Editor's note: This is the third in a series of profiles of the major candidates for U.S. Senate from North Carolina. On Monday, Libertarian Michael Beitler was profiled, and on Tuesday Republican Sen. Richard Burr was profiled.
CHARLOTTE -- When she was in her early 30s, Elaine Marshall faced a critical juncture. Her marriage was breaking up. She wasn't getting rich with her decorating business. And she was outraged when she went to the bank for a business loan and was told she needed her husband's signature.
"I figured I was just going to have to reinvent myself," Marshall recalled. "I needed a new me."
For Marshall that meant going back to law school, a move that would eventually lead her into politics - a term in the state Senate, election as secretary of state, and her bid this year to unseat Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
Marshall's life has been more like a zigzag than a straight line, and it has involved far more than politics.
When she visits Cotswald Elementary School in Charlotte, she tells students that she once taught school. When she talks about small businesses on WFAE public radio, she recalls that she once ran decorating and bookshop businesses in Dunn and Kinston.
Heads nod when she talks about how the laws have sometimes been stacked against women. Her audiences often have a disproportionate share of 50-something women, who make up her most loyal cadre of supporters. They know she has seen some hard times, having buried her last two husbands and divorced her first.
"She brought tears to my eyes," says Evelyn Ellis, a 53-year-old licensed mental health therapist from Charlotte after listening to Marshall.
"She is so well-rounded," Ellis adds. "She has been a teacher, a small-business person. She has life experiences in so many areas."
At Bill Ellis' Barbecue in Wilson, Judy Davenport, a 61-year-old retired educator from Snow Hill, turned out to see Marshall speak at a campaign breakfast. She doesn't know Marshall. But she says she knows Marshall.
"I feel like I can call her and talk about the issues," says Davenport.
Marshall, 64, is right at home working the barbecue joints. She is a natural at old-fashioned grass-roots politics, seemingly unguarded, self-deprecating, with a style as plain and comfortable as an old brown loafer.
From the country
She comes by her friendliness naturally. Elaine Folk is country, raised on a Maryland farm that produced corn, wheat, hay and chickens. She learned to slop the hogs and drive a tractor by 12. She graded, sorted and candled the eggs, and canned beans, peaches and pickles.
In most speeches, Marshall gives credit to the 4-H Clubs for opening up a wider world to her, allowing her to become the first in her family to attend college. She majored in home economics, intending to become a 4-H agent.
"We are old enough to have been born in time period when there weren't many options for women in terms of careers," says Aldra Sirott, a childhood friend who is a retired public schoolteacher in Clifton, Va. "She had a strong background in domestic skills: She sewed and cooked. Those were the skills that were promoted for women in our community."
It was also through the 4-H that she met her future husband, John T. Capps III, a North Carolinian whom she met in a 4-H program in Washington D.C. Marshall started a new life in Kinston, where she was a home economics teacher for a year and where she ran a gift shop and bookshop owned by her husband's family. She later moved to the Harnett County town of Dunn.
For the next decade, she taught design and decorating at three community colleges, while also starting her own clothing and furniture design businesses. An accomplished seamstress, she at one time made all of her clothes, and also had a side business making or altering debutante gowns, and making clothing for the handicapped.
Marshall made her ball gown for her first inaugural as secretary of state.
Her Dunn decorating business turned garages into dens and had as many as five employees. But she remembers the humiliation of being told by a local bank that if she wanted a line of credit to purchase fabric, she would need her husband's signature.
By the late 1970s, her marriage was breaking apart. Capps, a motivational speaker, was the celebrity in the marriage. As founder of Bald Headed Men of America, he was frequently quoted in news stories. She says they "just grew apart" and divorced in 1980.
She was decorating the home of the law school dean of Campbell University when the idea of going to law school was broached. Getting through law school, Marshall says, was "the hardest thing I ever did."
Woman on the move
The 1970s were also the period of the burgeoning women's movement. North Carolina had for much of its history lagged behind the rest of the country in extending rights to women; in the late 1970s the legislature was the scene of highly pitched battles that saw the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Marshall said she saw North Carolina's laws stacked against half of the population. North Carolina's laws, she says, were "outrageous."
"At that time, if a woman brought real property into a marriage," Marshall says, "she had no right to control it. Women could be booted off their own property, property they owned under North Carolina law."
Since then, Marshall has sought to improve life for women.
As a Dunn lawyer, she was instrumental in creating the first rape crisis center in Harnett County - moved in part by domestic law cases she handled, according to friends.
She lobbied the legislature to require insurance companies to cover mammograms and pap smears. During her one term in the state Senate, her signature legislative accomplishment was outlawing marital rape - North Carolina was the last state in the country that allowed husbands to rape their wives.
At a recent political fundraiser at Charlotte's Duke Mansion, there is an uncharacteristic edge in Marshall's voice as she lists the things she has tried to do for women, while comparing them with votes that her opponent has cast.
"Sen. Burr stood with big corporations against fair pay for women," Marshall tells the crowd. "He just doesn't get it on women's issues."
Marshall has long been interested in Democratic politics, serving in her 20s as a Democratic National Committeewoman and as national secretary of the Young Democrats of America.
For years she worked in the Democratic Party's vineyards, paying her dues, speaking at party functions.
She has been successful in politics. Her biggest moment came in 1996, when she defeated NASCAR legend Richard Petty to become the first woman elected to statewide executive office in North Carolina. She also won election to the state Senate in 1992 in a conservative-leaning small town Eastern district.
But Marshall has never quite reached stardom. She lost her first state House race in 1988, lost re-election to her state Senate seat during the 1994 Republican sweep, and finished a distant third when she sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2002.
She has easily won re-election as secretary of state, for which she makes $123,198 per year. She has a home in West Raleigh where she relaxes by gardening or baking bread.
While Marshall maintains an upbeat attitude in public, she has battled personal tragedy. Her second husband, Sol Marshall, a retired Navy military officer whom she met at Campbell law school, died of cancer in 1999. They had been married 16 years.
Her third husband, William Holdford, a Wilson lawyer, died in November, also of cancer, after eight years of marriage.
Friends say she has a basic internal strength and sense of purpose.
Marshall entered the Senate campaign as her husband was battling incurable cancer, but with his full backing and encouragement.
Two weeks before he died, the doctor in Chapel Hill told him to focus on what was important in his remaining days.
"Bill pumped his fist in the air and said, 'Right Doc. That's the campaign,'" Marshall recalls.
After the death of Sol Marshall, Marshall says she spent too much time at home thinking about her loss, which she thinks was a mistake. This time, two weeks after her husband's death, she was back on the campaign trail.
"For me," Marshall says, "the best medicine, the best way to grieve, is to do things that have meaning and purpose. I've got to stay busy. When you know there is pain coming in all things in life, you insulate yourself. I know that working and having a challenge is the best thing for me."
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