Members of Durham’s legislative delegation talked redistricting, environmental regulations, gun control, and Republican obstruction during a town hall meeting Thursday night.
Representatives Marcia Morey, Mickey Michaux and MaryAnn Black and Sen. Mike Woodard participated in the event, as well as Rep. Robert
, whose district is shifting to include part of Durham. Sen. Floyd McKissick attended, but couldn’t make the discussion because he was teaching. The discussion was moderated by Lisa Sorg, an investigative reporter for NC Policy Watch and the former editor of INDY Week.
All of the delegates are Democrats and all are up for election this year, but none are facing opponents from within their party in the May primary.
The legislators said they expect to spend much of the short session, which convenes May 16, trying to protect things like voting rights, independent courts and funding for public schools.
“We’re going to have to play a whole lot of defense in this session,” said Michaux, who is not seeking
to his District 31 seat after twenty terms. Michaux is supporting candidate Zack Hawkins, who also attended the town hall meeting. Michaux said he’ll be spending his remaining time in office trying to defend a legacy of promoting civil rights.
“Almost all of the legislation that comes before us, Mickey has something to do with in a very positive way,” said Black, who represents District 29.
In the wake of a school shooting that killed seventeen people in Parkland, Florida, last month, the legislators said they’d like to see gun laws reformed. Morey, a former District Court judge, has proposed gun violence restraining orders, which would allow judges to take guns away from an individual temporarily if presented with evidence that the person is dangerous.
She said Democrats may try to start a discussion about gun control measures, like the restraining orders, raising the age to buy guns, a possible ban on assault weapons and universal background checks for gun transactions, during the short session. Since the shooting in Florida, which has energized student activists and swayed public opinion on gun control, Morey says her inbox has been flooded with emails seeking some action.
“Maybe it took a mass shooting in Florida to get everyone talking again but after sitting on that bench for eighteen years and watching gun shootings and murders day after day after day, it affects everyone. We have to get sensible gun legislation,” she said.
Black has been appointed to a gun control committee. The associate vice president for Community Relations for the Duke University Health System said framing gun control as a mental health issue is a “disservice” to the mentally ill.
“There are so many people with a mental illness that would never think of doing these things,” she said. She hopes to see North Carolina expand Medicaid in the coming session so that more people with mental health needs can get insured.
Judicial redistricting and elections are among the most pressing issues facing the state, the group said.
Last year, Republicans proposed an overhaul of judicial districts that would pit some incumbent judges of color against each other for election. They have also suggested eliminating judicial elections in favor of having legislators appoint them, which Morey said the Durham delegation would fight “tooth and nail.”
“Everything that’s been really bad, we’ve been able to solve it by going to court,”
said. “Well, if suddenly they take the courts from us then where do you go? Imagine the voter suppression bill if we don’t have courts on our side. Imagine the gerrymandering bills if we don’t have the courts on our side.”
Along with the courts,
said the environment is “under attack.”
“If a company comes in and says we need this rolled back so we can make a few more dollars, we’re passing bills the next day,” he said.
The group briefly discussed GenX, an emerging contaminant produced by the Chemours chemical company in Fayetteville, focusing on the need for more water protection measures for Jordan Lake. GenX has been found in the Cape Fear River and some private wells in Southeastern North
and a “cousin” of the compound was found in Jordan Lake.
Woodard says the Department of Environmental Quality has been “handcuffed” in protecting water quality by budget cuts.
“In all of these things whether it’s Jordan Lake, Falls Lake—which is also on the front burner of cleaning up GenX—never lose the context of what’s happened to our state agencies,” he said.
Woodard says he hopes to move forward legislation to preserve net neutrality, at least for government services, and to create a system of automatic voter registration, an initiative he is working on with New York University’s Brennan Center.
Answering a question from an audience member,
“we would have to do so much with our infrastructure” to accommodate a second headquarters Amazon is looking to locate among a shortlist of places that includes the Triangle region. That includes building the Durham Orange Light Rail Line, the federal funding for which Michaux
“looks real paltry.”
Few people attended the town hall meeting, which coincided with a meeting of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and North Carolina Central University basketball games. McKissick said it should have been held when the entire delegation and a broader audience could participate.
For the first time since at least 1925, all one hundred and seventy North Carolina legislative races will be contested come November. There are also
In the general election, McKissick will face Republican Tom Stark (who is general counsel for the NCGOP) and Libertarian candidate Jared Erickson. Republican Rickey Padgett and Libertarian Ray Ubinger filed for Woodard’s seat.
Black, who was appointed last year to finish out the term of former Rep. Larry Hall, will face a Republican challenger in Charles Becker. Republican Barry Burch and Libertarian Matthew Wagoner are challenging Morey, who was also appointed last year to complete the term of the late Rep. Paul Luebke.
will go up against Republican Jay Stobbs.
Three candidates filed Michaux’s seat Hawkins, who is 2nd Vice Chair of the Durham County Democratic Party and a former teacher, Republican Torian Webson and Erik Raudsep, a libertarian candidate and small business owner.