RALEIGH — When Democratic gubernatorial nominee Walter Dalton gave his acceptance speech after capturing his party’s nomination earlier this month, he shared the stage with his sister – the two of them composing one of the odd couples of Tar Heel politics.
Dalton, although a moderate, is a die-hard Democrat, raised by a father who was a local wheel in Democratic politics.
His sister, Laura Neely, spent her courting days at Republican meetings, is married to former Republican gubernatorial candidate Chuck Neely, and is herself the former state chairman of Citizens for Reagan.
But on primary night, Dalton was emotional as he singled out his big sister for special praise.
“My sister is here,” he said. “She taught me to read, write and speak, and to tie my shoes. If I haven’t done a good job, you can blame her.”
Neely, for her part, put up a Dalton for Governor sign in her Raleigh yard during the primary show to support.
“Mother always taught him to care about people,” Neely said. “I think he is so in touch with North Carolina.”
The two grew up in the Rutherford County town of Spindale, located in the rolling textile country west of Charlotte.
They got their interest in politics from their parents. Their father, Charles, a former state senator and a county Democratic chairman received a call from Gov. Luther Hodges asking him if he wanted the appointment to a vacancy to insurance commissioner, Neely said. He told the governor that if he accepted the appointment, it would be as a prelude for a future run for governor. Instead, he turned down the appointment, deciding to spend more time with his family. As it turned out, he had less than a year to live, dying of a heart attack at age 51.
“It was shocking,” Neely recalled. “I remember Walter came and got on my bed. As you can imagine, it was really, really traumatic. It made us even closer.”
They became that much closer. Laura was 14, and Walter was 8. The two were raised by their mother, Amanda, a former school teacher.
Neely attended his games when he played high school football, basketball and baseball and helped him with his homework
“Laura was a brilliant student,” Dalton said. “I was a good student.”
When they became adults, their politics diverged, but their devotion to each otherdid not.
Laura Dalton met Chuck Neely, a young Republican lawyer, and they went to political meetings on many of their dates. He was the state Young Republicans chairman when they got married.
“When Chuck and I started dating, I didn’t know any Republicans really,” Neely said. “All of North Carolina was Democrat. I’m pretty conservative. I do believe in voting for the good man. Neither party has the lock on all the good people.”
Chuck Neely once wrote his future mother-in-law on Republican stationary, and the postman rang her doorbell and said “Mrs. Dalton, this can’t be for you.” And she said, “Yes it is. The boy Laura is going to marry is a Republican. It’s the only bad thing I’ve heard about him.”
Laura Neely changed her registration to Republican, chaired Citizens for Reagan in 1976, and worked on Jim Martin’s gubernatorial campaign in 1984 and for Elizabeth Dole’s Senate campaign in 2002.
“I was truly committed to Ronald Reagan,” she said.
Neely said she is now unaffiliated. Her husband, who served in the state House, unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for governor in 2000, and chaired Citizens Against the Lottery in 2002, has been understanding of her enthusiasm for her brother’s career.
“Chuck is great,” Neely said. “We just don’t talk too much about it. But I did tell somebody who was on me kind of hard the other night, when Chuck was running for governor, he had a slogan: Family First. So that’s my slogan, family first.”