Chapel Hill News

Chatham, Orange residents file for open N.C. Senate seat

Former state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird expected someone would be quietly appointed to the seat she left last week.

She didn’t expect a race between at least seven candidates to tell the Orange County Democratic Party they’re ready to serve in District 23.

As of mid-day Friday, the candidates were former state Rep. Alice Bordsen, who represented Alamance County; attorney Heidi Chapman; retiring Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton; state Rep. Valerie Foushee; attorney M. Lynette Hartsell; former Carrboro Mayor Jim Porto; and author and educator Amy Tiemann.

Kinnaird said she told Democratic officials she would like to see Bordsen get the job. The women have been friends for decades and collaborated for several years on issues of public safety and juvenile justice. Kinnaird said she will write the party a letter to emphasize pending bills, including a change the two women pushed for in the state’s handling of juvenile offenders, and budget issues the new senator will need to keep in mind.

“(Bordsen) is eminently qualified to carry on what I have done the last term of this session,” Kinnaird said.

Bordsen, now a Chapel Hill resident, is the first vice chair of the Orange County Democratic Party and a longtime lawmaker from the 63rd District. She decided not to seek re-election last year because changes in her district made it “unwinnable,” she said.

However, she said she is past the anger that generated and thinks her ability to understand the state’s mix of urban and rural, old and new industries, and varying ideologies will help her look out now for the interests of Orange and Chatham voters.

Bordsen also expressed concern that the process to appoint Kinnaird’s replacement is becoming too political.

“The campaign could create adversities,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s healthy for Democrats right now.”

Foushee, a first-term Democratic lawmaker from Orange County, noted in a news release last week that she had support from 12 local leaders, including state Rep. Deb McManus of Chatham; the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board; Orange County Commissioners Earl McKee and Bernadette Pelissier; Chapel Hill Town Council member Lee Storrow; and Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Michelle Johnson.

She served previously as chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board and the Orange County Board of Commissioners, and now represents District 50, which covers parts of Orange and Durham counties.

“I’m pursuing this seat because Orange County is my home, and I want to be able to represent the entire county, as well as Chatham (County), in the legislature,” she said. “I understand the tensions between the rural and urban areas, and as a former representative of both, I am uniquely qualified to represent Senate District 23.”

Chilton also had a number of early supporters. Besides representing local interests, Chilton said he would use the office to attract strong, progressive candidates that eventually could change the balance of power in the state legislature.

Tiemann shares Chilton’s view that the Senate seat could be an avenue for building the Democratic Party base and encouraging voters to come out to the polls. Kinnaird has been a “fantastic, progressive leader” and an inspiration, Tiemann said. Although Orange and Chatham counties would be her first priority, she also would like to address the legislature’s policies, which she thinks are keeping North Carolina from capitalizing on economic opportunities.

“I want businesses from all over the nation to come to North Carolina, and I feel like the current policies coming out of the legislature are detrimental to that,” Tiemann said.

Tiemann doesn’t have any previous experience in an elected office, but she said people have been encouraging her to run for several years. She is a Chapel Hill resident, but she and her husband own a music studio in Chatham County. Tiemann also is a member of the N.C. Council for Women and UNC’s Sexual Assault Task Force.

Hartsell, 65, also has no previous political experience. The longtime Orange County resident is a “great admirer” of Kinnaird’s service and said she wants the opportunity to speak out about what is happening in Raleigh and with the people making the decisions. Hartsell has been a private attorney specializing in criminal, civil, personal injury and workers’ compensation cases since 1981.

“I’m not sure I have what it takes to fill (Kinnaird’s) shoes, but there needs to be people over there taking care of things,” she said.

Porto, who served as Carrboro mayor for four years before losing to Kinnaird, agreed with that assessment. The policies coming out of Raleigh do not reflect the state’s values or the public health philosophy of service to your fellow man, said the director of executive programs in health policy and management with UNC’s Gillings Global School of Public Health. He also served five years of active duty in the U.S. Marines and eight years in the Reserves, flying helicopters in the Vietnam War.

“What’s coming out of Raleigh right now is not North Carolina. That’s not the North Carolina I know, and that’s not the North Carolina we love,” he said.

If appointed, Porto said he would only serve the rest of Kinnaird’s term and then work with any candidate running in 2014.

In announcing her resignation last week, Kinnaird cited state Republicans’ “immoral agenda,” including the rejection of federal Medicaid dollars, tax cuts for the wealthy and tax increases targeting the poor and middle class. The 81-year-old was Carrboro’s mayor for eight years before spending 17 years in the N.C. Senate. She now will spend her time supporting candidates whose values she shares and ensuring all state voters can meet the new requirement for a government-issued photo ID.

“I was so discouraged before. Now I’m energized,” she said. “It’s surprising to me.”

The 23rd Senatorial District Executive Committee that will choose her replacement is “eager to wrap it up by Sept. 8 or 9,” said Matt Hughes, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. The Democratic Party committee has two Orange County members, who will share 446 votes, and two Chatham County members with a total of 212 votes. The number of votes is based on each county’s population in the 2010 Census, with one vote allotted for every 300 residents.

Hughes said the right candidate is someone who can represent both counties’ interests and work across the aisles on issues that are more contentious.

“I think people want to see someone who can hit the ground running in the Senate, who has political experience and who has been very active politically,” he said.

If Foushee is elected, the party’s four-member House of Representatives District Executive Committee, which covers Orange and Durham counties, will appoint her successor.

Efforts to reach Chapman, a board certified specialist in workers’ compensation law, were unsuccessful Friday.