Gerry Cohen has been in local politics for decades. 

He currently serves on the Wake County Board of Elections. Before that, he was a special counsel for the North Carolina General Assembly. Before that, he served on the Chapel Hill Town Council—one of only three UNC-Chapel Hill students to be elected to a seat in recent history. He has kept up with Orange County despite no longer living there and is a treasure trove of information for writers and the greater community.

So it comes as no surprise that Cohen was considered for an empty seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners in 1973 as a UNC-CH law student.

Cohen describes members of the Democratic Party going through a nomination process to create a slate. Seven people were nominated by others.

“Four candidates got a majority, and three did not, so those four names went on to the county commissioners,” Cohen says of the process. “I was one of the four—I finished second place. In fact, I nominated somebody else who finished first, and then somebody else nominated me.”

This month, a new appointment process began for the Orange County Board of Commissioners to fill the seat of Mark Dorosin, who was only a few months into a four-year term when he accepted a job at Florida A&M University law school. It’s only the fourth time in the last 70 years that a vacancy has opened on the board. The last one was in the 1980s.

Almost 50 years after the iteration Cohen remembers, the appointment process looks a little different. The applicants still have to be Democrats, but they aren’t nominated by other people and have yet to be approved by county Dems. Instead, the four women who applied submitted candidate questionnaires online, leaving the commissioners (and their constituents) more to consider before the September 2 hearing, where the commissioners could vote on Dorosin’s replacement.

Marilyn Carter, Rani Dasi, Penny Rich, and Anna Richards have a range of experiences, from serving as president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP to being former elected officeholders.

Rich was a county commissioner for eight years before losing the Democratic primary in June 2020 by seven votes to Dorosin, another incumbent. Rich hopes this will be considered in the appointment process.

“Cameron Indoor [Stadium] only fits 9,300 people,” Rich says. “That means 3,200 people that voted for me would be standing outside. I mean if you put that in perspective, it’s a ton of people . . . it’s a lot of people to shut down their vote.”

While not a former commissioner, Dasi has served on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education since 2015. She prioritizes “community health” by seeing that people’s basic needs are met.

“I have focused on education as a pathway to community health and as I have gotten deeper into that work, it has become more apparent that so many factors outside of schools influence overall community wellness and what happens in schools,” Dasi says in her application. “County government has the scale and resources to provide structural supports which more broadly contributes to community health.”

Carter and Richards also come from political backgrounds. Carter recently served as the chair of the Orange County Democratic Party; Richards is the former president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.

Richards says the commissioners’ role as a “safety net” for the community is what called her to apply in the first place.

“I thought, ‘Maybe this is an opportunity for me to take the perspective that I have of having been a community organizer and an advocate to that board,’” Richards says. “It was a hard decision, but I decided that I would apply, and we’ll see what happens.”

There will be time allotted for the applicants to answer questions about their applications on September 2. It’s likely that the board will cast their votes that night, but the results could lead to even more waiting.

Cohen’s appointment process had a strange outcome. At the time, he says, there was a split among the four commissioners; while they were all Democrats, two were more conservative and two more liberal. 

The vote came to a stalemate, stayed there for 60 days, and was decided by the clerk of superior court. The clerk chose Melvin Whitfield, a dairy farmer from White Cross whose name was not introduced by the county Democrats. 

There’s a possibility that this happens to the commissioners this year. If the six remaining members can’t choose a finalist, it could once again end up in the hands of the clerk of superior court. Mark Kleinschmidt, who currently holds the job, previously served as mayor of Chapel Hill. 

Rich says she feels that Kleinschmidt’s integrity would keep him from appointing someone who hadn’t gone through the formal application process, but he could still make that decision. Technically, the county could, too.

Whitfield was up for re-election months after his appointment and lost in the primary to Jan Pinney—the man who received the most votes in the Democratic Party nominating process. Similarly, the 2021 appointee would serve until only 2022, when the public will decide through a special election who will serve out the remainder of the term. It could be worse—four vacancies since the 1950s is remarkable.

“That’s pretty low all-in-all,” Cohen says. “I guess they elect healthy people.”

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