"One thing you learn in the legislature is how to count votes," the fifth-term incumbent told members of the Fearrington Democratic Club two weeks ago. "I have never lost a bill in the legislature."
In what campaign insiders describe as a tight primary race with his Democratic Senate colleague, Ellie Kinnaird (a contest courtesy of Republican-led redistricting) Lee is positioning himself as an "effective and experienced" lawmaker, touting his role as a member of the select group that pushes legislation through the Senate. He's co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee and has headed committees on education, "smart growth" and other key issues.
But for many progressive voters in the newly drawn District 23, it's not what Lee has done that's so important this time around; it's what he's failed to stand up for or speak out against. Never losing a bill in the legislature is one kind of accomplishment, their reasoning goes. But it also speaks to a reluctance to take risks--especially ones that might upset the political powers-that-be.
It's an evolution some community leaders say the 68-year-old businessman has been undergoing for years.
"Senator Lee has been in the legislature a long time," notes the Rev. Carrie Bolton of Pittsboro, who's supporting Kinnaird. "I would like people in that position to become more sensitized. Unfortunately, a lot of times they just become co-opted."
A key example cited by some voters is this year's Senate budget, which makes deep cuts in health and human services in order to plug a $1.5 million revenue gap. As co-chair of Appropriations, Lee helped write the spending plan and voted for it in June. By contrast, Kinnaird was the lone Democrat to vote against the budget--in protest, she said, of the leadership's choice to slash services to the needy rather than raise revenue from other sources. (See "Fighting Words" page 16.)
While Lee admits "it's not a pretty budget, it's not even a good budget," he insists that voting for it was the best way to keep the state afloat financially. ("A little bit of something's better than a whole lot of nothing," was the way he described it at the Fearrington forum.) And Lee adds that his successful efforts to limit funding cuts to UNC-Chapel Hill show how his leverage in the Senate benefits his district.
That's an argument that resonates with some local leaders who see Kinnaird's positions as too marginal. "I come down on the side of who can be most influential in future politics," says Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey, who recently organized a campaign kickoff event for Lee in Chapel Hill. "When you are in a leadership role that affects policy for the whole state, you have to have a broader view if you're going to stay there and be influential. Most of this state is not like Chapel Hill and Orange County."
Others say that's just the point--that Lee has lost touch with the progressive bent of much of his constituency. As proof, they point to his campaign war chest, more than half of which comes from corporate PACs and state Democratic Party committees. Lee's top contributors in 2000 included Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, the N.C. Homebuilders Association and wealthy business leaders on the UNC Board of Governors. As of June 30, Lee had raised $89,731 for this year's election.
Kinnaird, on the other hand, limits her campaign contributions to $150 from individuals and $250 from PACs she agrees with. Her largest donors in 2000 included Lillian's List, a group that supports women in politics, and the North Carolina NOW PAC. As of June 30, Kinnaird had raised $28,925.
Some of Lee's campaign appearances have also raised liberal eyebrows, including a gathering of the anti-tax group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and a fundraiser for conservative Chatham County Commissioner candidates Bunkey Morgan and Carl Outz (an appearance Lee has had to stress was not an official endorsement after the pair used his picture in an ad for the event).
In previous years, when Lee and Kinnaird ran separately for their seats, their contrasts didn't seem as important. Now, faced with a choice between the two, many liberal voters say they're backing Kinnaird because she more closely represents their views.
It's a choice that comes with a dose of regret for some.
"A lot of voters have a great deal of respect for Howard's history in the community," says Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, who credits Lee's win as Chapel Hill's first black mayor three decades ago as paving the way for his own election as the state's first openly gay mayor in 1995. "But there's a general sense that he's a player in the General Assembly, and in order to be effective he's cozied up to a lot of moderate and conservative business elements. And that's made a lot of progressives wonder what good that effectiveness has done for us?"
Lee didn't start out as a member of the inner circle. He grew up in a sharecropping family and struggled to make his way through college and earn a degree in social work. His election as the first African-American mayor of a mainly white Southern town in 1969 is still viewed as a watershed event in local civil rights history.
As mayor, Lee won praise for creating a public bus system. He was picked for Orange County's Senate seat when it became vacant in 1990 and rose quickly through the ranks. Lee's growing clout helped win funding for a new building for UNC's School of Social Work and a new division within the state Department of Transportation supporting rail and mass transit.
But early on in his legislative career, Lee made decisions in the name of advancing his Senate status that disappointed his liberal base. In the early 1990s, he co-sponsored a reform bill that slashed workers' compensation benefits to injured employees. Lee justified his vote by saying it gave him a chance to "go to the table" to shape final legislation. Twice, he withdrew bills aimed at extending civil rights protections to gay people after Senate colleagues objected to the idea.
After narrowly losing a bid for a third term in 1994 to Republican Teena Little, Lee vowed to reach out to a broader spectrum of voters and started focusing more heavily on education--a favorite issue of business leaders in the state.
Even there he got in trouble with progressives, who saw the hand of influential university trustees such as oilman Walter Davis in some of Lee's higher education initiatives. For example, Lee backed a special provision in the 1998 budget that exempted UNC Hospitals from state employment rules governing other public institutions. Lee insists Davis "didn't have a thing to do with that" provision, though at the time, he said he'd had "many conversations" with Davis about it because of Davis' interest in greater autonomy for UNC-Chapel Hill. In the 2000 election, Davis contributed $4,000 to Lee's campaign.
More recently, Chapel Hill leaders were dismayed when Lee's powerful Senate colleague Tony Rand introduced another "stealth" budget provision last May removing the university's main campus and the Horace Williams tract from town zoning rules. Lee and his supporters say he was instrumental in getting Rand to drop the measure. "He's the only one who could have gotten Rand to take it out," says former Chapel Hill mayor Rosemary Waldorf, who's working on Lee's campaign. "He spent his political capital to protect Chapel Hill's zoning authority."
But others wonder how the provision got there in the first place if Lee really is such a formidable steward of local interests. "For me, that was the last straw," says former town council member Joe Herzenberg. "Howard went along with that, at least for a few days. I wouldn't have believed that of a former mayor."
On another current issue, environmental activists in Chatham say they're still trying to get Lee to outline his stance on safety issues surrounding the transport of radioactive waste to Carolina Power and Light's Shearon Harris plant just across the county line in Wake County.
While Lee did sign a letter from the local legislative delegation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking questions about safety, members of Citizens for Nuclear Risk Reduction in Chatham say he'd promised them a letter of his own or an appearance at one of their meetings to detail his position on the controversial waste issue. (Kinnaird sent her own letter to CP&L and has called for hearings on safety concerns.)
Lee says the nuclear risk group "wants me to take a specific position they want me to take and I don't want to do that. I signed a letter from the delegation and they should know from that what my position is." Activists say they're still waiting for a call from him. Progress Energy, which owns CP&L, gave $1,000 to Lee's campaign in March.
When asked about a connection between such large corporate donations and his stands on issues in the district, Lee asserts, "My vote is not for sale. No one can look at my vote and say it's a special interest vote. I will not compromise my principles.
"I have a lot of friends who are wealthy," the senator adds. "But does Howard Lee still have the confidence of the working people in this state? I guarantee you, I do."
Still, even if there's no direct link between Lee's votes and his wealthy supporters, some say the fruits of his initiatives tend to go to university and business leaders more often than average citizens.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's not been delivering for state employees or the North Carolina citizens who need it the most," says Pat Bigelow, former chair of District 25 of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which backed a Republican candidate against Lee in the last election. "Which part of his district is he speaking of when he says he's effective? The ones with the money."
Lee's not hiding his status as a legislative "player." A radio campaign ad narrated by Dean Smith uses just that term to describe the senator. And Lee is unabashed about his willingness to compromise in order to get bills passed.
"The system was never very kind to me but I've learned how to use the system," he says. "And because of what I've done, I've been able to make a difference in the lives of people."
The question, now that Lee's running directly against Kinnaird, is whether his insider status helps or hurts him with the majority of voters in the district. Kinnaird's been the top vote-getter in previous elections. And she's been capitalizing on the differences between them by playing up her refusal to take special interest money, and publicizing her pro-environment, pro-consumer and pro-"smart growth" voting record over her three terms.
Some community leaders say Lee's drumbeat on "effectiveness" shows he's out of touch with what liberal voters want in a state legislator.
"The things Howard's effective on are things anybody from Orange County would be effective on, like supporting the university," says former Chapel Hill Town Council member Herzenberg. "I think what we need is somebody pushing the leadership in a more progressive direction."
Greg Gangi, a board member of the Orange/Chatham Sierra Club, puts it this way: "While I like Howard, there are a lot of Howard Lees in the legislature. But there's only one Ellie Kinnaird who's willing to buck the system."