Rob Christensen

Christensen: Kevin Griffin likes role of outsider

Kevin Griffin
Kevin Griffin

At a time when outsiders are doing well in presidential politics, Kevin Griffin hopes that North Carolina voters will be looking for something different in next year’s U.S. Senate race as well.

Griffin, a 44-year-old Durham small businessman, thinks the public’s dissatisfaction with Washington, gridlock and politics as usual will cause voters to look beyond the usual set of candidates.

“I think people are open to the outsider,” Griffin said an interview last week. “But more importantly, because they are open to the outsider they are listening to the different opinions. It is not as tied so much to the ideology of one extreme or other.

“Pew Research said last week that Congress has 19 percent approval rating,” Griffin said. “If eight out of 10 people are unhappy with the job, why do we keep sending the same type of person up there? You have to make some kind of change. Otherwise expecting a difference is insanity.”

That is why Griffin is seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate in the March 15 primary along with former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh and Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey. The winner will challenge Republican Sen. Richard Burr next November.

Voters may very well wonder: Kevin who? Griffin has never been involved in politics before, let alone run for office.

A native of Burlington, Griffin grew up several Piedmont towns. His parents were schoolteachers who after teaching 20 years started five staffing companies that at their height had 1,100 full-time employees and nearly 2,000 temporary workers.

Griffin, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, learned the business working for his parents before he and his ex-wife started their own staffing agency, Avant Group LLC, in Durham in 2002. He has four full-time employees and a consultant working for him, and he helps match up temporary and permanent workers with employers.

He said he began thinking about the Senate race when few people came forward to run against Burr.

“A lot of the frustration that I have as a small businessperson comes from the gridlock that seems to be present in Washington right now,” Griffin said. “As a businessman my role is to be between the client companies that I work with and the candidates that I represent. It’s my job to bring those two people together in a collaborative environment. That skill is something that seems to be missing in D.C. right now.

“My politics are North Carolinian,” he said. “They are very much in the middle.”

Griffin says he would bring a small businessperson’s perspective to the Senate. For example, while he supports the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare, he would work for changes to make it workable for small businesses.

He is also looking for ways to expand the Small Business Administration, to provide more capital for people who want to start or grow small businesses.

Having worked through his business to place veterans, Griffin is also offering a detailed plan for helping vets that includes expanded VA-medical paid access to private providers, local internships for vets with local businesses before they leave the service and stepped-up mental health counseling.

Griffin said he views himself as “a little more centrist” than either Ross or Rey. “I would describe myself as socially Democratic and more conservative on the fiscal side of things, with a focus on individual responsibility.

“One of the most important factors to look at is: Who can be the most competitive in November?” Griffin said. “I think I have the most compelling story for that because I have the experiences through business to be able to function as a senator, but I don’t have the baggage that necessarily comes with someone like Deborah and her background, although she has done great service for the state. But she has done it (with) what is typically used by the Republican Party as polarized positions. If I were Richard Burr, Deborah is one I want to run against because she is an easier target.”

He said he has a different mindset because he is a businessmen, and both Ross and Rey are attorneys. He said he is more interested in problem solving than engaging in debates.

Griffin plans to open a campaign office Monday, subletting a space with his business just outside the Research Triangle Park. He has hired as his lead consultant Brian Lewis, president of New Frame, who formerly worked as a lobbyist for the N.C. Association of Educators. Lewis has mainly worked for congressional and legislative candidates.

He has also hired Ashley Morrison of Abundant Marketing in Cary to handle his social media and is talking with other consultants.

As a goal, Griffin hopes to raise between $1 million and $1.2 million for the primary. He said the money will be raised, not self-financed.

Griffin said he sees the Democratic primary as wide open with neither of his opponents starting with statewide name recognition that a newcomer like himself must overcome.

“The openness toward the outside candidate, the nontraditional person, is a window for me to be able to look in through,” Griffin said.