Marcus Brandon is a contrarian.
He’s a Democrat who works with Republicans. A progressive once backed by a group reviled by liberals. An African-American who questions black leaders.
He worked for one of his party’s most liberal presidential candidates but later voted to override the veto of a Democratic governor.
Brandon, 39, is a second-term lawmaker and political consultant from High Point. He calls himself “a pragmatic progressive” and has a record of being both.
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“I represent my constituents first before I represent any party,” he says.
The state’s only openly gay lawmaker, Brandon is passionate and energetic. He has tapped a national donor network of liberals and gay rights supporters.
Critics call him misguided, even naive in working with the other side. But he takes his grandfather’s advice to heart.
“You’re either at the table,” he says, “or you’re on the menu.”
In 2012, Brandon was one of a handful of House Democrats who joined Republicans in overriding the budget veto of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
Because the GOP budget offered a 1.2 percent raise for state employees, the vote won him a Legislator of the Year award from the state employees’ association PAC.
In 2011 he was the lone House Democrat supporting a bill to expand the number of charter schools, a move that won support from the conservative Americans for Prosperity.
He also supports taxpayer-funded vouchers to offset the cost of private-school tuition. Brandon calls it “a justice issue” that guarantees opportunity to students regardless of income.
“As long as you don’t compromise your beliefs, it’s just being practical,” he says. “You’re going to have to work with those in power.”
A political junkie, Brandon was no stranger to campaigns when he went to work for a 2006 U.S. Senate campaign in Nevada.
The candidate was Jack Carter. Brandon worked on fundraising with the candidate’s father, former President Jimmy Carter.
Two years later, when he wanted to work on a presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter helped steer him to Rep. Dennis Kucinich. He became national finance director for the liberal Ohio congressman.
Connections from that campaign helped him outraise every 12th District candidate last year.
As a kid, Brandon was diagnosed with ADHD and, by his own account, was “shuffled off to special education classes with low expectations.”
He went on to thrive in high school, learning not to trust conventional wisdom. He says that also made him empathetic to others, especially in his own community.
“I’m running because I’m tired of the marginalization of the African-American community, particularly by African-American leaders.”
That’s why he supports programs such as school vouchers, long anathema to many Democrats and black leaders.
“If you think you’re going to do the same thing over and over again and fix it, that’s naive,” he says. “I want to move the conversation away from status quo leaders.”