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Two candidates in the same party. Both respected. Both viable and ready to take office. Both with deep ties to their communities. Both with mutual friends, allies and supporters.

It sounds like the set up for a nasty primary and it easily could be. The two candidates will have to court favor from a select group of primary voters, many who would find it easy to vote for either of the candidates if they had run unopposed.

But for John Autry and Billy Maddalon, two Democrats now facing off for an open seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives, I have nothing but certainty that this primary will be polite, civil, respectful and a mutually friendly exchange and discussion of ideas.

Autry and Maddalon both want to take the House seat now occupied by state Rep. Tricia Cotham. She announced early this month that she’d retire from the legislature at the end of her current term. Autry and Maddalon have both filed for the District 100 seat, which includes a wide portion of progressive and LGBT-friendly neighborhoods across East Charlotte. They’ll face off in a March primary.

Voters in Mecklenburg County, especially those who identify as LGBT or as LGBT allies, will face a tough decision — vote for Maddalon, touted as the best chance at gaining an out LGBT voice in the state legislature in 2016, or vote for Autry, a solid LGBT ally and father to a lesbian daughter.

Discussions on who’d be better suited for the state House seat began as soon as Cotham announced her decision. Maddalon filed that day. Autry on Dec. 17. Supporters of either candidate have strong positions to back up their guy.

Both have long, strong ties to their communities. Both have served in public office. Both have held board positions for community organizations. Both have business experience. Both have been and would continue to be strong LGBT advocates.

Some LGBT leaders, though, see Maddalon’s race as the most significant if not sole opportunity to put an out LGBT voice in the state legislature. In 2014, LGBT North Carolinians were left without an out representative for the first time in a decade when state Rep. Marcus Brandon decided not to run again for his House seat. Prior to that, out state Sen. Julia Boseman left her chamber.

Supporters of Maddalon will say LGBT people need a face and voice that speaks from personal experience on LGBT issues. Supporters of Autry will say he’s a fierce advocate for LGBT equality. Others might say that either would do just as well representing on LGBT issues and concerns. So, a choice on who to actually vote for will likely boil down to each candidate’s positions on an array of other important issues. Progressive voters will likely cite Autry’s connection to and advocacy for a wildly diverse cross-section of constituents. Maddalon has that experience, too, working with Charlotte EAST and other partners on Eastside concerns, many of which correlate well with Autry’s own advocacy for his Eastside constituency as a member of City Council. But Maddalon, some will say, is more moderate on matters of economic development and business and slightly less connected perhaps with lower-income voters and residents.

I’ve already heard several local Democrats gnash their teeth at the choice being presented to them. It’s a tough one, I admit. It’ll be interesting watching the primary unfold, writing as the race develops and discussing the match-up with friends.

In the immediate near-term, however, this race serves as a unique opportunity for LGBT advocates to reach out and raise awareness on matters of out LGBT elected representation. I highly doubt, for example, if some progressive Democrats would be so quick to abandon a racial or gender minority candidate if they were the only chance for sole representation for that community.

Even if Maddalon wins, a solitary voice in the state legislature comes nowhere close to adequate or diverse representation for LGBT people. Advocates will need to take the time to explain the significance of such representation and, more importantly, take more opportunities to shape new leaders who can begin running for more offices locally and statewide. We’ve not done the best job at training up and equipping new leaders. I know it’s a priority for some, and I hope in the next few years to come, we won’t be faced with solitary options or hopes.

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