Avram Friedman is not your average North Carolina political candidate.
Born in the Bronx, Friedman studied political science at Hunter College, and he’s been a grassroots activist since the late 1960s. After spending his life affecting change from outside the system, the 60-year-old Sylva resident is trying to make good on what is perhaps the most radical idea of his career: taking his brand of green thinking to the State House in Raleigh.
“I’ll be a voice in the state legislature that doesn’t exist right now,” Friedman said.
This year, Friedman is running for the second time against long-time incumbent Phil Haire of Sylva in the Democratic primary in hopes of representing Jackson, Swain, Macon and Haywood counties in the state House.
Friedman got 30 percent of the vote the last time he ran against the five-time incumbent Haire, so he can’t be considered a fringe candidate anymore.
Friedman admits to liking his opponent, but he’s intent on changing the system, starting with his home district.
“It’s not just Phil Haire,” Friedman said of his decision to run. “I would probably be challenging any representative anywhere I was living.”
Friedman is running his campaign armed with a broad and well-thought out liberal issue platform, but the driving force behind his bid is to put an end to the business-as-usual attitude of state government.
As the executive director of the Canary Coalition, an environmental nonprofit that aims to improve air quality in the North Carolina, Friedman has seen firsthand how energy companies like Duke Energy and Progress Energy force their agenda in the legislature.
“They are such an intimidating force on the political level that very few legislators are willing to stand up to them or question the veracity of their information or offer proposals that might not increase their profit margins,” Friedman said.
Friedman may sound like a radical, and in one sense he is. He was arrested twice last year for protesting Duke Energy’s new Cliffside coal plant, once in front of the governor’s mansion and once in front of Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte. Haire’s support for Senate Bill 3, which paved the way for Cliffside’s construction, is one of Friedman’s major points of contention.
But in an election year in which the ailing economy and the state’s looming budget crisis are bound to be the primary topics of conversation, Friedman wants to make the case that the environment isn’t a side discussion.
“That’s the impression I have to overcome,” said Friedman. “The fact is the environment poses a challenge, but it also offers incredible promise in the economic sphere. There’s a tremendous opportunity in solving the vast environmental problems we’re confronting. There’s a second industrial revolution occurring right now.”
Friedman spent 25 years running a plumbing business that focused on solar and electric hot water heating systems, so he understands the connection between green technology and the economy.
In some ways, Friedman believes the election climate suits his platform better than Haire’s, whose powerful legislative record includes his position as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
“Right now, our state is experiencing such budget shortfalls. There are no new programs,” Freidman said. “I don’t think pork is as big a factor as people just being fed up.”
For people who are fed up, Friedman’s platform is refreshingly progressive.
He believes that if North Carolina commits itself to phasing out coal power and developing alternative energy like solar and wind power, the state will create thousands of new jobs.
“There are tens of thousands of jobs waiting for us,” Friedman said. “They’re doing it all over the world. We’re banning wind energy in Western North Carolina, and they’re building a new economy in China.”
He also rejects the idea that today’s political climate is decidedly conservative.
“When there’s a conservative wave in the country, Democrats in office try to make themselves look even more conservative,” Friedman said. “I don’t think that’s a winning strategy.”
If he’s elected, Friedman wants to implement a statewide public transportation system that connects the university system by high-speed rail. He wants to raise teacher salaries and improve public education. And he wants to revamp the state government’s system to include full-time state legislators, so ordinary people can afford to serve in elected offices.
For the natives of Western North Carolina, Friedman has an idea that breaks the boundaries of his otherwise environmental platform. He wants to set up a lower property tax structure for full-time residents and low-income people. That’s not going to win him the snowbird vote, but Friedman doesn’t care.
“I’m giving a lot of people a choice they haven’t had in a long time. One they maybe haven’t ever had before,” Friedman said.