Durham senate candidates face off for vacant seat, chance to make history

DURHAM (WTVD) -- While there are many Vote 2020 races to track for next Tuesday's North Carolina Primary -- State Senate District 20 in Durham stands out.

For one, the seat's empty right now. Whichever Democrat wins the primary immediately goes to the General Assembly. And the slate of candidates stands out too. Each one claiming their campaign is a chance to make history.

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At Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, Tuesday night, the Democratic contenders faced off -- largely in agreement on the issues and challenges facing Durham and pitching their campaigns not just on change but history.

"I'm focused on people, service to people," said 47-year old attorney Gray Ellis whose candidacy is bringing national attention to the race.

Ellis was spotlighted in the Daily Beast as the first out transgender man to run for office in North Carolina.

Four years after HB-2, the so-called bathroom bill, Ellis wants to ensure LGBTQ equality is a permanent part of state policy-making.

"I will be the first, if elected, trans senator in U.S. history. But there's so much more to me than that. But as a consideration, everyone needs to a seat at the table," Ellis told the crowd.



Natalie Murdock talked up her candidacy as a chance for history too. She's spent the past two years as Supervisor of the Durham Soil and Water Commission. Now, she wants to be the youngest black woman ever elected to the General Assembly.

"I'm 36 years old. There are zero black women in the House or Senate under 40," Murdock said.

The third candidate is bringing new ideas and a well-known last name in Durham. Pierce Freelon is an established jazz/hip-hop artist. His late father Phil, was a world-renowned architect and his mother Nnena, a Grammy-nominated singer.

"Senator McKissick left big shoes to fill. I think those shoes should be filled by someone who's been here, who's been putting in work here and a product of this community," Freelon said.

Two big points of discussion Tuesday night were Durham's $95 million affordable housing bond passed by voters in November and the crisis at McDougald Terrace. Each candidate skeptical the bond will truly help the city residents who need it most.

"That bond (is not being used) as it was intended to be used," Ellis said. "The public was not as educated as we needed to be before we made that vote."

Freelon added, "Guess what, none (of the bond money) is coming to 'The Mac'. It's all coming directly to downtown Durham."

Murdock said the effort to repair the health and safety concerns at McDougald Terrace, "Can't be piecemeal. It can't be 'we're just gonna put a few million dollars here and try to piece The Mac back together.' We need a long term solution."

John Tarantino was there but only in the audience. Since he's the only Republican running -- his name won't be on the ballot until November.

"I'm the lone ranger," Tarantino told ABC11 after the forum. "I want to give voters a choice for something. It seems unfair to me that they go into a voting booth and only see one name, like a third world banana republic. I want to give them a legitimate choice."

Senate District 20 is the seat held by Floyd McKissick, Jr. for 13 years before Governor Roy Cooper tapped him to join the State Utilities Commission.

As far as experience in government, Murdock brings the most to the table - cutting her teeth at the Soil and Water Commission. Freelon lost a bid for Durham mayor in 2017. And this is Ellis' first run for public office.
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