Senate candidate sounds populist notes on King day

by Amy Kingsley

To honor the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Democratic candidate for US Senate Jim Neal joined other politicians and congregants in the vaulted nave of Greensboro’s St. James Presbyterian Church for an ecumenical service.

The service followed four previous King day events, including a pre-dawn prayer breakfast in Charlotte, and a weekend of barnstorming tied to the holiday. One of his first stops on Jan. 19 was the Man Up Conference at NC Central University, a historically black college in Durham. The overarching message of the event, he said, stressed perseverance.

“Don’t give up,” Neal said. “If you can’t knock on a door, or you can’t open one, then build one.”

A similar ethic fuels Neal’s candidacy. Neal, a former investment banker and fundraiser for presidential candidates John Kerry and Wes Clark, is one of the top two Democratic challengers for the seat currently held by Republican Elizabeth Dole, quite a feat, considering his political inexperience. The other is NC Sen. Kay Hagan, a veteran lawmaker who represents Greensboro.

Neal was born in Greensboro and attended Page High School. After college and business school, he moved to New York and launched a lucrative career in investment banking.

His is a different path from the one his ancestors carved. Neal’s grandfather was a carpenter, and his mother was born in the Revolution Mills workers’ village.

“My mother was the only one of four brothers and sisters who had the opportunity to go to college,” he said. “As a consequence of that, I grew up in a very different world from the one my mother and her siblings lived in.”

Neal credits his educational opportunities for his success. At Central, he heard from citizens who have not had such opportunities.

“There was a sense that in spite of the fact that we have enacted laws during and after the death of Dr. King that have given rights to disenfranchised communities,” he said, “economic apartheid still exists in this country.”

One out of every three black men will go to prison during their lifetime, Neal said. That’s because they have fewer educational and employment opportunities, he said, which drives them toward crime.

“The average net worth of an African-American family is eight thousand dollars,” he said. “It is undeniable that the African-American community has not had the full fruit of American economic opportunity.”

Neal’s solution starts with education.

“Education is the most empowering thing you can give to a young person,” he said. “In North Carolina, you used to be able to get out of high school and land a pretty good job. Well, not anymore. Those jobs are gone.”

Neal advocates expanding student financial aid in the form of Pell Grants, awards available to students in the lowest income brackets. He would also abolish No Child Left Behind and replace it with curriculum that emphasizes creative thinking and innovation.

Neal acknowledged that even well prepared graduates might fail in a weak economy.

“Even middle-class families are struggling in an economy that’s teetering on the brink,” he said. “The federal government should have already extended unemployment benefits and given tax rebates to the middle class.”

In the long term, he would repeal President Bush’s tax cuts.

“Warren Buffett described it best when he said that the rich are on a roller coaster and the poor are on a treadmill,” Neal said.

The federal and state government have failed to stanch the economic bleeding, Neal said, because they’ve been beholden to special interests, not the citizens hurt most by rising fuel prices and a slowing housing market.

“Where were they three months ago or six months ago?” Neal asked. “I’ve been saying for six months that we are in a recession. The people in Washington are still arguing about whether this is a recession.”

Neal quit his job two years ago and moved back to North Carolina, where he is campaigning full time for Senate.

“Having been a participant and an astute observer of the political system,” Neal said, “I think it’s failed us.”

He saved his harshest criticism for Dole, the Republican incumbent. In 2006, Dole chaired the committee charged with raising funds for congressional candidates, a job suited to her ambition, Neal said.

“She epitomizes the type of career politician that needs to go,” he said. “Every moment she spent in the type of position a very ambitious politician takes on, every moment she did that was a moment she wasn’t working for the citizens of North Carolina.”

Neal is, at heart, a devotee of fiscal responsibility who believes in paying as you go. Tax cuts for the middle class must be balanced by increasing the government revenue from the wealthiest Americans, he said.

Neal’s campaign has relied heavily on young voters and volunteers.

According to the Federal Elections Commission, Dole is the fiscal frontrunner, with $2.3 million in the bank as of last September. Neal and Hagan have both raised money since September when the commission recorded their collective takings as zero dollars. Campaign reports are due at the end of January, and will provide a good measure of the viability of both candidates. Neal is soliciting small contributions on his website.

“The last Democratic senator for North Carolina elected in 1998 was John Edwards,” Neal said. “He, like Jim Neal, had no name recognition and no political experience, yet he took down Lauch Faircloth. History is going to repeat itself.”

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