In Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough, local political activists often say the primary elections are more impactful than the midterms.
This year, in Orange County, that’s never been truer.
It’s common knowledge that Democrats outnumber Republicans so vastly that whoever wins the Democratic primary is almost guaranteed to win in the fall. In 2018, for instance, state House Representative Verla Insko won reelection by a margin of 86 percent—the highest Democratic majority in North Carolina that year.
But last fall, Insko announced she is retiring after 26 years in the House. Two men—both young lawyers—have placed bids to take up her work in Orange County’s NC House District 56.
Allen Buansi first announced his run in an exclusive with the INDY Week back in September. Buansi served on the Chapel Hill Town Council from 2017 to December 2021, and has experience practicing law at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
Jonah Garson, the chair for the Orange County Democratic Party, announced his bid that month, too, just a week after Insko made her retirement plans public. Garson is an attorney at Parry Law in Chapel Hill with a focus on corporate law, and he served as the Democratic voter protection director during the 2019 special election.
Despite their differing backgrounds in the political arena, both Garson and Buansi say they bring the experience that will be vital to the role.
Buansi says his experience serving on Chapel Hill’s town council is critical.
“I’m the only one who has served in elected office,” Buansi says.
During his time on the council, Buansi helped to create and pass the Town Criminal Justice Debt Fund, a program which provides debt relief to community members facing excessive court fees, the first of its kind in the state. Buansi also helped to increase funds to the town’s Emergency Housing Assistance program, approve a $10 million affordable housing bond, pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, and issue the town’s first Climate Action and Response Plan.
Buansi also notes his service at the state level. In 2018, Governor Roy Cooper appointed him to the Local Governmental Employees’ Retirement System Board of Trustees.
“I’m the only one that has that experience of actually working with Republicans to move forward important government business,” Buansi says.
Buansi says he believes his lived experiences also bring essential insights to his work. He says he’s been involved in politics since a young age, as he was first inspired by his mother’s work as an environmental justice activist.
“She was such an important part of my upbringing, such an important part of orienting me towards equity and civil rights for everyone,” Buansi says.
Being a working parent to young children also informs his work.
“That’s a perspective that is sorely lacking,” Buansi says. “And there’s so much more that our state can be doing to make life easier for working families, including providing childcare subsidies, funding more childcare subsidies, and paid parental leave for our teachers. And those are the kinds of issues that I have come to know well because I’m a working parent, because my wife and I have children under 18.”
Those who have worked closely with Buansi say they think his background in civil rights law gives him an important perspective, an ability to listen to disparate voices and to center communities of color.
Austin Hahn, Buansi’s campaign manager, says he feels Buansi’s experiences on town council and as a civil rights lawyer mean he knows how to “get in the weeds” with policy, and pass legislation across party lines.
“He really does his due diligence on policies, and knows how to build coalitions and go from split votes to unanimous voices,” Hahn says. “And [if] we’re in the minority in the House, that’s something we need.”
Max Winzelberg, a student field captain for Buansi who attends East Chapel Hill High School, says he believes Buansi has a sincere passion for the state and local community and wants to make them more equitable.
“I feel like Allen’s shown that he’s dedicated to this community,” Winzelberg says. “He’s grateful to have grown up here, and I think that sense of pride about North Carolina is what he wants everyone to experience
Garson says Insko’s successor needs experience as an organizer.
“I’m running because, at a time when it’s not at all hyperbole to say that there’s a war on democracy in this country, we need legislators who are also organizers,” Garson says.
Garson highlights his experiences working as an organizer across both statewide and local politics, including holding multiple roles as a field coordinator for statewide legislative campaigns, working as the NC Democratic Party’s voter protection director for NC’s 2019 Special Congressional Elections, serving on the executive committee of the Chapel Hill Carrboro NAACP, and chairing the Orange County Democratic Party.
Garson says his experience organizing across the state is vital to pushing through the progressive policies he believes are important to voters in the district to a statewide level.
“If we want huge reinvestment in public education, if we want UNC governance reform to prevent destructive interference with our university and university system, if we want climate action with all urgency, if we want to win healthcare as a right—we need apower shift,” Garson says. “We don’t win that policy without changing the way we organize.”
Garson views the current political moment as a tipping point for statewide politics, one that hearkens back to his work as a student organizer at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he saw Democrats lose major footing during the 2010 midterm election due to what he views as a lack of involved organizing.
Garson notes that while he hasn’t served in elected office, he does have experience in working and aiding in legislative roles, including working as a policy staffer and voting rights attorney.
“My opponent does not have that legislative experience,” Garson says. “These positions are not rungs on a ladder. I’m running to do a job, and that job requires a particular experience set.”
As a UNC alumnus who had his “political coming of age” during his undergrad years, Garson says he tries to center student leaders within his campaign. Cora Martin, a UNC junior who serves as Garson’s field director, says they appreciate how Garson has prioritized student concerns, which they believe are often overlooked.
“That’s not something that candidates for office do, mostly because they assume that students don’t care and that they don’t want to vote. But students have always been organizers,” Martin says. “Jonah knows that students are the most powerful advocates for students, and he wants to hear what we want, so that when he’s elected he can enact meaningful change.”
Ali Fazal, a current legal fellow for a Democratic US Senator and a UNC alum who worked alongside Garson through Young Democrats, says Garson’s investment in student leadership could create meaningful progressive change for North Carolina.
“He will give so many students representation and a voice, where they feel like they’re actually being represented and it’s not just that ‘safe blue district,’” Fazal says. “We’ve been missing that sort of exciting progressive candidate, and I think Jonah will be that person.”
Representative Insko says she hopes that whichever candidate succeeds her will be dedicated to the district’s constituents.
“This is a very well-informed district with very informed, active voters,” Insko says. “It’s really important for whoever succeeds me to be willing to stay in touch and provide a lot of information.”
In recent years, Insko says she’s focused on issues of higher education, economic resilience, and climate change. She says she hopes whoever her successor is will take up those torches and stress their importance to voters
“Make sure that people are well-informed on any issue that’s really going to impact them,” Insko says. “Not just climate change, but any current issue that’s really going to impact people.”
As far as the two candidates, Inkso says she knows both Buansi and Garson, and feels confident in the experience both would bring to the role.
“They’re both very active and have made contributions,” Insko says. “I have two good candidates running to replace me and so the voters are fortunate to have to have that option.”
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