Roses to Ellie Kinnaird, the former Carrboro mayor who resigned from her state Senate post this week while in her ninth term.
Kinnaird is a plain speaker who served her constituents in largely liberal Orange County well. She was elected mayor in 1986, a position she held for nearly a decade before wining her Senate seat.
“A stout voice of integrity who backs up her words with action,” The News and Observer said in endorsing her bid in 1996. “Just as she did as Carrboro’s mayor for eight years, Kinnaird would be in the Senate the champion of the poor, the disadvantaged and children.”
She has been all that and more.
In 2003, Kinnaird spearheaded a two-year death penalty moratorium bill in order to study inequities in capital sentencing along racial, economic, and geographic lines. The Senate passed the bill, and while the House did not, Kinnaird’s achievement surprised those who thought the Orange County librarian turned lawyer was too far left to make a difference in the Legislative Building.
In fact Kinnaird fell midway in efectiveness among her 50 Senate colleagues, according to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. And where she could not push legislation through, she used her position to bring attention to issues she cared about: the environment, campaign finance reform, social justice, as well as some that few others took on: the plight of incarcerated woman and their children, and human trafficking, to name two.
In 2002, Kinnaird won a tight race against Howard Lee when redistricting put the two senators in the same district. Then 66, Kinnaird was outspent nearly four-to-one, but squeaked past the senior lawmaker on the strength of her Orange County votes.
Indeed, she has never lost sight of the hometown. She offered an early pragmatic voice of support for innovative infill development like the environmentally conscious Greenbridge condominiums. She lobbied, unsuccessfully, for a Costco, which she saw as a better big box for Chapel Hill-Carrboro that might retain sales tax dollars slipping over the county line.
Kinnaird has received the 1996 Floyd T. McKissick Award from the N.C. Central University School of Law, her alma mater; the 2001 Legislator of the Year Award from the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers; and the 2003 N.C. Council of Churches Faith Active in Public Life Award.
Two years ago Kinnaird stood on Peace and Justice Plaza, the corner outside the Franklin Street post office where her second husband Dan Pollitt had picketed the segregated Varsity Theatre just up the block in the 1960s. The late law professor’s name was being added to three others – Yonni Chapman, Rebecca Clark and the Rev. Charles Jones – to the sidewalk marker honoring lifelong activists who’ve made a difference.
Kinnaird recalled how her husband had told her at the marker’s dedication in 2009 that Jones should have been one of the first honored for his work integrating Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church.
People today don’t understand the courage it took to challenge prevailing notions of race in the South, Kinnaird said that day.
“They were shunned and vilified,” she said. “But they all shared a common trait. They would not let those injustices continue. Each of these [people] we honor embodies that sense of outrage.”
Kinnaird could have been talking about herself, though she never would.
Stay outraged, Ellie. Stay outraged, us all.