It’s shaping up to be an interesting election season. The candidate filing deadline is upon us on Feb. 28, with primaries set for May 8 and election day on Nov. 6. Just in the last two weeks, we have had two more candidates announce bids for the North Carolina General Assembly.
encore caught up with Leslie Cohen, who has announced her run for District 20 of NC House of Representatives against incumbent Holly Grange. Cohen was kind enough to share her vision for her campaign.
encore (e): Why is it important for you to seek office now?
Leslie Cohen (LC): Before I was approached to be a candidate this year, I never imagined I would run for office. When I moved to Wilmington a few years ago, my plan was to fish and kayak and maybe travel some. Our kids have grown up and moved away, and my husband Jeff and I were planning a quiet life. Then the legislature passed HB2. The government was playing politics with my kids’ rights, so I did what any mother would do: I stood up and spoke out. When I did, I started to see a pattern. It’s not just my family affected by these issues—and trouble in Raleigh goes beyond just HB2. The legislators making decisions about our everyday lives are playing politics with all of our families. They are using our drinking water, our school system, our election laws, our courts, our healthcare, and our economy to further their own agendas.
I’m sick and tired of political games. I don’t want to walk into the voting booth in November and see Holly Grange running unopposed again. I don’t want another two years of inaction on issues that directly affect our families. So I’m ready to stand up and move North Carolina forward again.
e: Please, explain your plan for addressing the GenX crisis.
LC: I’d like to be very candid about this issue; there has been plenty of discussion about the health aspects of the crisis and I don’t want to downplay any of it. But clean drinking water is more than a health issue; it’s an economic issue. It’s an environmental issue. It’s a social-justice issue. All the talk of growth and development in our community is moot if we don’t fix this. Cleaning up the mess and carefully protecting our river going forward may be expensive—but not taking those steps will be catastrophic.
I believe Chemours must have their license to operate completely revoked. They have been given the opportunity to clean up and despite that, GenX levels are up again at the Chemours release site. Once [the permit is revoked,] we can look at restitution for our citizens, who aren’t able to drink the water coming to their homes and who may have been seriously harmed. Finally, we need comprehensive, transparent monitoring of our water quality and regulation reform to ensure we never have a situation like this again.
While it seems like everything I’ve laid out is pretty straightforward, getting it done will not be easy. I’ve spoken with scientists and policy experts to craft a detailed, step-by-step legislative plan to address the issue in a holistic way. But we need a change of leadership in Raleigh if we want to implement a meaningful plan. The current legislature has made it abundantly clear they are not interested in solutions. They are posturing and pontificating.
e: What do you plan to do to improve public education in North Carolina? What issues need to be addressed? How do you plan to ensure a quality education for all students?
LC: Education is one of my top priorities. A strong, well-funded education system is key to our economic future. If we want to hire and retain the best teachers and we want to attract businesses to our state, we have to offer a system with reasonable class sizes, competitive teacher pay and well-rounded educational programs.
As recently as a decade ago, North Carolina schools were ranked in the top 20 in the nation. Now we are 40th—and, worse, we are 43rd in funding.
We need to eliminate programs like school vouchers, which drain funds from our public schools. We need to fund the arts, physical education, and practical skills classes so our young people will receive a well-rounded education. We need economically integrated school districts because all children deserve the same opportunities to learn and grow, regardless of socioeconomic factors or race.
e: What are your thoughts on the Skyway Bridge? NCDOT says it is still part of future planning.
LC: Our region is experiencing tremendous growth. We have a unique opportunity to ensure the growth does not displace current residents or alter the natural beauty that makes Wilmington so special. I am deeply concerned about the impact it would have on historic areas of our beautiful downtown neighborhoods, and the displacement of low-income families and people of color. I have not seen a plan to address the issues in an acceptable way. I recognize our current highway and bridge system leaves something to be desired, but I feel strongly the price tag of the Skyway Bridge puts it out of reach without significant state assistance.
e: What are your thoughts on proposed passenger rail service to our area?
LC: I love the idea of passenger rail! I would love to see an efficient, inviting passenger rail system North Carolinians embrace as a practical means of travel. I see it as a small part of what should be an integrated plan to provide residents and visitors alternatives to driving throughout the Cape Fear region.
e: Deb Butler introduced a bill for NC to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. What is your position on ERA? How is North Carolina doing to protect the rights of all citizens, and what would you do differently?
LC: In elementary school I marched around the playground with all the other little girls chanting “Equal Rights Amendment! Equal Rights Amendment!” That was 45 years ago—and my position has not changed.
Right now North Carolina is doing an abysmal job of protecting the rights of our citizens. Same-sex couples may have won the right to marry nationwide, but in North Carolina, a couple could return from their honeymoon and find they have both lost their jobs, been evicted from their home, and lost their health insurance—and they have no legal recourse.
Pernicious legislation like HB142 has blocked municipalities from protecting citizens where the state legislature refuses to act. I want to make North Carolina a model for equal rights—regardless of race, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or gender, gender identity or gender expression.
e: Is there a future for reclaiming our film industry? What role can you play in rebuilding that sector of our economy?
LC: Restoring the film industry in our area will take time but we must restore full permanent incentives. The film industry provides countless direct and indirect jobs in our region and was a huge contributor to our economy. I will work tirelessly in Raleigh to secure allies in the legislature to get this done.
e: What is your position on gerrymandering and voter ID laws? What do you plan to do in the NC House to preserve the right to vote for all citizens?
LC: Currently, our voting maps are set so our leaders have selected voters to give them the best chance to stay in office. The history of this practice in North Carolina goes back decades, and Democrats are not blameless when it comes to the practice, but it needs to change.
The system leads to an extremely dysfunctional government. When a legislator knows they will not face a viable opponent, they are able to appeal to the most extreme members of their base and their largest donors. If they engage in bipartisan compromises, they risk being labeled as weak by their base.
As a result we have seen more and more radical legislation and a more polarized legislature in our capitol. Voters become frustrated, which makes them less likely to participate, and we spiral into a more radical, polarized system.
I will support legislation calling for a state constitutional amendment requiring our political maps be drawn by a bipartisan committee in a completely transparent manner, using only data about the number of registered voters in a district. Recent research performed at Duke and headed by Tom Ross has shown maps drawn in this way are fair and democratic.
Voters of both parties overwhelmingly agree fair maps should be drawn. Citizens need to demand a constitutional amendment be drafted and put on the ballot no later than 2020 so we can draw good maps when we get new census data in 2021.
There is only one goal for voter ID laws: voter suppression. Voter fraud at the polls is a myth and in reality is almost nonexistent. Voter suppression has been widespread in North Carolina, drawing national attention, and it has been successful in undoubtedly changing results of some of our political races. It must be stopped. Every citizen has the right to vote; it’s our duty to ensure they have an opportunity to exercise that right.
e: In the wake of Harvey and Irma, what steps can our NC General Assembly take to prepare for natural disasters? How do you plan to address climate-change issues as they impact daily lives of North Carolina citizens?
LC: I’ve been spending summer vacations at Carolina Beach since I started dating my husband in 1984. His grandfather built a cottage there in 1933, and it’s still the summer gathering spot for our family. I’ve seen firsthand what the storms can do, and I’ve seen how much stronger and more frequent they are becoming. The impact of storms reaches far beyond our coastal communities.
It is abundantly clear we cannot rely on federal assistance in such emergencies. Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico are still struggling to recover. Now, more than ever, we must fully fund the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management (NCDEM) so they are ready to act, no matter how widespread or frequent storms become.
We must also shift to a mindset of precaution and preparedness. We need to protect our natural flood barriers, our marshlands and our forests. We need to examine our flood maps and limit development in flood-prone areas. We need to relocate industries and facilities likely to contaminate our waterways when flooding occurs. We must invest in technologies to localize power and wastewater management so those systems can be brought back online quickly after a storm or other disaster. We should fund, expand, and expedite programs to help residents rebuild their homes and businesses.
We also need to invest in clean energy. Aside from climate change, reliance on wind and solar power will protect our delicate ecosystems from oil spills, coal ash and smog.
There are a number of existing and very successful programs to address these needs; they just need political support and proper funding to be effective.