Elisabeth Motsinger Looks to Unseat U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx

YES! Weekly | February 16, 2012
On Jan. 12, inside the well appointed home of Stephanie Pellet and her husband Rajesh, Elisabeth Motsinger quietly launched her campaign for US Congress. Motsinger, a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, was suffering from a cold that night and losing her voice. She acknowledged her rasp as she addressed the roughly 30 supporters who gathered inside the Pellet’s home in the Buena Vista section of Winston-Salem.

“I feel like I should be in a smoky jazz joint in Chicago, but I don’t actually believe in Chicago-style politics,” Motsinger said, referring to the corruption and nepotism that has served as the trademark of Windy City politics for decades.

Motsinger, a progressive Democrat, went on to say there was no way she could follow the rulebook for how to run a campaign for Congress and expect to defeat US Rep. Virginia Foxx for the 5th District seat in November.

“I won’t spend four hours a day on the phone trying to raise $2 million,” Motsinger said. “I can’t raise $2 million; I will not go after Mrs. Foxx because she’s an old lady who should be home with her family. I think it’s really important to not treat people disrespectfully or unkindly and I’ve made that a sort of lifetime commitment and I’m not going to give that up now.”

Jan. 12 proved an eventful day in Motsinger’s campaign. That morning, as she was composing the first draft of her platform, Motsinger received a phone call from a local reporter who had learned that she had filed her candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission. Motsinger confirmed that she was running for the seat currently held by Foxx — a fact she had hoped to keep a secret until her official press conference on Jan. 17.

A few hours later, Treva Johnson, a Roaring River woman who announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination last fall, dropped out of the race. In an e-mail to her supporters, Johnson said she decided to not continue her campaign so that she could spend more time with her family.

Inside the home of Stephanie and Rajesh, Motsinger concluded her remarks by quoting a poem by William Stafford entitled, “Allegiances.”

“It is time for all the heroes to go home,” Motsinger recited.

She offered her interpretation of Stafford’s verse.

“I think if we want a real democracy, we have to believe that that’s true. We’re not looking for heroes,” she said. “We’re looking for all of us together to have a voice.”

During the question-and-answer session, a supporter asked Motsinger if the Democratic Party at the state or national level would help fund her campaign.

“The problem with funding from the state or national is they have never been willing to fund this race,” Motsinger replied. “They see it essentially unwinnable. From their perspective, it can’t be done.”

Foxx’s performance against Democratic challengers in recent elections gives weight to the Democratic Party’s position on the race. In 2010, Foxx crushed Billy Kennedy by winning 66 percent of the vote. In 2008, Foxx manhandled Roy Carter, winning by a margin of 58-42.

Foxx first won the seat in 2004 and is currently serving her fourth term in Congress. YES! Weekly contacted Foxx spokesperson Caroline May seeking comment from Foxx about her intention to run for a fifth term.

“Unfortunately Rep. Foxx will not be conducting interviews about the campaign until filing begins,” May stated in an e-mail. “We expect there to be several candidates to file and commenting now would be premature.”

The good news for Motsinger is the redrawn 5th District is more favorable to a Democratic challenger. Surry and Stokes counties are no longer part of the district, which now includes Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Davie, Watauga, Wilkes and Yadkin counties, and parts of Catawba, Davidson, Forsyth, Iredell and Rowan counties.

“This is really the year that if things are going to change, people are saying this is the opportunity for that to happen,” said Carissa Joines, Motsinger’s campaign manager. “I think the redistricting will help us. Our goal really as a direction for the campaign is we want to be getting out and meeting people and establishing from the beginning who those people are that we’re going to be looking to [for input].”

Motsinger is confident that the state and national Democratic Party will come throw their support her way once they see her broad-based support among Democrats, unaffiliated voters and even some Republicans.

“This has to be a real grassroots [effort],” she said. “One of the things that happens when you grow something from the ground up is that it has a strength that nothing that comes from above will have and my real desire is we build something that has some strength to it, not just to get me elected but to build those relationships that are sorely missing in many of our lives.”

Joines followed on Motsinger’s comments, telling those in attendance how to connect with the campaign. The campaign has a website — www.nc5th.us — as well as a Facebook page and an account with Act Blue, a political action committee website that helps Democratic candidates raise money.

Motsinger shared her campaign strategy with her supporters.

“What I’m really interested in is developing a sense of community amongst the 5th District where we can have important conversations about who it is we want to be as a people so we can represent that voice,” she said. “The real point is to represent people and they should always feel like you are open and accessible to them and their needs are met.”

A supporter asked Motsinger about her experience working across party lines to get things done.

“I have been able as a school board member to work really well with a whole range of people across a lot of ideological divides and have been able to get people to agree on doing things that, frankly, really have surprised the superintendent regularly,” she said. “So it is possible to cross barriers.”

Motsinger drew on an easel and spoke of her passion for systems thinking. She explained that it has had a profound impact on bringing systems thinking to the central office of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. Due in part to Motsinger’s advocacy, all assistant superintendents have attended Peter Senge’s workshop on systems thinking.

“Nobody else on our school board is at all interested in systems thinking, but I have seven pilot schools in the Forsyth County schools that are starting to use this work in the classrooms,” she said.

Motsinger drew a graphic of the iceberg model, pointing out that that 90 percent of an iceberg is below the surface. In the paradigm, societal problems and issues are the 10 percent above the water’s surface. Below the surface, in descending order, are patterns, structures and mental models. Motsinger explained that mental models underpin our beliefs about how the world works. Mental models create structures, which create problems, so the real leverage comes when you reach voters at the level of their mental models.

She explained that she used the preamble to the US Constitution as the framework for her platform.

“People I meet who are progressive are very, very patriotic and are very heartbroken when they see their country operating in ways that are less than what is possible,” she said. “And I think most progressives’ lives are very much driven by their values and so that language belongs to us and I want us to use it — I want us to claim it.”

Since first being elected to the school board in 2006, Motsinger has been an activist in local, state and national politics. Last September, she and her husband, John, were arrested along with more than 240 other protestors during a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House. Motsinger said she felt compelled to speak out against the pipeline because the removal and refining of tar sands would mean “game over” for the planet.

“It intensified my commitment to protecting the environment,” she said. “It made me more aware of how important it was to put my body on the line for what I believe in.”

Motsinger has stated that she will not back down from her positions on issues like the environment or gay and lesbian rights.

“I don’t think anybody worries about whether my politics are on the progressive end because they are,” Motsinger said. “I unabashedly believe that the thing that matters most is humanity and protecting the only precious world we have to live on, so those are my politics — they’re pretty straightforward.”

Virginia R. Weiler attended the Jan. 12 event at Stephanie and Rajesh’s home. A longtime friend, Weiler said with Elisabeth, what you see is what you get.

“She is who she is,” Weiler said. “She’s a very bright woman. She doesn’t try to polarize people but rather she tries to bring them together and get them to communicate, which I believe is very critical in this world. So I’m hopeful that we have the opportunity to get a different voice in Congress.”

Motsinger’s unconventional approach to politics extends to organizing her campaign staff. Joines, the campaign manager, said she met Motsinger when they both became involved with the Occupy Winston-Salem movement. Joines said she didn’t have an official position until last month.

“[Motsinger] told me that she felt like she was supposed to be doing this and she wanted me to be a part of it,” Joines said. “It’s been really exciting to work with her because she definitely has a different mindset of how we’re going to approach this, and I personally have had no experience in politics at this level or running a campaign.

“For her to trust me with this is really an amazing thing — part of it is we have the same goals and values,” she added.

One of Joines’ and Motsinger’s shared goals is to restore true representation to the 5th District

“We really wanted it to be something that wasn’t following the party machine, going through the typical way of everyone telling us we have to do these polls, and we have to raise this money,” Joines said. “We wanted it to be about listening to the people in the 5th District — that’s been our goal.”

The house party on Jan. 12 represented the first step toward achieving those goals.

“Tonight has been an awesome experience and to see that’s really what people want — they want to their voice is heard, they want to know their input is valued — so we hope to continue to do this type of thing over and over again,” Joines said.

On Jan. 17, Motsinger stood before a gathering of media representatives inside Caffé Prada in downtown Winston-Salem and officially launched her campaign.

“Today, the promise of America is not equally available to all her citizens,” Motsinger stated. “Half of our population is either living in poverty or with low income. Today, the basic decency of healthcare for all Americans is under attack — as if healthcare were a privilege and not a necessity.”

A physician’s assistant with more than 20 years experience, Motsinger laid out the major planks of her platform: economic fairness, environmental sustainability and educational opportunity.

Motsinger quoted author Barbara Ehrenreich when she stated, “People are not poor because of character flaws. They are poor because they don’t have enough money. And they don’t have enough money because they are not paid enough for their work.”

Motsinger said politics is broken by powerful political action committees and big corporate money. She said when she was a little girl, people could realistically work toward a better future for themselves, but that is no longer true. However, Motsinger made it clear she doesn’t want to take our nation back to the good ol’ days but move it forward.

“I am interested in moving our country forward — towards one where all people can experience the blessings of liberty and where we secure the necessary ingredients for a livable world for our children’s children,” she said.

Inside Stephanie and Rajesh’s home, Motsinger said when inspiration first struck to run for Congress she had to go deep inside herself to figure what her campaign would look like and trust that it would be possible to run a very different kind of campaign that would ultimately lead to victory in November.

“I think we can do this thing, and we’ll do it by being open, honest and good-hearted,” she said. “I’m putting myself out here because we can’t afford not to try. We cannot concede this country.”

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