Elections

Sen. Jeff Jackson is making a big push to elect NC Democrats. What's in it for him?

Jeff Jackson speaks to District 37 Democrats.
Jeff Jackson speaks to District 37 Democrats. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

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In a spartan office in Charlotte's Belmont neighborhood, Sen. Jeff Jackson joins campaign volunteers who cradle cellphones to their ears as they work down lists of Democratic voters.

But the weekly calls aren't for Jackson's re-election. They're being made to voters across the state in districts that Democrats like Jackson hope will help break Republican super-majorities in the General Assembly.

Jackson, a 35-year-old Charlotte attorney, is one of few lawmakers to invest in such direct efforts to help other candidates. He calls his operation "Gameplan" and has a website where people sign up for hour-long shifts.

"The number one question I got after the last election was 'What can I do'?" Jackson says. "I felt like the Titanic had just sunk and everybody was flapping around in the water waiting for someone to set off a flare. This was just my small idea how to do that....

"We're not taking the easiest districts to win," Jackson says. "We're picking districts that are going to take some effort but are winnable."

The goal is to gain the four House and six Senate seats Democrats need to crack the super-majorities that allow Republicans to easily override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. And it comes as redistricting, retirements and demographic changes have created more competitive legislative districts for Democrats.

"The competitive field is broader this year," says Jonathan Kappler, who tracks legislative races as executive director of the Free Enterprise Foundation, a business group. "Efforts like this can make a difference in close elections."

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Campaign aide Ryan Morrice conducts a campaign call while at the Gameplan Phone Bank sponsored by NC Sen. Jeff Jackson at Advent Coworking on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

Jackson not only runs the phone bank but speaks to groups across the state. He's raised more campaign money than all but two Senate Democrats and many Republicans. None of this has dampened speculation that he has bigger plans.

"The question we have to ask is, is Jeff Jackson doing this just for the good of the party or is this the buildup for a run for higher office in 2020?" says Larry Shaheen, a Republican consultant. "Either way it's incredibly intelligent from a campaign perspective."

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, sees Jackson as an easy target if and when he runs for higher office.

"Jeff Jackson is an ultra-liberal but he’s obviously interested in doing higher things, and he'll be pretty easy to beat up when he does," Woodhouse says. "His record is far to the left of most North Carolinians. Some of the liberal enclaves of central Mecklenburg County are not quite reflective of the rest of the state."

Ambitions

Jackson has steadily raised his profile since 2014, when he won a special party election by three votes to replace Democrat Dan Clodfelter, who'd been appointed mayor. He ran unopposed that fall and easily beat a Republican in 2016, when he took the stump as a local surrogate for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Now he faces 25-year-old Republican Nora Trotman in a redrawn district that runs from central Charlotte to the southwest. Democrat Hillary Clinton carried with 75 percent in 2016. And Jackson had more than $91,000 in campaign money on hand last month compared with Trotman's $1,289.

"He's very ambitious and seems to be doing everything he can to build his future within the Democratic Party," says former Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca. "I've always found him to be very congenial although politically we don’t agree whether it's night or day."

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Tom Apodaca, the former Senate Rules Chairman, in 2015 Harry Lynch hlynch@newsobserver.com

Trotman calls Jackson "a mouthpiece for his party rather than a voice for his constituents."

Jackson sidesteps questions about his political future but acknowledges a self-interest in electing other Democrats.

"I can be dramatically more effective in the General Assembly if we break the super-majority," he says. "So I do have something at stake here."

The phone bank runs on Thursdays, with laptops and voter lists provided by the state Democratic Party and disposable "burner" phones by Jackson. Calls have gone out to voters in competitive districts including at least one in Mecklenburg County, when volunteers called voters on behalf of Rachel Hunt, running against Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews. Last week a half-dozen volunteers sat at tables and called in support of Mack Paul, a Wake County Democrat challenging GOP Sen. John Alexander.

"Because of gerrymandering, it makes us less effective to get out the vote in our own areas," said volunteer Holly Hobson Wood. "So we come here to give support to districts that are more competitive and flip-able."

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Phone bank volunteer Charlotte Dudley completes a campaign call while at the Gameplan Phone Bank sponsored by NC Sen. Jeff Jackson at Advent Coworking on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

'Threat to Republicans'

Like many volunteers, Wood was motivated by the 2016 election. After this year's Women's March, she organized a meeting for nearly 60 people at her Dilworth home to talk about channeling their energy into grass-roots politics. Jackson says that's why he started the phone bank.

Republicans appear to have a grudging respect for the operation. "He is absolutely a threat to Republicans not just in Mecklenburg but regionally," says Shaheen, the GOP consultant.

Jackson says the Thursday night phone banks are about 2018, not any future elections.

"That's not what this is about," he says. This is not a 'listening tour.' This is not an 'exploratory committee.' This was a response to people asking, 'What can I do?' I felt I owed people an answer and this is it."

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill

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