Ken Spaulding has been at it nearly two and a half years, laying the groundwork for an outsider run for the Democratic nomination for governor of North Carolina.
Far outmatched in fundraising by the current governor, Pat McCrory, and by his opponent in the Democratic primary, Roy Cooper, Spaulding is pushing the message that, even in politics, money isn’t everything.
Now that the primary is coming into focus for North Carolina voters, Spaulding —who comes from a prominent Durham family tied to a historic life insurance company — has been winning support from a number of small but active community organizations around the state, particularly African-American groups. That and increased name recognition in the polls have boosted his spirits in these final weeks.
“I feel we will be successful, and we will defeat Citizens United,” Spaulding said in a phone interview Thursday, speaking of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for outside money and undisclosed special interests to bolster candidates.
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“More important to my campaign, why I’ve worked as long as a presidential candidate, is to give the people an alternative, in which I feel I’m a very well-qualified candidate. It’s a lot better than having people in Raleigh meet and determine whose turn it is, based on more of the same criteria. Business as usual is not the climate of the day, and it shouldn’t be.”
Spaulding has been dogging Cooper, the attorney general, for months, pursuing the time-tested strategy of defining the campaign by pressuring the favored opponent to address uncomfortable issues and pushing for debates to get more exposure than they can afford through advertising. Spaulding also emphasizes the fact that he is black, and warns Cooper not to take the African-American vote for granted.
“You can’t hide from the people when you’re running for office and not explain your record,” Spaulding said.
He said he and Cooper have made four joint appearances for brief introductions and maybe a couple of questions.
“That’s a far cry from a live televised debate where you are having to field questions from all over the place for an hour long,” he said. “I address issues, popular or unpopular.”
Spaulding and the state Republican Party have both hammered at Cooper to respond to issues they raise. Most recently, it was to try to pry a response from Cooper to the Charlotte City Council’s approval of an LGBT rights ordinance. Spaulding said that, as a minority raised in the segregated South, he is sensitive to discrimination but is uncomfortable with the provision allowing transgender people to use either men’s or women’s bathrooms.
He calls himself a Terry Sanford Democrat and says he would “put the progress back in progressive.” He opposes fracking and offshore drilling, and he favors smaller classrooms and reinstating teacher tenure, expanding Medicaid coverage, protecting voter rights, encouraging economic development in rural areas, and raises for state employees. He wants to improve relations between police and minority communities, and continues to criticize Cooper’s decision not to seek a retrial in the case of a Charlotte police officer who shot an unarmed black man to death; the jury hung 8-4 for acquittal.
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, says it is “very, very tough” for candidates such as Spaulding to gain traction against established politicians, even when their opponent is not the incumbent.
“Roy Cooper is as much of an incumbent for Democrats as you can get,” Taylor said. “He’s been slotted in that position for a long time.”
If Sen. Bernie Sanders is still competitive against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary on March 15, and they reprise their South Carolina strategies of trying to mobilize African-American voters, that could give Spaulding a boost, he said.
But Spaulding is encouraged by recent movement in the polls. Public Policy Polling had him the choice of 12 percent of voters in a recent survey, but he jumped up to 21 percent in a SurveyUSA poll several days later. The later poll showed Cooper at 50 percent and 29 percent undecided.
“The campaign is picking up steam, it’s surging. With these types of endorsements and support there’s concrete proof it’s not about big money; it’s not about polls that are askew,” Spaulding said. “I think the people are going to be surprised that there is going to be a significant primary, and one in which I will be successful.
“This has been a long journey.”
Family: Married to Wendy Spaulding; they have five children.
Education: Graduated from Howard University, received his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Political experience: N.C. House of Representatives, 1978 to 1984. Ran for Congress, 1984. Chairman, Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, 1998. State Board of Transportation, 2005-2009.
Worth knowing: He played a part in the O.J. Simpson case. The defense team hired Spaulding to help ensure that a North Carolina screenwriter’s audiotaped interviews, in which a Los Angeles police detective used racial slurs, could be used during the trial.