New law school graduate Bill Faison came home from dinner one midsummer night to news from a state trooper that both his parents had been killed in a car crash on their way to the beach. His teenage sister, Teresa, was gravely injured, and another young passenger was hurt.
He had just completed a Bar exam review course that day.
Faison, the family’s oldest child, retrieved his college-age sister from a trip overseas, arranged to move Teresa from a Wilmington hospital to Chapel Hill, and buried his parents. He took the Bar exam 10 days after the accident and passed.
“Bill was one of those guys who can analyze the situation and do what needs to be done,” said Teresa Faison Hale, who lives in Wake Forest.
Faison, 65, has a habit of facing challenging circumstances and powering through them, not wavering from his goals. That determination is on display now, as he campaigns for governor despite abysmal poll numbers and the public airing of the messy details of his second marriage.
Faison remains confident he’ll top the crowded Democratic primary field that includes Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge and beat GOP candidate Pat McCrory in November.
“I think when you put the three of us side by side in a debate, I believe you’ll come to the conclusion that the person best able to win for the Democrats is me,” he said.
Still, polls show Faison, a four-term House member from northern Orange County,with less support than some of his fellow competitors who, unlike him, haven’t run television ads and haven’t been crossing the state for months talking about ways to increase employment.
A longtime dream
Faison got an early start in politics as a Teen Democrat, and talks a lot about being student council president at Raleigh’s Enloe High School and a member of the student government at UNC-Chapel Hill. A former high school debate team member, Faison said he knew early that he wanted to be a lawyer because he recognized it as a profession that would blend well with his ambitions to serve in public office.
“He’s always dreamed of being the governor of this state,” said Ed Tart, one of Faison’s cousins. Growing up in Knightdale, the two worked on the family farm over summers barning tobacco. When they talked of future careers, Faison said he wanted to be a lawyer, and Tart, a detective.
After his parents’ accident, Faison moved from his home outside Chapel Hill back to his parents’ house in Knightdale and was at home for his sister when she was released from the hospital that fall. He helped arrange for his parents’ best friends to move into the family home and raise her.
He married and became a father while an undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill. He and his first wife worked. She left college for a while, then returned part time. He continued at Chapel Hill and graduated on time. He worked his second and third years of law school, at times holding multiple jobs. “I was going about as hard as I could go,” he said. That marriage ended after nearly 14 years and two children.
Faison built lucrative law practices specializing in medical malpractice. He also has varied business interests that include commercial real estate, a construction company, a farm, and land development company.
His second ex-wife’s court action to invalidate their prenuptial agreement says Faison is worth at least $15 million. He has declined to release his tax returns. The court documents paint an unflattering picture of their marriage and include mutual allegations of infidelity.
A man of his own ideas
Faison lost his first run for the legislature, coming in fourth in a four-way, 1990 primary for a Durham House district that elected three representatives. In those days, some districts elected more than one person. Faison said he learned from that loss about local politics and how to organize a campaign.
In 2004, having moved to Orange County, he ran in a four-way primary in a different district that includes parts of Caswell and Orange counties. He won, loaning his campaign $159,000. The $178,000 he spent in that race more than tripled the spending of the second-place finisher, writer and local politician Barry Jacobs.
Faison has shown a continued willingness to self-finance, having loaned his primary campaign more than $510,000 over the last few months.
In the legislature, Faison is known less for the laws he’s helped fashion than for his comments in floor debates, some of which have drawn laughter or angry responses from other members, including fellow Democrats.
Faison is eager to talk about his ideas and has been known to break from the Democratic pack to carve his own path. But his legislative record is thin, and he hasn’t run any major committees such as budget or finance.
He highlights his effort to expand broadband services to rural counties, but no new state laws resulted. During the 2009 legislative session, when Democrats controlled the House, Faison was ranked 41 out of 119 members in a survey of legislators’ effectiveness conducted by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.
Passing legislation is not the only way to exert influence, said Rep. Kelly Alexander of Charlotte, one of two House members who have endorsed Faison. Committee chairmen can also influence the action, he said. “You don’t have to be the primary sponsor in order for you to be involved to make sure important pieces of legislation go through,” Alexander said.
The cornerstone of Faison’s message is a jobs plan. He would increase the state sales tax and use the money to rehire teachers and other public employees and restore health services. He also proposes to close tax loopholes that benefit multi-state corporations and develop a tax cut for small businesses that will encourage them to hire workers.
Focused on ‘the possibility’
Faison has for years sought a more prominent role in the legislature and in the Democratic Party. He floated a candidacy for House speaker at the end of 2006, but ended up supporting a colleague. He ran for state Democratic Party chairman last year, losing to David Parker. Faison started traveling the state pitching the jobs plan before Gov. Bev Perdue announced she was not going to seek re-election.
It’s not clear when he decided to run for governor, but he’s been thinking for years about how to get to that office.
In 2005, Faison cast the sole Democratic vote against the state budget because it raised the tax on cigarettes by 25 cents a pack. He said at the time he was “considering the possibility” of a run for governor.
Seven years later, there’s no incumbent running. But Faison is facing primary opponents with more political experience who espouse positions on issues similar to his. He criss-crosses the state at invitations to address crowds, hoping to deliver debate performances that will clear his path to the State Capitol.