The Contenders

by Keith Barber

Democratic hopefuls Cunningham, Lewis and Marshall look to unseat Republican Senator Richard Burr this fall

Elaine Marshall. Ken Lewis. Cal Cunningham.

“Richard Burr must go!” NC Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. shouted from the lectern during the NC Democratic Party State Executive Committee meeting at the Durham Marriott on March 6.

A few of the party faithful in attendance began to chant McKissick’s rallying cry, but the momentum didn’t last. The theme of momentum surfaced time and time again as the Democratic US Senate candidates made their case to represent the party and to take on Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

The next order of business was the introduction of candidates; the first name called was NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

The first woman elected to executive office in North Carolina, Marshall touched on her public service and her lifelong ability to defy expectations as the best reasons why she should win the nomination.

“Over this campaign, you’re going to hear folks tell you what they want to do, what they would like to do,” Marshall said. “I simply ask you to look at what I’ve done.”

Marshall referenced her experience as a former state senator and her efforts to “take on the healthcare industry” by expanding access in rural areas, and her work on women’s issues.

Marshall also noted her 1997 political victory over NASCAR legend Richard Petty in her bid for secretary of state, and her accomplishments while in office.

“I’ve taken on insurance companies, I’ve taken on Wall Street and I’ve taken on the just plain crooks out there,” Marshall said.

Marshall pointed out that her office has helped recover more than $340 million from Wall Street banks on behalf of North Carolina investors and foundations in the past 18 months. At every turn throughout her career in public service, Marshall said she has faced challenges, and people who try to discourage her.

“For those of you who say it can’t be done, get out of the way of those of us who are doing it,” Marshall said. “That’s the determination I’ll bring with me every day on the job in the United States Senate. That’s the determination that brought us through the Civil Rights fight, that gave us women’s equality, and can bring us together as a country and build a better nation that can work for every American family.”

The eight-minute oration took the structure of most political stump speeches. Marshall identified the problem — namely Richard Burr — before listing her accomplishments, and provided a solution: electing her to the US Senate.

During a meet-and-greet session in the hotel lobby prior to Saturday’s meeting, Marshall said the choice of the best Democratic senatorial candidate should be clear to North Carolina voters.

“At the end of the day, folks are going to say, ‘Who’s got the track record that can do the job?’” she said. “I’ve served in both the executive and the legislative branch. I’ve balanced budgets. I’ve had to make government work. I think we need people who can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem and my whole life history is based upon being that kind of person and that kind of public servant.”

Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Marshall’s name recognition, her connections within the Democratic party and her advocacy on women’s issues should prove to be her greatest assets in her US Senate run. On the downside, Marshall has never competed in a political race where she had to raise millions of dollars to be successful. Also, Elaine Marshall may not be the fresh face Democratic voters would like to see take on Richard Burr in the fall, Guillory said.

Recent statewide polls bear out Guillory’s assertions. According to a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling last month, Marshall is leading her opponents — Lexington lawyer Cal Cunningham and Chapel Hill lawyer Ken Lewis — by a significant margin. However, less than 40 percent of voters surveyed had any familiarity with Marshall. Eighty-one percent of voters surveyed had no familiarity with Lewis and 84 percent were unfamiliar with Cunningham.

The natural?

Cal Cunningham sipped on a Diet Coke and spoke with a supporter inside the social sciences building on the campus of Duke University on Feb. 27.

“This is the No. 1 spot on the Democratic

Party map,” Cunningham told the man, referring to North Carolina.

Cunningham referred to an Elon University poll conducted last month that revealed 51 percent of North Carolinians believe it’s time to send someone other than Richard Burr to Washington.

“That’s fatal for an incumbent,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham proclaimed that he fully expects his campaign to raise $1.2 million by the May 4 primary, and an additional $8 million for the general election in November. Cunningham gave the impression that he has the backing of the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

When asked about his comments, Cunningham responded: “We know that North Carolinians will decide the primary nomination on May 4. There are a lot of people who are interested in the outcome of that primary because they believe North Carolina should be a battleground.”

If Cunningham hopes to raise $1.2 million in the next 50 days, his campaign has a long way to go.

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

On March 6, Cunningham took the lectern after the applause ended for Marshall.

“Sixteen years ago, Richard Burr went to Washington and since that time, he has pursued his own right-wing ideology and narrow special interests at the expense of those he was elected to serve,” Cunningham declared with a brimming intensity in his voice. “This year, my fellow Democrats, we’re bringing him home.”

During the Feb. 27 event, Cunningham, a former state senator who was awarded the Bronze Star for his service as a senior military prosecutor during Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he looked forward to going “toe to toe” with Burr on the issues.

During the event at Duke, Cunningham acknowledged that he’s the underdog among the Democratic challengers.

“We have known from the beginning that I’m a new guy,” he said. “I am the fresh face. I have not served for the past almost 20 years in state offices, but I have that experience having been a state senator…. We’ve always known the challenge is to build name recognition. You build name recognition by running TV ads and we will begin soon.”

In the meantime, Cunningham has been appearing in the “Voices of North Carolina” video series and airing them on YouTube.

Frank Eaton, a filmmaker and president of the Young Democrats of Forsyth County, is producing the short documentary films that tell the personal stories of real North Carolinians who have been affected by the current recession.

“I’m of the view that politics at the end of the day is still about people and that one of the best and most effective ways to express my values as a candidate is to highlight the experiences of people in their daily lives, particularly in North Carolina right now, that typify the challenges we face but the opportunities we have as well,” Cunningham said.

Last week, Cunningham’s campaign released a video that told the story of Jim Tarleton. Tarleton is a member of the board of directors of Orbit Energy, a North Carolina company that converts food waste, yard waste, food processing wastes, animal wastes and municipal solid waste to bio-gas or electricity.

One of the basic tenets of Cunningham’s campaign platform is transforming the state into a hub for the green economy.

“That story is an important one to personalize because it’s not abstract,” Cunningham said. “[America’s dependence on foreign oil] is controlling our foreign policy. It’s causing a historic transfer of wealth from our country to the Middle East, and in many ways, we’re funding the people that want to do us harm.”

Other segments in the “Voices of North Carolina” series profile teachers, small businessmen and North Carolina workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas.

“Voters engage campaigns on a number of different levels and at different times,” Cunningham said. “We know that we can use the internet as a platform to make very dry, abstract stuff accessible, and part of it is about people and highlighting the experiences of people and the second part of it is talking about how a US senator can be on their side, so this is infrastructure that we’re building for the campaign.”

But ultimately, the documentary shorts focus squarely on Cunningham’s ideas for bringing jobs to the state.

“We’re laying out very real ideas for how we grow jobs and how we strengthen this economy,” Cunningham said. “It’s the No. 1 thing people in this state are concerned about by far — well over half. Look at swing voters. Almost two-thirds of independents and unaffiliated — those that are shopping for a candidate — they want to know, ‘What are you going to do to create jobs and move this economy forward?’” The video series provides building blocks for Cunningham’s expansive platform. As the May 4 primary gets closer, Cunningham figures, his advertisements on radio and TV will have even greater resonance due to the foundation laid by the “Voices of North Carolina” series.

Cunningham’s ability to use platforms like the internet to communicate his message to North Carolina voters represents one of the keys to the candidate’s success, Guillory said.

Despite his lack of name recognition, Cunningham’s military service and personal appeal make him a strong candidate.

“[Cunningham] is an attractive, young candidate,” Guillory said. “He’s been in the legislature, he’s served in the military, he’s in a major law firm, and he was a student leader at Chapel Hill.”

At a number of stump speeches, Cunningham has compared himself to former US Sen. Terry Sanford, who has similar credentials.

“After Sept. 11, I volunteered for the Army Reserve, to stand up for our way of life,” Cunningham said. “Over 900 days on active duty, the last [days] in Iraq as a senior military prosecutor, taking on the challenge of contractors who were running amok; dealing with the challenge of sexual assault taking place in our ranks and rooting out waste, fraud and abuse of our taxpayer funds overseas.”

Cunningham went on to say that he would hold Richard Burr accountable for his “no” vote against expanding healthcare coverage for children and his multiple absences from his duties on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

On Feb. 27, Cunningham, 35, made many of the same points to student groups at NC State and Duke University. The youth vote could make all the difference in Cunningham’s campaign.

“We know that college campuses are a place where a lot of energy is driven in any election,” he said after speaking with a group of 25 Duke students. “As a young person, I’m speaking to, in many ways, peers here with the recent experience of knowing what they’re going through — looking at the job market, looking at the student loan debt they’re holding.”

2010 is not 2008

Cunningham’s youth is one of his greatest strengths, but it will take more than youth ful vigor to defeat Republican incumbent Richard Burr, Guillory said.

“The issue facing Democrats is much the same that faced them two years ago, when they finally landed with Kay Hagan as the candidate and she scored an upset victory over Elizabeth Dole,” he said. “It would be a mistake for Democrats simply to think they can fight the last war and win it the way they did last time.”


Cal Cunningham announces his candidacy for US Senate at an event at the Pilot Mill in Raleigh on Feb. 11. Last November, Cunningham, a Lexington lawyer and a recipient of the Bronze Star, said he would not pursue the nomination, but changed his mind after receiving encouragement from friends, family and supporters. (photo by Frank Eaton)

All three Democratic candidates for US Senate agree that 2010 has a very different feel than 2008. Still, Marshall believes her name recognition and her success in past elections bodes well for her chances on May 4.

“It’s very different since there’s not a governor’s race; there’s not a presidential race,” Marshall said. “There’s just not as much buzz nationally or statewide to get people’s attention.”

Having been on the ballot and won statewide four times, Marshall presents a formidable foe for Cunningham and Lewis.

“I was the second highest vote-getter ever in the history of the state [in the 2008 election],” Marshall pointed out. “That’s attributable to the fact there were more voters in 2008, and that I’m a familiar commodity to folks.”

Like Cunningham, Lewis’ greatest challenge appears to be name recognition.

Lewis’ journey

Ken Lewis’ style of speechmaking says a lot about his approach to politics. After Cunningham completed his fiery discourse at the March 6 event, Lewis, a Chapel Hill lawyer, was welcomed with a round of enthusiastic applause. Lewis walked deliberately to the microphone, smiled and began to speak. He told of his unlikely journey to this moment in time.


Ken Lewis (left) speaks with Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines during a delegates meeting of Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment, or CHANGE, at Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem last November. Lewis, a Chapel Hill lawyer, was the first of the Democratic candidates running for US Senate to announce his candidacy. Lewis is hoping to become the first African American to win the Democratic nomination since Harvey Gantt in 1996. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Lewis spoke of his grandmother, who was born on a plantation in Person County to a former slave. Lewis then meticulously described a photo of his 100-year-old grandmother holding the hand of his 3-month-old daughter.

“In the span of a single lifetime, my grandmother could touch the hand of slavery right here in North Carolina, and with her right hand, reach out and clutch the hand of my now 16-year-old daughter who is growing up in North Carolina with [Gov. Beverly] Perdue in the Governor’s Mansion, Kay Hagan in the United States Senate and Barack Obama in the White House,” Lewis said.

That kind of progress just didn’t happen by itself, Lewis told the audience. It happened because diverse people of all backgrounds had a clear vision of the future.

In a soft-spoken, elegant manner, Lewis, who served as a fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 campaign, acknowledged that many North Carolinians are left wondering what happened to the change they voted for two years ago. Lewis cited the US Senate as the obstruction to meaningful legislation on Capitol Hill.

“The change we need this year is a change to the US Senate,” he said.

On Monday, Congressman Mel Watt endorsed Lewis for US Senate. Watt’s endorsement has special significance.

“Ken Lewis will bring new and diverse ideas and perspectives to public discussions, something that’s sorely needed in the public discourse and something that’s sorely needed in the United States Senate,” Watt said in a statement. “The fact that Ken Lewis has not served in political office is, in my view, a benefit and not a shortcoming.”

Watt, who was first elected to Congress in 1992, has chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and currently serves on the House Financial Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee.

“Politics needs new ideas, not business as usual, especially when the new ideas come with intellect and draw on the diversity of experiences that define our country’s obstacles, dreams, challenges and opportunities,” Watt said.

Lewis, who has the distinction of being the first African American hired by a major North Carolina law firm, is attempting to make history with his US Senate run. In the 1990s, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt waged two unsuccessful campaigns against Republican stalwart Jesse Helms. Gantt was the last African American to win the Democratic nomination. If elected, Lewis would become the first African American to represent the state in the US Senate.

During his March 6 speech, Lewis pointed out that for 36 years, North Carolina sent Helms, a politician who blocked all the change and progress that made his personal journey possible, to the US Senate.

“This year, North Carolina has an opportunity to send to the United States Senate someone who will work just as hard, just as steadfast and just as passionately on behalf of what is right, as Jesse Helms worked on behalf of what was wrong,” Lewis said. “This is our time.”

When asked about his bid to make history, Lewis deflected the question.

“I want to be evaluated in this race on the things that I’m saying about the future of the country and the Senate, not on the package I’m wrapped in,” he said flatly.

In his public appearances, Lewis has focused on his experience as a business lawyer in helping grow small businesses and create jobs. Lewis said job creation would be his number one priority if elected. He’s also stated that he will be a champion for health care reform, building a green economy in North Carolina and education reform.

“If the people are going to win we have to do three things this year,” Lewis said on March 6. “We have to have a candidate that can unite all people; we have to have momentum; and we have to have a candidate that is not going to occupy a seat in the US Senate, but a candidate that’s going to bring fundamental change.”

Then Lewis reached out to his Democratic brethren much the same way Marshall and

Cunningham did. He reminded everyone that the momentum of 2008 could be lost in the blink of an eye unless the state’s Democrats and unaffiliated voters nominated the best person for the job.

“We created this moment ourselves; we did it with our own hands two years ago,” Lewis said. “I’m asking you to stand with me not just to beat Richard Burr, but to beat Richard Burr and change the United States Senate so we have the country we deserve in the future.”