Given his background, it was almost inevitable that Jonah Garson would someday run for office. 

The 34-year-old Chapel Hill native grew up encouraging UNC-Chapel Hill students to vote when he was still in high school and spent his formative years becoming politically involved, protesting the Iraq War. 

He interned in college for two different state legislators, absorbing governmental know-how, and spent the 2018 midterms driving his Honda across the state working in different races as a field coordinator. 

Now it’s his turn. 

Following Rep. Verka Insko’s retirement announcement in September, Garson, a Chapel Hill-based lawyer, announced a campaign for her District 56 seat September 22. He added he would step aside from his role as chairperson of the Orange County Democratic Party; his community banded around him in support. 

Though this is his first campaign, Garson spoke like a seasoned pro to a group of supporters during his campaign launch event at Luna Rotisserie in Carrboro in mid-October. He told the crowd how glad he was to be gathering with people once again and joked that his campaign was merely an excuse to get together with loved ones—many of those in attendance were longtime friends and family.

“It’s an amazing thing to run surrounded by classmates, people who raised you, music students, colleagues, people you’ve been organizing with for years, old bosses, your teachers—and I’m grateful,” Garson says.

Hometown success

During the launch, Garson told the 115-person crowd about the catalyst for his run for public office, a time he also describes as being his “political awakening.” It dates back to the 2010 mid-term election when Barack Obama was president, and Garson was working as an intern for former N.C. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird.

On election night, the Republican Party had taken control of both chambers of the North Carolina legislature. Kinnaird was concerned that newly-elected Republicans would undo the work Democrats had done.

This “gut-punch” moment influenced his decision to run for the N.C. House, Garson says. 

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is my political coming-of-age,’” Garson recalls. “I knew that I was going to devote myself to getting people involved, in building community around the state legislative fight.”

Garson says he first became politically active after 9/11, which happened while he was a freshman at Chapel Hill High School.

A Chapel Hillian through and through, Garson grew up working at the Mediterranean Deli on Franklin Street and teaching music lessons to local youth. He graduated with a bachelor’s in English from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2009, and then attended law school at Columbia, graduating in 2014. 

Garson has been an attorney at Parry Law in Chapel Hill since January of 2020. Prior to this, he practiced law in New York and for stints in between, Garson has worked on various campaigns around the state. But he says he put a full stop on practicing law going into 2018 to work as the field coordinator for several dozen state legislative challengers all over North Carolina.

“It felt like the urgency of the moment required that I take a full step away and devote myself to that work,” Garson says. “In many instances, these were folks who didn’t have a lot of other support. It was an amazing, beautiful, and challenging experience.” 

In 2019, Garson served as the voter protection director for the N.C. Democratic Party during the 9th Congressional redo election. 

“Rarely does a candidate come along who is as well prepared to serve in the North Carolina House of Representatives as Jonah Garson. I support him without reservation,” said former Rep. Joe Hackney of N.C. House District 54 in a recent endorsement. 

Education, healthcare and the environment 

Supporting public education is a key issue for Garson. During an interview with The INDY, he sported a large “I ♥ public education” button. 

Raising teacher pay, bringing back incentives for teachers to earn master’s degrees and working to close the ever-prevalent equity gap, are at the top of his list of concerns. 

“We need public schools that serve all students equitably. Our public schools have been purposefully, systematically starved of resources,” he says. “Our teachers have been disrespected.”

Garson also emphasizes the need to “free [the public university system] from terribly harmful political interference.”

He says that while these issues have been persistent for years, the pandemic has further revealed inequities that need to be addressed. 

“No one made it out unscathed,” he says of the pandemic. “It hit everyone differently. Some more than others, no one made it out without feeling it.”

Aside from education, Garson has focused his campaign around issues like affordable health care, labor protections, environmental issues, and abortion rights. He’s also putting voting rights and grassroots organizing at the center of his campaign. Garson sees it as a sort of personal mission to get community members more involved in the democratic process—he says large groups of people aren’t being reached, like younger voters, Black voters and Latinx voters.

“If you’re not engaging them, it means they’re not a part of conversations. They’re not represented,” he says. “​​​​Good political work has its electoral outcomes, but empowering people to participate as fully as possible in the life of our democracy—the unintended effect of that will be electoral outcomes.”

If elected, Garson is gearing up for a fight.

Right now, of the 120 members in the NC House, 68 members (57 percent) of the chamber are Republican. There is one vacancy and 51 democrats. Garson knows that coming into a political landscape like this won’t be easy. 

“Democracy truly is under attack, and that’s not hyperbole, that’s very, very real,” he says. “We can’t stand another 10 years of not being able to win on the progressive policy votes. Any expectation that we’re going to get these core democracy reforms without a fight is wrong.”

Whoever wins the District 56 seat will have big shoes to fill, and the candidates are acutely aware of this. So far, two candidates have announced bids for Insko’s former seat—Allen Buansi, currently on the Chapel Hill Town Council, and Garson. Both are Democrats, lawyers, and Chapel Hill natives.

“Running for this seat is an extension of work that I’ve been doing, and work that I will continue to do,” Garson says. “I care that Representative Insko’s legacy is continued, and I care that as many people get brought into this fight as possible.”

Insko said in an email to the INDY that she did not plan to comment on the candidates running for her seat, but said she hopes “we have a good field for the voters to consider,” and “we have a huge turnout of voters casting their votes in the 2022 elections.”

This story has been updated to reflect that in 2010 Republicans took control of both chambers of the N.C. legislature. 

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