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Good Housekeeping

State Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a progressive newcomer in the legislature, is in a tough race to keep her seat.


Saturday morning at the flea market in Southern Durham's Parkwood community, and state Rep. Jennifer Weiss is happy to see a friend. Fran Muse, the PTA president at Parkwood Elementary School and a fellow lawyer, is talking up Weiss' candidacy in the neighborhood, unlike the woman who just confronted Weiss over her position in favor of abortion rights. The woman got right in Weiss' face and stayed there, she tells Muse. It shook her a little bit. But she was proud that she'd stood her ground--politely--and hadn't walked away. "I'm not campaigning on it," Weiss says. "But I'm proud of my pro-choice position." Weiss is campaigning on education issues, and she's been a regular visitor to schools in her district--including Parkwood--since she was appointed to the N.C. House of Representatives 10 months ago.

For progressive-minded voters, Weiss is right out of central casting. Phi Beta Kappa at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Virginia Law grad, she is smart, passionate about minority rights and making government work for the needy, and considers it the mark of a good candidate to tell voters her positions on the tough issues. She doesn't hesitate to say that she is driven to do good works and lives in fear, above all, of "being mediocre." And then she laughs at herself, as she states the obvious: "I'm a very intense person, always have been."

Yet for all that--or because of it--she gave up a big-bucks job practicing securities law in Boston a decade ago to be a stay-at-home mom for her son, now 10, and then for her daughter, 7. It was family values all the way. She and her husband, Bruce Hamilton, also a lawyer, shucked their jobs up north for the lower cost of living and better quality of life in Cary. He got a job with another firm. She went to work learning everything there was to know about child-rearing. Soon, her purse was full of Cheerios and spilled juice, the result of her conviction that the kids should always feel cared for. "I've read every book on child development," she says, laughing again. "Whenever I do anything, I tend to pour myself into it. My first child, the poor kid was under a microscope, bless his heart. Lucky for him, his sister came along, and then she got my attention."

When the kids were old enough for school, Weiss went with them as a volunteer reader in their kindergarten and first-grade classes. Before long, she was taking a special literacy-training course so she could participate in a program called SAFECHILD (Stop Abuse for Every Child)--she read to at-risk kids while their moms were in counseling for a variety of legal or domestic problems. For some of them, she realized, it was the only time anyone had read to them. And it was the only preschool program, such as it was, that they would get before starting--and starting behind--in kindergarten. It made her a big believer in the state's new Smart Start program.

Later, Weiss started volunteering at the Women's Center in Raleigh, and when the job opened up she hired on as the center's legal counsel, part-time, advising its clients on such things as child support and employment issues. She also volunteered in a string of political campaigns for Democrats in Wake County. She claims "a great telephone voice--I got people out to Democratic meetings who'd never been to one before," she says. So it wasn't a total surprise--or it shouldn't have been--when she was tapped by the party to replace the late Rep. Jane Mosley, who died suddenly last year after a long fight with breast cancer. Weiss' appointment was engineered by progressive Democrats like Reps. Dan Blue and Bob Hensley, who chose her over a number of more conservative candidates. Why? "We needed her idealism in the General Assembly," Hensley answers.

Her idealism and her youth. True, she was 40--now 41--but in a legislature dominated by older men, Weiss is a relative youngster. And in House District 63, which is mainly located in Cary and southwest Raleigh, a lot of the voters are--like her--the parents of school-age children. A progressive, family-values mom with a terrific record of volunteer activism in the schools, she'd be able to hold onto Mosley's seat for the Democrats in 2000, right?

Maybe. But then, nobody reckoned on Nancy Brown.

In recent elections, District 63 swung back and forth between Mosley, a progressive Democrat, and conservative Republican Arleen Pulley. Pulley took the seat from Mosley. Then Mosley won it back. And in '98, Mosley won again, seeming to cement it for the Democrats. But the Republican candidate this year isn't Pulley, and isn't a conservative. Nancy Brown is a moderate. "A true moderate."

And not just moderate, but seemingly the GOP's central-casting answer to Weiss. Weiss is running on education issues? Brown is a career educator. Not only that, Brown's specialty is early-childhood education. So when Weiss talks about the need for stronger preschool programs and smaller classes in the early grades, Brown invariably follows with her claim of "vastly wider and deeper experience." Now 60, Brown has taught school, taught preschool, run daycare centers and started them--including one on Capitol Hill for employees of the U.S. Senate. She has a doctorate in the field. Under Republican Gov. Jim Martin from 1985 to '93, she headed the unit of state government that licenses child-care facilities. Like Weiss, Brown is smart and not afraid to show it. And, like Weiss, she's a big proponent of Smart Start and preschool programs that reach at-risk kids at an early age.

To top it off, Brown has a little celebrity going for her--her twin sister is Pat Holshauser, wife of former GOP Gov. Jim Holshauser.

But where Weiss is all energy and clear positions, Brown presents a contrast in style: Quiet, professedly open-minded, she refuses to stake herself out in advance on most issues, even education issues, preferring to say that if elected she will seek consensus across party lines. "I don't have all the answers," she likes to say. "The first thing we have to do is sit down together and listen and stop all the political game-playing."

The effect has been to blur her differences with Weiss, a strategy that so far is working to Brown's advantage. As a Republican, she doesn't feel the same obligation to champion government programs for the needy as Weiss does. But just refusing to rule them out is enough to stamp her as a welcome departure from her party's conservative orthodoxy. Indeed, she says she never votes a straight Republican ticket--and she expects to part company often from the party line in the House. "I am willing to listen to every side," she declares.

That, apparently, was enough for The News & Observer's editorial board. It pronounced both candidates "supremely qualified," and the newspaper, which in the past preferred progressive candidates, endorsed both of them.

On the death penalty, Brown has indeed taken a step away from her party. She supports a moratorium on executions in North Carolina, fearing that under the existing laws an innocent person could be killed. "Basically opposed" to the death penalty, Brown thinks it should be kept on the books but used much more sparingly--only in cases of certain guilt, and only for the most heinous murders.

Weiss also favors a moratorium, but goes further to say that once it was in place, "I would be very hard-pressed to find a reason to have a death penalty" at all.

On abortion, however, the two candidates are sharply separated. Weiss is pro-choice. Brown made her opposition to abortion clear last week when she was asked about it at a candidates forum. "I can't be objective," she answered. "My children were both adopted. They were born just before Roe vs. Wade. And they are beautiful and wonderful children that I probably would not have."

When the forum ended, she declined to say whether she thinks the Roe decision assuring women the right to choose abortion should be overturned. "We don't want to say there's no room for choice," she said, meaning her daughters as well as herself. "But we think the choice should be made pre-conception."

Otherwise, though, Brown has sidestepped issues from spending caps (proposed by her party's candidate for governor, Richard Vinroot) to suburban sprawl and gay rights with her promise to consider all points of view before deciding. On the environment, she didn't return the Sierra Club's questionnaire, saying she didn't have the expertise to answer it and didn't want to parrot pro-environment slogans. Janet Cowell, who heads the Sierra Club's local political committee, says Brown told her on the telephone that getting its support "just wasn't a priority."

Both the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters subsequently endorsed Weiss, as did Lillian's List, which raises money for progressive women candidates in tough North Carolina races. Brown did win endorsements from the Wake County home-builders and realtors associations. Weiss thinks that's because she told the groups she'd consider supporting impact fees on development and Brown was, once again, noncommittal.

On gay rights, Brown says she's against discrimination, but "you'd have to convince me that it's a real problem" before she would vote for legislation to protect gays and lesbians from being fired from their jobs merely because of their sexual orientation.

No surprise, then, that Weiss, who favors gay-rights protection, is endorsed by Equality PAC, the major gay and lesbian political group.

Jennifer Weiss doesn't claim to know everything about every issue either. But since she assumed her House seat last year, she's been studying hard, just like she did in school, so that when the tough votes are at hand, she'll be ready to take a stand. "I want to stay in the House," she says. "I have so much drive and desire to do good things and passion for just doing a good job." But if the price of staying is to straddle the fence, it'll be too high.

Weiss' resolve wasn't tested much in the recent legislative session. Democratic leaders put off most controversies until after the elections, determined to hold their majorities in the House and the Senate so they can control the redistricting that must be enacted based on the 2000 census.

Still, from her seat on the House Finance Committee, where she replaced Mosley, Weiss was stunned to see legislators get up and leave the room rather than vote on bills that extend new taxing authority to a local government. Such bills don't move if they're controversial in the affected county. But legislators fear that a future political opponent will charge them with "voting to raise taxes" even so.

"People are so afraid of the next election," Weiss says. "But I'll vote. I'll do my job."

Indeed, she relishes the chance--after doing her job as "the mom"--to stand up publicly for the causes she believes in. She was raised by her parents, staunch civil rights advocates, "with the idea that you had a responsibility to help people who were less fortunate than you were." Also, as one of a very few Jewish children in the New Jersey town where she grew up, "I knew what it was like to be 'the other,' to always have the majority be different." Thus, her passions are helping poor kids and protecting the rights of minorities.

Both things kicked in when Weiss came to Chapel Hill for college in the '70s. She wanted to challenge herself after attending a small, private high school, and she got all that she bargained for: One student liked to yell "I hate Jews" in the hallway; others used the "N" word freely, and when she objected, said she should just go back north. Instead, she got involved in the Student Union, leading its human relations committee as a junior and serving as president her senior year. She started a black-white discussion group, brought controversial speakers to campus and tried to get people to care about issues like race discrimination. Meeting issues head-on was her style then, and it still is.

So, for example, she's pro-environment, no bones about it. "When I vote for the environment," she says, "it just gives me an altogether good feeling. And if it costs us a little more today, it'll cost more in the future if we don't protect our air quality and our water."

She advocates reducing class sizes in the elementary grades from the current average of 26 students to 18 in the early grades and 22 in the later ones. Brown says she doesn't think the state will be able to afford that. Says Weiss: "We've got to decide that we have the desire and the resources to do it."

Everyone, Weiss says, wants "Democratic government at Republican prices." That's a joke, but instead of laughing, she just shakes her head. "School funding," she adds, "isn't a flea market." EndBlock

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