In a special April 3 election, Buncombe County Democratic leaders picked longtime community activist Terry Van Duyn to serve as the area’s new North Carolina senator.
Van Duyn will complete the unexpired term of Sen. Martin Nesbitt, the state senate minority leader who died in March after representing District 49 in the General Assembly since 2003.
After three rounds of voting among the Buncombe Democrat’s 149 precinct chairs, vice chairs and elected officials, Van Duyn emerged victorious over the five other candidates vying for the position: Veronika Gunter, Michelle Pace Wood, Charlie Owen, Keith Young and Aixa Wilson. Before the voting, each took turns trying to garner support by making 3-minute speeches in the packed new wing of the Buncombe County Courthouse. Several of the candidates had also been lobbying voters for several weeks via phone calls, emails and mailers.
In her winning pitch, Van Duyn presented herself as a champion for “ordinary people.”
“For the last 20 years, I’ve helped organizations in Buncombe County that serve children at risk, the elderly and victims of domestic violence,” she said. “What motivates me to do that work is that I will never forget how I got here. I am the product of good public policy. I am the product of great public education. And that’s why it’s important to me to stand up for everyday people.”
Van Duyn said she’s the oldest of eight children and that her mom and dad didn’t graduate from college. After a successful career as a systems analyst and business woman, Van Duyn retired; she lives in Biltmore Forest. She has served on the boards of a long list of local organizations, including Carolina Day School, Meals on Wheels, the Autism Society of North Carolina and the Children’s Welfare League.
Most recently, Van Duyn worked as a volunteer health-care navigator, helping local residents sign up for new insurance plans available as part of the Affordable Care Act. She’s also been active in the Moral Monday movement and was arrested in Raleigh at a June protest against the Republican legislative agenda. In her speech to Buncombe County Democrats, she blamed the GOP for low teacher pay as well as “draconian cuts to unemployment insurance, failure to take the medicaid expansion” and “tax cuts for the super rich and corporations.”
“It is no wonder that they have to suppress our vote,” she asserted, rousing the party faithful to loud applause.
Van Duyn went on to echo President Barack Obama’s winning message in 2012 against Mitt Romney — telling attendees that state Republicans view citizens who need help or those who work in government jobs such as teachers, fireman or police officers are “takers.”
“We know that is just wrong,” she said. Changing that mentality in state government “is not going to be easy,” she cautioned. “We have a state legislature that is so drunk on power, they won’t even let their own legislators vote their conscious.”
In the special party election, state rules stipulated that the winning candidate earn over 50 percent of votes — at least 76 in this case. Van Duyn received the most votes in every round, though it took three bouts before she surpassed the magic number. In the end, she beat second place finisher Gunter, 93 votes to 53.
Buncombe County’s most successful campaign manager for the last 15 years, Gunter helped Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Commissioner Brownie Newman, Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger and many others earn their jobs. “In Buncombe County, this winning has meant better schools, living wage jobs and environmental stewardship,” she told leaders before they cast their votes. “We’ve been winning in Buncombe County and moving forward, even as the rest of our state has been moving backward.”
But although she didn’t mention it in her public comments, Van Duyn has also played a key role in electing Democrats over the years as a major donor.
Van Duyn made an unsuccessful 2012 bid for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in District 3, which encompasses the most conservative part of the county, including Enka-Candler and Sandy Mush. Despite outspending every other candidate, she lost by a wide margin to Republicans.
But in her first general election to maintain her new Senate seat in November, Van Duyn will be in much friendlier territory: District 49 encompasses almost all of Buncombe County, including Asheville, where Democrats outnumber Republicans significantly.
Still, Van Duyn says she’s not taking anything for granted. Three Republicans are vying in the May 6 primary to test the new incumbent in the fall: former State House Rep. Mark Crawford, former N.C. Senator R.L. Clark and Tea Party activist Clarence Young.
“There’s no rest for the weary. I take this responsibility very seriously,” Van Duyn told Xpress just minutes after winning her new job. “We will start working tomorrow putting together a campaign and just talking to folks out in the county and letting them get to know me, letting them understand that my values are their values; start working to get teachers a better deal.”
An earlier version of this story appeared on April 4.