Politics & Government

Lt. Gov. Forest hopes grassroots style lifts him to re-election, higher office

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest speaks during a stop on the campaign trail.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest speaks during a stop on the campaign trail. dboylan@newsobserver.com

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest is using old-school political theater to create a grassroots network across North Carolina that he hopes will benefit him beyond his November rematch against Democrat Linda Coleman.

With his 36-foot, 1984 Blue Bird Wanderlodge campaign bus parked outside the Uwharrie Mountain Lodge in Troy on Thursday night, the first-term Republican lieutenant governor told reporters that he aspires to run for governor in 2020.

Asked whether his ongoing bus tour was taking place with that in mind, Forest responded, “Absolutely.”

“I think anybody that runs for lieutenant governor is not running for lieutenant governor to say, ‘I’m just going to do this and then I’m going to go home.’ ... I would love to serve as governor of the state some day, but we also love what we do,” he said.

Forest suggested an announcement might soon follow the Nov. 8 elections.

“Everybody that wants to run for governor in 2020 is going to make their plans known somewhere around Nov. 9,” he said. “We believe the foundation we’re laying, a grassroots foundation across the state, would be beneficial to that.”

Run Forest Run

The bus is an unusual and expensive way to travel for a state-level candidate, as well as a logistical challenge, but Forest said it’s worth the effort.

“The bus becomes this symbol that we are out there with the people,” he said. “We’re present in your communities. We’re not just showing up on your TV.”

Contributions to Forest’s re-election campaign pay for it. So far this year, his campaign committee spent nearly $50,000 purchasing, decorating and maintaining the bus, according to financial disclosure records and the campaign. The total could be higher but purchases of less than $50 don’t have to be itemized in campaign reports. It gets less than 10 miles per gallon, so the fuel bills will add up, too.

The bus has no air conditioning, although the campaign plans to fix that. Forest doesn’t ride in it, but follows campaign volunteers who drive it. He takes a separate vehicle.

The bus is named “Bubba II,” a reference to a character in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump.” Bubba I was an RV Forest used in his successful 2012 campaign. The slogan “Run Forest Run” — another reference to the movie — is stripped across the front and side of the bus. Forest’s name is displayed in large, white letters.

The vehicle is used as a backdrop for old-fashioned town hall meetings across the state. The campaign deems the events “BYOC,” for “bring your own chair.”

After Troy, the bus headed down east for stops in six counties on Saturday. At a Walmart parking lot in Wilmington, the campaign will give out free Moon Pies and RC Colas.

At the Citgo across the street from the Troy lodge, clerk Marcus Ross from Mount Gilead definitely noticed it. A 22-year-old African-American who votes Democrat, Ross didn’t know who Forest was, but saw cars earlier at the mall with Forest stickers, then saw the bus.

“It certainly made us curious,” he said, his co-worker nodding in agreement.

On the presidential level, campaign buses have been common since Republican candidate John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” in 2000. This election cycle saw all the major Republican candidates with buses.

While gubernatorial or U.S. Senate campaigns have occasionally campaigned in buses, Forest acknowledged that it’s unusual for someone at his level of politics.

State campaign finance law allows candidates to purchase vehicles, and they are considered campaign property until sold. If they’re driven for personal use, fuel expenses can’t be paid with campaign money. And when a campaign committee closes, all assets must be liquidated, and proceeds can either be donated to another committee or to charity.

More than three years into his term, Forest, the second son of former nine-term U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, has effectively leveraged his mother’s political connections to become a heavyweight fundraiser. He has also become one of North Carolina’s leading conservatives in voters’ eyes, with his vocal support of the LGBT law House Bill 2 and positions on other hot-button issues for conservatives.

Oscar Harward of Locust, who described himself as a “hardcore conservative,” said he believes Forest is the “best conservative on the block in all of North Carolina.”

Democrats cite ideology

Coleman, Forest’s Democratic opponent in the November election, said she sees Forest’s bus as a “big advertisement for a conservative ideological agenda that we don’t need in North Carolina.”

She mentioned Forest’s vocal support for HB2, which prohibits local governments from adopting anti-discrimination ordinances tougher than state law that doesn’t mention sexual orientation or gender identity. It also bans people in North Carolina from using government-owned restrooms and locker rooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificates.

Forest signed the paperwork calling for a special legislative session to pass HB2 and has vigorously defended the law, including at his tour stop in Troy.

Coleman also mentioned Forest’s promotion of school vouchers, also known as Opportunity Scholarships. These are taxpayer-funded financial aid packages for students from lower-income families to attend private or religious schools. This year, the Republican-led General Assembly greatly increased funding for the scholarships, which opponents like Coleman say take away from much-needed public school funding.

Coleman said she gets around the state in her 2005 Lexus sedan. Her campaign reimburses her for fuel. She said she pays for regular car maintenance out of her personal income.

“We meet the people where they are,” she said. “Some people can’t afford the kind of luxuries that an RV represents.”

Coleman declined to discuss the specifics of Forest’s bus spending but said it’s up to his supporters and campaign donors to decide whether it’s appropriate.

The bus from Medina

In the Texas hill country 45 miles west of San Antonio and an almost 20-hour drive from Raleigh, Medina, Texas, is a sparsely populated place once called the Texas apple capital.

In February, a Forest campaign representative flew to San Antonio and took a taxi to Medina to purchase the bus from Gordon Green for $17,000.

“I think they found it online on rvtrader.com,” Green said in a phone interview. “He was a real nice guy and he drove it home. I think they took it up to North Carolina and put the wrap on it.” He referred to the colorful, vinyl wrap that covers the bus.

Since the trip to Medina, the Forest campaign has pumped about $25,000 more into the bus, including more than $17,000 for repairs and parts, $7,500 for the decorative wrap, $800 for registration, $750 for new tires, $600 for insurance and hundreds of dollars for gas.

Big-picture strategy

Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political consultant in North Carolina, said an RV or bus is fine from a campaign strategy perspective.

“You get in an RV and you go to Dunn and you meet 50 people and that does some good,” he said. “But you can meet 50 people three times a day and it will not make a dent.”

Winning a statewide election like a lieutenant governor’s race requires contact with millions of people, Wrenn said, stressing that media coverage of the bus tour is important. The campaign bus does not attract much media, although Forest and his campaign manager, Hal Weatherman, said it’s not for a lack of trying.

The campaign sends out news releases to local media outlets when the bus is coming to town, but reporters rarely show up, Forest said.

“We seek (media attention), but we don’t get it,” he said.

Wrenn made his name campaigning for Jesse Helms, the late U.S. senator from North Carolina. Helms used an RV to crisscross the state. “In 1976, Ronald Reagan came down to campaign with us and we had a bus, and we went around to Taylorville,” Wrenn said. “And we had a second bus full of newspaper and TV and radio following us. If you’re not doing that, it doesn’t go very far.”

Recent Facebook posts from Forest’s campaign show the bus in small towns across the state, including a park in Williamston, Independence Day parades in Waxhaw and Unionville, the Black Bear Festival in Plymouth and the N.C. Pickle Festival in Mount Olive.

Forest said he believes politicians should be accountable to the people, and his bus events are open to the public. “It doesn’t matter what your affiliation is,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you hate us or love us. You can show up and ask us any question you want. I think that’s the way it should be for all politicians, all the time.”

At sunset, the Troy town-hall meeting wrapped up and Forest’s bus growled to life the way a 32-year-old bus does. It rumbled into the rainy night, 95 days to travel until the election.