Lewis looks to make history with US Senate run

by Keith Barber

Lewis looks to make history with US Senate run

A humble, soft-spoken Ken Lewis had to speak a bit louder to be heard above the music wafting through the dining area of the Summit Station Eatery during a campaign stop in Greensboro on in late February. But the Chapel Hill lawyer and candidate for US Senate, spoke clearly and directly about his thoughts on how he would tackle the most pressing issues facing North Carolinians if he wins his senatorial bid.

Lewis touched on President Obama’s 2008 campaign and the promise of hope and change that motivated the majority of North Carolinians to vote for the first black president in US history.

“2010 feels a little bit different,” Lewis acknowledged. “Many people are left wondering, ‘What happened to the hope and change the we voted for in 2008?’” Lewis and Democratic challengers Cal Cunningham and NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall are hoping that 2010 is a lot like 2008. After Kay Hagan pulled off her huge upset over Senate incumbent Elizabeth Dole, it appeared a seismic shift had occurred in state politics.

However, a little more than a year later, major Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts have served as a reality check for the Democratic Party.

President Obama has continued to forge ahead with healthcare reform and other measures to improve the nation’s struggling economy, but something has been stopping change from coming, Lewis said.

“If you look at the country right now, we see very clearly that the impediment to change is the United States Senate,” he said. “That’s why I’m in this race — not to go join the US Senate as it exists today, but to change the US Senate. Not to change it to some radical thing we’ve never seen before but to change the US Senate back to the original intent of the founders of this great country.”

Lewis lumped Richard Burr, the Republican incumbent, into a group of lawmakers who are obstructing meaningful legislation in exchange for short-term political gain.

“The US Senate has moved away from its intended function of looking out for longterm common interests of the people,” Lewis said.

Rather, the body is looking out for shortterm gain of politicians, he added.

Lewis characterized new filibuster rules as “a symptom of a deeper problem.”

“In the past, if a Senator wanted to filibuster, they put their political capital at risk,” he said.

However, the new rule is not designed to help the people, but to help insulate senators from the political risk of filibustering.

“We’ve shifted away from the intended function of the Senate,” he added.

If successful, Lewis would make history as the first African American from North Carolina in the US Senate. Harvey Gantt mounted two highly publicized yet unsuccessful campaigns against Republican stalwart Jesse Helms in the 1990s. Gantt was the last African American to win the Democratic nomination to represent the state in the US Senate. Aside from Lewis, one other African American is in the Democratic primary: Marcus Williams.

Lewis said his background as the grandson of sharecroppers and the son of a Baptist minister is what helps him connect with everyday citizens.

“What I see are not the differences that on the surface seem to divide us, but the common interests that unite us,” Lewis said. “That’s exactly the kind of experience we need in the US Senate.”

Former Greensboro City Council candidate DJ Hardy introduced Lewis to a group of roughly 20 supporters as “innovative, civic-minded and dedicated.” Hardy reeled off many of Lewis’ achievements, including his graduation from Harvard Law School and his distinction as being the first African American hired by a major North Carolina law firm.

“He’s got the right attitude,” Hardy said.

“I think people once they hear him, and they understand his background and where he comes from, he becomes that much more exciting.”

Name recognition appears to be one of Lewis’ greatest challenges in the campaign. A survey conducted last week by Elon University reveals that a mere 24 percent of the state’s residents believe that Richard Burr deserves re-election, but 77 percent of respondents said they had no familiarity with Lewis or Cunningham.

In a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, 83 percent of respondents said they were unsure about Lewis. Eight-six percent of those polled said they were unsure of Cunningham and 71 percent said they were unsure of Marshall.

Lewis served as a fundraiser for the Obama campaign, and has closely aligned himself with the president’s policies on

health care, the economy and the environment. Despite the current political landscape and a general feeling of disillusionment with Congress, Lewis can still win the Democratic nomination if he can effectively communicate his ideas, Hardy said.

“I think the backlash and some of the pullback that’s occurred, that I’ve started to see occur, has a lot to do with the legislative process and not really the ideas that are being brought forth, but really the lack of backbone that some of the legislators have,” Hardy said.

Goldie Wells, a former Greensboro City Councilwoman, said Lewis’ ideas on healthcare, job creation and the environment should resonate with Guilford County residents.

Lewis said he diverges from the Obama administration on healthcare reform with regard to a public option. After much legislative wrangling in the Senate, the Obama administration has backed off the public option component of its healthcare reform package. Lewis said experience has proven the private healthcare system in America is broken, and a public option offers a real choice.

“The US Senate and Congress, they’re able to participate in a public option, a public plan,” Lewis said. “If it’s good enough for the US Congress, for the US Senate, it ought to be good enough for Americans.”

As the campaign progresses, Lewis said he’s finding that North Carolinians are connecting with his message. But if Lewis hopes to bring his message to a wide audience, he will have to buy airtime on television and radio. With less than 50 days until the start of early voting for the primary, Lewis appears to have spent the lion’s share of his funds.

A Public Policy Polling blog reported that as of Feb. 26, Lewis had raised more money than Marshall or Cunningham ($327,000) but had already spent two thirds of the money. By contrast, Elaine Marshall has only spent 31 percent of the $304,000 she has raised, and Cunningham has only spent 5 percent of the $320,000 he’s raised.

Lewis did not hesitate to ask for support, financial and otherwise, from the small group gathered at Summit Station last week. He called upon those in attendance to stand with him to build “a new North Carolina.”

“The future of this campaign is in your hands,” he said. “Stand with me, work with me and make this happen.”

As Lewis spoke, he stood less than a mile from the Woolworth’s department store where four courageous NC A&T University students staged a sit-in protest that ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the state 50 years ago. This fact was not lost on Lewis.

He said he was inspired by the story of four young men who took a stand for something they believed in, not knowing what the consequences would be.

“I think that story should give all of us hope, not just hope around issues of civil rights or race, but hope around the challenges we face in the country,” Lewis said. “If we take a stand in what we believe to be right, and true and correct, that can have effects far beyond what we can predict.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misreported the race of candidate Elaine Marshall. She is, in fact, Caucasian.