Mayberry-style Progressive Takes on Arch Conservative
By 8 p.m. the Obama faithful had begun to fill the 411 club, a swanky lounge next door to the Marriott hotel in downtown Winston-Salem, for the Democratic nominee’s acceptance speech.
The take from the door was going to Roy Carter, a former high school teacher and football coach challenging Republican incumbent Virginia Foxx for the 5 th Congressional District seat, but Obama volunteers were handing out stickers at the door and Tilden Hagan, son of the Democratic candidate for Senate, was chatting with visitors nearby. Many of the attendees, including teacher’s aide Rhett Butler, a registered Democrat, and Adam Casey, a 26-year-old cartoonist registered as an independent, admitted only a passing familiarity with Carter. When he strode into the club after arriving from the grand opening of the Stokes County Democratic headquarters, the 64-year-old Carter looked like a beefy version of Andy Griffith, silvery hair glistening in the soft light of the lounge. He conferred frequently with his wife Pat and campaign director Ryan Eller, a young ordained Baptist minister who has counseled marines preparing to deploy for Iraq at Camp Lejeune. Just before Obama’s speech, Carter, Hagan and Jules Federle, the Obama campaign’s regional field director for northwest North Carolina, lined up along one side of the big screen. Federle vainly contended against the television background noise to command the crowd’s attention. Hagan didn’t do much better when the television went mute. Moments after Carter took the microphone the crowd was whistling and hollering, drowning his lines in applause. “This is the most historic election, as we all know, in the whole history of the United States,” he said. “Who would have thought just four or five years ago that a rural country boy, ex-schoolteacher/football coach could be in this position, running proudly with Barack Obama?” His speaking voice evoked a little bit of former Sen. John Edwards’ populist cadence, but without the suburban sheen. It reached back to an earlier age, taking on the thundering, brawling quality exemplified by depression-era Louisiana Gov. Huey Long. He was every bit the rural woodworking teacher and gridiron coach, assuming the tone of a man accustomed to threatening, inspiring and humoring his charges to hold their attention. “It’s gonna be a hard fight,” Carter said. “I know that. I’ve never taken an easy job. I’m a fighter. Barack Obama is a fighter. We’re gonna take this nation back and give it back to the working people, which the Democrat Party has stood for your entire life and my entire life.” Despite renewed confidence, pride and unity among the Democrats, no one takes the race for granted. Foxx, a former state senator, inherited her seat from Richard Burr, who used it as a stepping-stone to replace John Edwards as US senator in 2004. The district leans Republican and has been held by the GOP since the Republican revolution of 1994. The Carter campaign notes that the Democratic contender in 2006 came within 15 points of unseating Foxx despite receiving zero to minimal support from the national party. That said, a Democrat flipped the 11 th District to the west in 2006, and in the 8 th District to the southeast Democrat Larry Kissell, who is running again this year, came within 329 votes of unseating incumbent Robin Hayes. Kissell falls in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s most competitive “red-to-blue” category, while Carter falls two stations down in the committee’s evaluation category, Eller said. While the Carter team has been raising its profile with online campaign ads and frequent speaking engagements by the candidate, the Foxx campaign goes into the general election with an intimidating war chest, having raised $810,217 and spent more than half that amount in the current election cycle, with almost a million dollars left over as of late June. The Carter campaign, in contrast, spent most of the $98,964 it raised and held less than $4,000 at the end of the most recent reporting period. Federal election records show that Foxx has already spent at least a quarter of a million dollars on political consulting with Washington area firms. Greener & Hook, a Republican consulting outfit that received $150,000 from the Foxx campaign, specializes in advertising, crisis management and media training. Another company contracted by the Foxx campaign, Morgan Meredith & Associates, serves its clients by designing strategies for political action committee fundraising and direct-mail marketing, while Political Compliance Services — paid $28,315 by the campaign — helps candidates avoid running afoul of federal election reporting regulations. Second to retirees, Foxx has received her largest share of campaign contributions from people employed in the healthcare industry, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. She has also accepted significant amounts from political action committees for Atlanta based United Parcel Services; the Turkish Coalition USA PAC, a committee that backs candidates that support strong US-Turkish relations; and US- Cuba Democracy PAC, which supports candidates opposed to lifting the trade embargo against the communist nation. Foxx, who declined to comment for this story, was attending a fundraising luncheon in Wilkesboro on the day the Democrats were celebrating their historic selection of the nation’s first African-American nominee for president. “They had a breakfast in Denver for the North Carolina delegation,” Eller said on the week of the convention. “The report back from folks in Raleigh and Representative [Bob] Etheridge’s office was that Roy Carter was the essential race, and the delegation was actively discussing how they could support our campaign.” The Carter campaign also trumpets the candidate’s runner-up status in Democracy For America’s “Grassroots All-Star Competition” in February. The competition hosted by Democracy For America, an organization founded by former presidential candidate and current Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, measures candidates’ grassroots support by tallying online votes. Carter’s campaign finance records also reflect interest from outside the district, in the form of a $2,300 check from Mississippi author John Grisham and twice that amount from Los Angeles writer and producer Joseph Burnett. In early August, Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling released the results of a poll bought by the Carter campaign. Author Tom Jensen reported that the poll revealed “a number of indications that Roy Carter, given the resources he needs to compete, could knock off Foxx this fall.” The poll found that 51 percent of likely voters in the district favored Foxx, while 41 percent leaned towards Carter. The pollsters also found that Foxx’s approval rating fell below the 50 percent threshold considered safe for an incumbent. While Carter has 10 percentage points to make up, the campaign and its hired pollster view the overall results with optimism. “There are indications that
theRepublican brand is damaged in the district,” Jensen wrote. “Althoughhe received 66 percent of the vote in the district in both 2000 and2004, President Bush’s approval rating is just 34 percent. Just20 percent of respondents think that the country is heading in theright direction under the current Republican administration.” Onthe issues, the candidates could not be more different. Foxxcosponsored a congressional resolution in March supporting “the ideathat the Iraq war is not lost” and endorsing the military escalation that began in 2007. “Roy Carter was opposed to the war in Iraq from the very beginning,” Eller said. “He does not believe that spending $400 million a day in Iraq building their hospitals and their roads while they have a multi-million-dollar surplus is a good investment for the United Stateswhile we are seeing our gas prices go up, our grocery prices go up, andunfortunately some of our veterans hospitals go into decline.” Foxxvoted against funding the States Children’s Health Insurance Programlast year; Carter calls for expanding it. Foxx generally favors smallgovernment. Carter pledges to fight for additional federal support forthe Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency;additional funding for research and development at local universitiesto create “green” jobs; additional funding for the Piedmont Authorityfor Regional Transportation to help rural workers commute to far-flungjobs. Foxx, who boasts of receiving the National Journal’s ranking as the most conservative member of North Carolina’scongressional delegation, has embraced a host of right-wing causes,including opposing homosexual marriage and supporting making Englishthe official language — she received a 100 percent rating from EnglishFirst, an organization opposed to multilingual education and balloting. Carter has been described by a former student as “a hero of theleft.” Foxx has called for vigorous enforcement of immigration lawswhile rejecting opening pathways to citizenship for undocumentedworkers. “Roy will say that any immigration bill is going toleave everyone with something they don’t like,” Eller said. “We cannotdo what some would like to do, and — our opponent suggested this — takeall the sheriff’s departments and round up every illegal immigrant wecan find, leave their spouses and children here. The reason we can’t dothat is because overnight our economy would crash.” Carter hastried to neutralize two of Foxx’s signature issues by taking similarpositions. Like Howard Coble, a fellow Republican in the North Carolina congressional delegation, Foxx stayed in Washingtonin August for a series of press conferences after House Speaker NancyPelosi (D-Calif.) adjourned the House without taking action on anenergy bill. Foxx says she supports “an ‘all of the above’ energystrategy that increases exploration, conservation and innovation.” The Carter campaign issued a press release criticizing Pelosi for adjourning the House without passing the legislation. Foxxdescribes herself as a supporter of gun ownership rights. Eller saidCarter is a gun owner himself, and supports federal grants to providegun safety education rather than restricting people from buying andkeeping guns in their homes. “VirginiaFoxx did not support S-CHIP; she did not support Head Start; she didnot support lowering interest rates for college student loans — thingsthat are dear to my heart,” Carter said during an interview at the 411club. “She voted against raising the minimum wage. Coming from a poor,mountain farming family, I totally detest those votes.”