The idealism is reflected in her career choices. A Memphis native who earned an MBA at the Wharton School of Business, Cowell came to Raleigh eight years ago to work for a management consulting firm. Soon, though, she was putting her business skills to work for progressive organizations--first at the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh, and currently at SJF Ventures, a Durham-based venture capital firm that invests in community-based, socially responsible companies.
Cowell got into politics through the Sierra Club's anti-sprawl campaign. She was elected to the Raleigh Council at-large in 2001 and re-elected in 2003, both times as the leading vote-getter in the city. In office, she's been a dependable vote in favor of smart-growth and downtown development initiatives; she made her own mark this year in the overhaul of Raleigh's garbage collection and recycling services, bringing a fractious council together on a plan to recycle more and save money, too. That helped her win the support of the Conservation Council's political arm, along with the Sierra Club's. When the gay-rights issue came to the council in the form of a revised mission statement for the city's human relations committee, her strong voice in support earned her the endorsement of EqualityNC's PAC.
In the Senate, Cowell promises to protect Raleigh's smart-growth interests when the state sells the Blount Street properties and the Dorothea Dix hospital tract. She's also on top of the TTA's commuter rail line, which snakes its way through District 16 from Morrisville to Cary to downtown Raleigh. Beyond that, her goal is to reshape the state's tax and economic-development policies so they concentrate on small-business growth and entrepreneurship in economically distressed areas--very much like the mission at SJF.
There are two progressive candidates in this primary. Jack Nichols, a 52-year-old Raleigh attorney, served a term as a Wake County commissioner a decade ago before stepping away from elective politics while his sons were teenagers. Nichols has a strong record of public service, including work in Jim Hunt's administration as a legislative lobbyist and leadership on the boards of nonprofit groups like Planned Parenthood and Wake County's Smart Start program. On the issues, he differs from Cowell mainly on capital punishment, which she opposes and he favors, though only "in exceptional cases."
Nichols has the support of the Wake County teachers' association PAC and the N.C. Trial Lawyers, and we would happily support him, too, were Cowell not running. It's true the current Senate has 43 men and seven women (including the Triangle's own Sens. Ellie Kinnaird and Jeanne Lucas), but that isn't really our reason. Nor is it that the Senate has just three members under the age of 40 (and two of them are Republicans), though that gets closer to it.
What clinches it for us is that Cowell's progressive campaigns have attracted the support of a cohort of young activists whose energies--like hers--are sorely needed in the Wake Democratic party. She's a rising star, and hopefully she'll lift the progressive cause, too.
Two other candidates in this race are pretty good, as well. Carter Worthy, a commercial real estate broker, is a progressive-minded businesswoman with excellent credentials as a civic leader. Mike Shea, former Raleigh Councilor Julie Shea Graw's dad, is a retired N.C. State track coach with an interest in helping ex-offenders after they leave prison.
For Wake's nine House districts, the Democrats have a primary contest in just one. It's in District 39, in eastern Wake County, which has been redrawn since 2002 to the disadvantage of its Republican incumbent, Rep. Sam Ellis (who has a GOP primary challenger of his own), making a Democratic win in November possible. Here, we favor Zebulon attorney Darren Jackson, who ran a promising race against Ellis two years ago. Jackson's a pro-education moderate whose stated political views are not much different than his opponent's, former Wake County Commissioner Linda Coleman. But Coleman, who ran for county commissioner promising to be a strong voice for the Wake schools, flinched in 2002 when it came time to vote for the taxes they needed, apparently fearing a tax hike would cost her re-election. She lost her seat anyway. Jackson, who's been a leader in the East Wake Education Foundation, should get his shot.
Our GOP friends are in an uproar, mainly over Republican House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan's deal with the Democrats. Morgan's renegade band of Republicans voted to install him and Democrat Co-Speaker Jim Black as equals atop the evenly split House of Representatives. In doing so, they declared war against the vast majority of House Republicans, whom Morgan & Friends think are too far-right for the general public.
In this debate, we think Morgan's got it right, er, correct, and the followers of Wake County Reps. Russell Capps and Sam Ellis, Morgan's principle antagonists, have it wrong. The Morgan-Black combo produced a House budget that is too conservative for our tastes, shortchanging as it did critical social services, but it avoided the deep spending cuts the Capps-Ellis side espouses. All five of our House endorsements reflect that outcome.
In District 34, a Raleigh-central Wake district, we endorse the incumbent, Rep. Don Munford. Not an official Morgan man, Munford did not vote for the compromise budget, but he did resist GOP orthodoxy by declining to be a sponsor of the so-called Defense of Marriage Amendment, which sought to enshrine anti-gay discrimination in the state constitution. He was rated the best freshman Republican in the House by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research and N.C. FREE, a pro-business group, indications at the least of an open mind. His opponent, J.H. Ross, is a retired Raleigh cop who's run against Munford twice now without really saying why.
In District 36, a Republican stronghold in southwestern Wake, we again endorse Rep. David Miner, a six-term incumbent who, like Munford, isn't officially a Morgan backer but was pro-compromise budget and is anti-DOMA amendment. Miner is as moderate a Republican as you're going to get in this conservative-leaning district. His opponent, Cary political consultant Nelson Dollar, is running as a "loyal" conservative, just as he did in losing campaigns for state labor commissioner and Cary Town Council. He's pro-DOMA and for cutting taxes.
In District 40, a Northeast Wake district, Rep. Rick Eddins is part of the Morgan bloc, which is mighty surprising considering he'd always been a rock-ribbed conservative before. Now, he's under fire from the right, with an opponent, Raleigh lawyer David Robinson, who's backed by Capps, Ellis and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, the Down East congressman who'd rename Raleigh for Jesse Helms if he could.
Wrapped around Eddins' district, Capps himself, in Northwest Wake's District 41, and Ellis, in Southeast Wake's District 39, are confronted with young Republican challengers, both of them local officials in their 30s. Against Ellis, we recommend Knightdale Councilor Jeff Eddins, a "distant cousin" of Rick's, though he says he's not running as a Morgan backer. He's been elected twice in Knightdale. Against Capps, we recommend Morrisville Town Commissioner Thayne Conrad, who is in his first term. What brand of conservatives Conrad and young Eddins would be, we frankly don't know. But Ellis, after six House terms, and Capps, after five, have amply demonstrated their brand, which is as backward as it gets.
The two Republican Senate primaries are less clear-cut. In Senate District 14, in eastern Wake County, we're unable to recommend any of the three contenders. John Odoom (not the John Odom who was a good-guy Raleigh City Council member) is a young, black, conservative ideologue who doesn't hesitate to bash gays and the public schools in describing the "values" that made the country strong. Johnnie Mayfield, a Zebulon electrician, is a perennial candidate for no clear reason. On paper, Knightdale horse breeder Carol Bennett is anti-capital punishment and anti-DOMA, which is good. But she's hard to follow once she starts talking.
In the Senate 15 race, in North Raleigh, conservative John Carrington has been the invisible man through five terms, never campaigning, never giving interviews, winning because he's rich enough (his company sells police equipment here and abroad) to buy a lot of advertising. He did vote for the death-penalty moratorium this term. Challenger Neal Hunt promises to be just as conservative if he's elected, but we've always known him--at least until he started running for the Senate--as an engaged and constructive contributor on the Raleigh planning commission and, for the last three years, on the City Council. We'd vote for Hunt.
District Court 10
This is one of the toughest primaries to call, because all three candidates for this district court seat have something to offer and would likely conduct themselves well in office. Stephanie Jenkins is a former Wake County prosecutor who won praise for her work from all sides. Her knowledge and fair application of the law and her advocacy on behalf of the victims of domestic violence get especially high marks from her peers. Now a defense attorney, her experience on both sides of the courtroom give her a broad understanding of the position.
Donna Stroud is a partner in a firm specializing in domestic law. Stroud has made a point of refusing contributions from any lawyers licensed to practice in North Carolina, an admirable gesture that is somewhat offset by her openly partisan campaigning. Perhaps more than the other candidates, she is sensitive to the appearance of conflicts that accepting contributions from lawyers can raise.
Don Overby is a former eight-year District Court judge who was deposed in a 1996 partisan election, though he's been serving as an emergency District Court judge since 2000. Overby's track record as a judge has been stellar, and he's willing to apply the letter of the law to criminal cases even if the decisions are unpopular. A juvenile justice specialist, he also gets kudos for his consistency and fairness.
It should be noted that no matter who wins this seat, citizens are likely to have a competent jurist hearing their cases. Given that Overby has already demonstrated his ability to conduct himself admirably as a judge, he gets our nod.
District Court 10
First-term incumbent Kris Bailey has been lampooned for appearing to use his wife as a stand-in to confuse voters, who some pundits believe prefer women in judicial elections. Bailey's Web site family photo had his wife holding the gavel, and the unusual spelling of his first name adds to the intrigue (he has since pulled that pic off his Web site). Regardless of his dubious strategy, Bailey's mixed-bag of a record as a judge makes him a distant third preference in this three-person race, though his refusal of campaign contributions from lawyers is commendable.
It's hard to find anyone who has anything but praise for Debra Sasser. An accomplished attorney, mediator and arbitrator, Sasser's combination of skills, intelligence and generous temperament is ideally suited for the array of cases faced in District Court. Indeed, Sasser's responses to questions posed by the Independent topped all other respondents in their clarity and thoughtfulness.
Stephanie Brown, a criminal and domestic lawyer, is best known as host of a legal advice call-in television show. She's a reasonable candidate with a good reputation, but falls behind Sasser in just about every category. North Carolina surely needs more minority judges (Brown is black), but that alone doesn't outweigh the substantial plusses Sasser would bring to the bench.
Wake County voting guide
On July 20, Wake County voters will select candidates for state House and Senate seats. For information on all races and where to vote, call the Wake County Elections Board at 856-6240 or go to www.wakegov.com/genera/elections/default.htm. Below are the Independent's endorsements, based on extensive research and detailed questionnaires. Not listed are candidates who do not have opposition in the primary.
State Senate District 14: No endorsement
State Senate District 15: Neal Hunt, R
State Senate District 16: Janet Cowell, D
State House 34: Don Munford, R
State House 36: David Miner, R
State House 39: Darren Jackson, D; Jeff Eddins, R
State House 40: Rick Eddins, R
State House 41: Thayne N. Conrad, R
District Court 10 (one seat, nonpartisan): Debra Sasser
District Court 10 (one seat, nonpartisan): Don Overby