The U.S. Senate election for North Carolina may have the potential to shift power on Capitol Hill, but Durham will also feel aftershocks in public policy depending on the outcome.
Incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan will attempt to defend against N.C. House of Representatives Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican. As one of 17 Democratic incumbent seats in play this election cycle, the North Carolina race has a high potential to shift a critical majority for Democrats given the party's current three-person majority. Even with the national attention the race has received, however, the outcome will also hit close to home in Durham on several key issues.
“Members of Congress pass laws that affect every aspect of our lives,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan political group Democracy North Carolina. “They have a big role in our day to day lives that we might not even recognize.”
Immigration reform, a pressing issue in Congress, would have direct implications in Durham, said John White, vice president for public policy at the Durham Chamber of Commerce. Non-Americans come to the area to earn degrees but must return to their home country after six months if they have not gained employment. This decreases the number of people who would become part of the workforce in Durham, White said.
“We can’t process visas fast enough because of additional security measures after 9/11,” White said. “We’re educating people yet again about the process of how to keep them here and put them to work.”
The Chamber of Commerce has also worked to attract workers through means of advanced transportation, White said. In 2011 a referendum was placed on the municipal ballot to raise sales tax by one half-cent in order to pay for a 17-mile light rail from Chapel Hill to East Durham. The sales tax paid for 50 percent of the rail, with the city paying 25 percent and federal funding accounting for the remaining 25 percent.
“Having the option on the table allows us to be an attractive community for the workforce,” White said. “Depending on which party goes into power… we could see an impact on Durham.”
Another issue with potential local ramifications is the student loan crisis. In June, the Senate voted not to move forward with a bill refinancing student loans, introduced by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat. With the large number of college students in the area—at various universities, including Duke—the party in power in the Senate will have the power to impact how financial aid and loans are financed, Hall said.
The debate over minimum wage that has emerged across the country is an additional Senate issue that is highly applicable to Durham, Hall said, which pertains not just to full time jobs but part-time and hourly wages as well.
As of January, the minimum wage in North Carolina is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal rate. A bill was introduced in the Senate mandating a national $10.10 minimum wage in two years. It did not receive enough support to proceed, as all but one Republican—along with several Democrats—voted against letting the bill proceed to a final vote. Given Senate procedures, this means that the bill could be reintroduced for another try at a later date.
Even though parties in Congress will try to convert their platforms into legislation they believe will benefit their constituents, some local issues are insulated from goings-on in Washington. Chrissy Pearson, chief communications officer for Durham Public Schools, noted that concerns such as levels of teacher pay and budgeting are decisions made within North Carolina and so the Senate race will not have a great deal of bearing on DPS issues.
“We’re much more concerned about politics on the state level,” she said. “Our issues are the same as most of the other districts in the state.”
Amidst the hubbub, a number of local organizations are focused on educating voters about their options and voting processes so that they can make an informed decision in November. The Durham chapter of the League of Women Voters is working to have questions for the candidates and an online guide to inform voters, said Brenda Rogers, president of the LWV for Orange, Durham and Chatham Counties, in an email June 18. The group is also planning to hold a forum for the N.C. legislative candidates in the three counties.
Hall said that Democracy NC is also helping to educate and register voters, especially given the recent changes in voter registration passed by the N.C. General Assembly. He raised the concern that during midterm elections, there is usually less interest and lower voter turnout, which can affect the number and location of voting and early voting sites, for both federal and state-wide elections.
“Congress could require that there be early voting plans and there be early registration for federal elections, but they can’t regulate local elections so much,” he said. “There’s not enough support for that at the moment.”
In the national race, however, getting people to the polls will likely be less of a problem given the amount of attention it is receiving.
“For North Carolina overall, this is going to be the hottest race,” White said.