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Pam's House Blend interview: Jim Neal on his landmark candidacy for the U.S. Senate

(The interview is up at DKos. Recommends are appreciated.)

Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) is running for re-election, and she's done precious little for our state; in fact she's hurt the interests of North Carolinians with her 1) poor constituent services and visibility in the Tar Heel state, and 2) her rubber-stamping of Bush administration's policies that have hurt this nation. In a state with a large military population, many deployed on multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dole has not supported the troops and their families — or the veterans who returned broken and battered.

Greensboro-native Jim Neal is ready to change things up in more ways than one. When he came out of nowhere to announce his candidacy, the Democrats were having a tough time recruiting anyone to run against Dole. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as well as the ex-Governor of NC Jim Hunt were keen on having state Rep. Grier Martin (D) run. They even went so far as to ask State Senator Kay Hagan to stay out in favor of Martin. When he declined, Hagan was satisfied not to run either.

That is, until Neal announced his candidacy, including disclosing rather matter-of-factly that he was gay during a BlueNC liveblog. Suddenly Hagan announced that she had a change of heart and was getting into the race. The Southern Political Report:

[O]nce Martin bowed out and some Democratic powers-that-be found out that Neal is gay — which was known to his friends and family but not to the public at large — “they intensified their pressure on Kay” to get back in the race, “for fear that [Neal] would bring down the rest of the ticket.” A Charlotte source adds, “I’m sure that some people see [being gay] as a non-starter in North Carolina.”

The PC reason cited for Hagan getting in was that Jim Neal's chances for beating Elizabeth Dole were slim because he's a political newcomer (though he is a proven fundraiser, having served as a national finance committee member for Wes Clark for President as well as the Kerry-Edwards ticket), and he has little name recognition (Hagan doesn't have name rec either).  

Be that as it may, now Jim Neal is in the race, has his calls returned by the DSCC, and is running hard to win the Dem primary. He is currently polling as well as Hagan against Dole. He's been traveling the state, points rural, suburban and urban, speaking to voters and finding they are hungry for change.  

Jim Neal took time out of his busy schedule this past Saturday (January 12) and dropped by my house for a wide-ranging interview. My goal was to cover ground for people not familiar with Jim Neal's candidacy, and also touch upon fresh topics that might interest folks out there.

The interview was recorded with portions of it on video. What follows is the transcript, edited for clarity, with the clips and those transcripts interspersed.


PS: You are a successful businessman with active involvement in community service and fundraising for Democrats. What made you decide to step out from behind the scenes and run for public office?

JN: I was taken aback by the surprise that nobody had stepped up to challenge Senator Dole. I believe that North Carolina deserves much better, we can do much better, and that the representation we’re getting in Washington is well below par for a state as noble as ours. I feel like I will make a better leader, I will be able to represent the interests of the people, I will come home and listen to the people, the electorate in the state who elect me, who pay my salary and who I’m accountable to. And as best I can tell, Elizabeth Dole doesn’t do any of those things.

I’m very, very confident in my ability to beat her…confident that I represent a new kind of candidate, the kind of candidate that is made for 2008, that will be able to take down an incumbent who a lot of people view as being someone who is very much part of a process that is clearly broken and not working for our state or our country.

PS: Why did you choose to run for the U.S. Senate as opposed to a statewide or local office first?

JN: Again, I looked at the opportunity, the fact that no one is stepping up. She’s vulnerable, she’s doing a terrible job. I don’t think that one has to have a long history in public service, in fact, I think part of the process, the political process that is not working in Washington is that we keep sending the same people back. Politicians in Washington beget more results by politicians. The influence of special interest groups in our democracy is corrosive. I don’t have any ties to special interest groups. I’m only going to Washington to represent the people. And I might point out that the last Democratic Senator that was elected in this state was a fellow named John Edwards, and I don’t believe he ever held elective office as well.

PS: Good point. When you announced that you were gay during a BlueNC liveblog last year, what kind of reaction did you expect? And what was the reality in the days following?

JN: I didn’t expect, well I guess I expected that maybe those in the media who weren’t aware of it, might find it interesting and that was certainly the case. But I have long said that the voters and the people in NC are, you know, they’re just innately too good and too smart to be distracted by something as irrelevant as somebody’s sexuality or sexual orientation or gender or race. We’re just well beyond that. And anybody that suggests otherwise I think is insulting the voters in this state.

The interview continues below the fold.PS: How has the media treated your candidacy so far, both the straight and LGBT press?

 JN:  I think the interest, the media wants to sell newspaper and get people to come to their particular outlets, and that’s what sells advertisements and ad space and so for a while I think the notion of having “Jim Neal – Gay Candidate” had some allure and some selling power, right now, it doesn’t. In fact, I’m very infrequently if at all referred to as a gay candidate any longer. It sort of had its run. And within the gay media, there has been a great deal of interest. I think people are excited by virtue of the fact that I have stepped up to take on this challenge, and do so in a way that will represent our community with honor, with dignity, and it’s something that I take very seriously, and am working like the Energizer bunny 24/7 to make sure that I’m the last person standing on November 4th next year.

PS: As a North Carolina native (he was born in Greensboro) who’s lived and worked outside the state for many years before “returning home,” explain to non-Tar Heels what this state was like when you first lived here versus now, in terms of the demographic and political shifts. It appears that outside of the state have an impression that doesn’t match reality. How do you intend to convince the political movers and shakers that N.C. is ready to elect an openly gay, politically progressive candidate to the U.S. Senate?

JN: When I graduated from college in 1978, and took a job working in NY in 1979, I found it very condescending — the attitude of a lot of folks in the Northeast part of the United States — still look down on the South as sort of, you know, a place where we all sit around drinking moonshine and living a hillbilly type of lifestyle. And it came up in Jimmy Carter’s campaign because he was a very successful peanut farmer. He was derided, his family was made fun of, and I didn’t like that…that didn’t resonate well with me one iota.

The perception of the state, however, was not helped by the era of the Jessecrats…Jesse Helms and others  elected to the Senate — John East, Lauch Faircloth — sent a really negative message about our state to the rest of the country and the world. And it created this impression that North Carolina was a hotbed of real divisiveness, and in many cases, hate, that I knew was not necessarily indicative by and large, of people I had known and grown up with — my family and my friends.

Now having moved back here two years ago, the one thing that struck me right off the bat was the fact that how different the faces of the state has changed. Basically it used to be  they were black and they were white. And now they are black, and they are white, and Chinese, and Indian…Hispanic, different ethnic groups, and social and cultural groups — much more of a melting pot you see elsewhere in the United States.

Having said that, at the same time, there’s still an elitism that prevails in other parts of the country about the South. I mean they view the South as one big red region state. And I tell people again and again, North Carolina is not indicative of the whole South. North Carolina is a Blue state that has two Red senators.  My mom used to say — and I’m sure many have heard the old adage that “North Carolina is a valley of humility situated two peaks of conceit.” Well (laugh) that Northern peak of conceit kind of runs all the way up the Northeastern seaboard.

But, with the kind of leaders we’re going to elect, and some that we have in office we have now — in Washington and elsewhere — as well as the kind of growth the state has made economically…I mean, Charlotte, is home to seven, I believe, Fortune 100 companies, which ranks it sixth in the country — sixth. Now who would have thought that would be the case back in 1978? So North Carolina has changed a great deal, and the voice of the Jessecrats that went down to an ebb a long time ago. North Carolina’s capacity for tolerance of somebody who is fiscally conservative and socially progressive like me, I think it is open, it’s not an impediment to my campaign. In fact, I think it is a plus. People who wouldn’t vote for me for reasons such as my sexual orientation, hell, they wouldn’t have voted for me anyway. So, I don’t think I’m going to lose anything as a consequence of that. That’s just plain ignorance to assume otherwise.

PS: It appears that outside of the state, people have a perception that the state doesn’t match reality that you know. How do you plan to convince the political movers and shakers that North Carolina is ready to elect an openly-gay, politically progressive candidate to the U.S. Senate?

JN: Well I think the issue that is important here is that North Carolina is ready to have a candidate, an elected representative who remembers who he is working for. Again, it’s about accountability, it’s not about my sexual orientation. For God sakes, that is the least interesting thing in the world about me. And it has absolutely nothing in the world to do with my abilities to lead and represent the people of this state. And the more overriding and important point I think that comes to play in this election is integrity, is authenticity, is commitment , is drive and is a willingness to stick your neck out on the line. I was the first person to step up and challenge Senator Dole. I did so without hesitation. I did so without second thought. And I did so without any fear. And I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of this election, I’m not afraid of what might happen over the course of the general primary, because I’m above all of that stuff. And you know what – I’ve got the people of North Carolina behind me, or at least the great majority of them.

 PS: What are the most pressing concerns of North Carolinians that you hear when you travel around the state? What have they told you about Senator Dole’s representation and service regarding those issues?

 JN: People in North Carolina: the war in Iraq, and the necessity of bringing the young and middle-aged men and women from this state who are serving courageously home, and home alive, as soon as possible is almost a foregone conclusion. So I think its been eclipsed more lately by jobs and the economy. People are very worried and rightfully so about the state of our economy and the fallout that we’ve had from the debacle from the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis that is now spilling over into the consumer markets and consumer spending is starting to slow down. And it’s going to represent a real challenge to our country and to me as a Senator to help craft and shape policies that address, that provide assistance to the people who need it most: the shrinking middle class, and the poor. Because those are the folks that are getting left behind when the train left the station.

 The other issue that is very much important and on the minds of people in North Carolina is healthcare – it’s clearly a national issue, but the prices, the cost that we pay for our health care services, even for those of us that are insured, are staggering, are burdensome, and are frightening. A man told me the other day that he never dreamed that he would see the day when he would have to split a pill in half because his doctor has prescribed 400 milligrams but his insurance company had told him they would only pay for 200 milligrams. And that in and of itself is the kind of the indictment to the extent to which our healthcare system has fallen to become not the best as it once was, but one of the worst in terms of the outcomes that we deliver, that it generates. And it’s all about two things, above all else: driving down costs. And that’s across the board: big Pharma, HMOs, health insurers, providers, and use of technology…And secondly, as a society we have to have a conversation about the way we practice healthcare, because we’re practicing sick care, not health care. It costs 3 times as much it does to treat someone in an Emergency Room than it does in a GP’s office. We’ve got to have early intervention, we’ve got to have people going in to get check ups on a regular basis and young people, because we’ve got chronic illnesses like diabetes that are reaching near epidemic proportions in our state.

PS: What do you say to those who believe, and a lot of these are in the establishment, that your candidacy will be a negative downticket problem in 2008, jeopardizing Democratic control in the General Assembly in the state, and statewide races because of a presumed groundswell of conservative voters to the polls to defeat you? Do you see your candidacy as divisive?

 JN: I think that’s a completely ignorant point of view. It’s just plain ignorance. It’s the same issue we heard, you know, they used to say, you know, well you can’t have a black man on the ticket, you can’t have a woman on the ticket, and God forbid there was the day, and I remember, you couldn’t have a Roman Catholic in the White House. I mean, they’ve been proven wrong over and over and over again. And we’re in an election season when we’ve got a woman, we’ve got a black man, we’ve got a Mormon, we’ve got a Baptist minister vying for the Presidential nomination. And I’m sure there are different points of view about who is best going to lead their ticket…I couldn’t even begin to tell you, but one thing I can tell you: here in our state, people are too smart and it’s insulting to suggest that social conservatives are going to be driven to the polls by the fact that Jim Neal happens to be gay. And by the way, if they come to the polls to vote for me because I’m not gay or vote against me, they wouldn’t have voted for me anyway.

PS: I wanted to ask you about the HRC and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund’s avoidance of a public endorsement of your candidacy so far.  Aside from not having held public office before, that there may be a sense of seniority/entitlement in play. There are currently only two out gay or lesbian members in Congress, Rep. Barney Frank (MA) and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (WI), both with established histories of service in the community. Do you think the gay institutions and advocacy groups want to see one or both of these politicians get “first crack” at the Senate, rather than a “novice” who happens to be gay?

JN: Oh, I don’t have any idea about what opinions may prevail as to who gets first crack at the Senate. All I know is that I’m taking the first crack here in North Carolina. And that’s the glass ceiling, whatever exists, that I intend to burst…I believe you asked me about the Victory Fund and HRC — they’ve got a process they go through, like all special interest and advocacy organizations do, and we’re going to go through it with them — and I look forward to receiving their endorsement.

PS: What is going to be different about a Senator Jim Neal term in office? You would be representing a very diverse state —  since we have military families, textile workers facing more layoffs, booming business, technical, scientific, medical and academic constituencies, native Tar Heels and a growing number of transplants from metropolitan areas from around the country. Who is going to be your base of support?

JN: Well, after I’m elected I’m going to represent every single person in the state, whether they voted for me, or whether they didn’t, or if whether they didn’t vote at all, because I’m going to Washington to be the Senator — the representative, for each and every man, woman and child in this state. And yet they all do come from different constituencies, and they are going to have different concerns, but I’m going to come back and listen to all of them, because that is what they are all entitled to, each and every one of them — in no particular pecking order.

In terms of the general election, my base of support is going to come from a large group of people and it encompasses what used to be known as the middle class, which is shrinking and getting further and further behind. The rest of the folks in this country and in this nation, as well as certainly the poor. The middle class and the poor in today’s democracy are penalized because they don’t have money, they don’t have power, they don’t have entitlement, but they do have a vote. And increasing numbers, I believe…the base I will represent in the general election, will come out and support me and will use their votes. And when they use their votes, they are going to regain their voices, because I’m just one person. But I’m going to Washington to represent millions and millions of North Carolinians.

[Off camera: We’ve got to move beyond this whole sort of partisan politics world where I’m a Democrat and I do this or I’m a Republican and I do that because ultimately, we move too much into a world that I describe as the me world. It’s all about me. We’ve got to get back to the world in which it’s about we or us. And in order to do that, I’ve got to be an effective representative for people who vote for me, and for those who don’t. At the same time, I will count on my base in this campaign, early on, and win the support of the little guy…those are the people who get left behind in our democracy today, because politicians, whether they be in Washington or Raleigh, are listening to lobbyists, special interest groups and party ideologues and thinking about their own political ambitions instead of those of the people they represent. That is the one hallmark of Sen. Jim Neal’s 6 years in office that I better live up to, and if I don’t, I don’t expect to be reelected in 2014.]

PS: Your main challenger in the primary, state senator Kay Hagan was recruited, or re-recruited by the DSCC after you announced, hasn’t polled any better against Elizabeth Dole than you have. In the most recent poll on Daily Kos, that you’re only a point difference in terms of facing Senator Dole. Does this surprise you? How would you differentiate yourself from Kay Hagan for voters?

 JN: Well I’m not paying attention to Kay and Kay’s campaign, what she’s doing. I’ve got my own race to run, and I’m doing it, and I’m getting out and I’m listening. I’m listening and I’m moving around all over this state. I’m moving around like a jack rabbit to here and listen to people, to hear about their hopes and their dreams, and their fears. So that I can take those voices back to Washington, I learn more from talking to people than I do from reading any white paper, I’ve gotta tell you, one great thing about Southerners, they tell great stories. And those stories have a lot of meaning, a lot of meaning and they can be really have an impact if you’re just willing to sit down and listen to them.

 Now in terms of viability of me as a candidate, or someone else…I will just say I am the only candidate on the ballot that can beat Elizabeth Dole and it’s real simple why: because we’re so different. We are polar extremes. I am an outsider. I stand squarely in the court of the people of North Carolina. Yeah, I’ve worked on Wall Street, and I certainly understand how markets work and they don’t work. And I know how to create opportunities for people. But my values, as a consequence from the way I was raised, the world in which my parents lived, the legacy of my family, and my own personal experiences in life have shaped me. My values are flat consistent with Main Street not Wall Street.

PS: Have you found resistance to new media from political insiders and traditional political strategists? Having attended conferences and speaking with other elected officials, do you have a sense that they, along with candidates for office could do more to take advantage of new media to bolster their electability?

JN: I think that all of us, and most certainly the political strategists that kind of dominate the landscape —  the federal, state and even local elections — haven’t a clue what to make of this beast. The Internet, the social networking sites, the blogosphere, I find as one of the liberating and the most democratizing new mediums to come along in a millennium. It’s absolutely unbelievable the extent, the power that the Internet has to restore and to really take our democracy back and put it back in the hands of the people.

That’s why we’re seeing, I think, young people, showing up in record numbers  in New Hampshire and Iowa. And that’s why we’re seeing young people come out in astounding amounts to work on our campaign and be a part of it.  Those that checked out are checking back in, and I think they are checking back in because they are getting their information (on the Internet), and researching candidates, positions, and they are doing it on their own. They are not doing it based on what their mom and dad told them, they are not doing it based upon hearing through some party or partisan filter, they are doing it themselves.

Taking it a step forward, the Internet is the future of campaign finance reform.  I want to get in our campaign, every single solitary little $5, $10, $1 contribution we can, because everyone that is making any kind of contribution to the campaign…they are inherently investing in it…that gives them ownership. It doesn’t matter how much, but they’ve got ownership. And I want people to have ownership because it’s not my campaign, it’s our campaign.

PS: One of the major reasons why improving the Democratic majority on the Hill and electing a Democratic president is important to progressives generally and the LGBT community specifically, is the potential for vacancies on the Supreme Court to be filled. There are cases regarding marriage equality winding their way there, and both gay rights supporters and the far right are wary of a decision coming down with the court’s current composition. How would you judge nominees to the high court?

JN: That’s one of the most important issues that we’ll be confronting, whomever the next president of the United States is. And I certainly hope that person is a Democrat, whoever he or she may be. If fact I think it is vitally important to our country. In terms of the Senate’s role, in confirming whomever comes before the Senate for approval. I would look for a candidate who stood by our Constitution, who basically respected the individual rights and freedoms that have made our democracy and society that is welcoming and tolerant of all peoples. Without coming in with any rigid ideologies one way or the other, socially liberal, conservative, or otherwise. I think we need to have fair-minded jurists, because that’s what a Supreme Court justice is — a jurist – someone who can make a decisions, weigh facts, make informed decisions. And we have some good members of the Supreme Court, and we have some far out of field folks, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, who…and of late, Justice Alito, and I’m afraid Justice Roberts, who seem to have brought preconceived, very rigid, personal viewpoints into the judgment process they go to in making decisions on the court.

…A court composed of reasonable jurists, men and women who do the right thing; who listen to their hearts, who look to the law, and who are blind to special interests and the cacaphony of voices that are pressuring them from the right, the left, and the middle to make movement that is contrary to precepts that were set forth by our founding fathers in our Constitution.

PS: What do you expect in terms of GOP political tactics if you go head to head with Elizabeth Dole? What are her vulnerabilities in terms of campaigning? She hasn’t been visible in the state while in office; do you expect her to surface or to be able to debate her on the issues?

 JN: Anybody who can get Elizabeth Dole to show up for a debate deserves a Nobel Prize. I don’t think she’ll come out from behind a television camera or a very scripted, controlled situation in this election. That’s just not the way she does business, and it’s not the way she has represented the state either. No, she hasn’t been back here, nobody sees her, nobody has… there are occasionally photos of her. I saw one recently when she was at the Asheboro Zoo, but the Senator has remained aloof from the state, and she knows that’s hurting her, her staff knows that’s hurting her – that’s why they’re putting out things like press releases announcing that she came her to vacation for God’s sakes. So that’s a point of vulnerability for her.

 But within her own base, there’s a great deal of dissatisfaction with the fact that she went to Washington as a first-term Senator and she took on a lot of responsibility as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That is basically a job that comes with the  responsibility of raising millions and millions and millions of dollars for Republican Senatorial candidates around the country. Now every moment that the Senator was spending doing that job, she wasn’t working for the people of North Carolina, my gosh, she was a first term Senator – she took on a job that a power-hungry politician takes on, a very ambitious politician. She wasn’t working for us. [At the] same time, what are her issues going to be? The Senator is going to use immigration as a wedge issue – she doesn’t want to talk about the failure of the American government, her party, and her, to take the opportunity to reform an immigration system that’s broken – she won’t want to discuss that, she’s going to try and use the issue as a divisive issue, and to appeal to people’s emotions – because it’s a highly volatile emotional issue in North Carolina for Democrats and Republicans alike.

 PS: I want to pinpoint a bit on the immigration issue. It seems like it’s a difficult situation for both parties – it really is a lose-lose from a political standpoint, but it really is a problem that needs to be solved, simply because what I’m hearing on the Republican side is build a wall  and send them back – I mean, how are you going to send 12 million people back? What are you going to do about the 12 million people who are already here? It doesn’t even look like the Presidential candidates have a clear idea of what needs to be done.

 JN: Well for one thing, Pam, you make a good point: and that is that it is a difficult political problem, but let’s get practical. I’m running to get beyond political problems and try and find solutions. So let me give you a few thoughts. Number one, there is no doubt that we have to secure our borders: our borders to the South, our borders to the North, and our borders on the coastline such as our port in Wilmington. Those are all points of vulnerabilities, not just for an influx of illegal immigrants – they didn’t all come swimming or tunneling under the Rio Grande for heaven’s sakes. But also for terrorists, and for people who want to enter this country to try and do harm. So that’s number one, and again, that’s an issue that Washington failed to take up and take leadership on.

 With regard to the people that are here, many people that are here, families, generation after generation, it is fool’s gold for anybody to suggest that we are going to be able to round up and ship 12 million people back to their countries of origins. It would be crushing on certain key industries in our nation, and if you don’t believe me, go and talk to any farmer in North Carolina. Farmers in North Carolina have to import labor. They can’t get people to take the jobs, to go harvest the crops, and get the crops to market.  Where they’ve depended on what was formally called migrant labor, in large part, and the same is true in industries like construction, that we’ve had a downturn as of late, and that in and of itself has led to an outflow of the undocumented aliens in North Carolina – but we’ve got, there’s an economic component of this that you can’t ignore as well.

 So, that has to be taken into account and ultimately the people that are here, right now, we have to be able to come up with a policy that will allow them to come out from the shadows and into the light of America – we want them to pay taxes, we want them to have the right to vote, we want their children to go to schools and get medical care without fears of being deported. Now, how do we do that – do they have to pay a fine, is there some punitive sanction for them being here when they shouldn’t have, at the beginning. I can’t answer that question, I don’t have the solution for that right now – but I can tell you that the notion of rounding them up and shipping them out of here is crazy.

 And then thirdly, there is the issue of Washington – and Washington failing last Spring to at least use the opportunity it had when President Bush put an immigration reform bill before them, flawed as it may have been, to take on trying to change a system that was broken. You know, that’s what the government is there for – to negotiate, to resolve, is to come up with compromisesand is to make laws. If there was ever a law that needed to be made or an issue that needed to be addressed in this country, and I’m hearing this from democrats and Republicans, it’s the issue of immigration reform. What do we do with a substantial and growing number of undocumented aliens that are living in North Carolina? Washington punted on the issue, Elizabeth Dole punted on the issue, she failed to take it up, she didn’t assume a leadership position and we are nowhere. We haven’t moved the ball forward. That’s not acceptable.

 PS: Thank you so much for your time.

 JN: Thank you Pam, it’s my pleasure.


Jim Neal’s official campaign web site.
Jim Neal for Senate Facebook group.

Links to Pam’s House Blend coverage of Jim Neal’s candidacy:
Recap of PHB live blog with U.S. Senate candidate Jim Neal
NC: Jim Neal’s polling strong against Dole — and Hagan
Out U.S. Senate candidate Jim Neal on real family values
DKos: Jim Neal on the economy’s alarming vital signs
DSCC – Where’s Jim Neal?
Report: DSCC scrambled to find hetero challenger to run against Elizabeth Dole
U.S. Senate candidate Jim Neal at the Equality NC Conference and Gala
NC: Dems ‘come out’ to take on Jim Neal
North Carolina numbers for Neal and DSCC skullduggery

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Pam Spaulding

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