Candidate Ovittore: Can a painter-turned-politician defeat the 6th District’s Congressman-for-life?

by Jordan Green

Jay Ovittore wears a dark blue pinstripe suit jacket with a cream-colored dress shirt and tie, the jacket sleeves cut to reveal a slender band of shirt cuff. He sports full sideburns and wears perfunctory sunglasses of a style favored by Manhattan investment brokers in the late ’90s. An American flag pin and donkey tie clasp hint at his intentions. A metal labret stud below his lower lip covered in a thatch of facial hair gives a rare clue to the 34-year-old New Jersey native’s past as a high school dropout and hard-rock drummer.

He dresses like this for every occasion remotely associated with political campaigning.

Today he aims his early ’90s model Volvo station wagon out of the historic Aycock neighborhood in Greensboro where he lives to set out for a speaking engagement at a luncheon meeting of the Alamance County Senior Democrats in Burlington. It’s a scant eight days before he officially announces his run for Congress in North Carolina’s 6th District. If any event demands a positive first impression, it would be this. After he gives his address, he’ll head back to Greensboro, shed the suit, don his splattered painter’s whites and put in a few hours at a house in the neighborhood smearing joint compound into a cavity next to a newly installed window and sanding down the wooden frames.

The floor of the front passenger seat is a sea of yellow Burn energy drink cans and tall paper Caribou Coffee cups. Before he drops onto East Wendover Avenue to begin the trek to Burlington, Ovittore stops at a Starbucks – a concession to convenience despite his preference for Caribou.

“I started with Burn and I’m moving on to coffee,” he says.

Ovittore gets a free supply of Burn in exchange for advertising the Greensboro energy drink on his personal blog, but that arrangement will soon end when he retires the blog coinciding with the official launch of his campaign for Congress.

He pulses with the raw current of energy that once drove his former band the 5 L’s, and crackles with the barbed rhetorical wit that sustained him as blogger – an experience that carried him across the bridge from the music scene into electoral politics. He’s fusing those two attributes into a political personality cemented by thorough research into policy issues and voting records, along with a scary-intuitive networking ability. That’s just the beginning of what he’ll need to unseat Howard Coble, a 76-year-old Republican whose folksy manner, responsive constituent services and longtime support for tobacco farmers has made him appear virtually indestructible since he was first elected to the US House of Representatives in 1984.

And while Ovittore is refining his message and minding his presentation, he doesn’t shrink for a moment from expressing his views on any number of political topics – national, state or local. It seems there’s hardly a subject on which he doesn’t hold an opinion.

It’s the morning after Greensboro’s municipal elections, which Ovittore has followed closely. He’s pleased about the election of Yvonne Johnson as mayor, but disappointed that Trudy Wade knocked out Sandy Carmany in District 5. Although the municipal elections are nonpartisan, Wade’s membership in the Republican Party is hardly a secret.

“As far as Trudy Wade goes, I’m disgusted that the voters of the Fifth District would elect her,” Ovittore says. “Sandy has been a wonderful councilwoman, and a very transparent blogger. I don’t feel that Trudy Wade, being the biggest embarrassment to Guilford County politics, should ever hold elected office again.”

On the drive down Highway 70 past burgeoning subdivisions full of new showpiece homes, the conversation soon turns to national security. On the issue of the Iraq war, there are two varieties of Democrats in the current political landscape – those like Greensboro’s Kay Hagan, a candidate for US Senate, who criticize President Bush’s handling of the war but insist it is ultimately the president’s responsibility to draw the war to a close, and those like Ohio congressman and long-shot presidential contender Dennis Kucinich, who demand that US troops be withdrawn from Iraq without delay. Ovittore falls comfortably in the latter column.

In an interview a week earlier he has articulated his position.

“I would uphold the mandate of the body electorate and vote against funding for the war,” Ovittore says. “It is not not supporting the troops to cut off funding. By sending money we’re actually putting troops in front of bullets. If we really want to support them we should bring them home.”

To underscore the notion that his has become a mainstream position, Ovittore plans to have Marine Sgt. Brandon Bean, the new bass player for the 5 L’s and an Iraq veteran, appear in his military dress uniform and speak at the candidate’s official campaign launch press conference on Thursday.

Coble’s current position on the war shares more with the moderate wing of the Democratic party than Bush’s neoconservative agenda to reshape the Middle East according to American designs.

“I think it was not inappropriate to remove Saddam,” Coble said by phone from his Washington office the day before. “I have been disappointed by the post-entry part of it. When I voted for authorization of the war, I did so based on the belief that our intelligence had developed a post-entry strategy. If I had believed we did not have a good post-entry strategy I would not have voted for authorization. I think it was the wrong vote.”

Iran rather than Iraq may turn out to be the national security litmus test for the 2008 election.

“I think the Republican Party is pro let’s-fund-a-war-machine-and-go-conquer-what-we-can-conquer,” Ovittore says. “I call it a Napoleonic complex. Gore Vidal wrote about it. It always comes down to how to fund a war machine and benefit a small number of corporations that profit from war.”

The fundamental differences between the two parties, he suggests, is that a Democratic government would lead the country into war on the basis of real threats while the current administration has done so under an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of pretexts.

“If there’s definitely a need to go to war, the Democrats will have the backbone to do it,” Ovittore says. “Iran is not a direct threat…. Hearing Bush say, ‘This could be World War III,’ is not comforting. I really hope these people don’t sleep well at night with what they’re saying, because I don’t sleep well at night with what they’re saying.”

About 25 senior citizens are gathered in a side room at Occasions, a regular haunt of the Alamance County Senior Democrats. They’ve loaded up plates with food from the buffet line in the events center’s big hall, which is doing a brisk-lunchtime business. After conferring with the group’s president, Mack King of Elon, Ovittore steps outside to give the party activists a chance to make a dent in their meals.

“I’m going to grab six or seven puffs off a cigarette,” Ovittore says. He calls his girlfriend, Casey Mann, to give directions.

Mann, a fellow Democratic party activist whose long hair has streaks of honey and blond, soon arrives with her sister. The sister’s name is Karen Carvallo and she’s just flown in from Hawaii to travel with Mann to a family funeral. Mann notes that she has refrained from smoking in the car because of her sister’s pregnancy. She happily lights up outside Occasions.

“I’m supporting the local tobacco farmer,” she quips.

Ovitorre and Mann both say they want to quit. Mann mentions that NC Insurance Commissioner Jim Long swears by Chintax, a drug that helped him break a decades-long smoking habit. Ovittore’s not sure he can afford the drug or handle the side effects.

Inside, King introduces Ovittore as “a young man who is a potential candidate for Congress in the Sixth District,” mentioning that he did opposition research for US Rep. Brad Miller and noting that Ovittore makes his living as a housepainter and contractor.

Ovittore omits his spiel on Iraq, tailoring his talk to what is likely a more pressing concern for this audience. He chooses to speak without the microphone, and he’s hardly begun before one of the seniors calls out, “Can’t hear you.”

“There are a lot of problems facing us today in the Sixth District and in the country,” the candidate says. “I am going to start with health care. A lot of time in this country we have people trying to decide whether to buy good food or cut their pills in half.

“I propose a universal health care plan,” Ovittore adds. “I propose to pay for it by repealing Bush’s corporate tax cuts.”

He has the crowd’s attention now. He takes a couple more swipes at Bush, calling the Medicare drug prescription plan signed by the president “probably one of the two biggest policy disasters,” along with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Then he tackles an issue of painful loss in the fading textile towns that dot this Piedmont congressional district – trade liberalization policies that have been pushed through with bipartisan support over the past decade and a half while local North Carolina factories have shuttered one by one and relocated to China and Mexico. Ovittore does not mention that Coble vocally opposed Bush on the 2005 ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or that President Clinton presided over the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“NAFTA and CAFTA are probably two of the worst trade deals we’ve ever seen,” Ovittore says. “I would call for a fix at the very minimum, if not a repeal of NAFTA and CAFTA. There’s a loophole in CAFTA so that a Chinese auto company building a plant in Tijuana can ship cars across the border without any tariffs. There’s also a safety issue. There’s no restriction in Mexico on the number of hours truck drivers can be on the road. Twenty hours behind the wheel of a semi is not easy.”

Ovittore is pragmatic enough to understand that immigration will be a touchy issue for Democratic candidates in the next election, and tacking too hard to either side could prove suicidal. He says as much, and moves on quickly: “Hot button issue. Illegal immigration. No easy solution. I’m taking a moderate stance on immigration.”

He deftly moves the talk to Nigerian e-mail scammers, asking for a show of hands to determine how many people have received their overtures. Ovittore tells them he supports the United States joining the international court system so people who perpetrate fraud over the internet from countries such as Nigeria could be extradited for prosecution.

Some of the elderly activists are still straining to hear. Bertha “B” Holt, a state representative for Alamance County from 1975 through 1994 and today a firecracker politico at the age of 91, interrupts.

“I think you need to use the mic,” she says. “Some people on either side can’t hear.”

One of the seniors quizzes Ovittore on where he sees Coble as being vulnerable.

“S-CHIP,” the candidate answers without missing a beat. “He lock-step rubber-stamped the Bush administration on it. He said he did not see that we could raise the tax on tobacco and that it was a step towards socialized medicine. We have socialized medicine. It’s called Medicare. I can’t see withholding health care from ten million children. It makes me irate.”

Coble has said he opposed the proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program because it would have covered adults, adding: “Another feature I find very unfavorable is the way it taxes tobacco. Tobacco is very important to our district…. Tobacco always appears to be a convenient whipping boy.”

During the question-and-answer period, Ovittore moves quickly through the topics of civil liberties and the influence of corporations on American politics, before alighting on the idea of abolishing the graduated income tax in favor of flat tax on personal earnings.

“I would stand for a flat tax if I thought it could pass,” the candidate says, arguing it would eliminate loopholes for people in the top income brackets.

This prompts some raised eyebrows, not the least from the president of the Alamance Senior Democrats, who is seated next to Ovittore.

“I hope it doesn’t pass,” King says.

Some of the senior Democrats are shaking their heads and murmuring.

“This is a subject for another program,” Holt says.

Ovittore is too much of an iconoclast to cede the argument, but practical enough to recognize a lost cause.

“We have to fix our tax code nonetheless,” he says.

So ends Ovittore’s presentation as the group moves into the business section of its meeting. And though the flat tax may have ended the talk on a dissonant note, if Holt’s later comments are any indication, the young candidate’s chances with his seasoned political elders are far from ruined. North Carolina Democrats allow each other wide latitude to disagree on the specific issues.

“A lot of it might not have been well received, but most of it was,” Holt says. She finds herself impressed by Ovittore’s preparation.

“I’ll give him an A-plus on doing his research,” she says. “I don’t think anybody caught him off balance with not having thought about these things.”

Coble’s a popular incumbent, the 91-year-old party activist says. With that in mind, she approves of a pledge by Ovittore to allow Coble’s constituent services staff to keep their jobs for the sake of continuity should he be elected. The New Jersey transplant’s brashness and relative youth don’t necessarily present any problems in the more rural sections of the district, she adds.

“No telling,” Holt says. “Maybe rural voters are ready for youth and energy.”

The Coble camp has already been apprised of Jay Ovittore. NC Rep. Pricey Harrison, a political mentor, has been in Washington recently and has disclosed Ovittore’s intentions. Along with David Crawford, a gadfly candidate who was in and out of the Greensboro City Council race before losing to incumbent Mike Barber, Johnny J. Carter of Summerfield has also indicated his plans to run for the District 6 seat. Coble has called Carter to welcome him to the race.

“In our republic, it’s always a good thing to have competition,” a jovial Coble says.

Ovittore has been laying the groundwork for this bid for national legislative power for at least two years.

He started working with Harrison in 2005 when she attended a workshop on political blogging. Then the next year he jumped in with her campaign for reelection to the NC House. During the same election he conducted opposition research against Republican Vernon Robinson as an independent volunteer for US Rep. Brad Miller as he successfully fended off a challenge to his seat representing the 13th District.

Those contacts multiplied in August 2006 when Ovittore was elected president of the Young Democrats of Guilford County. It was through the Young Democrats that he met Greensboro City Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small. When allegations mounted against the embattled councilwoman that she had leaked a confidential report about problems within the police department, used her status as an elected official to wiggle out of a traffic ticket and handed out free bus passes to the point of extravagance, Bellamy-Small asked the Young Democrats if she could come before them to tell her side of the story.

“I ended up having a wonderful two-hour conversation with her about her situation,” Ovittore says. “We talked about what she’d done in the past, and what I wanted to do. We talked so long her phone battery ran down.”

Although Ovittore is not Bellamy-Small’s constituent – he lives in District 2 – her turn to nominate someone to the city’s human relations commission came up, and she was unable to find someone willing to serve in her own district. Bellamy-Small recommended Ovittore, and District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells duly appointed him. As a member of the human relations commission, Ovittore will serve on the education committee and fair housing committee, along with the ad hoc committee on race relations.

“I think he’s a sharp guy,” Harrison says of Ovittore. “He is informed on the issues. He’s got very strong opinions on the issues. I think throughout the blogging community he’s fairly well known. That seems to be fairly pervasive among the informed voters. Through his leadership of the Young Democrats he’s built some good relationships.

“What’s tougher in this race is that Howard Coble’s so popular among Democrats,” she adds. “It’s going to be an uphill battle, but he can do it. He seems to be dedicated and committed.”

The young candidate has no shortage of ideas for political and economic reform. Abolishing the electoral college, phasing out gerrymandering, capping campaign finance, penalizing corporations that employ more than 20 percent of their workforce abroad, curbing overdraft fees by banks and requiring that CEO pay raises be subject to a vote by a company’s shareholders are but a few. His challenge will be to figure out how to raise money, and donors typically hesitate to write checks for a candidate who hasn’t already proven his viability.

With Ovittore entering politics in a day when social mores and political opinions are subject to wild unpredictability, it remains to be seen how voters will respond to the personal circumstances of the brash ex-musician. A quartet of issues could prove liabilities – for him, and for any untested candidate. In no particular order they are religion, divorce, drugs and alcohol, and tattoos.

Wayne Abraham, chairman of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission and Democratic chair for the 6th District, has suggested that Ovittore consider attending church, whether for spiritual grounding or reasons of appearance it’s not entirely clear. (Disclosure: This writer attends the same church as Abraham, and placed a phone call to Ovittore on one occasion to encourage him to visit.) So far, the candidate has resisted the pressure to become a churchgoer, and he bristles at the notion that it should have any bearing on his fitness for the office.

“I think faith is a personal issue,” he says. “I don’t feel it would play a role in how I would legislate. As long as I’m a good person and I do right by others, that’s all that matters. I really want to abide by separation of church and state as our country becomes more entrenched in less separation of church and state.”

He’s legally separated from his wife right now.

“I don’t think politics put a direct strain on my marriage,” Ovittore says. “I did have to give it time to meet people, network and grow within the party.”

He seems to sense that the details are about to get unwieldy and maybe emotionally messy.

“The story as it goes that I’ll stick with is that there were two people who cared about each other greatly,” he says. “They grew apart over time, whether it be for financial reasons or something else.

“I don’t think the electorate will hold it against me,” he continues, “because so many people are getting divorced for the same reasons. It is extremely difficult in today’s economy to have a family and make a living unless you’re already filthy rich.”

He says he’s always been a responsible drinker and has never received a driving-while-impaired charge. On occasion he acknowledges drinking more than he should, but he says he’s always lined up designated drivers. As for illegal drugs, he admits to experimenting with marijuana when he was a teenager.

At least once, he says he was unwittingly drugged.

“I had a cigarette laced with something,” Ovittore says. “I turned white as a ghost and my heart raced.”

He adds: “I’ve been walking the straight and narrow for a long time.”

Ovittore is most circumspect about the tattoos. He has many, including one that depicts a dragon. He won’t display them or talk about them specifically.

“More and more people are getting tattoos,” he says. “They do it to tell a story. It’s a private and personal story that one chooses and doesn’t choose to tell people.”

It’s anybody’s guess whether any of this matters.

“There used to be an expectation for our politicians,” Ovittore says. “Through disenfranchisement people have become jaded about politicians. I’m not sure what the expectations are anymore. Expect me to not break the law. Expect me to be as honest as possible. I’m going to go beyond that. I’m not the kind of person who will write a form letter; I’ll respond personally.

“People seem to think you can’t run for office unless you’re a lawyer or rich,” he adds. “I don’t understand why any average man or woman can’t run. What disqualifies them?”

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