Rob Christensen

Christensen: Chris Rey’s underdog Senate campaign

Chris Rey, mayor of Spring Lake, is a candidate for U.S. Senate.
Chris Rey, mayor of Spring Lake, is a candidate for U.S. Senate. rwillett@newsobserver.com

When Chris Rey decided to return to Spring Lake several years ago, it was to help his hometown get back on its feet.

Spring Lake is a working-class town of 13,000 with an African-American majority located in the shadows of Fort Bragg, with the rough history that sometimes goes with military bases. Things were made worse by a corruption scandal back in 2007 that resulted in the police department being stripped of its authority and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office taking over patrolling and felony investigations.

So when some of his old friends asked Rey, one of the local kids who had made something of himself, to return from Virginia to run for mayor, he did. He beat the 10-year incumbent, receiving 76 percent of the vote. This month Rey, 38, was re-elected to his third term without opposition

Now Rey has his sights set on the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Richard Burr. He is seeking the Democratic nomination in next March’s primary against former state Rep. Deborah Ross and Durham businessman Kevin Griffin.

As a small-town mayor who has yet to prove he can raise money, Rey starts the race as a self-acknowledged underdog. But Rey will be running in a March 15 primary in which as much as 45 percent of the electorate will be African-American, and Rey does have a story to tell.

A native of St. Thomas, Rey moved to Fayetteville at age 8 to be raised by his grandmother, and two years later moved to Spring Lake, growing up in and around the trailer parks. There he was a high school All-American, where he was on a state championship relay team, and received a track scholarship to East Carolina University. It was in college that he became politically active, inspired by Rep. Eva Clayton.

After college, Rey enlisted in the Army and after two years was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps. He served tours of duty in Iraq (2004) and Afghanistan (2006), earning a Bronze Star.

After seven years, Rey left the Army and earned a law degree from the College of William & Mary. He joined the Virginia National Guard, where he is still a major, commuting back and forth from Spring Lake one weekend a month. He did cybersecurity policy work for the Defense Department for four years before moving to North Carolina in 2011. He now is executive director of a nonprofit, called Cumberland Healthnet, which coordinates health care for the uninsured.

Rey said he began thinking about running for the Senate because of anger over the effects budget sequestration was having on Fort Bragg, for which Burr voted.

“I saw a lot of guys lose their jobs at Fort Bragg, which creates challenges we have had in our community,” Rey said. “These were jobs that were gate guards and maintenance folks cutting the grass. Now we have soldiers doing all those jobs now. We have those challenges because we have elected officials who didn’t stand up and didn’t do the right thing.”

Because of his current job, Rey also sees the value of the Affordable Care Act and the importance of making available health insurance. He said there may need to be some changes in the act, but that doesn’t undermine the importance of health insurance.

Rey said he saw someone the other day who was earning just over $12,000 per year, but was making $5 per week over the poverty level, and therefore was not eligible for Medicaid health insurance. “It’s amazing to me that our elected officials in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., don’t know that these people exist.

“As mayor, I see hardworking men and hardworking women who are barely making it,” Rey said. “They are doing the right thing. But my senators, for some reason, have not championed those voices. There is a huge segment of the population whose needs are not being addressed.”

Rey, who is still working full time, has begun moving around the state trying to raise money. He has set up a campaign office in Fayetteville and hired a campaign manager, Christopher Smith, who has worked on a campaign for a Georgia congressman and several governor races.

His media consultant is Fletcher Rowley of Nashville, Tenn., who has worked with such Senate candidates as Bob Clement of Tennessee and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. In North Carolina, the firm has worked for former Rep. Larry Kissell.

His pollster is Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research & Study of Washington, D.C. Belcher was the first African-American to be the pollster for the Democratic National Committee. He was also part of the polling team in Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns.

If Rey wants further political advice, he can turn to his wife, Adwoa Rey, a former congressional staffer who is founder and president of Faith Link Inc., an organization that works with church leaders to encourage their engagement in voting.

The couple, who have three children, met in 2007, at a Democratic Retreat Issue Party.

They were one of several couples profiled in the Valentine’s Day 2013 issue of The Root, a national online newspaper catering to the black community, in an article featuring “up and coming black power couples on our radar.”

The headline: “The Next Obamas? Black, Powerful, in Love.”

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack

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