State Politics

Former mayor, businessman make education focus of NC Senate District 15 race

Longtime state Sen. Neal Hunt’s retirement has set up a contest between two Raleigh civic leaders who are both making education their top issue.

Former Raleigh Mayor Tom Bradshaw, a Democrat, and businessman John Alexander, a Republican, are vying to represent Senate District 15, which extends from Wade Avenue north to Falls Lake and Wake Forest.

The district has been represented by Hunt, a Republican, for the past decade, and his Democratic opponent in 2012 scarcely had 40 percent of votes. But this year, the seat could flip parties.

As a former secretary of transportation with extensive political ties, Bradshaw started the race with a fundraising advantage. Alexander entered the campaign late, tapped by the Republican Party to replace Rep. Jim Fulghum, who withdrew his candidacy in July and later died of cancer.

Alexander and Bradshaw both have an education-oriented platform, but they disagree on whether the state’s Republican leaders are on the right track.

Bradshaw says he’s running to have a voice in education policy – something he thinks he can accomplish even as a back bencher in the minority party. “I want to have a civil conversation,” he said.

He argues that he did just that in 2011, when he lobbied Republican legislators to keep the Smart Start preschool program, which was threatened by budget cuts.

Bradshaw wants legislators to understand the impacts of classroom cuts, and he says the recent teacher raise plan didn’t go far enough. “They didn’t do right by education,” he said.

But Alexander – known to many simply as Johnny Mac – said that his fellow Republicans have improved education in the state. “They gave the teachers an average of a 7 percent pay raise,” he said. “I think the legislature did what they could, but I don’t think we’re finished there.”

While Alexander hasn’t held elected office before, the trucking company executive points to decades of civic involvement. He led fundraising efforts to put computers at Lacy, Daniels and Broughton schools in Raleigh. He’s an active fundraiser and board member of the Alexander Family YMCA (named for his family), which he calls his “biggest passion.”

Attacks fly

District 15 voters have been deluged with negative mailers sent by the two state party organizations. The N.C. Republican Party has labeled Bradshaw a “Wall Street lobbyist” who “made a living encouraging local governments to take on additional debt.”

The N.C. Democratic Party, in turn, has lobbed mailers accusing Alexander of supporting “mega-landfills,” unrestricted fracking and school budget cuts. “He’s not on our side,” the mailers claim.

In an interview, Alexander distanced himself from the negativity. “I’ve not sent out anything negative on him,” he said. “None of it has my name on it. ... I’m hoping that we can run it (the campaign) just on my merits.”

Alexander points out that claims made about him reference the actions of fellow Republicans – not comments he’s actually made. “All they can find on me is to trace me to contributions I made to Neal Hunt and Phil Berger,” he said.

For his part, Bradshaw embraces his past work as a lobbyist. “I spent all my lobbying time for the Chamber of Commerce, education, Triangle Land Conservancy and public projects,” he said.

He was last registered as a lobbyist in North Carolina in 2009 as a representative of Citigroup, state records show.

And he’s happy to explain the phrase “merchant of debt” – a 2006 Bradshaw quote that’s used heavily in attack ads. He says he has traveled the country teaching governments how to use bond financing to fund much-needed infrastructure projects.

“I was the guy telling you how to raise money,” he said.

Poll favors Bradshaw

The conservative Civitas Institute released poll numbers last month showing Bradshaw ahead by 10 percentage points, with 49 percent of registered voters saying they’d pick the former mayor.

The poll also found that Bradshaw had better name recognition. It likely doesn’t hurt that Interstate 40 through southern Raleigh bears his name, a result of his involvement in building the highway.

Bradshaw also got a head start in fundraising. By the end of June, he’d raised $40,000 and lent his campaign $130,000. Alexander’s campaign started from scratch in late July.

But the district does lean Republican, and Alexander’s views are relatively moderate. He says Duke Energy shareholders should handle the costs of coal ash cleanup. He supports fracking “if done correctly.” And he’s against legislative efforts to take zoning powers from cities and towns.

“I think some small-business sense up there might help out,” he said. “You’ve got to reach across the aisle.”