My Campaign in 2004
North Carolina Senate District 18 was restructured in 2004 to include Lee and Chatham Counties and a portion of Durham County sufficient to give it two percent of the state’s population as prescribed by the one man, one vote rule dictated by the Supreme Court of the United States. The incumbent, Senator Wib Gulley, resigned not long after the new map was announced. The person appointed to fill his term, Senator Ralph Hunt, an African-American, after a time announced that he would not seek re-election because of his concern for the demography of the district. Whereas Durham County was about 40% African-American, the new district had a population that is only 20% minority. About 42% of the voters in the district reside in Durham County, the remainder are divided equally between the two rural counties. Over all, the district was designed to be represented by a Democrat. The Democratic candidate for the United States Senate in 2002 carried the district by ten percent, but lost statewide by that same margin. Hence, the winner of the primary seemed almost assured of election in November. Nevertheless, no one in Durham County came forward to seek the vacant seat in the July primary. On May 20, the last date to file, I filed as a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination. My two opponents were both residents of Chatham County; one was an employee of the University of North Carolina; the other was a retired middle manager of that University’s hospital and an elected commissioner of Chatham,
I was not a complete novice at politics, and was once even elected to the Ann Arbor School Board. However, I had over the years disengaged from local politics in Durham County and was entirely unknown in the other two counties. I did have the advantage of contacts around the state and nation, but these were obviously of limited value in a local race, especially when, as it developed, there were no issues and no opportunities to debate any that might arise.
My reasons for stepping into the race were several, but the primary one was my concern for a law recently enacted to provide public finance of statewide judicial elections. I had a hand in putting that law together and thought it to be an important reform. As enacted, it was defective and inadequately funded. Senator Gulley had been the primary advocate in the legislature for that law, with the support of the North Carolina Bar and Democracy North Carolina, a group advocating general campaign finance reform. I had been active in both groups, had recruited a committee to support such a scheme, and had suggested that the two organizations unite on a law governing judicial campaigns. With Gulley leaving the Senate, the scheme needed an advocate in the legislature. My longer-term ambition was to take the judges off the ballot (as the NC Bar hoped) and provide public funding for legislative campaigns, as is now done in Maine and Arizona (as Democracy North Carolina hoped).
I had other substantive interests as well. Another law drafted by me and bearing on mandatory dispute resolution clauses, the Model Fair Bargain Act, had been introduced, but languished in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Also, as a member of the Advocacy Council of the AARP, I had lobbied on consumer protection issues, and was especially incensed by the state’s failure adequately to regulate the small loan industry, notably the “pay-day lenders” who advanced for two week terms pay and social security checks to unqualified borrowers, charging them interest at an annual rate of 600%, interest so high that many borrowers were caught in perpetual need of such advances And, as a member of the trial lawyers’ legislative committee, I was also involved in resisting proposals for tort “reform” that I regarded as unlikely to confer any benefits on the public. It was also in my mind to give added support to job training in the community colleges to elevate the skills of our work force as several states are now doing, and to develop if possible a single-payer system for basic health care, rather on the order of the scheme in place in Oregon. I understood, of course, that a state senator also has responsibility for prodding executive officers to enforce enacted laws that are unwelcome to monied interests. For example, home builders, who are generous supporters of state and local politicians. do not welcome enforcement of laws forbidding storm water runoff; enforcement is likely to lag unless the local senator is willing to threaten the budget of the enforcement agency. All of these issues I discussed with voters whenever I got a chance, but that proved to be very seldom.
I succeeded in enlisting a distinguished campaign committee that included a former United States Senator, a former Chief Justice of the state, the dean of the law school at the University of North Carolina, a former mayor of Durham, numerous Duke colleagues, and other notable citizens. I attended a two-day seminar for candidates conducted by the Democratic party. A parade of experts explained how to spend money. They recommended that a senate candidate in a contested district should plan to spend about $200,000. This for a two-year term at a job paying less than 10% of that sum, plus an expense account! Among the devices favored was the robot telephone that can make hundreds of calls an hour, leaving a message on the addressee’s answering machine, but hanging up if anyone should come to the phone.
I raised almost $50,000 to fund our campaign. Most of this money came from outside the district, from old friends and relatives who supported the campaign out of personal loyalty, more than a few of whom were Republicans who were not unlikely to disagree with every position I would take. Some were Bradfield School classmates, some were Exeter classmates; some were Texas Deke brothers; a few were Texas Cowboys; some were law school classmates; some were former colleagues or students, and some were present colleagues. Some were friends in Durham who did not reside in the district. Only a few were residents of Senate District 18.
An early account of these efforts was published in the Duke Chronicle. Chronicle June. Professional consultants known to the Democratic party were hired. One, Thomas Mills, proved to be exceptionally talented in the design of direct mail material. We invested heavily in that form of communication. We did not use newspaper advertising, in part because the newspapers carried almost no information about the campaign, and none was widely distributed throughout the district. We did use local radio stations that were far less expensive.
We held meetings in each Durham precinct. Bessie organized the local meetings in Durham with the help of Lily Schroeder, whom we hired as a campaign coordinator. Lily is the daughter of two of my law school colleagues and a sophomore at Yale. She proved to be very helpful in managing the office. We also had a cadre of Duke students who placed most of the yard signs and performed other necessary tasks.
Bessie also organized a successful effort to make a personal call to every Democrat in the Durham part of the district. I made about a thousand calls, resulting in about six hundred conversations with answering machines, and about a hundred and fifty live conversations. Six or seven of the latter drew a hostile response. Bessie, Deborah Christie, the wife of a colleague, and Hank Lee, a nephew living in Arlington, Virginia, made a like number of calls. Others helped, in making phone calls, some of them mightily. We hired no one to make phone calls, but we did use the robot for a brief message on the last day.
I spent two or three days a week in the rural counties. I had the help in Lee County of two very successful politicians who were natives of that community; they put me in contact with many of their friends. Some of them devoted considerable time and effort to my campaign. Among my activities there were lunch hour calls at the senior center to pass out my card to the aged, i.e., those most likely to vote. I also twice went the forty miles to attend a big prayer breakfast in Sanford requiring my attendance at 6:30. The most gratifying contact I had was with the Afro-American community in Lee County, who not only endorsed me, but did a lot of work on my behalf.
I also had the endorsement of the Durham African-American Community and of the Peoples’ Alliance, by far the most active political organization in Durham County. And I was endorsed by an abortion rights group. The only endorsements going to the winning candidate were those of the Sierra Club and of the Independent, a newspaper that depends entirely on advertising revenue but contains some good material on local arts and occasional critiques of local government. The Sierra Club did not matter much but was a puzzle; I am at least as much as environmentalist as the other two candidates, but I tried to sell them on the idea that campaign finance was crucial to their concerns, and they apparently did not buy it. The Independent endorsement hurt and was also puzzling because of their tendency to endorse candidates deemed to be “liberal.” The owner of the publication contributed $200 to my campaign. I took that as an apology for his deference to his staff who live in Chatham County and whom I never had the opportunity to meet. The stated reason for the endorsement was that the other candidate had been a good county commissioner, a true statement as far as I know.
I found some supporters in Chatham County who were themselves well known in that community, but I found no senior center lunch. The African-American group held a panel discussion in which each Senate candidate was strictly limited to two minutes. When I remarked on the inadequacy, they set a time and place for a rematch, but I was the only person there. I got into a bit of a hassle at the Senior Citizens’ meeting with a man who was outspoken in support of his right to resist involuntary annexation by the city of Cary.
Mostly, there were questionnaires. About fifty came in, most of them from national or state organizations, and most of them filled with loaded questions. Many of the organizations I had never heard of, and supposed them to have few members. Many I ignored. NC Fair, a business PAC asked me, among other things, if I agreed that the state income tax on higher income should not be reduced in order that corporate executives would want to move their factories to North Carolina. I responded, telling them that I would like as a lawyer to represent the shareholders in a derivative suit against managers who made corporate decisions to benefit themselves. Equally annoying was a questionnaire from the state teachers’ organization who wanted to know precisely how I would vote on a series of specific legislative proposals. I responded, but only to say that none of the questions could be answered without a knowledge of the context controlling the alternatives.
I spent considerable effort in trying to attract support from farmers in the two rural counties. I thought they should support my efforts to restrict the use of mandatory arbitration clauses. I learned that many of them were afraid to be seen with me for that very reason. Agriculture, especially in the meat and poultry fields, is dominated by monopsony. Price competition at the grocery store is severe, but there is almost no competition among the buyers of produce and the result is that many, many farmers are now serfs on their own heavily mortgaged land.
Neither of my opponents, in the rare moments when I was with them, ever expressed an idea about state policy. They were both fine gentlemen who simply wanted to represent their neighbors in Raleigh. The race was therefore about name recognition and nothing else. Any meetings were attended by few voters, and they were sometimes outnumbered by the candidates for the local offices that were on the ballot, county commissioners and school boards. On election day, I greeted voters at the most populous Durham precinct; very few were attentive to the fact that they were about to vote in a state senate election.
In hindsight, there were many small mistakes we made as a result of ignorance or inadequate preparation, but none of them mattered because I had no chance of winning. This was so because the level of interest in the election of a member of the North Carolina Senate was almost nil. Newspapers ignored the race. I was interviewed by four reporters, but none of the interviews were published until the last day. Then, the Durham Herald-Sun published an excerpt containing a very unhelpful misquotation. One of my opponents, Bob Atwater, spent a bit more money than we did, to hire a phone bank to add to his direct mail. He had more yard signs, but they were not as attractive as those we put out.
Interest in the local campaigns for school boards and county commissioners was high in all three counties, and was extremely high in Chatham County, where the voter turnout was immense. It was the large turnout in Chatham by voters to whom Atwater was a familiar name that made it quite impossible for me to have won.
Mostly, I enjoyed the campaign despite its lack of content. The defeat was not hard to take. I wanted to pursue the issues in which I was engaged, but a hundred trips a year to Raleigh was not an attractive prospect, and I do have plenty else to do. The Duke Chronicle did a fair assessment. Link to Chronicle August.