Democrats take another crack at popular Republican congressman
Alamance County may be Ground Zero in North Carolina for the immigration debate, but among the Carolina Bank employees and Women’s Resource Center staff members gathered at a Habitat for Humanity worksite on a busy roadside on the northern outskirts of Burlington on a recent Thursday morning, the conversation took a decidedly empathetic tone. The emotional temperature ran warm, not hot.
The volunteers reached a consensus that rhetoric by Sheriff Terry Johnson and an investigation of the county health department to determine whether employees enabled residents without documentation to maintain their illegal status went over the line. One woman expressed the opinion that Marxavi Angel Martinez, a local library employee facing deportation proceedings following her arrest by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department “has had quite enough.” Teresa Sue Bratton, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the North Carolina’s 6th District, pulled on a Habitat T-shirt and took a seat under the break tent. “I sat down with an immigration lawyer earlier this week,” she told banker Chris Clemmons. “One of the things he was telling me is that from the 1940s through the 1960s you could come in as a guest worker, not a seasonal worker. With that provision combined with vigorous enforcement with employers, illegal immigration went down to almost nothing. We have the seasonal, unskilled labor, but we don’t have the year-round unskilled workers.” Clemmons is just the kind of voter Bratton’s campaign manager, a graduate student at UNCG named Kent Benson, has in mind. “This is a windfall year for Democrats,” he said. “A lot of people are fed up with the Republican administration and looking for change. We’re hoping that will carry us through.” It may be a good year for Democrats, but Bratton is challenging Howard Coble, a popular Republican who has held the seat since 1984 in what remains the state’s most Republican-leaning district. A 59 year-old pediatric allergist and a relative unknown in politics, Bratton was the overwhelming favorite in her primary, claiming 61.2 percent of the vote. (Despite ample media coverage and strong party connections, rival Jay Ovittore barely cracked 10 percent of the vote.) On immigration in particular, voters may not see much difference between Bratton’s perspective and Coble’s stance; they also might fault the Democratic majority in Congress with not taking action. “It’s an issue that Democrats and Republicans alike have avoided for the past two decades,” Coble said during an interview at his Greensboro office. “I think the next Congress will probably take action on it. In my view, we need to do two things. A: Secure the border more firmly than it has been. B: Make sure there’s some accommodation for guest workers. I’ve talked to constituents — tobacco farmers, farmers generally, pork producers, poultry producers, landscapers, restaurant owners — and they tell me if the arsenal of workers were not made available to them, it would be devastating.” In a district where not a few constituents have benefited from Coble’s constituent services and many of those who disagree with his policies at least credit him for his genial personality, Bratton faces an uphill battle. No challenger in the past decade has managed to whittle Coble’s election return down to less than 70 percent, and in the lean election years of 2000 and 2002 the Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate. As of June 30, Coble held $687,868 in cash on hand, and had raised $403,516 over the previous 18 months, including $238,150 from political action committees. Bratton, in comparison, raised only $56,421 during the same time period, and was left with $4,019 to spend on her campaign. Clemmons, a registered Republican, said he hadn’t heard of Bratton before their chance meeting at the Habitat worksite, but he was willing to give a Democrat strong consideration because of his disappointment with Coble’s handling of the Iraq war. Coble voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and has voted to keep funding it. “I want us out yesterday,” Clemmons said. “To me, that’s the main issue that’s going to determine how I vote.” Bratton said her campaign strategy is simple: Show up anyplace in the district where people might be interested in hearing about her campaign, raise money and buy advertising to get her message to the voters. In the first two weeks of September, she’s scheduled to meet with Democrats in Salisbury, attend a state convention for people with disabilities inGreensboro, show up for an open house at the High Point DemocraticParty headquarters, address the Gibsonville Town Council, attend acandidate’s forum sponsored by the Greater Greensboro Society ofMedicine, appear at the Bush Hill Heritage Festival in Archdale andattend the Guilford County Democratic Party’s annual Unity Dinner. Over long weekends back from Washington, the 77-year Coble typically maintains a similarly rigorous schedule for constituent visits. “HowardCoble is very well liked, and is a very nice man,” Bratton said, “andhis staff gives excellent constituent services, but there’s concernthat the country’s experiencing difficulty economically, and we need achange.” Coble’s campaign script is not significantlydifferent. “It could be a rough year for Republicans and a rough yearfor incumbents,” he said. “The president does not enjoy favorableratings, and neither does the Congress. I’m sure you’ve heard thesaying that no one likes the Congress but they like their congressman.I hope that plays out in November.” Bratton’s signature issue is health care, and she says Washingtonneeds more lawmakers like herself with first-hand experience inmedicine. The Democratic Party organization for the 6th District ispublicizing Coble’s October 2007 vote against reauthorization of theChildren’s Health Insurance Program as one item in a legislative recordthat generally highlights the Republican’s votes against variousprograms designed to help children, homeowners and people in Africa suffering from AIDS and other diseases. “I’mnot insensitive,” Coble said. “Sometimes you have to weigh these issueson all sides. S-CHIP — that was going to be funded from taxes ontobacco. My gosh, I represent the tobacco belt.” Bratton’sthree-pronged proposal to reform health care includes making portablehealthcare — designed to follow workers from job to job — moreaffordable; implementing an electronic
recordkeepingsystem; and emphasizing preventative care. “Right now, our emphasis is,‘If you fall in a hole, I’ll throw you a rope,’” she said. “What weneed to do is cover the hole. We have a very costly system. We need tofocus on preventative care.” While primary rival Ovittore called foruniversal, single-payer health insurance — and former North CarolinaSen. John Edwards briefly brought the idea into popular discussionduring his bid for the presidency — Bratton has stuck with a proposalto create a public-private hybrid healthcare system. “We’vegot to try something else,” she said. “We can’t keep doing what we’redoing because it’s not working. You might not ever be successful atwhat you do, but if you don’t try, you’ll fail outright.” Brattonsaid her campaign platform is designed to resonate with the needs ofthe people in the 6th District, but her campaign manager indicated thecongressional candidate might already be riding the coattails of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “Thereare record numbers of people registering as Democrats,” Benson said.“That’s thanks to the Obama campaign. The Obama campaign is workingexceptionally hard to get everyone registered, which benefits us.”While registered Republicans outnumber their Democratic counterparts inthe 6th District by an 11.8-percent margin, Democrats have registerednew voters at about five times the rate of Republicans since thebeginning of the year. Registration among African-Americans, who tendto vote Democratic, has increased at more than three times the rate ofregistration among whites. “She’s been shocked by how muchsupport she’s received,” Benson said of Bratton. “People have beenreally supportive. Our main goal is get her more exposure. Coble’s beenaround for more than twenty years, and everybody knows who he is.”
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