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Unsung Heroes

Most legislative elections are so one-sided, you're lucky to have one at all.


Triangle voters will fill 13 seats in the state House of Representatives in November. Two, maybe three, will be decided in close, competitive races. We will elect seven members of the state Senate. Probably all seven incumbents will be re-elected. Easily.

This is the "hotly contested" 2000 election you've been reading about? Yes, it is. Because when it's over, the newly elected legislature will get the chance to redraw their own districts using 2000 census data. If one party can take control of the governor's office and both houses of the legislature, it'll be able to gerrymander the other one into a political corner for the next decade--until the 2010 census.

Let's say the Democrats win all three (they've got 'em now, after all). They could pack as many Republicans as possible into as few districts as possible, "wasting" GOP votes. That's how you gerrymander. Then they could take their own voters and spread them across the rest of the districts to make them all majority-Democrat. They'd face some practical limitations, of course. For one, no community is all Republican or all Democrat. But the biggest limitation might be their own greed. If every Democrat insists on having an impregnable district, there won't be enough Democratic voters to go around. Apparently, that's what happened 10 years ago--the Democrats were greedy, and they left a few "swing" districts for the voters to decide. But not many.

That's why, in this "hot" election, so few hot elections are on tap around here. In Wake County, for instance, Rep. Dan Blue, a Democrat, has no Republican opponent at all (there is a Libertarian Party candidate), while Rep. Rick Eddins, a Republican, has no Democratic opposition. Blue and Eddins are running in nearby, single-member districts. In Durham, the Democrats have a three-member district largely to themselves, and the only real contest will be in the party's primary, where former Durham City Councilor Paul Miller is out to dislodge incumbent George Miller from the slate. In the Durham-based Senate district, incumbent Democrats Wib Gulley and Jeanne Lucas have no Republican opponents--and one Libertarian.

The "swing" House races? The two main ones are in single-member districts in central Wake County. In one, Democrat Jennifer Weiss, appointed to replace the late Jane Mosley, is seeking election. Her likel opponent is Republican Nancy Brown, twin sister of former Gov. Jim Holshauser's wife. Both candidates live in Cary. In the other, Republican Art Pope, appointed to fill the seat vacated when Rep. Chuck Neely resigned to run for governor, is up against Democrat Jack Nichols. Both live in Raleigh.

If you're looking for a third, perhaps Democrat Gerry Bowles, who's worked in the legislature as an aide, can mount a serious challenge to Republican Rep. Russell Capps in North Raleigh. Capps' district elected a Democrat in the early '90s, but Capps has won it easily since 1994.

Why no competition for the Senate? Mainly because the Republicans have essentially written off their chances of winning it (the current Senate is controlled by Democrats 35-15). So the GOP will train its firepower (Translation: soft money from Washington) on trying to undo the Democrats' 66-54 edge in the House by winning the Weiss-Brown and Pope-Nichols races and perhaps a dozen others like them elsewhere in the state.

The unsung heroes in all this are the folk who, notwithstanding that they have virtually no chance of winning--and know it--nonetheless step up to run against entrenched incumbents.

Melodie Parrish, for instance, was the lone Republican candidate for Senate against the Democratic duo of Gulley & Lucas two years ago. A Durham school official and former assistant principal at Northern Durham High School, she's not personally wealthy and ended up with just $3,000 to spend on her campaign. (On average, a winning Senate campaign cost $112,000 in '98.) Why'd she do it? "I was so frustrated that no one else was running," she says. "It's a terrible task in terms of the time it takes, and the money. But it's the ultimate civic duty--and you don't have to win for it to count."

Parrish got no help from the state Republican party. "I didn't expect to," she says. "They look at the viable campaigns, the ones with a chance of winning, and I understand that." Her biggest problem, she adds, was lack of time. She's a single mother with a (now) 21-year-old daughter, and her own mother suffers from Alzheimer's. "Having a candidate with empathy for those kinds of issues is very precious," she says. The problem is, a candidate facing those issues is tremendously handicapped--a big reason she's stayed out of the race this time despite entreaties from her Durham Republican mates.

Sen. John Carrington, a Cary Republican, had no Democratic opponent two years ago, but this time he will. Jim Crew, who recently retired from college teaching (the last 10 years, he's been at Meredith teaching business and economics), knows Carrington "is going to be very difficult to beat," and that his first test is whether he can get on the telephone and extract campaign contributions from everyone he knows--or wishes to know. "It's not easy to do, but I'm doing it," he says with a laugh. "I guess I've been around long enough that I'm not going to get my feelings hurt when someone says no."

Crew has helped with a number of previous legislative campaigns in Wake County, and he knew enough to ask around before he filed to see if any other Democrats planned to run. No one did--until just before the filing deadline, when Carlton Mosley, Jane Mosley's son, jumped in. "I was a little surprised," Crew says. "But a primary may help focus attention on the race, and that would be a good thing after two years ago, when there was no contest in this district at all."

Similarly, Orange County Democrats Joe Hackney and Verla Insko were elected unopposed to the House in '98, but this time face a pair of Republicans, including Robert Towne of Chapel Hill. "We need a two-party system in Orange and Chatham counties," Towne says. Following his recent retirement as a sales executive, he's got the time, and he thinks he's got the issue. "Higher education issues need to rise to the top [in the General Assembly], and they need a champion," he says. "The incumbents have been woefully unsuccessful."

Towne was another late filer. "I was hoping that younger people would carry the ball," he says, "but I said a year ago that if no one else got in the race, I would." As it turned out, he has a running mate, "a young, energetic preacher" from Hillsborough named Rod Chaney. "I'm used to uphill battles," Towne says. "Years ago, I worked in Massachusetts, and I was active in Republican politics there. Believe me, Orange County is no worse than Massachusetts." EndBlock

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