Matt Kopac is running for Durham County Commissioner. It is a thankless position, part-time pay for full-time work, with frequent public critique, and an under-appreciated degree of difficulty.
Kopac already has a good job, Sustainable Business & Innovation Manager at Burt’s Bees. He has two young kids. His wife Sarah works. He is building a successful life and family here in Durham, North Carolina.
Durham’s dual government structure makes a County Commissioner’s job even more fraught with issues. The County Commissioners control the Sheriff’s office, but not the police. They run part, but not all, of the local public transit system. The City of Durham has an Equity and Inclusion Department, while Durham County has its own Minority and Women Business Enterprise Program. The list of parallel and duplicative programs runs on ad nauseam.
Why then would Matt Kopac run for a difficult, poorly paid, public office?
To understand Kopac’s choices, go back further in his life story. He is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was shaped by the challenges of Milwaukee’s urban crises, the conversations that were not had, the breakthroughs that did not come. Milwaukee has a complicated history of urban tension, housing discrimination, and other forms of structural racism. Wisconsin is also at the center of progressivism in American history.
At seventeen, Kopac attended Badger Boys State, a seven day model government camp. He found a passion in understanding government operations.
Looking for an avenue for his progressivism and urge to do social justice work, Kopac served with the Peace Corps in Benin post-college.
After his time in the Peace Corps, Kopac lobbied in Washington, D.C. for affordable housing.
He considered attending law school and working on human rights or civil rights law.
But looking for a way to make a bigger structural impact, Kopac attended the Yale School of Management.
During his time in New Haven, Connecticut, (at Yale) Kopac worked to help those being steam-rolled by the foreclosure monolith.
But this altruism is not what I find most appealing about Kopac.
When judged from afar, many, many metrics measure Durham as incredibly successful; new jobs, skyrocketing property values, a thriving downtown with a renown restaurant scene.
Well-intentioned, but inconsistent local politicians have seen Durham’s murder rates rise to their highest levels in twenty years, while evictions spike, and the local housing authority faces disaster.
Durham needs more than grandstanding. It needs policy wonks.
Kopac wants to create tight, clear feedback loops for local government where those affected by local government and its decisions have say and hold sway.
He and his wife, Sarah, chose Durham intentionally as the place where they believed they could make the greatest difference.
Kopac’s credentials and experience before arriving in Durham point to just the kind of nerd we need. His grasp of the figures and salient issues was dynamic when we sat down earlier this month at Beyu Cafe.
Upon arriving in the Tar Heel state, he attended Durham Neighborhood College, a program he continues to recommend highly. He attended public meetings. He immersed himself in understanding Durham’s infrastructure.
Kopac was one of the early partners of Bull City Forward, an organization tasked with “innovating for the greater good” and “enabling high-impact entrepreneurs to create sustained economic and social impact.”
The Kopacs’ kids attend Durham Public Schools.
The County controls Durham Public Schools budget.
Kopac believes local government can be the best level of government because it can be most responsive.
Kopac’s forward thinking, activist, social justice mindset led to him co-founding the Durham Living Wage Project. He also served as the Chairperson for the Durham Environmental Affairs Board.
At Beyu, he told me that a new Durham Comprehensive Plan is coming. Kopac wants to use that plan and the levers of County government to send a clear signal that “equity is a value” in government. Further, he emphasized that “equity” must then be translated into policy. Economic justice is one of Kopac’s core values.
Kopac told me he got his work ethic from his Dad, a former Green Beret, who worked third shift at Miller Brewing for much of his life. Young Matt learned his Dad wanted his children to have a sense of purpose, to make a difference, to fight for justice, and serve the public.
He met his wife Sarah met backpacking in South America after he had finished Peace Corps in Benin and she had finished serving as a rural health Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay.
Just as they have served before, they are choosing to serve now in Durham. Matt through his community work and now as a candidate for County Commission; Sarah as the nurse practitioner for the residents of TROSA after working for six years at Lincoln Community Health Center.
And I for one, believe, all the evidence suggests Matt Kopac will be an extremely competent and caring Durham County Commissioner.