Teacher becomes 3rd Democrat to seek Thom Tillis’ U.S. Senate seat in 2020

Corrected at 12:15 p.m. on Jan. 29. See details in the story.

A Democratic state senator trained in engineering and education wants to become the first African-American senator to serve North Carolina in Congress.

State Sen. Erica Smith announced her intention to run for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ seat Saturday in a Twitter post. She represents District 3 encompassing Bertie, Chowan, Edgecombe, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Tyrrell and Washington counties in northeastern North Carolina.

Smith is the third candidate to seek Tillis’ seat. The others are Trevor Fuller, a Democrat and former chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, and Eva Lee, a Democrat and Raleigh tax attorney who filed her bid for the seat in July 2017.

“I’m excited to share more with you in the coming months about why I want to serve the people of NC,” Smith said in her post. “As a former engineer, minister, and high school teacher, I’m equipped to tackle NC’s toughest challenges & get to work to stand up for our most vulnerable neighbors.”

The country needs “to create more jobs, improve our schools, harness our resources for economic development and target infrastructure investments for smart growth,” Smith said on her campaign website.

Efforts to reach Smith for comment were unsuccessful Sunday.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Alex Brandon AP

Tillis, a Republican from Huntersville, was elected to the Senate in 2014. He previously served eight years in the N.C. House, including as Speaker of the House. He is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, Judiciary Committee, and the Senate Special Committee on Aging. (The number of years Tillis served in the N.C. House has been corrected.)

U.S. senators serve six-year terms.

Smith is serving her third term since being elected to the N.C. General Assembly in 2014, and is the co-chair of the Joint Legislative Women’s Caucus and the second vice chair of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus for the 2017-19 session. She also serves as a member of the bipartisan caucus of House and Senate members for 2017-19. (The number of terms Smith served in the N.C. Senate has been corrected.)

She previously served six years on the Northampton County Board of Education and as the former chair and first vice chair of the Northampton County Democratic Party. She won the Freshman Legislator of the Year award in 2016 from the State Employees’ Association of North Carolina and the Lillian’s’ List Political Courage Award in 2017.

The Fayetteville native has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina A&T State University and a master’s degree in religious studies from Howard University. She is a former senior specialist engineer for the Boeing Co. and retired from the engineering field after five years as a patent examiner in the Chemical Engineering Technology Center of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

She became a teacher after a mission trip to Uganda in 2003 and currently teaches high school math and science. She also is an ordained member of the clergy and an associate servant at Cool Spring Missionary Baptist Church in Gaston. She lives in Henrico, N.C.

If elected, Smith would join a select group of 10 African Americans who have served in the U.S. Senate. Only three African-Americans currently serve.

North Carolina has never elected an African-American candidate to the U.S. Senate, but two native sons have represented other states: Sen. William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts and Hiram Revels, who was the first African American elected to the Senate. Revels, an ardent opponent of segregation, served one year after being elected by Mississippi voters in 1870.

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News & Observer staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.