House Democrat Valerie Foushee is headed to the opposite side of the legislative rotunda as she moves to the state Senate to replace longtime lawmaker Ellie Kinnaird.
On Sunday night, a select committee of Democratic Party members from District 23which includes all of Orange and Chatham countiesnominated Foushee, a former Orange County commissioner, to fill Kinnaird’s seat.
Kinnaird, a nine-term senator and former Carrboro mayor, stepped down from the state Senate last month, citing Republicans’ far-right leadership in the General Assembly and the increasing marginalization of Democratic lawmakers. Kinnaird says she intends to pursue grassroots advocacy work to register Democratic voters.
Foushee said her top priority will be combating Republicans’ controversial election laws, as well as pushing GOP leaders to reconsider Medicaid expansion.
“We are not in power, but certainly we have the opportunity to serve those we represent back home,” she said.
Foushee emerged from a list of hopefuls that included former state legislator Alice Bordsen, Chapel Hill author Amy Tiemann, Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, Chapel Hill attorney Heidi Chapman, former Carrboro Mayor James “Jim” Porto and Cedar Grove attorney Lynette Hartsell.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get it, but I consider Valerie would have been my next choice,” Chilton says. “I think it’s great. She’s put a lot of years into serving this community and certainly deserves this honor. She’ll be a good, strong leader.”
Nevertheless, sources say they expect Foushee to face Democratic primary challengers when the District 23 seat comes up for election in 2014. On Monday, she said she expected to step down by midweek from her state House seat in District 50, which includes parts of northern Orange and Durham counties.
No local leaders have officially announced plans to seek appointment to Foushee’s House seat, but numerous influential Democratsincluding Orange County commissioners Earl McKee, Bernadette Pelissier and Barry Jacobsreside in the district.
Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Hughes said he has received interest in Foushee’s seat from party members, but he declined to disclose names.
Hughes said party leaders in Orange and Durham will likely fill Foushee’s seat within the month, although they will not officially begin the nomination process until her formal resignation.
In the GOP-controlled General Assembly, Foushee will be one of 38 women and 32 black members in the 170-member Legislature.
Foushee said she wanted to go to the Senate because it allows her to represent all of Orange County, where she has spent the entirety of her political career, adding that Chatham County is not “dissimilar” from Orange.
Foushee said she learned in her first term how to work from a weakened position, trying to convince powerful Republicans to roll back controversial provisions.
“I have learned that there are situations where two people who don’t necessarily agree on ideology can talk about specific situations and come to an agreement,” she said. “And I have learned that sometimes when you stop yelling so loud, it’s easier for people to hear you.”
Foushee’s political experience includes serving as chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education and the Orange Board of Commissioners. She easily won election to her first term in the state House last year.
As a freshman legislator, she voted with her Democratic colleagues against key GOP legislation such as the voting reforms. But as was the case with most Democrats, her own bills mostly failed, including the Equal Pay Act, a measure intended to guarantee equal pay among male and female state workers.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Frying pan, meet fire.”