Democrats running to replace Burr offer choice between 'experience,' 'regular guys'
Posted February 24
Updated February 25
Raleigh, N.C. — Deborah Ross was on her home turf Friday night, edging her way through a crowded fundraiser for the Wake County Democratic Party, accepting hugs and handshakes from long-time supporters and well-wishers she was meeting for the first time.
Ross, a former state lawmaker, is one of four Democrats running for the right to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in this year's general election. The other three are Durham businessman Kevin Griffin, Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey and Ernest Reeves, a retired military officer from Greenville. Although polls throughout February have shown half of primary voters don't have a favorite in the Democratic field, Ross has something of an edge among those who know her name from her time at the General Assembly.
"I'm very impressed with her," said Carol DeVita, a Raleigh resident and part-time senior fellow at a national think tank. "I like what she (Ross) did in the state legislature, and I was very interested in what she was doing in transportation," a reference to her time as a lawyer for GoTriangle.
All four candidates are preparing to face each other on a WRAL News debate Thursday night, and analysts say each will try to translate what they've been saying on the campaign trail to the television screen in one of the few mass audiences they'll have during the campaign. While the three gentlemen running against her are each trying to lay claim to the mantle of outsider, Ross will look to communicate her resume.
"More people will see them Thursday night than they will see them for the rest of the campaign unless they run television ads," said Gary Pearce, a longtime political strategist.
Mail-in absentee voting is already underway, and early in-person voting for the March 15 primary begins next week. With a chance to speak to voters in the Raleigh television market and beyond – the debate will be available to broadcasters across the state – Pearce said voters will be judging candidates based on a gut-level reaction.
"It's a question of likability and presentation – can I see this person as a senator?" Pearce said.
Among the four candidates, Ross, Rey and Griffin have garnered the most notice among activists and strategists, with Rey in particular garnering a reputation as charismatic at campaign events.
"He has a lot of personality. He comes across very well," said Candy Elliot, a geologist from Wake Forest who saw three of the candidates speak a recent event. "I think politically he'd make a good candidate because he's very polished."
Like Rey, Griffin is working to make an impression on voters and is emphasizing that, unlike the other three candidates, this is his first run for office.
"I believe that's an asset to me," he said. "It's something that I'm proud of. I have not been tainted by the process."
As for Ross, she's mostly likely to be happy if debate viewers took home the same message of experience that DeVita cited last week.
"I'm the only one who has that whole legislative experience to make a difference for North Carolina the second I walk in the door," Ross said. "I've negotiated complicated deals, I've worked on complicated legislation, and I'm the only one who has put together a viable campaign."
Practical politics at the forefront
By and large, the candidates find themselves in agreement on most issues. All are critical of Burr, saying that he hasn't done enough to help the economic lives of everyday citizens. All oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, saying the state's economy has already suffered from similar trade agreements. Their biggest substantive difference might be be on their choice for president, with Griffin, Rey and Reeves all seeming to lean toward, if not explicitly endorse, Bernie Sanders for president, and Ross saying that she favors "someone with foreign policy experience," an apparent reference to Hillary Clinton's stint as secretary of state.
Stylistically, the campaigns are distinct. Ross has surrounded herself with a traditional campaign apparatus that works to both keep her on the road and talking to voters in Charlotte and other vote-rich regions of the state, as well as on the phone with donors who can fuel an expected television blitz.
Griffin posts position papers and candidate surveys on his website, giving voters a hyper-detailed look at his policy positions. He also has taken to social media in order to win voters over, sometimes engaging in lengthy back-and-forth conversations with those challenging him on policy. In Rey's campaign, video messages mailed out to supporters, as well as videos streamed live from the campaign trail, have become something of a signature.
Reeves is relying on his background in the military and simple voter interaction to land votes.
"I don't have details like Kevin (Griffin), but I'm a straightforward person," he told a group of Democratic voters last week.
This is Reeves second run for the office after pulling 9 percent of the vote in 2014.
"The reason I decided to run in 2014 is I never saw any of my Senate candidates in Greenville or around this state," he said, "and every time we did see them, you had to pay a lot of money to go and see them."
When they've gotten in front of voters this spring, candidates appear to have focused on issues of resume, temperament and ability to take on Burr. Griffin argues that, in a year where Democratic and Republican voters alike are lining up behind outsiders like Sanders and business mogul-turned-GOP candidate Donald Trump, running a non-traditional campaign is an asset.
"We had an empty seat tonight," Griffin said at the conclusion of the Wake County Progressive Democrats monthly meeting last week.
He, Reeves and Rey spent more than an hour fielding questions from the room, but Ross didn't attend.
"Why? Because she's got $600,000-plus that she's going to spend and is already spending on sending postcards and mailers to people saying, 'I've been a legislator.' But coming to events like this, you get to talk," Griffin said.
Ross not only boasts a six-figure campaign war chest for airing television commercials, she has landed endorsements form some of her party's biggest traditional constituencies. Not only has the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee taken the unusual step of publicly tapping her as its choice for a nominee, union groups, such as the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, and Emily's List, an organization dedicated to electing pro-choice women, have backed her.
"The thought of Deborah (Ross) as an establishment candidate is a little bit hard for me to take, but the story is tending to go in that direction," chuckled Pope "Mac" McCorkle, a one-time political adviser to Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Bev Perdue who is now a professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.
Ross, he said, had a reputation as something of a liberal warrior when she was in the legislature who often irritated her party's establishment elements.
Rey can point to his own endorsements, many of them coming from other black elected officials, including state Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, and Reps. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, and Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland. He also has gotten nods from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Guilford County Community Political Action Committee, both prominent voices in African-American politics.
Asked if the primary could shape up to be one that pits different sets of Democratic constituencies – liberal women and unions versus minorities – Rey downplayed any such split.
"It's important that people recognize that our party has a history of wanting to get out the African-American vote, but we've done a poor job of electing African American leaders at the top level," Rey said. "That's not an argument for my campaign, but it speaks to situational awareness. Don't dismiss me because we didn't raise money the way that others do, or we don't have the institutional networks others do. Well, all of that is built off the system we're trying to change."
On the flip side, Ross can point to support from African-Americans, many of who supported her when she represented a downtown Raleigh district.
"She's accessible. She was always in the community," said George Greene Jr., a substitute teacher and Ross supporter who is black.
Rather than coming down to questions about identity, Rey said, the biggest question in the campaign will be relating to voters. Saying that he has so far spent most of his campaign funds on gas money, Rey pointed to activists cleaning up their monthly pot luck dinner and said he was relying on people like them to get the word out.
"These are the folks who are going to go back to their precincts and their communities," Rey said. "Someone is going to come up to them and ask, 'Hey, who should I vote for?' And hopefully, they like what they heard tonight from me, and they'll say, 'I heard Chris Rey speak. That's who I'm voting for.' I think we've gotten conditioned to the old way of raising a lot of money and then you go on television."
In a state of 6.5 million voters, 2.6 million of them Democrats, McCorkle and Pearce question whether such a hand-to-hand strategy can best a better financed candidate. Whoever emerges from the primary will likely take on Burr, a two-term Republican with $5.3 million in the bank as of Jan. 1 who has already begun running broadcast television commercials.
Burr has a primary, but thus far is leading his GOP rivals by wide margins.
That said, Pearce said Rey is not a candidate Democrats should write off.
"Chris Rey is a sold guy," he said. "A lot of people talked about him running for lieutenant governor or for Congress. I think he'd be viable in a general election. His problem, like everyone else, is raising money."
Touting their experience
Some pieces of Ross' resume are well known. A former lawmaker, Ross is a lawyer who used to be a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union and was most recently general counsel for GoTriangle. But she points to other less flashy parts of her resume as equally important.
"I've worked for 25 years as a lawyer. The press only talks about what I did at the ACLU, which I'm very proud of, but they haven't talked about the water and sewer systems I've helped build as a bond lawyer ... (or) the students I've taught."
Ross' webpage is, for the moment, a single webpage light on policies and heavy on biography. Asked what issues would be tops for her in the coming campaign, she said her focus is the economy."The main thing I talk about is economic security for every generation," Ross said. "I talk about making sure that kids can go to college without crushing student loan debt. I talk about equal pay for equal work for women. ... And then I also talk about stabilizing Social Security and Medicare."
Asked for his top issues, Griffin points to supporting the military and education, although he frames both of those issues with economic tie-ins. With regard to the military, he talks about ways to help veterans find jobs and help the Veterans Administration work with economically distressed rural hospitals.
Among his education prescriptions is a national minimum wage for teachers. He also advocates for raising the minimum wage to a living wage for all occupations.
"I am the typical North Carolina person. I am the son of teachers. My grandparents were tenant farmers in North Carolina," he said.
The economy is also the main thrust of Rey's campaign, although he frames it somewhat differently. Asked about his top issue, he responds simply, "Poverty."
"If you get your family out of poverty, you transform your family," he said. "If you keep your family in poverty, it becomes a generational issue, and I don't believe either one of our current senators have addressed it."
He plays up his work as mayor recruiting businesses to a town whose economy was rocked by recession when he took office.
In addition to being a mayor and military reservist, Rey also runs a nonprofit that helps low-income workers obtain health insurance. From his day-to-day work, he says, he sees problems with health care, education and building the economy as rooted in the persistent poverty that haunts North Carolina's rural counties.
Rey said it is that work with everyday people that would best inform his work as a U.S. senator.
"If we get to a point in America where only people of affluence get elected to the U.S. Senate, what will become of us as a nation?" he asks. "They're not everyday people, and they don't have everyday problems. They have problems, don't get me wrong. They have rich-people problems, but there's more of us than there are of them."Asked if he would put Ross in that category of affluent and, perhaps, not in touch with everyday people, Rey just laughed and demurred.
That is typical of Rey's approach, which is sometimes implicitly critical of Ross but rarely directly confrontational.
Griffin has been much more ready to critique Ross' record and has especially been critical of her work for the ACLU. He has repeatedly pointed to her work opposing a particular sex offender bill.
Ross says that Griffin is cherry-picking from her record, pointing to legislation that was particularly problematic because it could have exposed the names of victims.
She defends her record as one that includes both bipartisan victories as well as stands for liberal principles. For example, she points to a bill she lobbied on behalf of that required insurance carriers to cover contraception that was sponsored by the late Sen. Jim Forrester, who was known as a staunch conservative.
"I'm happy to tell my story, and I think that many of the things that we did in a bipartisan way are things the state is proud of," Ross said.