Running for Congress, Ashley Ward tries to overcome financial, name recognition challenges

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- In a race that's been largely defined by the three most well-known candidates - State Senator Valerie Foushee, former Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, and American Idol finalist Clay Aiken, Dr. Ashley Ward is working to try and get her name - and platform - in front of voters.

"I'm feeling good. There's a lot of momentum moving my way I think. I've been out at the polls everyday of early voting and what I'm seeing and hearing is a lot of growing support for my candidacy," said Ward.

Ward is a senior policy associate for engagement and outreach for the internet of water at the Duke Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, listing climate change as the top issue she's hoping to address.

"I believe we need climate expertise in Congress. We have climate champions in Congress, and what we need now is someone with in particular my experience both working on the ground in communities, and policy development administration to lead those champions to sustainable, effective policies," said Ward.

Professionally, she worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency with the federal government's Department of Commerce, with their RISA program, which teams up scientists and policy makers.

"That's where I sort of cut my teeth in this work and I learned so much about how policy that sounds really good on paper can't always be effectively, sustainably implemented in communities without a lot of burden. So that's an important aspect to my experience. It's not just about can I write policy, which I have. It's about having that vision and the understanding and experience knowing what that looks like when it gets to the community. And that of course is applied to the communities in this district," Ward said.

She supports efforts to enhance access to encourage North Carolinians to utilize green energy sources.

"We have to marshal all of our resources and all of the incentives that are available through the federal government, the largest entity in which to do so, in order to incentivize what we need to do at the state and local level, and that's just one piece of the puzzle," explained Ward.

Personally, she pointed to her own family's financial situation when discussing healthcare challenges.

"I'm also a strong advocate for healthcare reform. Like so many people in the district, my husband and I have incurred quite a bit of medical debt because we have a child that has chronic health issues. So I'm a strong advocate for healthcare reform, and that includes not only universal healthcare like Medicare for all, but other types of policies that strengthen access, particularly in rural communities, like allowing midwives and physician's assistants to practice in areas of low access and returning to community health center models which we've lost in the last few decades," Ward said.

A three-time UNC graduate, Ward has followed the economic and population growth in the area, which has led to affordability concerns, especially in underserved communities.

"A lot of those decisions are made at the state and local levels, but I believe there are steps that can be taken at the federal level to alleviate some of those challenges. For example, we currently only fund about 50% of those who qualify for Section 8 housing. Fully funding Section 8 housing would be wonderful. We also need to universalize Section 8 housing, We saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, that would have helped those that are landlords, property owners not have an interruption in their tenant income that they received, and it also would have secured housing for tenants as well. So those two for sure through Section 8 housing. But I would also like to see HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) return to what they've done in the past, which we've gotten away from this, which is to for HUD to take a more active role in developing affordable housing. And then finally, right here in Durham, all of the renovation we've seen right here in Durham, we can trace right back to a federal program of historic tax credits. The historic tax credits incentivized developers in Durham to renovate the tobacco factory warehouses, and do a lot of the asset-based economic development that we've seen here in Durham. We need a (similar) program at the federal program that incentivizes affordable housing, tax credits for developers specifically to help incentivize them to provide affordable housing," Ward said.

The Community Development Financial Institutions Fund within the US Department of Treasury has a New Markets Tax Credit Program which does offer incentives for commercial opportunities in underserved areas.

Less than a week until Election Day, Ward joined fellow candidate Clay Aiken for a joint press conference to discuss campaign finance reform, with an emphasis on money pouring into this congressional race.

"We often say that we want scientists and experts in Congress. However, we have created an environment where someone like me, it's extremely difficult. I didn't enter this race with a donor list, I didn't enter with relationships with the media. I've spent the last decade building expertise, not a donor list. But what that means though is that for people like me, and this is just one of the reasons I participated in the press conference, my husband and I (at the start) of this race, took out a small home equity line so that I have skin in the game. I'm asking my friends who are teachers and environmental scientists to donate, and many of them for the first time ever to a political campaign. I felt it was the right thing to do to invest in myself," Ward said.

She has never held elected office, and did not consider running for a lower-level race.

"All of my expertise is at the federal level, and that's why I'm seeking a federal office. But I also want to point out, many environmental scientists work in federal agencies, and we are not allowed to serve in political office, so if you're wanting people to step out of one kind of public service and into another kind of public service, we need to expand our thinking into what that means, " Ward countered.

During our interview, Ward was hesitant to directly criticize fellow candidate State Sen. Valerie Foushee, who has received the support of two super PAC's which have spent heavily on the race.

"As Democrats, we have said over and over again, that we want big money out of politics, but yet we are not acting. We are emphasizing big money in politics by our actions, by only emphasizing those candidates based on the money they raise. I am proud to say that almost 90% of the fund I have raised have come from within the state of North Carolina," Ward said.

Outside financial reform, Ward implored media outlets to provide more equitable coverage.

"I think it's important that members of the media understand that when they only list the top three candidates, it's a disservice to voters, who are genuinely trying to educate themselves and make good decisions on who they vote for. So simply listing and sharing and changing the perspective of the media from focusing on those who are the top money-raisers to educating the public about all the candidates in the race. That shift in perspective from the media standpoint would go a long way to helping candidates. It would also really alleviate a lot of this pressure for fundraising," said Ward.
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