Sen. Jeff Jackson is a busy guy.
Knocking on 1,000 doors in Charlotte. Meeting Democrats in Lincoln County. Debating education in Buncombe County. Sharing opinions on social media.
And raising lots of money.
So much that no Democrat in the North Carolina Senate is sitting on as much campaign money as the second-term senator from Charlotte.
Jackson had $165,000 on hand at the end of June – three times more than any other Senate Democrat and more than most Republicans, according to new reports.
Which begs a question: Why is a senator from a safe district raising so much?
“Primarily for the (Democratic) caucus,” Jackson said. “There is tremendous opportunity. We have … a wave of energy that is reshaping the political landscape in the state.”
The money also could raise the profile of the 34-year-old senator who, in just three years, has made a mark among Democrats.
Two years ago there was a push to draft him for U.S. Senate. Last year he was a local surrogate for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Facebook followers even tout him for president himself. Personable and photogenic, he’s good on the stump and prolific on social media. He has 68,000 Facebook followers and another 20,000 on Twitter, twice as many as Senate GOP leader Phil Berger.
“He is probably one of the best natural politicians I’ve ever met,” said Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party.
Republicans are more skeptical. Privately they say Jackson is an ambitious showboat with more audacity than accomplishments.
Last year Jackson was among the first class of participants in The North Carolina Leadership Forum, a project of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy that brings together leaders from across the state.
“My impression of Jeff is he does his homework, he is conversant on a variety of issues and he is politically ambitious,” said John Hood, a conservative who co-chairs the forum.
“So if you like his ideas or want Democrats to prevail, these qualities are attractive. If you don’t like his policies and you’re comfortable with Republican governance … you’re going to emphasize the ambition.”
Three years ago Jackson, now with Womble Carlyle, was an assistant prosecutor in Gaston County. He was a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves who’d spent a year in Afghanistan and gotten active in the Mecklenburg Democratic Party. Then, in May 2014, Democrat leaders in his central Charlotte district had to pick a replacement for Sen. Dan Clodfelter, who’d been appointed to succeed Democratic Mayor Patrick Cannon, who resigned in scandal.
Jackson won the special party election by three votes. It didn’t take him long to gain a wider audience.
That fall he delivered a speech on the Senate floor that blasted Republicans over their secretive budget process while not sparing Democrats who’d once done the same. The 6-minute speech went viral. Some 367,000 people watched it from as far away as South Africa.
A few months later, finding himself virtually alone in a legislature blanketed by snow, he posted a blizzard of imaginary posts expanding Medicaid, restoring university funding and enacting independent redistricting. They also went viral, even landing him on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.”
In the Republican-controlled Senate, real achievements have been harder for Jackson to make.
This year, for example, he sponsored a bill supporters said would close a loophole in the state’s rape laws. Senate Bill 553 would have made it a crime to continue intercourse after a woman revokes consent. Around 125,000 people petitioned for the change. A headline in Mother Jones magazine called the current law “Straight Out of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.”
The bill never got out of committee.
‘Prepared to move’
Now Jackson is looking forward to a court-ordered redistricting that could reshape legislative districts around the state. A panel of federal judges ordered new maps by September.
Democrats need six additional Senate seats or three in the House to break veto-proof GOP majorities. That would give Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper more leverage. Jackson said that’s why he spends up to eight hours a week on the phone asking for money.
His donors include lawyers and other professionals as well as and business leaders such as Crandall Bowles, former chairman of Springs Industries.
“The only reason I’ve been able to raise this money is people actually see a way out of the mess we’ve been in,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s own district is reliably Democratic. He ran unopposed in 2014 and topped a Republican with 68 percent of the vote in 2016. Even so, he’s promised to knock on 1,000 doors in the district this summer.
If Republicans push him out of District 37, Jeff Jackson said he’ll do what he has to.
“I’m prepared to move,” he said. “I think there’s a decent chance they’ll draw me out of my district.”
Jackson sidesteps questions about his political aspirations. “I just remind people we have a 9-year-old and a 2-year-old at home,” he said.
Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson, no relation, said raising money and giving it away can only help, whatever he does.
“(It) just gives him more credibility,” he said. “We always say in politics that money begets options.”