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One on One: Three new North Carolina-connected congresswomen

Three North Carolina-connected women Democrats broke the mold in the recent congressional elections.

The “mold” was Democrats losing congressional seats to Republicans. These three women won seats that were previously held by Republican men.

All three are the sorts of smart, experienced, hard-working people who have the potential to be leaders in Congress. All three have come back strong from devastating political losses, regrouped and used losing experiences to build winning campaigns.

I first saw Deborah Ross in action in the 1990s while I was working in the legislature for the UNC System and she was state director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her lawyering skills, charm and toughness made her an effective lobbyist. In 2004 she won a seat in the North Carolina House, where she served until 2013.

In 2016 she ran an impressive campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Richard Burr. She raised millions of dollars and gained favorable national attention, but Burr won re-election with 51 percent of the vote.

When her Raleigh area congressional district was redrawn to give Democrats an edge, the incumbent George Holding decided not to run. Ross was ready and won the seat handily.

Similarly, Greensboro’s Kathy Manning, a Harvard graduate and University of Michigan-trained lawyer, mounted a campaign for Congress in 2018, ran a spirited race, but lost to incumbent Republican Ted Budd. In 2019, redistricting put her in a new district represented by Republican Mark Walker.

The reconfigured district favored Democrats, and Walker did not run. Manning was ready and won the seat with 62 percent of the vote.

The third North Carolina-connected woman Democrat to win a congressional seat previously held by Republicans, is Carolyn Bourdeaux, formerly a professor at the Andrew Young School of Public Policy at Georgia State University.

In 2018, Bourdeaux mounted a strong campaign in Georgia’s seventh district against incumbent Rob Woodall, losing by only 433 votes. As Bourdeaux prepared to run again, Woodall announced he would not run in 2020. Bourdeaux beat the Republican candidate, Rich McCormick, by more than 10,000 votes.

So, you ask, what is her North Carolina connection?

This is where it gets personal.

Her late father, Robert Bourdeaux, grew up in my hometown, Davidson. Bob’s family lived in a neighborhood a block away from Davidson College, not far from where future congressman and governor Jim Martin and basketball coach Lefty Driesell would live.

At North Mecklenburg High School, Bob and I played together on the football, basketball and tennis teams He was a good teammate to have: smart, cheerful and enterprising. He went on to a successful career as a professor at Hollins University in Virginia, a not-so-successful experience in business and then more service in education.

Carolyn’s mother, Jerry, met Bob met at UNC-Chapel Hill. Both were committed to education and progressive causes.

They retired to Chatham County where they died in 2017.

When we were growing up, Bob’s father, though in terrible health, was active in community and political affairs. Carolyn’s grandmother, for whom she is named, was a bulwark in the college treasurer’s office where she worked with my father.

The Bourdeaux family, including Bob’s siblings John and Margaret, was an important part of life in Davidson.

Her aunt, Margaret Bourdeaux Arbuckle, took her family’s spirit to Greensboro where she served as the long-time executive director of Guilford Education Alliance until her retirement in 2013. She served as a Guilford County commissioner from 1992 to 1996. Still active in political and community life, she helped raise thousands of North Carolina dollars for her niece’s campaign, helping to seal our state’s connection to the new Georgia congresswoman.

Deborah Ross, Kathy Manning and Carolyn Bourdeaux were the only Democrats to flip congressional seats previously held by Republicans in the 2020 elections.

Keep an eye on all three.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.

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