Pam Spaulding

North Carolina, Jim Neal's U.S. Senate bid and the big picture

Filed By Pam Spaulding | May 07, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Democrat primaries, election 2008, Jim Neal, North Carolina, U.S. Senate

Obama bested Hillary Clinton with ease last night here in NC, and you can see plenty of analysis about that all over the blogosphere. On primary night I liveblogged from Southern Rail in Carrboro, where U.S. Senate candidate Jim Neal held his after-party. Here are some thoughts from the evening -- and observations about the big picture.

Folks gathering for the party at Southern Rail.

It was a festive atmosphere, even as results came in that made it pretty clear state Senator Kay Hagan would cross the finish line with a lot of distance between her and Jim, and she will face the useless, ineffective Elizabeth Dole in November.

Around 9:45 PM Jim Neal arrived, and he came right over to thank me for all the blogging support -- and by extension, the netroots folks who supported him in this uphill historic race.

He pulled about 20% against Hagan, and he won two counties, Yancey and McDowell, both in the western part of the state. I told campaign folks at this bash the bottom line is that, while he had a great ground operation, Jim didn't run any ads on TV, and for many low-information voters, an ad may be the only way you reach them. Kay Hagan, with all the DSCC-generated money, could cruise on ads.

For those of you with shorter memories, Jim Neal was running neck and neck with Kay Hagan in the polls and was polling well against Dole up until April (see here, here and here). What happened? Kay Hagan then started running her TV ads. However, anyone who saw the televised debate (something Sen. Hagan desperately tried to avoid) knows who was the stronger candidate and who possessed better command of the issues.

Another large factor here is endorsements, particularly black PACs. There are a lot of rings to kiss, and while Jim received the endorsement of the Independent Weekly, the large progressive newspaper here, he didn't get the nod from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and others like it, these hold a good deal of sway here. When I went to the polls on primary day, the majority of black voters going in with me had the Committee's endorsement card in hand, not the tear-out from the Indy.

And finally, as we've discussed so many times before here, Jim Neal didn't receive any kind of nod from the Beltway LGBT orgs (oh, say HRC, for an example) -- as you've seen, they focus heavily on viability, and less on advocacy. There is an imbalance when there cannot be room for supporting progress regardless of outcome in Red states -- going for the sure win (or just-miss) becomes more important. We're not talking about writing a check, but supporting candidacies that are groundbreaking. To say you've got to start off with enough $cratch to win out of the box (as in "come talk to us when you've raised a $1 million"), that's a viability issue, not an indication that it's worth moving the ball forward. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you know there are folks in the ivory tower in DC gloating over the margin of victory, full of bravado of the "I told you so" -- well guess what -- that attitude is part of the problem you have with the grassroots. Get out of the sterile, self-stroking environment; it's not becoming.

The goals of "advocacy" (and it has to be used loosely here) and lobbying are sometimes incompatible in this regard; we do need clarity -- and we need LGBT orgs that don't have to play this balancing act with donors and insiders. And as far as the DSCC is concerned, well, there's not much more you can say about Chuck's machine.

This race was so important to the LGBT community here, and no one left downtrodden about the race Jim ran, because we know that we moved the ball forward (even without the help from those who say that they speak for us); our civil rights issues are no longer in the closet in a NC political race.

Here is Jim Neal's gracious and thoughtful post-primary speech:

I crossposted the above entry to BlueNC and it generated this comment:

Jim's race was never about LGBT equality. It was always about just plain old equality. Equality for the poor. Equality for Blacks and Whites, Hispanics and Asians. Plain Old Equality.

Jim ran a great race, I was proud to vote for him. I look forward to seeing Dole lose in the fall, and I pray that the US Senate becomes even just a little more concerned about equality because of Jim's campaign.

My response:

I won't disagree with you there, he did run on a "full equality for all" agenda. That's the general (and correct) political perspective. I was speaking from my soapbox as member of the LGBT community. Jim's race was significant because it didn't focus on his sexual orientation. Remember, he could have chosen not to run as an openly gay man. As we know, it happens all the time. Why we have already had gay representation on the Hill from inside the closet, right? We have enough self-loathing elected gay folks who have no interest in promoting equality.

Those of us in the LGBT community who supported Jim's candidacy know that visibility matters, and when in the closet, our issues tend to remain closeted, particularly in the south. The presidential Democratic candidates learned between 2004 and 2008 that they could openly discuss LGBT issues without the earth opening up and swallowing them. That's how you move the ball forward on every level. Running openly means the issues make it to the table for all the candidates running. When the issues can be discussed, it means you create a dialogue to reframe the issues for those unaccustomed to dealing with them, including Dem and GOP candidates at every level of elective office. The next race is then easier. Others can follow.

I cannot tell you how many prominent LGBT activists, loyal Dems I have heard from who were appalled at the way Jim was treated behind the scenes by HRC and Beltway entities. The HRC endorsement debacle was the last straw for many LGBT activists, because it generated honest "WTF" questions from straight progressive allies, who were perplexed as to the lack of support. It's painful to have to explain to allies that our main advocacy organization has viability in mind ahead of supporting trailblazing because of its dual role as a lobbying organization interested in reinforcing its ties to the Hill and party/DC infrastructure. Not that the latter is evil or anything (since legislative advancement is extremely important), but it ties the organization's hands in the case of true advocacy time after time.

We down here at the grassroots level need national LGBT leadership that can focus on advocacy without those ties -- and has equal gravitas as HRC, because its sheer size and presence means the ally community and the MSM automatically assume it speaks for the LGBT community at large, which of course helps it maintain and/or grow HRC's size and pre$ence. Save an advocacy counterweight, we are hampered as a movement, as we've seen, when it comes to efforts like this race.

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Well, I and my wife voted for him. Now we just hope Hagan can beat Dole.

I'm very proud of Jim just for making it as far as he did with little help from the LGBT establishment. I left a comment on Chuck's post asking why Victory Fund didn't support Jim.

The one thing everyone can agree on? Dole needs to be run out of town on a rail.

I'm glad he made it that far, and you're right about that attitude from beltway folks. They want a strong grassroots to get out the vote but they don't want to give them anything in return.