I had the pleasure of meeting Senator Ellie Kinnaird once, in 2009, while volunteering for Health Care for America NOW! She whizzed into the legislative press room, stood at the podium, and delivered a crisp, tightly argued speech not just for the future Affordable Care Act but for a single payer system. The episode exemplified all the attributes she has been praised for–energy, intellect, and commitment to a better world.

It was clear that she deserved her reputation as “the conscience of the Senate.” This was the point when some Democrats were already edging away from health care reform, seeing the bill as a threat to their approval ratings. A true liberal, Kinnaird did the exact opposite, reserving her criticisms for incrementalists who failed to strive for perfection. No, this argument wasn’t about to alienate Carrboro. But you could hear in her voice that she made the case from conviction.

The contrast that existed between Kinnaird and the often-opportunistic machine shows how the Democratic party is in one way stronger today than it was then. Like she always has, Democrats today take a defiant stand for something that looks out of reach, something called social justice. It’s not fun to be a North Carolina Democrat in 2013. Those of us who remain are here because we refuse to jettison our principles.

In that sense, this is not Easley’s party, or Basnight’s, or Perdue’s; its soul resides with Ellie Kinnaird. Like she always has been, we aspire to be “advocate[s] for those with little hope.” From a partisan perspective, some Democrats see themselves in that position. With her tireless energy, former senator Kinnaird shows that they are wrong.

 

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