In his state Senate campaign, Gray Ellis did not land an endorsement from either of Durham’s most influential political action committees.
But the local lawyer hopes that voters will educate themselves on individual candidates, rather than passively voting with a local PAC.
“The bottom line is I spent my career working with people, not with PACs, not with a political agenda. I’m focused on people, service to people,” said Ellis.
In Tuesday’s primary, Ellis is running against fellow Democrats Pierce Freelon, a former mayoral candidate and arts organizer, and Natalie Murdock, a Durham Soil and Water Conservation supervisor with work experience in multiple facets of public policy.
Because it’s extremely unlikely the district will elect a Republican in November, whoever wins will very likely become a state senator.
Ellis is the first openly transgender man to run for the General Assembly in North Carolina. If elected, he would be the first openly transgender senator in the United States, he says.
Ellis transitioned seven years ago, at age 40, and experienced no negativity in Durham following this “very public” change in identity, he said. He wants voters to consider all of him.
“I’m a lot of things, I’m a dad and a partner, I’m an attorney, I’m a volunteer, I’m a philanthropist, I just happen to be a trans guy too,” he said.
On many issues Ellis aligns with Murdock and Pierce, endorsed by The People’s Alliance and the Committee on the Affairs of Black People, respectively. But one of his major platforms sets him apart: a passion for mental health treatment reform.
As a family law attorney, Ellis said that he often sees “families falling apart” because one or more of the members has a mental health issue and they do not have adequate access to treatment.
“Not only am I seeing that in my day-to-day practice, but I’ve dealt with that in my own extended family, having grown up with someone who has significant mental illness,” said Ellis, who grew up in Columbus County and has lived in Durham for over 20 years. “We need to make it a state priority.”
Ellis often says: “I am someone who believes we have a lot more in common than we do different.” In the North Carolina General Assembly, he could work with Republican lawmakers to get legislation passed, he said.
Despite recent resistance to gun-control legislation in the GOP-controlled state legislature, Ellis said he thinks he could find support on both sides of the aisle for common-sense gun legislation. Mandatory safety training for gun buyers, broader background checks, registering guns, red-flag laws, and banning assault rifles are all necessary, he said.
“I know he will be a voice on LGBTQ issues as they arise. It is a lot harder to knowingly vote to discriminate against people when you’re sitting next to them,” said Annise Parker, the president and CEO of the Victory Fund.
Equality NC, which works to defend the rights of the LGBTQ community in North Carolina, has endorsed all three candidates.
Longtime Durham state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. resigned from the District 20 seat early this year after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed him to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
McKissick has praised Ellis’ law training, though the former senator said he also sees value in his replacement having previous government service, which Ellis so far lacks.
“When 95% of what you’re looking at is laws, being a lawyer can be a major advantage. I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law,” said McKissick, also a lawyer.
A North Carolina State University graduate, Ellis originally moved to Durham to attend law school at North Carolina Central University. Nearly 18 years ago he founded Ellis Family Law, which has offices in Durham and Chatham County.
Ellis is also the vice president of the non-profit Meals on Wheels of Durham, an organization that delivers meals to the elderly with limited mobility. Four years ago, Ellis started the Feed the Need gala to address a long waitlist for meals, he said.
During a candidate forum at Duke last week, Ellis said he believes that his upbringing in southeastern North Carolina will help him work with senators from more rural areas.
“I’m from Whiteville, North Carolina. I grew up on a pig farm,” he said, making his point by deepening his southern accent beyond his usual speaking voice.
Ellis also says his age is an asset. He is 47 and Freelon and Murdock are both 36. “I’ve got life experience and I’ve got the professional experience that actually translates to the job,” said Ellis.
At last week’s candidate forum, Murdock closed by citing numbers to call attention to the lack of young black women in the North Carolina General Assembly.
“Four. There are only four black women in the state senate. Zero. I’m 36 years old, there are zero black women in the house or senate that are under 40,” she said.
Ellis followed up.
“If you want to talk about underrepresented — zero in human history,” he said, making a circle with two fingers. I will be the first, if elected, trans senator in U.S. history.”
9th Street Journal reporter Jake Sheridan contributed to this report.
At top: Gray Ellis at the North Carolina Senate District 20 Democratic Forum held at Duke University last week. Photo by Corey Pilson.