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Woodard and Chitlik differ on how to handle being in the minority

Mike Woodard has been representing Durham in the state Senate since 2012, cruising to reelection uncontested each election cycle. Now fellow Democrat Sophia Chitlik wants his seat.  

At the core of this hotly contested race is each candidates’ approach to being in the minority in the state legislature. Republicans hold the majority of the seats in the North Carolina General Assembly, and have enough seats to override any veto by the governor. 

Woodard operates in the context of the supermajority, where he works toward “making bad legislation less bad.” 

As the long-time incumbent, Woodard believes that the relationships he has built with legislative colleagues and in various departments of state government are critical to his success. 

“I’m always going to find ways to collaborate when I can, but fight when I have to,” said Woodard.

But Chitlik thinks it is time for some “new energy.” The same individuals and strategies that brought Democrats to a minority status cannot be the same ones that alleviate this gridlock, she says. Chitlik wants to fundraise and support candidates in order to break the supermajority. 

“We cannot pour forward the same tactics, the same relationships, and expect to get different results in the General Assembly,” said Chitlik. 

Woodard is a North Carolina native. He was born in Wilson and moved to Durham to attend Duke University, after which he worked at Duke in health and administration until he ran for City Council in 2005. He pivoted to the state Senate in 2012 and has been serving in that position ever since. 

Chitlik, the self-proclaimed underdog in the race, is a “Durhamite by choice” who grew up in California and moved to the Bull City in 2017. She started off as an organizer on the Obama campaign, and later served in the White House and in the federal Department of Labor under the Obama administration. Chitlik then served as an executive at a New York nonprofit that works with youth before finally moving to Durham. Here, she co-founded Tend, a company that supports people through pregnancy and birth, and worked for other groups that focus on women.

Woodard has been a minority Democrat the entire time he has been in the legislature. For seven of those years, Democrats have faced a Republican supermajority. 

Chitlik disagrees with the way Woodard navigates this partisan dynamic: “You can work with Republicans in meaningful collaborative ways without voting like a Republican or even without voting with Republicans.” 

Her campaign flyers knock Woodard for voting with Republicans 70% of the time and voting to overturn Governor Cooper’s veto three times. Chitlik told The 9th Street Journal that she would not have co-sponsored the farm bill “which had devastating consequences for our sacred environment,” and she would not have advanced a bill supporting charter schools. 

“You have to compromise on the things that you have to compromise on and be principled about the things that you cannot compromise on,” said Chitlik.

But Woodard defends his record. He says he will always fight for a woman’s right to choose, against detrimental environmental regulations, for public schools and for Medicaid expansion. 

“I’m a partisan Democrat,” said Woodard. “I have been since I was a kid.” 

Chitlik criticizes Woodard for voting in favor of a charter schools bill that introduced changes regarding charter school enrollment, funds and expansion. But Woodard says the claim lacks nuance and context. Sometimes he votes for bills because he backs specific sections, he says.

At the request of Durham’s Central Park School, Woodard says he filed a stand-alone bill that allowed the school to conduct weighted admissions lotteries, which the school believed would give opportunities to low-income students.

But legislative leaders told Woodard that if he wanted this measure to pass, it would have to be included in the larger omnibus bill on charter schools, he says. Woodard ultimately voted in favor of the bill after his provision was included as section 7.

In the case of the North Carolina Farm Act of 2023, Woodard says he approached Senator Brent Jackson, a primary sponsor of the bill, to advocate for small farmers and agricultural groups in Durham. Woodard himself wrote large portions of this bill.

Once again, Woodard did not support all of the bill’s sections. “Some of them were horrible,” he said. But he still voted in favor of the bill in order to push his provisions forward, he says.

As for Chitlik’s critique of him voting with Republicans 70% of the time, Woodard feels her statistics lack context. Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly vote with Republicans between 60 and 70 percent of the time, according to state data. 

In the absence of polling, among the few indications of the state of the race are key endorsements. 

Chitlik received the endorsements of the People’s Alliance, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, and many North Carolina politicians, including former Mayor Steve Schewel and state Senator Graig Meyer. 

Woodard, on the other hand, has the endorsements of the Friends of Durham, INDY Week and Planned Parenthood, among others. 

These endorsements are difficult to make sense of, said Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a frequent consultant on North Carolina campaigns. 

The People’s Alliance and INDY Week endorsements often overlap, McCorkle said — but in this case they don’t. Meanwhile, the People’s Alliance and Durham Committee (both of which endorsed Chitlik) often don’t see eye to eye, he said. According to McCorkle, these endorsements “kind of adds to the ambiguity and uncertainty of it all.”

What they do reveal is that there is not an overwhelming turn against Woodard, and that Chitlik has “passed the initial respectability test,” he said.  

Early voting ends March 2, and the election takes place March 5.