Since Virginia Foxx was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004, the Democratic primary has been, for all intents and purposes, an exercise in futility.
Hugely popular in the heavily Republican 5th Congressional District, Foxx has laid waste to a string of Democratic challengers, trouncing Billy Kennedy, her most recent opponent, by 30-plus percentage points in 2010.
Elisabeth Motsinger and Bruce Peller, the two Democrats facing off in the May 8 primary elections, have a clear-eyed view of the challenge that lies ahead.
“When you’re in a Davey and Goliath situation,” Motsinger explained earlier this week at her campaign headquarters on First Street, “you don’t succeed by being another Goliath. But by being a good Davey.”
Motsinger, a physician’s assistant best known for her service on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board, and Peller, a dentist who lives in Pfafftown, share the same views on many issues. They support the DREAM Act, legislation that would offer a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants, and oppose an amendment to the North Carolina constitution that would define marriage — views that are in sharp contrast to Foxx’s.
Motsinger, 54, grew up in Shrub Oak, N.Y., a small town lined with homes made affordable by the GI Bill, which offered benefits to soldiers returning from World War II.
“That was part of my understanding of what government programs do. The GI Bill built the middle class in the United States and made home ownership and college a possibility for people who would have never had those experiences,” Motsinger said.
Given her exposure to programs such as the GI Bill, Motsinger said she is perplexed by people who say they hate the government.
“To say, ‘I love my country but I hate my government and I hate the way we go about governing ourselves and focusing on protecting the common good’ makes no sense. A nation is the common good. That’s what makes us a nation and not a corporation,” she said.
Her interest in social issues came from her mother, an activist in the civil-rights movement who occasionally marched in Washington, D.C. Motsinger inherited her mother’s activism, even getting arrested last September outside the White House while protesting a proposed cross-country pipeline.
Motsinger and her late husband moved to Winston-Salem in 1984. After his death, she used her Social Security survivor’s benefits and student loans to complete the physician’s assistant program at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. She works two days a week at Salem Center and, since 2006, has served on the school board.
She married again in 1989.
“The thing that motivated me to run was our future generations,” Motsinger said. “I think about the grandchildren I don’t have. I want a livable world for them.”
An avowed environmentalist, Motsinger said that if elected, she will push for alternative energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal, seeing them as job creators at the local level.
“You want to build jobs? Let’s figure out how to build solar in Winston-Salem. When you build a pipeline, you build it, and the job is done,” she said.
Motsinger wants to reach out to conservatives throughout the 5th District, which stretches into some of the most conservative pockets of the state, including Catawba, Yadkin and Ashe counties.
Her views on some hot-button issues, including taxes (she favors tax increases on the wealthy) and abortion (she supports a woman’s right to choose), may not appeal to diehard Republicans in that area, but Motsinger said her time on the school board has taught her how to work with people of different political stripes.
“It has prepared me well for looking for that third way, for keeping in heart and mind what the ultimate goal is, which is the well being of all of our children,” she said.
Peller is a political newcomer who is realizing a longtime dream to run for Congress.
A New York City native, Peller, 64, grew up in a politically active family.
“Civil rights was the hook for me,” he said. “And JFK was the first president I really became attached to.”
A Forsyth County resident since 1979, Peller bounced around the idea of running for office for several years, but he found it difficult to step away from his dentistry practice, which he shares with his wife, Paula Henao.
With Henao now able to run the practice, Peller is focusing on his campaign.
“As this election cycle approached, I saw an opportunity coming and I anticipated some of the chaos on the Republican side and anticipated that the president is going to throw everything into his re-election. The possibility of following (Obama) into the race was very appealing to me,” Peller said.
With Henao, an immigrant from Colombia, by his side, Peller is campaigning on several key issues, including the DREAM Act. Henao is canvassing the Hispanic churches and stores across the 5th District, trying to convince them that Peller understands their issues.
“The Hispanic population deserves credit. They’ve continued to support this administration and haven’t gotten anything yet,” Peller said.
As a representative of the 5th District, Peller said he would aggressively pursue government money allocated for infrastructure projects and job training. He also favors tax reform that would require millionaires to pay more in taxes, while giving the middle class a tax break that could come in the form of a subsidy for education programs.
“I believe the wealthiest could pay more without it being the start of class warfare,” he said.
Through his work as a dentist, Peller has learned to earn the trust and respect of people when they are at their most vulnerable.
“I consider myself particularly good at just listening and asking the kinds of questions to the point where people feel like whatever it is they believe, they’ve been understood. If people feel as if they’ve been understood, then you have a basis for communicating, and that’s how I work,” he said.
Hometown: New York City
Family: wife, Paula Henao
Career: dentist for R.J. Reynolds’ Winston-Salem Dental Care Plan in 1979; opened North Point Dental in 1988.
Education: graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, MBA in health care administration from Wharton Graduate School of Business.
Elective offices: First election. Has volunteered with Project Homeless of the Triad, Give Kids a Smile, and the Community Care Center.
Campaign website: brucepeller.com/wp
Hometown: Shrub Oak, N.Y.
Family: husband, John; children Christian, Lysandra, and John Jr.
Career: physician’s assistant since 1989, worked at Salem Center for 14 years.
Education: Stockbridge School, 1975; physician’s assistant degree from Wake Forest School of Medicine, 1989; currently getting master’s from Wake Forest in bioethics.
Elective offices: Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education since 2006.