SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– A Cape Fear public defender, turned prosecutor, turned defender is gunning for Republican Congressman David Rouzer’s seat to represent North Carolina’s 7th congressional district.
Jason Minnicozzi watched the events of January 6th unfold in horror, finding himself aghast at the region’s local representation on the federal level.
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Hundreds of elected representatives, staffers, and journalists were put in harm’s way by the onslaught of insurrectionists. Rouzer was one of 139 representatives and eight senators who voted to overturn the presidential election results –– despite each state having already certified the results.
“This community deserves better,” Minnicozzi said. “This man voted to overturn the election and undo democracy as we know it, following those acts of violence.”
In the days following the Capitol attack, Minnicozzi said he began quietly assembling a team to test whether he should run for Rouzer’s seat. Disturbed by the flagrant nazi regalia at the scene and irresponsible acts that went unchecked, if not encouraged, by elected leaders, instead of looking to who else could fix the problem, Minnicozzi said he wondered, “maybe it’s me.”
“The first time in my adult life I saw how fragile our democracy truly is,” he said. “It’s in principle, can be as strong as we let it be or as weak as we allow it to be. And when I saw the acts of violence and insurrection occuring in the Capitol, it made me really scared for our country in a really visceral way.”
Now, he’s on a mission to “shine a light on David Rouzer’s shortcomings” and come up with solutions that bring people together. “I believe this is a hill worth dying on,” he said.
Both sides of the (judicial) aisle
Rouzer has maintained a stronghold on the Cape Fear region since his second U.S. House run in 2014 (in 2012, he narrowly lost by 0.2% to longtime Democratic Congressman Mike McIntyre). In each race, he’s won by double digits, with Dr. Kyle Horton giving Rouzer the closest run since McIntyre, who was about 13% shy from flipping the seat blue in 2018. His current term ends in early 2023 with a November 2022 election approaching.
Besides Horton, Minnicozzi said other Democratic challengers haven’t raised enough money or put in the work for a solid chance at unseating the four-term incumbent.
Aside from his alignment with Trump following the Capitol attacks, Rouzer has maintained a solid political career, free from scandal or major mishaps (Rouzer called the attacks “reprehensible” but defended his vote, claiming the election raised legitimate constitutional questions).
Running as a Democrat, Minnicozzi recently spent over four years working as an assistant district attorney for Jon David, serving Bladen, Columbus, and Brunswick counties –– a blood-red region.
“I’m not a cookie-cutter candidate,” he said. “It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about finding some compromise. And I don’t think anyone in Washington is doing that right now.”
He said he has no hesitation in hearing out counter -arguments or alternative viewpoints.
“You can’t play just to your base,” he said. “My intention is to try and bring folks together and I think in my background being on both sides of the judicial aisle, as a public defender and as a prosecutor, that I can bring some real strength and truthfulness to bringing people together.”
In the 15th district, Minnicozzi’s worked as a special victims unit prosecutor, with the bulk of his cases dealing with sexual abuse, human trafficking, and child exploitation.
“I had a pretty good track record of putting away bad people who had done terrible things,” he said.
An issue he’d like to see addressed immediately –– elected or not –– is getting victims the mental health care they deserve. Children who have been abused by a family member end up in foster care and get put on Medicaid, with very little resources to help them navigate the trauma they’ve just endured.
“It’s a shame and it’s inexcusable that these children don’t have access to basic therapy to deal with the awful, unforgiving trauma they endured at the hands of a loved one,” he said.
The Carousel Center in Wilmington is a tremendous help, Minnicozzi said, but doesn’t have the resources or funding to provide the intensive therapy needs of all of the region’s abuse survivors.
Federal law enforcement agencies like Homeland Security and the FBI are “busy chasing guns and drugs,” Minnicozzi said, and don’t dabble with sexual abuse or human trafficking “unless it’s across state lines and voluminous.” He wants to increase the mental health resources for survivors of abuse at both the state and federal level, espcially considering sexual abuse victims have an increased probability of becoming abusers themselves or developing substance abuse issues.
“We need more resources so that these kids who live in rural parts of the state that can’t travel two and three hours to Wilmington,” he said. “There’s just no resources for these little kids.”
In February, Minnicozzi rejoined Jennifer Harjo’s office in New Hanover County as a public defender. Campaigning while still remaining on Jon David’s staff –– a Republican up for re-election –– would have created “too much chaos.” “I didn’t want to do that to the kids that I was advocating for,” he said.
With David, Minnicozzi still advocated for defendants, leading a free expungement clinic offered to non-violent offenders with a recently clean record. Minnicozzi said David always encouraged his staff to find the balance between holding someone accountable for their actions, while also aiming to remove barriers that prevent offenders from contributing to society.
“Some people do deserve to be convicted,” he said. “But does that mean they can’t work anymore? Or can’t have a driver’s license? Or can’t get a license to be a plumber or an electrician? Permanently forever? That can’t be justice. That can’t be fairness.”
Holding an undergraduate degree from N.C. State and a J.D. from Campbell University in 2010, Minnicozzi said it’s time to infuse youthfulness and compromise into the district so it’s more representative of the growing population.
“It’s a new type of populus and those voices need to be heard,” he said.
To learn more about Minnicozzi’s campaign, click here.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct Congressman Rouzer’s election result history.
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