In 2008, Jim Neal ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, taking a long-shot swing as a Chapel Hill investment banker with scant name recognition and zero experience on the campaign trail.
Few that year wanted to challenge Elizabeth Dole, the incumbent and a star in Republican circles, but Neal faced an even tougher trial because he is gay – the first openly homosexual candidate to seek statewide election in North Carolina.
On the way to losing in the primary, finishing a distant second to Kay Hagan, Neal says he endured a string of painful punches to the ribs: fundraisers that got suddenly canceled, endorsements that mysteriously dried up, promised checks in the mail that never arrived.
Across the state, he recalls, he heard this mantra from important political players: “A gay man can’t win in North Carolina.”
But here’s the shocker: As Neal looks back after eight years, he believes the biggest obstacle to him becoming the first gay senator came from his fellow Democrats, not the Republicans now taking flak for HB2. The party that prides itself on inclusiveness, he says, shut him out.
“It really hurt,” said Neal, 59. “I stood up for this party. Democrats aren’t supposed to be taking out Democrats. I was really bitter that there wasn’t a level playing field. It was personal. Who I am. What I am. It wasn’t about, ‘Am I a good candidate?’ or the ability to raise money. None of that. … It was the same old fear-mongering.”
But Neal refuses to remain a political afterthought eight years later, when gender and sexuality still dominate his home state’s civic affairs. With HB2 targeting the transgender community, he wants to speak from experience about being a target of political bullies.
On my worst day, I never had it as bad as transgender people across this country. HB2 is really laser focused, targeting for political purposes people who are incredibly vulnerable, people who are incredibly marginalized, people who are incredibly scared.
Jim Neal, who ran for the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2008
“On my worst day, I never had it as bad as transgender people across this country,” he said. “HB2 is really laser focused, targeting for political purposes people who are incredibly vulnerable, people who are incredibly marginalized, people who are incredibly scared and people who have rates of suicide that are off the chart.”
Thomas Mills revisited Neal’s 2008 run last week in his post for the “PoliticsNC” blog. Mills recalled Neal pitching the idea of his candidacy in 2007, when Mills was a campaign manager.
Neal was smart, well-informed, good-looking, had a commanding presence and had experience raising piles of money for both John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004, Mills wrote. Still, he added, “The world was different then. We hadn’t had much of the marriage equality debate and the idea of a gay U.S. Senate candidate seemed far-fetched. In early meetings, we tried to talk him out of it. We had long discussions about the impact on him and his family. Jim, though, was determined.”
Neal was the first Democrat to join the race. Hagan had said publicly in October 2007 that she wouldn’t be running. Shortly after that announcement, Neal’s sexuality surfaced for the first time as he answered a question about it during an online forum with the liberal blog NCBlue. The News & Observer followed with a front-page story.
“I went from being wealthy Chapel Hill investment banker Jim Neal to gay Jim Neal,” he said. “It was novel. It was new. That was all fair game. I was naive. I didn’t want anybody whispering it. I wanted people shouting it.”
Days later, Hagan said she would reconsider running. She declined to comment on why she was taking a second look.
But for Neal, Democrats soon turned a cold shoulder.
The word on him trickled down from U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, he said, who as the head of the committee to elect Senate Democrats, warned potential donors to hold off until a more electable candidate could be found. “It was an open secret,” Neal said. Durham activist Pam Spaulding called Schumer’s snub “shameful,” noting that Neal’s phone calls went unreturned, according to Bob Geary’s report in The Independent weekly newspaper at the time.
Schumer’s office in Washington, though, said on Friday that Neal’s recollection is flatly false.
“Completely untrue,” said Schumer spokesman Matt House. “The (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) was looking for candidates with legislative experience before Mr. Neal entered the race and before he discussed his personal life. His sexuality was never a factor.”
The senator’s staff pointed to the same story in The Independent that said Schumer had been courting both Hagan and state Rep. Grier Martin as candidates before Neal’s candidacy.
Neal also recalled meeting with Asheville philanthropist Adelaide Key, a member of the Daniels family that once owned the The N&O. Neal said Kay made a verbal promise to hold a fundraiser. But soon after their meetings, he couldn’t get Key, who died in 2014, to return his phone calls.
Jim Long, the former state insurance commissioner who died in 2009, told Neal he would send out a news release announcing his endorsement. He backed off. All of the big-name Democrats in the state backed Hagan, twisting arms of even Neal’s friends, he recalled.
Jim never got the support from the LGBT establishment – the professional gays, as he called them – but did receive support from other less expected places, like older Democrats who we thought would be more conservative on the issue.
Thomas Mills, writing on the ‘PoliticsNC’ blog
“Jim never got the support from the LGBT establishment – the professional gays, as he called them – but did receive support from other less expected places, like older Democrats who we thought would be more conservative on the issue,” Mills wrote. “Jim obviously didn’t win the primary but he did introduce a lot of young people to politics. I still work with people who first got into politics because Jim Neal ran for Senate. Jim always said he didn’t want to be a cause candidate or ‘the gay candidate.’ But to some people, he was a cause. He was the first openly gay candidate to run for statewide office in North Carolina.”
After the primary loss, Neal met Art Pope at the NCAA championship in Detroit, and he said the state’s conservative kingpin told him, “It was awful what the Democrats did to me.”
Reached Friday, Pope said he recalled meeting Neal in Detroit but not that specific conversation, which didn’t sound like something he would say. “I really don’t opine on how Democrats treat each other in primaries,” he said.
Neal felt abandoned, unwanted and untouchable. He fell into heavy drug use. He moved to Chicago, where he’d gone to graduate school, for a few years.
“It takes a toll,” Neal said. “You don’t escape it. It’s so demeaning to be defined just by your sexual orientation.”
And now, returned to Raleigh as the co-founder of a startup business and recovered from his drug problems, Neal is weighing in heavily on the side of the transgender community. He went and got arrested Monday while protesting HB2, because he said he knows how it feels to a political target, alienated and afraid.
He’s been through it before.