With the official start of Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election bid this week, following the formal kickoff of Attorney General Roy Cooper’s challenge in October, the fanfare of a nearly yearlong campaign season is underway.
Almost lost in the noise is Durham lawyer Ken Spaulding, who quietly announced his candidacy in a news release more than two years ago, and will face Cooper in the Democratic primary.
Spaulding knows that he won’t be able to raise the money that Cooper can. So for the past two years he has traveled the state to meet the voters he can’t reach through TV advertising.
At a time when national presidential polls suggest the mood favors outsiders, Spaulding hopes to portray himself as independent and able to mend the divisions of party politics, even as he remains a firmly committed Democrat.
And, yes, he knows the odds are long. He just doesn’t believe they are impossible.
“When I announced two years ago, the word out of Raleigh was I would not last, we would fizzle out in six months,” Spaulding said in an interview this week. “That didn’t happen and we’re still standing.”
His small campaign fund, and what he sees as resistance to his candidacy from party insiders, is what he says forced him onto the campaign trail years, not months, leading up to the March primary.
“In thinking far ahead of this effort I recognized it would not be a normal campaign that candidates run,” he said.
Not the chosen candidate
Spaulding said there is an “establishment wing of insider Democrats” in Raleigh who decide whose turn it is to run for office. He said that approach has led to a string of defeats and a fractured party.
Since I’m not the establishment candidate, I do not anticipate the money following me as a candidate.
“Once they make the decision in Raleigh who the candidate next in line is, they make sure the money follows the candidate,” he said. “Since I’m not the establishment candidate, I do not anticipate the money following me as a candidate.
“That’s one reason I had to run a grassroots campaign – not like candidates who are losing always say they’re running a grassroots campaign. I started running a grassroots campaign very early on, so it’s reality and not just a political slogan.”
Patsy Keever, current chairwoman of the N.C. Democratic Party, emphasizes that the organization doesn’t support candidates until after the primary elections, and so hasn’t backed either candidate. She says Spaulding has been welcomed at party events, and she doesn’t see his criticism as aimed at the organization itself.
Keever, who lives in Asheville, is a former state legislator who twice lost her bids for the U.S. House of Representatives in the general elections after winning her primaries.
“I understand being a candidate,” Keever said. “I’ve been a candidate many times — won some, lost some. I always had a primary. I’m completely good with primaries. The thing of it is, once somebody wins or loses, the one who lost needs to support the one who won. The party needs to be united.”
The N.C. Republican Party, while focusing most of its energy on Cooper, is not entirely ignoring Spaulding. Party officials have already tried to force the candidates to take a public stand on a variety of issues that the GOP thinks should be answered immediately.
Dallas Woodhouse, the state Republican Party executive director, said Thursday Spaulding’s policies align with the Moral Monday protesters and would reverse the gains of the GOP-controlled state government.
“We believe it's important the media asks both Democrat candidates serious questions about their plans for North Carolina, including their views on the Moral Monday agenda, because thus far they have largely been given a pass because most of the attention is on the Republicans and the governor,” Woodhouse said.
Fundraising will be obstacle
Fundraising will prove to be Spaulding’s big hurdle. As of the most recent campaign finance report, Cooper had $3 million on hand, McCrory $2.4 million and Spaulding only $51,000.
“With just over four months remaining in the primary campaign, Spaulding must resort to grassroots tactics and barnstorming the state to raise his profile,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. “Because Cooper is favored by most traditional Democratic primary voters, Spaulding must appeal to voters that don't traditionally vote in the Democratic primary. He may benefit somewhat from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and pull in some of Sanders' supporters, but his task is very difficult.”
His task is very difficult.
Spaulding is the first serious African-American candidate for governor in North Carolina since Charlotte dentist and civil rights leader Reginald Hawkins ran more than 40 years ago. The son of a former president of N.C. Mutual Life Insurance, once one of the largest black-owned businesses in the country, Spaulding has been involved in Durham politics for a long time but is not widely known outside the Triangle.
He spent six years in the state House, and is a land development lawyer who was involved in two projects that redefined Durham and surrounding areas: the Treyburn development and Southpoint Mall.
He has an uphill battle. The most recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Cooper with a lead over Spaulding of 58 percent to 13 percent among prospective Democratic primary voters.
Spaulding likes to point out that 45 percent of the registered Democrats in this state are African-American, as a way of saying his candidacy should not be dismissed.
He has been calling out Cooper on a number of issues, especially the attorney general’s decision not to retry a Charlotte police officer who shot to death a young black man, after a jury deadlocked 8-4 for acquittal.
“I am not looking for anyone, whether black or white to vote for me because I’m African-American,” he said. “I’m looking for North Carolinians to vote for me because I am the best qualified and capable candidate, who can help pull this state back together and who has a record of experience.”
Spaulding just turned 71, and says he thinks voters want maturity and responsibility in a candidate. “They are looking for seasoned people,” he said.
Spaulding on the issues
▪ Supports reinstating teacher tenure.
▪ Opposed to private school vouchers.
▪ Favors smaller classrooms.
▪ Opposes fracking and offshore drilling.
▪ Wants economic growth that benefits more than urban centers.
▪ Supports Medicaid expansion.
▪ Wants to reform the criminal justice system.
▪ Favors expanding voting rights.