Which Democrat should Wake County's party faithful entrust with their prized 16th state Senate district? That is the question, and aside from three obscure statewide primaries, it's the only question for Democrats in Raleigh and Cary who go to the polls on July 20. The 16th district, containing the western half of Raleigh, northern Cary and the town of Morrisville, is represented by Democratic Sen. Eric Reeves of Raleigh, who surprised us when he announced in March that his current term would be his last. Reeves and his army of volunteers fought like crazy (and spent more than $600,000) retaining his seat two years ago in a cliffhanger election against former Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble. Since then, the district's been redrawn somewhat to make it a relatively safe Democratic seat, which is why--when Reeves stepped aside--four Democrats immediately jumped in. (Mark Bradrick, an unknown, is unopposed for the Republican nomination.)
Mike Shea, 75, is a retired N.C. State track coach who is unknown in politics except as the father of Wolfpack running star Julie Shea Graw, who talked about him so fondly (and always as "the Coach") when she was on the Raleigh City Council.
He's campaigning door-to-door on the need to help people coming out of prison. It looks like a one-man effort.
Carter Worthy, 44, is a commercial real estate broker and developer with a strong base of support in the Raleigh business community, hence the "Chamber of Commerce candidate" tag that Democrats invariably hang on her.
At a recent back-yard event, Worthy talked up her leadership in the Wake Education Partnership, a business-backed support group that's been influential in fending off conservative attacks on the school system. She's also a big proponent of the Triangle Transit Authority's commuter railroad plans, serving as Raleigh's representative on the TTA board.
When she was asked by two gay men about equal rights for homosexuals, she didn't hesitate. "I absolutely support equal rights," she said. "I want to be a leader on that issue." She distinguished, however, between supporting the extension of state employee benefits to same-sex partners, which she's for (and which is becoming commonplace in business, she said), and pushing same-sex marriages or civil unions when the public's not ready.
"That's the whole point" about her political approach, Worthy added. "I'm an incrementalist."
Worthy has some progressive friends behind her, and may well make it into a runoff in August if no candidate gets the 40 percent required to win outright. But the progressive Democratic organizations are backing the other two candidates, Raleigh City Councilor Janet Cowell and former Wake County Commissioner Jack Nichols.
Cowell is endorsed by the Sierra Club and the political arms of the Conservation Council of NC and Equality NC PAC, the gay-rights group. Nichols has the N.C. Trial Lawyers and the Wake teachers association's PAC on his side, along with the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association, the black Democrats' group. The Triangle Labor Council endorsed both Nichols and Cowell.
The two progressive candidates have a lot in common, but in one basic way they're quite different.
Cowell, 35, is in her second term on the council and is a rising star. After a quiet first two years, she stepped up this term to be a leader on the city budget and the leader on the contentious issue of garbage collection; she worked overtime--in public and in private--to forge the garbage-collection compromise that is expected both to save the city money and spark its lackluster recycling.
And on the question of whether the city should stand for equality regardless of sexual orientation, Cowell was a forceful proponent of gay rights, leading to a 5-3 vote in favor of the progressive position.
The two issues underscore her political approach. A leader in the Sierra Club before running for office, Cowell's a serious environmentalist who does her homework even when the issue's not glamorous--like garbage. She's not strident, and listens more than she talks, but she does take clear positions. She is, for example, the one candidate in the race who told the Independent she's against capital punishment, period.
The question you hear most about Cowell's candidacy is whether she's jumping the gun and leaving a shaky council majority that needs her people skills. She answers it directly: She is politically ambitious, she says. She wants to make her mark reshaping public policy to support sustainable economic growth, and that's something the legislature does far more about than a city council. But seats in the legislature don't open up that often--especially seats a Wake Democrat can win.
The timing of this chance was set by Reeves, not her. But if she let it go by, it might've been years before another came along.
And, Cowell adds, she doesn't have years. She's single, not wealthy, and she's given up a lot to pursue public service: her council position is almost a full-time job (and pays just $10,000 a year), so she's cut back to half-time at her regular job as marketer for a small, socially conscious Durham venture capital firm SJF Ventures. Pay in the General Assembly, between the salary and daily stipends, usually totals $40,000 a year or more.
Cowell has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Before getting active in Raleigh politics, she was on the partner track with Sibson & Co., a management-consulting firm. "Now," she says, not really smiling about it, "I drive a car that's 14 years old."
Nichols, 52, made a different kind of sacrifice a decade ago. He, too, was politically ambitious. In his one four-year term on the county commissioners, he was the rising Democratic star. But his sons were 12 and 13, and when his father said off-handedly one day that he could always run for elective office, but his boys would only be teenagers once, "it just stuck in my mind and I couldn't put it aside," he says.
So he didn't run for re-election in 1994--a Republican year in any event, he laughs--and spent his time being a Boy Scout leader while he built his law practice to the point that he now has associates who can back him up when he's toiling in the General Assembly.
But making his comeback in politics has proven to be a lot harder than he planned. He ran for a House seat in 2000; lost it by 567 votes to Republican Art Pope. (Yes, that was the margin in Florida too.) And this year, when he says his edge in the crowded field is his experience, some people wonder, what experience?
Well, lots of it. During the first Jim Hunt administration, Nichols was one of the governor's legislative lobbyists. He co-chaired Wake's Smart Start board in his early years. He's been a board member for Planned Parenthood and the Wake Education Partnership. And he's a former Wake County Democratic party chair.
Like Cowell, Nichols is interested in finding a way to use public funds to jump-start economic development without turning to corporate giveaways. He thinks it's time to overhaul state and local taxes, replacing regressive sales and property tax revenues with progressive income tax levies. He, too, is serious but not strident.
At bottom, the difference for progressive voters between Cowell and Nichols is essentially generational. Cowell is younger, and her supporters are younger too. If she wins, there's a lot of upside potential not just for her but for the new activists she can bring with her into the Democratic leadership. Nichols has the longer record, and more hands-on experience, and so do his supporters. He'd bring seasoning to the office. She'd bring possibilities.