by Eric Ginsburg

A leftist Elon Law School professor challenges state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger Sr. in an 11th hour bid for the local Senate seat following the passage of HB2.

Eric Fink is, at least to those involved in local social movements, a familiar face. The Elon Law School associate professor with a history practicing employment and labor law is a fixture in certain circles, appearing regularly on panels, at public forums and protests, and serving as an active board member for the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store planned for northeast Greensboro. And now that he’s decided to run for office, it’s hard for some of his friends to resist comparisons to Bernie Sanders.

The 53-year old may not be quite as old as the Democratic presidential candidate, but his socialist politics, not to mention his Jewish heritage, have led some friends to make quips about “feeling the local Bern.” The slogan on his campaign website: “Solidarity. Justice. Democracy.” He even sounded a little bit like Sanders as he commented that there’s no Art Pope figure to bankroll him, and lots of small donations from individuals will have to propel him to victory.

Fink doesn’t mind comparisons to Sanders, he said, adding that he voted for the Brooklynite in the North Carolina primary. If anything, Fink said, Sanders’ relative success shows that the unexpected can be done against an entrenched politician and that people aren’t necessarily scared off by what some would label as Sanders’ outsider stances.

While acknowledging that state Senate District 26 — which covers all of Rockingham County and the northwestern portion of Guilford including Oak Ridge, Summerfield, Browns Summit and northern Greensboro — was drawn with Republican Sen. Berger in mind, Fink insisted that he isn’t a protest candidate; he actually intends to win.

Fink decided to run against Berger following the passage of HB2, an omnibus bill that limits local governments abilities to pass anti-discrimination ordinances or raise the minimum wage floor, among numerous other more highly publicized provisions. Berger, a champion of the law and the current direction of the NC General Assembly, was running unopposed, and Fink started talking to friends about the importance of not giving Berger a free pass in the election.

Someone needed to run against him, Fink said. It isn’t good for democracy, and the only way to change things in Raleigh is for people to run against strong incumbents, getting other ideas out there and potentially winning some upsets.

“He really represents the agenda that is taking our state in the wrong direction,” Fink said.

Eventually, one of his friends suggested that the person to challenge Berger should be him.

Fink, who was literally born on the Fourth of July, said that he’d never thought much about running for office before, though he’s been “very involved in politics” his whole life through social movements and cause-oriented campaigns, especially around labor.

“Nobody else had stepped up,” Fink said.

While important, HB2 is far from the only issue motivating Fink’s insurgent candidacy. He has an 11-year-old attending public school at Jones Elementary in Greensboro, and said the “single biggest changes” under the Republican majority in Raleigh have been the attacks on public education at all levels. When Fink moved to Greensboro in 2007 with his wife and son, the quality of the local school system and public universities in the state was an important consideration. Since then, he said the current majority has assailed the school system at every turn, calling it “one of the greatest failings of the majority Phil Berger has led,” adding that the General Assembly is “undermining” the schools.

Berger — an attorney who is in his eighth term in the Senate — could not be reached for comment despite calls to his Rockingham and Raleigh offices and emails to his office and campaign.

Because of his late decision to file for the District 26 seat, Fink will need to collect a little more than 5,000 signatures in order to appear on the ballot, he said. But since his announcement, people have flocked to his side to offer support in myriad ways, including with signature collection, fundraising, media strategy and voter outreach.

Fink insisted he intends to be a serious candidate, despite odds stacked against him — “Generally, elections are not a good vehicle for protest,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t run just to be a gadfly. Berger is “probably the most powerful Republican in Raleigh” he said, and the odds are very long, but Fink said given all the local concern about Berger’s record on economic development, education, LGBT rights, voting rights and other major issues, a win against him is possible.

Berger’s strident defense of HB2, even after the fallout including companies condemning the law and musicians canceling performances is concerning too, Fink said, adding that at the very least Berger should be expected to reasonably explain and justify his rationale for supporting the law and its wide-reaching provisions. Berger should be embarrassed, Fink said, and either was too oblivious to see the backlash coming or did and didn’t care, which he said is worse.

Fink will need to make significant inroads into Rockingham County — Berger’s home base — to win the district, and will need to count on overwhelming Democratic turnout driven by the presidential and gubernatorial races and likely considerable crossover appeal. Fink has personal connections in the county north of Guilford, and goes fishing up there sometimes, he said, but has significant ground to cover in order to be viable. To that end, he attended the Rockingham County Democratic Convention and held his first somewhat informal campaign meeting over the weekend.

Sanders received 3,029 votes in Rockingham County in the March primary contest, while Hillary Clinton pulled in 4,483. And while Donald Trump carried the day with 4,962 — a decent margin over Sanders — even second-place Ted Cruz beat Democratic frontrunner Clinton in Rockingham by 14 votes.

Fink is confident he is assembling a strong enough team to not only get on the ballot, but mount a real opposition to the Senate leader. More than anything though, his success will depend on his message reaching district residents who might feel the local Bern, finding enough people in the district who are disillusioned with Berger or who are drawn to campaign statements such as this one from Fink’s website: “As an activist, [Fink] has fought for civil rights, civil liberties and equal protection for all. As a state Senator, he will push back against bigotry, inequity and oligarchy, and push ahead for solidarity, justice and democracy.”

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