Coach goes for upset in congressional contest

by Amy Kingsley

Every coach fantasizes about winning the Big One – regional, state, national, whatever – and most dream of doing it as the underdog.

Such was the case with Democratic congressional candidate Roy Carter, a teacher and coach with 40 years in the public school system. He left organized sports when he retired last year, but the desire for a final, meaningful win stayed with him and pushed him into the political arena.

If he survives the primary, Carter will face Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx in the race to represent North Carolina’s 5th District. Foxx, to continue flogging this sports analogy, comes from the team with a pro weight room and a case full of trophies. If Carter wins, it would be a Hollywood ending all his own.

It’s not going to be easy. Foxx, a two-term incumbent from Watauga County, has raised almost $1 million for her reelection campaign. Carter has collected a fraction of that – just $65, 308 – most of it from individuals.

“I’ve always taken the real hard job,” Carter said.

For four decades, Carter coached high school football in a succession of small mountain towns. He coached in Wilkes County, Surry County and, most memorably, in Ashe County, where he led the Northwest Ashe High School Mountaineers to the playoffs in his second season.

The team had not always been so successful. Only nine students tried out for the football team in Carter’s first season, so to fill the roster, the coach lured six players from the basketball team.

“That team politely lost every game,” Carter said, “just like the teams had the years before.”

Every game except one. That year the Mountaineers broke a 26-game losing streak. The next year, they reached the playoffs, and the year after they recorded nine wins.

“It wasn’t that suddenly I came in with this great brain for the game,” Carter said. “I had good players and great parents, but the community just really rallied around the team and made it happen.”

Carter still has a coach’s touch and the belief that community can turn an average contender into a champion. His rhetorical style favors the kind of inspirational refrains hurled in locker rooms at halftime. And he never forgets to praise his staff – the ones identified by their Team Carter T-shirts.

“[Republicans] have robbed our children of their future,” Carter said. “They have sold our soul to China. And they only way we’ll solve these problems is by putting Democrats in the White House and in both chambers of Congress.”

Carter will need all the help he can get – staff, volunteer or otherwise – to dislodge Foxx, the latest Republican to represent the conservative 5th District. US Sen. Richard Burr represented the district, which includes the northwest corner of the state, for 10 years before her.

Foxx’s last serious challenger was a member of her own party, Vernon Robinson, who won the most votes in the 2004 Republican primary but lost the runoff election. She easily dispatched Jim Harrell in the general election. Two years later, Democratic challenger Roger Sharpe came closer, but still fell short with 43 percent of the vote.

To counteract that GOP entrenchment, Carter plans to tour all 12 counties in the 5th District in a tour bus done up in yellow and black, his campaign colors. The motor coach provided backdrop for last week’s rally announcing Carter’s endorsement by Democracy for America, the organization that rose from the ashes of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run.

Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean’s brother Jim came down from Vermont to support Carter’s campaign in a parking lot decorated with balloons and banners. The chair of Democracy for America stood on a small wooden stage abutting an exterior wall and leaned into the microphone.

“What we’re about is ground game,” Dean said, “and figuring out why voters vote the way they do. They don’t do it because of television. They don’t do it because of radio. They do it because we ask them what they’re looking for in a candidate.”

Democracy for America has 700,000 members, Dean said, many of them activists who remained on the organization’s rolls after the 2004 election. They identified congressional candidates across the country as Grassroots All-Stars. Carter earned enough votes to win the group’s endorsement and organizational help.

To Carter and Dean, money isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. To prove their point, the duo and several volunteers from the campaign mobbed the nearby streets after the rally, beginning an expedition they hope will take them to every doorbell in the Fifth. Next weekend, Carter will take his bus out west, to the more remote parts of the district.

“One of the principles behind this campaign is reaching voters personally,” Dean said.

Delmas Parker, a vice chair of the NC Democratic Party, said the outlook might not be as bad for Carter as it was for his predecessors.

“There are three thousand newly registered Democrats in Forsyth County alone,” he said. “Most registered for the presidential primary, but if we can get them to vote down the ballot, we might have a contest.”

Carter opposes No Child Left Behind and touts his decades of experience in education frequently on the campaign trail. He won the endorsement of the NC Association of Educators. Author John Grisham, who supports several Democratic politicians, also cut him a check for $2,300.

“I am here because I went to a small, rural school in western North Carolina,” Carter said. “I had a great history teacher there who taught me that trickle-down economics never works.”

Almost $200,000 of Foxx’s funds came from political action committees. The American Bankers PAC, Miller Brewing PAC, Anheuser-Busch PAC, Duke Energy PAC, Exxon Mobil PAC, Microsoft PAC and the National Rifle Association have all supported her reelection campaign.

Carter described Foxx’s voting record as “scandalous,” particularly her opposition to expanding a health insurance program for children and her support of the war in Iraq.

Before Carter can take on Foxx, he has to win the Democratic primary. His only opponent for the party’s nomination is Diane Hamby, a former county commissioner from Iredell County. Hamby has raised less than $10,000 for her campaign.

To beat her, and in order to build a little cushion for the general, Carter will have to raise more money than he’s got. On the national level, that’s where Democracy for America comes in. As for local donors, well, the coach already has a game plan in the works.

“In a couple weeks you all are going to get a six hundred dollar check in the mail,” he said. “Folks, I want you to take that check and sign it over to me so we can defeat Virginia Foxx.”

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