Pragmatism, bold leadership, experience joust in congressional primary


The new 13th Congressional District, drawn in February, has attracted a varied collection of Democratic candidates looking to flip a seat created with a Republican lawmaker in mind.

The new district was created in February, when the federal courts rejected the old map as a racial gerrymander and forced the Republican-controlled General Assembly to go back to the drawing board. The 13th District covers two thirds of Greensboro and 95 percent of High Point, and stretches west to Statesville. Guilford County comprises 44.4 percent of the district’s population, with the remainder living in Davidson, Davie, Iredell and part of Rowan counties.

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Democrats hold the advantage in voter registration in the district, but voters tend to favor Republican candidates. Republican Richard Burr carried the district in the US Senate race of 2004, and again in 2010, while Democrat Kay Hagan won the most votes in 2008. Voters in the district also supported Republicans John McCain and Pat McCrory for president and governor, respectively, and Democrat Roy Cooper for attorney general in 2008.

It’s no surprise that the Democratic candidates are mostly clustered at the more urbanized eastern end of the district. With a special election rapidly approaching on June 7 to determine the party nominee, five candidates aggressively touted their unique qualities and sometimes took shots or attempted to coopt each other’s platforms during a candidate forum in Greensboro that was hosted by the Guilford County Young Democrats on May 18.

Bruce Davis
Bruce Davis

Bruce Davis, a former Guilford County Commissioner, is the only candidate with experience in public office. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 6th District in 2014 and then for the same seat again earlier this year before the map was redrawn. Davis comes into the race with endorsements from High Point Mayor Bill Bencini, Greensboro Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and High Point University President Nido Qubein.

Bob Isner, a Greensboro developer who is responsible for signature downtown projects such as Southside, Deep Roots Market, CityView Apartments and Union Square campus, is making his first run for public office.

Mazie Ferguson, a lawyer and pastor with roots in the civil rights movement, ran unsuccessfully for state Labor Commissioner earlier this year. She has a long history of activism in Greensboro, including service on the complaint review committee of the city’s human relations commission.

Kevin Griffin, a Durham resident, owns a staffing agency. (Under state law, members of Congress are not required to live in the district where they live.) Griffin was a candidate for US Senate, earlier this year. As with Ferguson, Griffin is repurposing the message from his previous campaign in the quest for a different seat.

Adam Coker, a Greensboro resident with a background in construction, trucking and nonprofits, is making his first run for public office on an aggressively liberal platform of addressing climate change, reforming criminal justice, along with other issues. Coker received the endorsement of the Replacements Limited, a Greensboro company that advocates for LGBTQ rights.

Bob Isner
Bob Isner

Isner, who has the backing of former US Senator Kay Hagan, touts himself as “a moderate, pragmatic voice.” Referencing his background in engineering during the Young Democrats candidate forum, he said, “I’m not a politician; I’m a problem solver.”

Ferguson talked about engaging in civil disobedience and going to jail in the 1960s as part of “the struggle to make this a great nation.” She said, “These are the times that try men’s souls…. We need a strong, bold person who’s willing to stand up, not say, ‘Yes sir, yes sir.’”

Griffin said his primary objective, should he be elected, would be “putting people to work.” As the owner of a staffing agency, he said, “That’s what I do for a living.”

Without mentioning Isner by name, Davis attempted to blunt his opponent’s appeal by challenging the notion that lack of political experience is a virtue.

“I’m tired of people talking down about politics,” Davis said. “We need to fix politics. Once you run for office you become a politician.

“Would you let a doctor practice medicine that hasn’t studied, that hasn’t honed their craft?” he continued. “I think you want someone with experience.”

Isner, in turn, used his professional background to compare himself favorably with Davis. Referencing an argument made by Davis that the inner city needs investment to attract grocery stores and other businesses, Isner said, “I’m a pro-growth Democrat. I’ve worked with government where government provides the environment to make business successful. Bruce talks about the other side of the tracks. Southside was the other side of the tracks. CityView Apartments was the other side of the tracks. Union Square Campus is the other side of the tracks.”

Kevin Griffin
Kevin Griffin

On the matter of climate change, the candidates agreed that addressing global warming through limiting carbon emissions is important, but there were some differences of opinion on whether the goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures is adequate.

“I don’t think there is any speed that is too fast,” Griffin said. “The US has a great opportunity to exert its leadership by setting the pace and getting everyone else to come along.”

Davis proposed a more cautious approach.

“I’m not sure going any faster would do any justice in our country and other countries with jobs,” he said.

Griffin challenged Davis on his commitment to addressing climate change.

“I take a little issue with Bruce,” he said. “He wanted to go 2 percent on the environment. No, you go as fast as you can. As my father said, ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’”

In response to a question about Social Security, the candidates broadly agreed that the program needs to be preserved.

Adam Coker
Adam Coker

Coker called out Isner on a statement he made during an interview on WXII 12 indicating that he would be willing to raise the the age of eligibility for Social Security.

“Only tea party people talk about raising the age of Social Security,” Coker charged.

Isner responded that the quote was taken out of context, adding that he said in the interview that raising the age of eligibility is only one option, along with increasing contributions or expanding the economy so more people are paying into the system. Later, after the forum, he clarified by saying, “Right now I’m opposed to [raising the eligibility age], but if it’s part of a comprehensive plan for reform I would re-consider it. There is going to be a funding gap.”

The candidates also unanimously opposed deporting teenagers and breaking apart families, but on other aspects of immigration policy they diverged.

Griffin said he favors “an extensive guest worker program so we can learn who all these people are, and tax them.”

While expressing the view that “we’re all immigrants” — a sentiment unanimously embraced among the candidates — Isner reflected, “The construction business, especially the housing business, employs these people. We have used these people to keep wages down. We need to find a way for these people to have legal status.”

Coker said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to form unions to protect themselves against exploitation. He also said, “We have to go after companies that are hiring illegals, and hold them to a higher standard.”

Without mentioning Coker by name, Davis corrected his terminology. “Undocumented immigrants,” he said, “not illegals.”

Mazie Ferguson
Mazie Ferguson

During a wide-ranging discussion of food stamps and other benefits that poor people rely on to make ends meet, Ferguson said, “I support a $15-an-hour minimum wage. I will work for it.”

She added that the federal minimum wage should be indexed to the cost of living and automatically increased to keep pace with inflation.

Coker said he agrees with Ferguson.

“As an entrepreneur and small business owner I have always felt guilty if I paid anyone anything less than $15 an hour,” he said.

The other three candidates did not broach the subject during the forum, but afterwards said they all support some increase, while differing on how much and how to get there.

Isner said he has some concerns with raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour across the country, considering the variation in the cost of living between high-cost states like California and more affordable places like North Carolina.

“I am in favor of increasing the minimum wage,” he said. “To what level, I don’t know.”

Early voting for the special June 7 primary begins on Thursday, May 26 and runs through June 4. Visit for times and locations.

Griffin, who serves on the steering committee of the Durham Living Wage Project, also said $15 per hour might be too high for some areas of the country. He said he supports an increase, but there needs to be debate to figure out a reasonable federal “wage floor,” and then the new, higher minimum wage should be indexed to the cost of living.

Davis said he supports raising the minimum wage first to $12 and then to $15.

“You have to give employers time to adjust,” he said. “$12 is not enough, but I understand when employers say, ‘If you go up to $15, I’ll have to shut my doors.’

“The more people making a livable wage, the less people you’ll have using food stamps, the less assistance — all the things the Republicans say they want,” Davis added. “It’s almost magical.”