Jessica Holmes, who chairs the Wake County Board of Commissioners, announced her first run for statewide office Wednesday, a bid to unseat Republican Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry in 2020.
“I’m running to win, and I believe that workers deserve a better advocate,” Holmes told the INDY. “[Berry] has failed to be that advocate and that voice.”
Holmes, a thirty-four-year-old attorney, has served on the Board of Commissioners since 2014 and has led the county’s push for affordable housing and increasing school funding. She was the only commissioner who went unchallenged in either the primary or general election last year. Her current term expires in 2020.
Berry, sixty-eight, has served as labor commissioner since 2001 and looks poised to run again, having changed her twitter handle to CherieBerry2020. Berry faced scrutiny in 2015 after a News & Observer investigation showed that her department routinely failed to investigate labor violations and hadn’t collected $1 million in unpaid wages for over six hundred state workers—and that Berry herself was generally uninterested in actually doing her job.
Even so, Berry bested former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker by ten percentage points in 2016, a year in which Donald Trump won North Carolina by just three percentage points. Berry, of course, is perhaps best known as the Elevator Queen. After Berry was reelected in 2005, she had photos of herself placed in every single one of the state’s elevators—theoretically, a way for people to better connect with the person who signs off on the inspection certificate, though critics argued it was a way to ensure everyone knew who she was despite her relatively low-profile office.
For the first decade, those photos were in black and white. After her victory in 2016, they switched to color, with Berry decked out in a bright red suit.
Assuming she wins the Democratic nomination, Holmes will face some of the same challenges Meeker did in 2016—namely, building enough name recognition outside of Wake County to compete with the Elevator Queen’s ubiquity. Holmes would face another challenge as well: North Carolina has never before elected an African-American woman to statewide office.
Holmes’s bid for higher office isn’t unexpected. She’s been seen as a rising star in the state Democratic Party since becoming the youngest person ever to sit on the board in 2014, though her tenure hasn’t been without hiccups. In 2015, she abruptly resigned her seat at the end of a meeting, after winning an affordable housing vote but losing a bid to be the board’s vice chair. The next day, she un-resigned.
Since Holmes became chairwoman a little over a year ago, the all-Democratic board has been increasingly fractious, at odds over issues of school funding and the acquisition of the former Crooked Creek golf course for parkland. (The latter appears to be settled, with the county now in talks to give the land to the town of Fuquay-Varina.) Holmes strengthened her power base in last year’s primary, when two allies defeated incumbent commissioners John Burns and Erv Portman, giving her a reliable majority.
Holmes previously served as a staff attorney for the North Carolina Association of Educators. She says her career has centered on advocating for workers’ rights, and she believes the labor commissioner should do a better job protecting and serving state workers. She’s pitching her campaign on building stronger connections with the state’s community college system to create more opportunities for trade workers and says she supports paid time off, a living wage, and paid parental and sick leave.
“I absolutely love serving the people of Wake County and will continue to do so. We have a lot of work to do,” Holmes says. “Our board recently adopted our board policies for 2019, and I have every intention of realizing those board goals and keeping my promises to the people of Wake County.”
Commissioner Vickie Adamson encouraged Holmes’s run on Facebook Wednesday: “With Jessica Holmes as our Secretary of Labor we will be in great hands,” the newly elected commissioner wrote. “I will miss her as my Chair but my loss will be NC’s win. Run Jessica Run.”
Correction: This story originally stated that Holmes would be the first African American elected to statewide office. In fact, Ralph Campbell Jr., who passed away in 2011, was elected three times as state auditor, serving from 1993–2005. He remains the only African-American to hold statewide office. Should she win, Holmes would be the first African-American woman to do so. This story has been updated.