‘Partisan politics are tearing us up’
By Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice on October 1, 2021
Manteo’s Michelle Lewis to launch unaffiliated U.S. Senate bid
“I think if anybody can do this, I can,” says Michelle Lewis of her Senate bid.
It’s not that Michelle Lewis hasn’t thought about elective politics before.
The idea crossed her mind back when she was in the Technology Student Association of America at Manteo High School. She chose political science as a major during her undergraduate collegiate studies. And a few years ago, while living in New York state, she says a citizens group encouraged her to run against incumbent Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a prospect she considered before declining.
And now, at a kickoff event slated for 5 p.m. on Oct. 7 at Cartwright Park, the Manteo resident will launch her first political campaign as an unaffiliated candidate in 2022, seeking to fill the U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina being vacated by Republican incumbent Richard Burr.
One looming hurdle is collecting about 83,000 signatures from registered voters by March 8. “I have a team of volunteers across the state who are ready to go to work on petitions,” she says.
Asked if she knows that her campaign seems a long-shot effort, Lewis responds, “absolutely,” before adding: “I think if anybody can do this, I can.”
As to why she is running for the U.S. Senate, and why she has chosen to run as unaffiliated, Lewis says “I would argue that our political system as it is, is broken. We train people to be career politicians instead of teaching people how to really be with people in their communities.”
“As I’ve looked at it, I think partisan politics are tearing us up,” she adds. “They’re tearing apart families, communities…to say little about the state of the nation right now.
A crowded resume
Lewis has local roots, but she’s seen a lot of the country. Her mother, now deceased, was from Manteo and her father, who made his career in the U.S. Army, was from Elizabeth City. As a young girl, she spent time in Kentucky, Texas, New York, and Hawaii, before coming back to the Outer Banks.
At the age of 17, while a freshman at Elizabeth City State, Lewis went to work for the National Park Service (NPS), eventually serving in NPS law enforcement and travelling to national parks throughout the nation.
She also continued with her education, getting a Master’s in Environmental Science and in Divinity at Yale in 2013 after completing a Master of Arts in Communication at Regent University in Virginia Beach a decade earlier. Her Doctoral work was completed at Emory.
Born into a Baptist background, Lewis was ordained in the United Methodist Church, explaining that, “The Methodist Church gave me the opportunity to serve as a lead pastor as a young woman.”
From 2010-2012, she served as a church youth worker in Newtown CT, the town where a deranged gunman killed 20 children and six adult staff at the town’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. She was quickly called to help in the aftermath.
“I was invited back to Newtown the night of the shooting, to help with ministry in that community,” Lewis recalls of that traumatic episode.
In December 2018, with her mother in ill health, Lewis returned to Manteo and among other things, created the Peace Garden Project on Roanoke Island, an idea first launched by her in New Rochelle, NY. The project explores using the gardens to break down barriers around race, class, socio-economics and religion to bring neighbors together to help grow food.
“What we saw is that in the community where our gardens are located, real transformation happened,” Lewis told the Voice in an interview last year. She has also served as the Board Co-Chair of Children & Youth Partnership for Dare County.
Now affiliated with First United Methodist Church in Elizabeth City, Lewis helps out with some preaching at the Roanoke Island Presbyterian Church. Speaking of her decision to run for the U.S. Senate, she states that, “I see this as an extension of my ministry.”
Lewis on the key issues
In discussing the central issues she wants to run on, Lewis cites “reform of the justice system,” explaining that such reform has to go beyond street level police officers and examine the system they work in.
“People talk about police reform all the time, she says. “From the time I spent in law enforcement [at NPS], what I know is that the focus on just police is like going out and picking up the petty drug offenders without going after the people who are bringing in large loads of drugs into the country…What I saw consistently was that the system made allowances for officers to behave that way…The system is not willing to take responsibility for it, but the officers are taking responsibility for it. That’s a problem.”
Characterizing herself as “an environmentalist,” Lewis states that, “I’m interested in bringing business, climate scientists and environmentalists together to find ways to address our climate crisis.”
She is also highly critical of what she views as a political system that is unresponsive to the needs of many Americans.
“Big businesses and corporations are bailed out all the time,” she asserts. “But what about just the everyday person? What about the people who are the working poor, the people who are just struggling to make ends meet? Those folks need help, and the middle class is shrinking.”
Continuing on that theme, Lewis offered a response to the idea that it is audacious and unusual for someone who has never run for office before to start a political career by bidding to be one of 100 people in the U.S. Senate.
“I think we have to ask the question, ‘who created these systems and who are the people these systems were created to keep from attaining office?’” she says. “It’s time for us to create a political system that really listens to the people. All the people. According to the parameters that address being qualified to run for United States Senate, I’m no less qualified than any other candidate.”