by Eric Ginsburg
Four Democrats square off in a primary race that will decide who holds the state House District 58 seat.
With less than two weeks left until the May 6 primary election, it’s crunch time for candidates who are packing as many events into their schedules as time will allow. But state House District 58 candidate Ralph Johnson isn’t going anywhere soon.
Johnson, one of four Democrats vying for a seat vacated by Alma Adams with no Republican competition, is stuck rehabilitating after a hip replacement but says his campaign is in full swing.
While he’s recovering from surgery, Johnson’s supporters are meeting and planning in his room at the end of a hall at Ashton Place Health & Rehab in McLeansville. Music by the Shirelles and the sound of a distant vacuum cleaner drifted down the hallway as Johnson outlined his reasons for seeking elected office.
He’s the only one of the pack who has run for this seat before, challenging Adams in 2010 for the district that covers a swath of Greensboro stretching from the southeast into the West Market Street corridor. Newcomers Kerry Graves, Dan Koenig and Tigress McDaniel also filed in the race after Adams declared her intention to for Congress, leaving an opening.
Given the Republican supermajority in the NC General Assembly, Democrats running for state office are forced to figure out how to approach being in the minority.
“If my constituents want A, B and C, I’m going to fight for that,” Graves said, adding that he will stand up on the issues regardless of the numbers around him. Like his counterparts, Graves said it will be important not to shy away from discussions about issues across party lines.
Koenig emphasized the need to compromise in order to be effective.
As a lawyer who focuses on dispute resolution, Koenig said he takes pride in his ability to come up with creative, constructive solutions. While he opposes recent moves by the General Assembly, including putting forward the marriage amendment, Koenig said he knows that the Democrats’ larger agenda items will be difficult to advance soon.
Instead, Koenig suggested that making arguments about important issues like teacher pay or minimum wage in economic terms may be an effective way to find common ground with Republican legislators, even though similar arguments haven’t made much of an impression on Republicans therein recent decades. He said Democrats “must improve upon legislation in whatever way possible” that Republicans generate, adding that, “Little things could make a big difference in people’s lives.”
Johnson, co-chair of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro for the past seven years who was active in the successful fight to keep White Street Landfill closed to municipal solid waste, made similar remarks.
“You’re going to have to compromise,” he said. “You have no choice. I’m not closed-minded. I’m real open. My goal would be to appeal to their actual sense. It can’t be us against them. It has to be a ‘we.’ It has to be about North Carolina.”
Johnson suggested that the General Assembly might be less polarized if politicians spent more time with people in their communities and were attuned with issues facing residents.
Graves, a private investigator, said that his experiences as a social worker, teacher and veteran help distinguish him as a candidate. His social work focused on child abuse and neglect cases, and he attended the Institute for Political Leadership, he said, adding that his cousin, the late city councilwoman and civil rights activist Claudette Burroughs-White, inspired him to run for office.
Graves said his experience and positions on issues have helped him draw several major endorsements, including Planned Parenthood and the state AFL-CIO.
Koenig brushed it off.
“The only endorsement I really need is from the people,” he said.
Johnson, Graves and Koenig line up on several issues, all highlighting Medicaid expansion and low teacher pay as central concerns. Koenig, a Smith High School graduate, and Graves both grew up in Greensboro, while Johnson moved to attend NC A&T University and stayed.
All three men said part of the reason they are running is to help restore some public trust in elected officials, each expressing concern for less fortunate residents, particularly those who are unemployed or caught up in the criminal-justice system. They all emphasized their ability to represent the whole district, with Graves saying that he grew up on the east side of the city and now lives off of West Friendly Avenue, helping him know both worlds.
McDaniel, who also goes by the name “Queen Get Er Done,” lost a primary race for District 1 on the Greensboro City Council last fall. She declined to be interviewed.
“I’m not really completely interested,” McDaniel said. “I don’t believe in your form of journalism. It doesn’t matter what I say. You’re going to print what you’re going to say. I think I’ve laid out my platform well enough publicly.”
McDaniel was involved in more than 26 lawsuits in 2013, both as a plaintiff and defendant, and objected to news coverage of the cases, calling the reporting “unmitigatedly libelous” in the same Facebook post.
McDaniel isn’t the only candidate in the District 58 primary race with legal issues: Graves’ is currently appealing the suspension of his private investigator’s license and recently had his company reinstated by the NC Secretary of State’s office.
Graves Investigations was reinstated on April 9 after it was placed on revenue suspension on Oct. 31, 2012. Graves received a notice of grounds for administrative dissolution on March 9, 2010 for delinquency on two annual reports. Graves said both issues were due to the accounting firm he used, but declined to elaborate on the details of his professional license suspension in a phone interview.
“Basically I had to switch accountants because the accounting firm I used lost paperwork and they had people quit, so once I switched accountants that was corrected,” he said.
Graves said his suspension appeal will be heard on April 29, adding that he has paperwork to back up his case. The results of his case, like the primary election, remain to be seen, but considering McDaniel’s showing in the fall council race and Johnson’s campaign hampered by his rehab, Koenig may be the main thing between Graves and a new job as a state representative.
Several organizations are co-hosting a candidate forum on a few races, including District 58, on Thursday from 6-8 p.m. in the Sears building on GTCC’s Jamestown campus.