Michelle Paige, the second vice chair of the Chatham County Democratic Party, left her legacy in the Big Apple behind to make her mark on local politics
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Michelle Paige carries herself with an easy assurance that speaks volumes.
She worked in the health care industry for about 20 years, starting out in a Harlem hospital as director of community relations and government affairs. Michelle, who earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communications and marketing from Syracuse University, was responsible for connecting with local residents and lobbying elected officials to improve health care for underserved constituents. Then, she was director of external affairs and corporate contributions for a health insurance company for 11½ years before launching MRP Global Relations in 2017, a consulting company coaching women in high-profile roles.
One of her most impactful achievements occurred when her then-husband, David Paterson, was governor of New York from 2008 to 2010. Michelle expanded a health initiative for 3,000 middle school students in Harlem into a statewide program that included more than 360,000 preteens. The wellness project garnered national and international attention during her tenure as the first lady of New York. Since then, Michelle, who also has a master’s degree in health services management and policy from The New School in New York City, has focused on self-care through yoga, hiking and daily meditation.
One day in December 2019, her now-partner, Kaveh Naficy, had a moment of clarity that became the impetus for their move from Morristown, New Jersey, to Pittsboro.
“Kaveh says to me, ‘I just had this vision that we’re supposed to be in RTP.’ And I’m like, ‘What’s RTP?’” Michelle says, laughing. She remembers him explaining that Research Triangle Park is a hub for health care and technology.
“That lake clinched it,” Michelle says. “We bought a boat, and we didn’t know anything about boating. We would go during the week, so we wouldn’t hold up the line. Last summer, we bought kayaks.”
California-born Michelle was raised in New York and spent summers in Georgia with her mother’s family. “I grew up loving the outdoors. I always wanted to live somewhere with property,” she says, adding that she hopes to establish a vegetable garden in her backyard.
Michelle and Kaveh, who is founder of Lakida, a Pittsboro-based company that specializes in leadership coaching, are astounded by the kindness of strangers here.
She cites one of their first outings on their boat as an example. “This guy and his girlfriend or wife were in a boat just sitting there hanging out by the dock,” Michelle says. “They come over, and he says, ‘I think [your] battery’s dead. I tell you what, why I don’t give you my battery. You can go out for an hour … and then come back.’ That would have never happened in New York.”
Inside their home, a massive double bass leans against a corner of the dining room. She doesn’t play the instrument, though she loves jazz music. Throughout the home are framed photos of Michelle and her family with celebrities and politicians, mostly from the Democratic Party, like the Obamas and Clintons. These days, Michelle’s photo collection shows off new stars in her life – her grandsons, Miles, 3½, and Ellis, who was born in January.
As COVID restrictions ease, Michelle and Kaveh are getting to know their neighbors through small social gatherings. And Michelle is edging into local politics as the second vice chair of the Chatham County Democratic Party, focusing on fundraising activities and goals for upcoming elections.
Networking is one of Michelle’s natural talents. She is meeting change-makers in the Chatham community, like Valencia Toomer, founder of the School of the Arts for Boys Academy. Michelle is already tapping into her connections to link Valencia with potential resources and also hopes to partner with her to create a health-focused program for students because “you have to reach the kids young, and get them to start this [exercise] habit,” she says. “And, hopefully, it will stay with them throughout their lives.”
Meanwhile, Michelle and Kaveh are exploring their surroundings with hikes along the Haw River and the nearby American Tobacco Trail. They have dined at the Postal Fish Company, Carolina Brewery and S&T’s Soda Shoppe and have spent weekends in Asheville and the Outer Banks. “I’m enjoying this period of my life,” Michelle says. “I had no idea how beautiful North Carolina is.”