The newly drawn state senate District 13, which spans North Raleigh from the inner beltline up to Durant Road, is a mixed bag.

On the west side, it’s a wooded suburban paradise, filled with towering oaks and homes sitting on almost an acre of land. Moving east, however, the neighborhoods get smaller and the streets more urban. Crossing over Capital Boulevard, the area is a working-class neighborhood surrounded by bus stations, discount grocery stores, and auto repair shops.

Here, like everywhere, growth is an encroaching force. Some residents are worried about rising rents, others about new development, and everyone about things getting more expensive.

This is the district up for grabs in November. Solidly liberal—about 64 percent Democrat, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project—it’s not so much a question of whether a Democrat will win but of which one.

Next month’s Democratic primary sets Patrick Buffkin, a traditional candidate with local experience, against Lisa Grafstein, a political newcomer with a yen for social justice.

Grafstein, a soft-spoken woman of 55, lives with her partner, Linda, near Millbrook. She didn’t plan on going into politics, but after working as a civil rights lawyer for more than 25 years, she began thinking about how she could make a bigger difference. It was a call from Lillian’s List, which supports progressive female candidates, that spurred her decision, Grafstein tells the INDY.

“My first reaction was ‘Obviously not. Why me?’” Grafstein says. “But then I talked to Linda some and thought, well, why not me? I want to contribute in this way and do some good.”

Buffkin, currently in his third year on the Raleigh City Council, won his seat in 2019 during an upswell of support for the pro-housing, pro-development candidates. He’s since supported the majority’s stance, working to pass the affordable housing bond and raise money for parks with a 1¢ tax increase.

“I’ve focused on challenges facing our community that affect people’s lives every day,” Buffkin says. “My experience has been that … all these issues are bigger than one city and need state-level solutions.”

Unsurprisingly, Buffkin and Grafstein agree on the big touchstones of the Democratic platform. Both think that the legislature should give more money to public schools, specifically by funding the Leandro plan, a $1.7 billion school improvement plan.

Buffkin and Grafstein also promise to fight to expand Medicaid. Grafstein adds the first thing she plans to do if elected is talk to colleagues about improving health care for people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.

“[Our behavioral health care] needs funding and leadership. We have to be putting the money in the right places,” Grafstein says. “We spend a lot of money to keep people in institutions and we could be supporting them in the community.”

For Buffkin, a renewable energy and utility lawyer, protecting the environment is a particular point of concern. He emphasizes combating climate change by supporting renewable energy.

“I have a good understanding of what it takes to make our communities resilient against the effects of climate change,” Buffkin says. “Here on the city level, that’s been funding our stormwater utility, changing our development regulations to keep development out of floodplains.”

“My experience on the city council, having to make the tough decisions and experience the trade-offs, distinguishes me [as a candidate],” Buffkin adds. “Often, governing is the difficult task of choosing the least bad option and trying to make progress where you can.”

What does Grafstein stand for?

Grafstein has a focus on economic justice, which covers more than the wealth gap, she says.

“There are two sides to the budget: there’s the cost of things, but there’s also what people are making,” Grafstein says. “Part of what makes housing unaffordable is low wages. Part of what it makes dramatically difficult when gas prices go up is that people are making low wages.”

Like most Democrats, she favors raising the minimum wage and wants to “get out of the way of unions.”

“It is a really exciting time right now because of the way the labor market is. Workers just have more power and less fear of being unemployed. So there’s more of an ability to organize,” she says. “From my point of view, unions have been one of the most effective ways of ensuring actual safe working conditions and good wages for people.”

For the first 16 years of her law career, Grafstein fought against workplace discrimination and wage violations. Today, she advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. Having spent her entire professional life fighting for the little guy, Grafstein plans to continue her leadership on social justice. That’s a reassuring prospect, especially in a state like North Carolina where civil rights seem to be continually under attack.

As the U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, Grafstein talks about protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion. She also wants to protect voting rights—creating more access to the polls, giving adequate funding to local electoral boards, and eliminating gerrymandering.

“We need to have nonpartisan redistricting reforms,” she says. “We’re not going to have it until Democrats get more power and force Republicans to think hard about the next census, but, you know, it’s a possibility.”

What does Buffkin stand for?

Where Grafstein is ideological, Buffkin is practical, focused on issues like affordable housing, infrastructure, and public safety.

On the council, Buffkin has been confronted with Raleigh’s rapid growth almost daily for the past two years. His stance on the city’s rising cost of housing is clear—he’s helped invest in affordable housing and reform zoning laws. If elected, Buffkin says, he’ll approach state issues the way he has local issues.

“We’re rolling out the [affordable housing] money in really smart ways and targeted investments. Contrast that with the state level, where funding for the housing trust fund has been reduced over the last several years,” Buffkin says. “A lot of these challenges just need greater resources, greater attention.”

Buffkin plans to give local governments more autonomy and funding. He and Grafstein each talked about stopping the Republican-dominated legislature from phasing out corporate tax and instead put that money to good use.

If elected, Buffkin says he’ll prioritize improving the state’s infrastructure to help water and sewer systems keep up with growing neighborhoods. Addressing climate change is also critical.

“We’ve got to start changing the way we live, work, and do business, so we have less impact on the climate,” Buffkin says. “That means reducing emissions in our electric sector; it means electrifying our transportation; it means rolling out more clean energy.”

Buffkin also wants to look at ways to reduce gun violence and hate crimes. When it comes to gun control, Buffkin says, he supports “smart reforms” like background checks, red flag laws, and crisis intervention for victims of violence.

On the issue of creating a police oversight board, Buffkin says Raleigh’s council did not have the authority to do so when the question last came up. If elected, however, Buffkin plans to vote to give cities more power over such issues. Oversight of policing needs to be part of the conversation, he says.

Ultimately, Buffkin says he wants to get the state legislature moving again. Things like criminal justice reform and health inequities “are solvable problems,” Buffkin says. “It takes resources. It takes careful decision-making, but that’s the kind of approach I want to bring to the state senate.” 

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