Challenger turns health care fight personal in her congressional bid in NC

Jenny Kaplan had been sick, off and on, for years. But this was different — constant and unrelenting pain, often keeping her awake at night. Kaplan, a college student in New York at the time, found a doctor who offered a diagnosis and wrote a prescription.

But her insurance company required prior approval, meaning the risk of more days of pain and no sleep. The insurance company rep offered an alternative: buy the medicine and apply for reimbursement later.

“OK, what’s it going to cost?” said Kathy Manning, Kaplan’s mom and the Democratic candidate in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District. After a long silence, he told Manning, who was helping her daughter: “$10,000 for one month.”

After more phone calls, approval came the next day for insurance to cover the drug. Kaplan, now 26, is fully healthy and co-founder of a media company.

The episode stuck with Manning, a Greensboro lawyer and community organizer. She used it in a campaign ad, showing Jenny at various stages of her life.

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“What do people do? People who can’t take two days during the work week to fight with their insurance company. How about people who don’t know you keep fighting and they just give up and suffer?” Manning said in an interview with McClatchy at Rowan County’s Woodleaf Tomato Festival in August.

Manning, like many Democratic challengers this cycle, is running on health care — an issue that not so long ago propelled Republicans to majorities in the House and Senate. More than half of pro-Democratic ads have focused on health care this cycle, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

“This is just across the board, in district after district, the No. 1 issue,” Jeb Fain, senior communications adviser for House Majority PAC, said in a phone interview. The super PAC is linked to House Democratic leadership.

House Republicans, including Manning’s opponent, Rep. Ted Budd, voted for the American Health Care Act, which would have repealed portions of the Affordable Care Act including the mandate for people to have health insurance and subsidies for customers on the exchanges. It would have weakened, though not eliminated, coverage for pre-existing conditions — one of the most popular aspects of the ACA, often known as Obamacare.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 14 million fewer people would have health insurance in 2018 and 23 million fewer would have coverage in 2026 under the AHCA as compared to the Affordable Care Act. The bill never became law, although Congress did end the individual mandate.

“When Congress started fighting to take health insurance away from so many millions of people, I was just so angry that they were focusing on the wrong issue,” Manning said.

Budd won the district with 56 percent of the vote in 2016, but Manning’s robust fundraising and Democratic enthusiasm have put the district in play. Libertarian Tom Bailey and Green Party candidate Robert Corriher are also on the ballot in the district, which includes parts or all of Davidson, Davie, Guilford, Iredell and Rowan counties.

A recent poll by The New York Times gave Budd a 47-41 edge, and a Civitas Institute poll released Monday had Budd with 44 percent and Manning with 41 percent.

‘Does the hard work’

Manning, who turns 62 in December, was born and raised in Detroit. Her mother was a teacher; her father worked at Ford. She went to Harvard and was the co-founder of the university’s first all-female a capella group, The Radcliffe Pitches.

She graduated from University of Michigan Law School where she met her husband, Randall Kaplan. After living in Washington, the couple moved to Greensboro more than 30 years ago to help run the Kaplan family business. Kay Chemical Company, founded by Kaplan’s grandfather and built by his father, sold for a reported $38 million in 1995.

Manning, who has three grown children, practiced immigration law in Greensboro before starting her own firm. Manning said her work in immigration law involved helping small businesses, religious organizations, hospitals and schools navigate “a ridiculously complex immigration” system.

“It’s a real shame we have not had comprehensive reform. Our immigration system was built for an entirely different era,” she said. “We need secure borders. We need to protect people. But we’ve got to have a system that is built for today’s world and helps us enhance our economy.”

Manning has been active in the Greensboro community for decades. She worked on early childhood education issues with the United Way. She served as chairwoman of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro during the recession, helping people find job retraining, networking, mortgage assistance and food relief. She was the first woman to chair The Jewish Federations of North America.

“She’s the epitome of a selfless civic soldier. She’s not standing around waiting for someone to give her an award,” said Tom Terrell, a Greensboro lawyer who has known Manning and her husband for decades.

Manning has been lauded for her work as chief fundraiser on the $87.4 million Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Greensboro. The center is expected to open in 2020.

Manning’s ties to the community have helped create part of her campaign. Shirley Frye, Manning’s friend and frequent partner on civic projects, is emailing her contacts and knocking on doors to help Manning. Terrell and his wife, who have supported candidates from both major parties in the past, have invested in just one 2018 campaign: Manning’s.

Manning’s ability to raise money quickly established her in the race. Time Magazine included Manning’s photo on a January cover, titled “The Avengers,” highlighting first-time female candidates. A large, blown-up copy of the cover is in Manning’s campaign office in Greensboro. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included her in its “Red to Blue” program, reserved for “top-tier” challengers.

Manning raised $2.9 million through Sept. 30, outpacing Budd ($1.9 million) and giving her resources to launch extensive television ads and direct mail.

“We’re going to make sure that people hear our message,” Manning said.

Manning and her husband have been a player in Democratic politics, donating more than $548,000 to the Democratic Party and its candidates, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and numerous state Democratic candidates.

“I have supported great Democrats and followed them for many years,” Manning said when she launched her campaign.

In one campaign ad, Budd labeled Manning “a left-wing political insider” for her political giving. When Manning announced her intention to run, Budd’s campaign created a website that called her “Pelosi’s hand-picked candidate to run against me and buy this seat for their hard-core liberal agenda.”

“Look at her giving record and follow the money and just say nearly $1 million has been given to Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein. That explains it,” Budd said during an interview at the Gumtree Fire Department in Davidson County. “It’s quite disingenuous to come up on air and the first thing you say in your first ad is, ‘I’m not going to vote for Nancy Pelosi.’”

Manning announced in July that she would not support Pelosi for speaker should Democrats win control of the House, saying “the only way to change Washington is to change who’s in charge of Washington.” She also released an ad about her decision.

Manning donated to Pelosi twice, $500 in 2002 and $1,000 in 2004, according to campaign finance records. Her husband donated $1,500 to Pelosi as well, $1000 in 2006 and $500 in 2002. The couple has given $2,250 combined to Boxer, a former California senator, and Feinstein, a current California senator.

House Majority PAC, which is linked to Pelosi, has spent more than $21,000 against Budd so far, according to the FEC.

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‘Both sides have failed’

A lawsuit from Republican state attorneys general and supported by the Trump administration could take down the rest of the Affordable Care Act, including the mandate for coverage of pre-existing conditions. Congressional Republicans have put forward plans they say would protect pre-existing condition coverage, but there’s been little progress.

Since President Donald Trump’s election, the popularity of the ACA has surged to a 50 percent favorable rating compared to 40 percent unfavorable, according to a recent Kaiser Health Tracking poll.

Budd’s most recent ad challenges Manning on health care, claiming that she was a “liberal trial lawyer” who “defended big health care corporations, helping them get away with hurting people.” The Budd campaign cites her work as an attorney defending medical companies in several cases brought by patients negatively impacted by their products.

Manning said whenever she tells her daughter’s story, people line up to tell her their stories: having to choose between medications because they can’t afford both, people working in the medical field who can’t afford their medicines.

She wants the government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare recipients and to go after price gougers, something Manning says politicians have not done because of contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.

“It’s something where I feel both sides have failed us,” she said. “Several administrations have failed to take on the drug companies. It’s something that we have got to deal with.”

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC