Tonight marks the end of a political era in Greensboro. Melvin "Skip" Alston is stepping down after 20 years as a Guilford County Commissioner. Alston has been a polarizing figure during his time on the board, clashing with conservative commissioners while rarely holding back an opinion. Alston says he's not done with politics, although where he will emerge next isn't yet clear.
You don't have to look hard to notice Skip Alston's style or presence. He has a big gold watch on his left wrist, a diamond encrusted wedding band and shiny red cufflinks. The 55-year-old native of Durham is wearing a navy blue suit and his eyes dart around an old Guilford County courtroom, looking for familiar faces and then cracking smiles. After two decades as a County Commissioner Alston appears to be enjoying his final moments on the job.
Skip Alston: "On behalf of the Guilford County board of Commissioners and the power that's invested in me as chairman of the board, I now pronounce you as official graduates as the Guilford County Citizens Academy. You may now turn your tassels."
Alston is stepping down after a farewell ceremony tonight, following five terms of what he describes as working to give a voice to the voiceless. He's been an unapologetic representative for the African-American community. Alston leaves as the longest current-serving official in Guilford politics.
Alston: "I would hope that they would say that Skip Alston did the best that he could with what he had to deal with; that I made a difference for the African-American community. My priority was to represent the goals and desires of the African-American Community and be a voice for them. And that I did it well."
Alston was the first African-American chairman of the board back in 2003. He has served as the state chair of the NAACP and is a co-founder of the International Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro. He never hesitated to use what he calls the "R" word - racism - if he felt it would move the conversation forward.
Billy Yow: "As far as like and dislike I don't dislike him. I totally disagree with most of what he agrees with."
Billy Yow has served on the board with Alston for the last 12 years. They're each other's biggest adversaries.
Yow: "With Skip it started out kind of rough. There was always a lot of conflict about racial issues and we clashed - and clashed hard - on several different occasions. He's got his views, I've got mine. We are alike because both of us strive to represent our constituents and we understand that. We are strong by our convictions and with that you have to admire someone for that."
Despite many critics, Alston's constituents remained loyal, helping to re-elect him four times. He's long had the support of Alma Adams, a member of the General Assembly from Guilford County. She's known Alston for nearly 30 years.
Alma Adams: "I think some people would generally say he's been sort of a lightening rod, but I think in a lot of ways he has brought issues to the forefront that people don't want to talk about, or issues that have been uncomfortable - racial things for one. I also think he's been an advocate for the little man. Overall I think he's stood for equity and fairness."
Alston says now it's simply time to stand down. He hand-picked Ray Trapp as his successor; Trapp won Alston's seat last month and will be sworn in later this week. But fellow elected officials Yow and Adams say it's just a matter of time before Alston returns to politics. Congress, and the district currently represented by Mel Watt, seems to spark the most interest.
Alston: "I'd like to run for the 12th seat. I've also considered running for a seat in the State Senate, I might even consider the 2016 race for lieutenant governor or even governor."
For now, Alston will focus on his property management business. In the meantime he'll wait in the political shadows for his next chance at the spotlight.