carter said. “I can talk to people working for the city, I can talk to people at the heads of the university and college. It’s not a perfect city, but where is there a perfect city?” 

Both candidates also said they are feeling cautiously optimistic about the election, despite the experience that Jones, Miller, Buckner and Hood have on city council. 

Jones has been on city council since 2010, and has also served on the school board. He said his experience serving on both elective bodies in the city make him a good candidate for city council. 

“I have learned that it is imperative for city council and the school board to work together to continue improving our educational system, which directly impacts our economic development,” Jones said at a candidate forum hosted by the Danville Pittsylvania Chamber of Commerce Oct. 13. 

Miller has served on city council since 2008, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy due to resignation. He’s a medical professional and a small business owner. 

During the candidate forum, Miller said that his medical expertise has been valuable to the council during the COVID-19 pandemic, and during two occasions of water contamination in the city. 

Buckner is a Realtor with Wilkins & Co. and has been on city council since 2014. He has also served on numerous boards like the Dan River Small Business Development Board, Danville Metropolitan Planning Organization, and West Piedmont Planning District Commission. 

Buckner has also served on the Fair Housing Board, and said his experience on council and as a small business owner makes him a good candidate. 

Hood serves on the Danville Development Council and has been on city council since 2020. 

He also runs a nonprofit organization in Danville called the Stayhood Foundation, which focuses on arts, culture and entertainment. Stayhood has programming for young artists in Danville and citizens that are returning to society after being incarcerated. 

Hood said one of his main focuses is transparency, and making sure all residents of Danville are in the know. 

Belko and Carter are also not deterred despite the disproportionate number of men on Danville’s City Council today and in the past. 

Only three women have been on city council in the past three decades. In addition to Archie, Shirley Mayhew was on council from 1988 to 1998, and Joyce Glaise, who ran again in 2014 but did not get elected, served from 1988 to 2000. 

People often call the city council a “boys club,” Belko said. But “I don’t want to give that much credit to the boys club that they can keep out a good candidate,” she said. 

And Carter stressed the importance of electing qualified candidates to local government, which impacts everyday life more than statewide or national politics, she said. 

“My hope is that Danville folks have started to pay more attention to their local government,” Carter said. “A lot of times it wasn’t always about who’s the most qualified…it shouldn’t be a popularity contest. It’s really about who can sit in that room and help to make decisions in a way that’s best for all residents in the city.”

Carter said it’s important that the city council accurately represents the community, which is 54% female, according to the United States Census Bureau 2021 estimates. 

“It’s important that little girls see women on the governing body for this city,” she said. “In addition to being qualified, I’m also a woman.”

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at grace@cardinalnews.org or 540-369-5464.