Commentary

Christensen: Durham's Spaulding makes quest for governor

rchristensen@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2014 

— Ken Spaulding is a political long distance runner.

Nearly three years before the 2016 North Carolina governor’s election, Spaulding has been on the campaign trail for months, has printed up campaign literature, and has a campaign office in a suburban office park.

Spaulding figures he needs a running start if he going to become the state’s first African-American governor. Many in the Democratic Party have already anointed Attorney General Roy Cooper as the next Democratic nominee. And whoever is the Democratic nominee, will have to face a sitting governor, Republican Pat McCrory.

Thirty years ago, Spaulding served three-terms in the state House and in 1984 unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Tim Valentine. Since then, Spaulding has worked as a land development attorney helping with such developments as the Streets of Southpoint shopping center. He also served on the State Board of Transportation.

He is also a member of a prominent family. His father, Asa Spaulding, was president of N.C. Mutual Insurance Co., one of the largest black-owned businesses in the country.

All of that makes Spaulding a well-known figure in Durham, but he lacks statewide exposure. So he has been moving around the state, trying to line up support and raise money.

“I don’t believe in running just to run,” Spaulding said. “I believe in running to win. I always try to outwork my adversaries in work or track or whatever. I am not afraid of taking the time to get out with the voters and basically upset the establishment.”

Among his models, Spaulding said, is President Barack Obama, who was considered a long shot when he started his run for the presidency in 2008.

Spaulding is using his business contacts to build a broad bi-racial coalition and attempting to pull together the old Obama organization in the state. Whether he has enough political weight to do the latter – the way, say, a more prominent black figure such as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, or state Sen. Dan Blue, a former state House Speaker, could – remains to be seen.

He also starts behind in the money race.

Spaulding has raised $102,000 compared to $589,000 for Cooper, according to campaign reports filed for the last six months of 2013. But Spaulding noted that he did not begin raising money until mid-September.

Spaulding said he will always have difficulty raising more money than a four-term attorney general. Perhaps a larger barrier, Spaulding says, is convincing people that he is a serious candidate since he hasn’t held public office in recent years.

Spaulding said he is motivated to run for governor because the Republican leadership seems to care little for regular citizens. He is particularly angered by the GOP’s treatment of teachers, state employees, students, working people and the poor.

“I’m not interested in running to become the first African-American governor,” Spaulding said. “My desire is to be a very effective governor of this state who will answer the needs of the people of this state who are hurting, and who are feeling ignored, and who are feeling dismissed by so many politicians today.”

Spaulding is for raising teacher salaries to the top 10 percent, giving children the textbooks they need, ensuring that all qualified voters can vote, extending unemployment benefits and expanding Medicaid benefits.

“I will speak out on these issues, and I will not be controlled by the political bosses,” Spaulding said.

He said he is a better messenger than Cooper. He notes that Cooper has a dual role of both candidate and attorney general, where his office represents the state. That has put Cooper in the politically awkward position of speaking out on the campaign trail for Democratic issues, while his office defends laws such as voter ID that were passed by a Republican legislature.

The GOP, Spaulding argues, will be able to portray Cooper in TV ads as being “a John Kerry flip-flop” on both sides of an issue.

The question will get to be: “Where does he really stand?” Spaulding said. “Who is he really?”

What the Democrats need, Spaulding argues, is a candidate who can take on the Republicans “in an unbridled manner.”

If he gets past Cooper, then he would try to become the first person to defeat a sitting North Carolina governor.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a sitting governor who has been as inept in his management style and as inept in terms of his policies and who has underperformed as this sitting governor has,” Spaulding said.

“We need an unfettered Democratic nominee who can take on a strong Republican,” Spaulding said. “I just don’t think the anointed nominee would be able to carry that case.”

But to accomplish that, Spaulding must convince Democratic voters that being out of public office since the 1980s is no impediment.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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