There may be no harder choice in all of the primary elections in the state than the one voters in Orange and Chatham counties will have to make in choosing between state senators Ellie Kinnaird and Howard Lee. The two represent among the most liberal, intelligent and principled members of the General Assembly, but--here's that phrase again--due to the Republican-led and adjudicated redistricting, they must face each other.
And in many ways, they're so alike. Both were groundbreaking mayors, Lee in Chapel Hill and Kinnaird in Carrboro. He created the public transit system and the first University-Town Relations Commission; she pioneered bike lanes and expanded bus service. Both have dedicated their lives to their beliefs.
But they have chosen different routes in the legislature. Lee is very much a part of the oligarchy at the top of the Senate. That gives a place like Chapel Hill some clout when it (or the university) needs something. But it also means that Lee seems constrained from speaking out in the voice of his constituents when it's on issues that the leadership is not willing to address. It also means he gets the vast majority of his campaign money from corporate PACs and big businesspeople.
Kinnaird, on the other hand, limits contributions to $150 from individuals and $250 from PACs she agrees with. She speaks her mind in the Senate, whether it means the lone vote against the Senate budget that slashed social services or successfully pushing Blue Cross Blue Shield to create a foundation with its stock when it wanted to go for-profit.
So the question is: Has Kinnaird sacrificed effectiveness for speaking out on her beliefs, and has Lee used the influence he's gained to push an aggressive agenda?
The answer comes down on the side of Ellie Kinnaird. In addition to the success in forcing Blue Cross to put up a foundation in the public interest, she influenced the decision that led to a moratorium against factory hog farms and wrote a bill that led to thousands of acres of land donated or set aside for conservancies and trusts. Lee is co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and has headed committees on education and "smart growth." Lee has fought to get health insurance and early childhood programs for children of low-income families, money for students in at-risk schools, and more financial aid money for students at universities and community colleges. Often, when he writes about his votes and accomplishments, he often does it as a "we," not an "I."
We're afraid that being part of the "we" has tempered some of his stands on issues. While Kinnaird says she's against a lottery, he says he's in favor of a statewide referendum to help decide. While Kinnaird says she's for abolishing the death penalty, Lee says that he supported banning the death penalty for mentally ill people, voted for a DNA databank to ensure that innocent people aren't executed, and improved training for attorneys and judges involved in capital murder cases. While Kinnaird says she's for closing tax loopholes and raising the corporate income tax, Lee says he has voted to close a number of corporate tax loopholes and wants to study the tax system further. And while Kinnaird says she supports public financing of campaigns, Lee says he's supported "a number of important campaign finance reforms."
Many of the differences are nuanced. Some of those issues will end up settled with political compromises. But without senators like Ellie Kinnaird pushing for what's right, we'll never get there. Or we'll get compromises that aren't as good as they'll be if she's returned to the Senate.