When Elon law professor Eric Fink realized that Senator Phil Berger had no Democratic challenger in November, he was flabbergasted. "I'm not a registered Democrat, so I didn't realize they had no candidate, because they usually do," Fink tells the INDY
. "It was just after the primary that I learned that there wasn't one."
"When I found that he would be unopposed, and after the final straw of HB 2...I've been saying someone should run," Fink, says. "So finally, I just said, 'you know what?' I'm somebody, and I'm going to run. So here we are."
It's not hard to see why the Democrats couldn't find anyone to run in this race; even the most moderate Democrat would have a difficult task of toppling Berger. Well-known as one of the most powerful people in state politics as the Senate's President Pro Tempore, Berger represents a district that Pat McCrory won by over twenty points in 2012
. He won his last race in 2014 by a similar margin
The 53-year old professor, however, is not a centrist trying to run as a "common sense" alternative to Berger's extremism. Fink is an independent who describes himself as a democratic socialist, and whose campaign slogan of "Solidarity. Justice. Progress." reads more like a European labor party's pitch than that of someone who is running to represent one of the most conservative districts in North Carolina.
Exacerbating the challenge is that Fink - a native New Yorker who coincidentally grew up in the same town that Berger was born in, New Rochelle - isn't just up against the Berger machine; he's also trying to fight the obstacles to independent and third-party runs that are characteristic of American elections. In order to even appear on the ballot, Fink must produce a petition with 5,000 signatures from constituents within his district..
There's one obvious question that incredibly, Fink doesn't seem tired of answering at this point. "It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I like Bernie Sanders," Fink says when asked about the Democratic presidential candidate who has brought leftist politics into the mainstream. "I do identify myself as a democratic socialist, and I've been involved in that kind of politics for my whole life...one reason that I haven't run for office in the past is that I know perfectly well that [socialist] isn't a name that necessarily has a lot of popularity, especially here in North Carolina."
Fink isn't kidding about his political leanings. He's studied the U.S. labor movement
extensively, written about the topic of Southern workers for the Democratic Socialists of America
, and has garnered the support of the new Triad-area chapter
of the DSA.
"Seeing a candidate like Bernie Sanders get the level of support that he has, and not just with the stereotype college left-type people, but also in the more rural communities in areas that are traditionally seen as [conservative]" has given him hope, Fink says. "If I can convey what I'm interested in doing, then people might be able to get past a label that strikes them as unfamiliar or unusual, that the ideas I have are really practical."
The funny thing is that Fink's platform sounds palatable, at the very least, to a majority of Democrats. "My interest is on fixing on our education system, getting it back to what it was when [my wife and I] were excited to move here and send our son to public schools that were terrific," he says. He also says he wants to focus on jobs and reducing economic inequality. "The number of people who don't have work, or don't have work that you can support a family on, is just such a huge issue," Fink says.
"Our region is top in the nation for food insecurity," he says. In a blog post
, he said that he'll work to bring co-operative grocery stores to food deserts across North Carolina
. "These are problems that are the essential role of state and local government. I'm interested in doing this in creative ways - not in stereotypically "big government" ways - but thinking creatively about how state and local government can support initiatives to grow their communities and public schools."
For everything he's up against, it seems like Fink could be onto something, even if his odds are long in the general election. He's gotten media attention from both
of the Triad's alt-weeklies, and says that he's confident he'll get the required number of signatures to get on the ballot in June. "It was only a week ago that I announced this publicly, and in that time, the number of people I've never met who are asking me for petitions..." he trails off. "Up in Rockingham County, there are people going all over there collecting signatures."
He says he's also received support from local Democratic Party activists, which could bode well should the General Assembly be forced to redraw House and Senate districts
and hold new primaries. "I would consider it," Fink says when asked if he would run as a Democrat under that scenario. "If [Democrats] welcomed me in that party, I would certainly be happy to run with them."
But for now, Fink is just sticking to his stump speech, which as Bernie Sanders might sarcastically say, is a "radical idea." "When I talk about solidarity," he says, "it's the simple idea of people getting together, setting aside differences we may have, and focusing on the common goals and interests we have and working together for that."
"I'm not out there just to get the votes of people who agree with me on everything," Fink says. "That's a group that could fit comfortably on my back porch."