Chapel Hill resident Jim Neal is running to unseat Elizabeth Dole.
CHAPEL HILL — “If not now, when?”
That is the question Jim Neal asked himself when considering whether he would slip his name into North Carolina’s 2008 U.S. Senate race against the state’s first-term Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Indeed, it is Dole’s abysmal track record that is giving Neal the push to run and win. He said he was at an event in California when he first heard the news that she had voted against a child health insurance bill, commonly known as S-CHIP.
“I heard that Dole had voted against the [bill] for our state’s 120,000 kids from working class families,” Neal told Q-Notes. “I didn’t get that. I found it repugnant. That is when I said, ‘File! Let’s go!’”
And that is what he did. As of late October, Neal is the only declared Democratic challenger to file his candidacy in the November 2008 general election.
That move makes him only the second openly gay U.S. Senate candidate in history after Ed Flanagan of Vermont, who mounted an unsuccessful bid in 2000.
Neal says he first started thinking about throwing his hat into the ring when he found out U.S. House Rep. Brad Miller had decided not to run.
“When Brad did that, I thought, ‘I can’t believe Dole is going to go uncontested.’ Her record in six years in Washington has been very, very slim when it comes to accomplishments for North Carolinians,” Neal said. “Her allegiance has been to her party, its president and its failed policy. Every moment she spent working for the Republican Party, she didn’t work for North Carolina.”
Neal’s race has become a lot more interesting in recent days. On Oct. 20, he participated in a “virtual town hall” on the progressive political blog BlueNC.com.
Among the comments posted for Neal to address was one directed to his sexual orientation.
“I’ve heard you’re gay,” wrote an anonymous commenter.
Just as directly, Neal responded, “I am indeed. No secret and no big deal to me — I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think otherwise.”
“Really think a gay man can be elected in North Carolina?” the commenter continued.
“I’m not running this race to lose,” Neal replied. “I’m not running to make some social statement. I’m running to lead in the Senate for the voters in NC — something Sen. Dole has not done.”
In his conversation with Q-Notes, Neal explained that he has always been an outsider who came from humble beginnings — his grandmother worked in a mill and his mother was the only one in her family to ever go to college. (She attended what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro).
Although he describes himself as progressive, he says he is fiscally conservative. However, he doesn’t want to be boxed in with any label, including the “gay candidate” label.
“I’m no different from anyone else in this state,” he said. “Being ‘out’ is ludicrous. I’ve always been out. It is no secret and it never has been. When the question arose in that online forum, I was honest. It isn’t anything I’m running from or afraid of.”
He added, “I certainly don’t want my sexuality to become the defining characteristic of my campaign.”
Neal also said he loathes the day he ever becomes a “politician,” because he see himself “more as a person who wants to bring a change and bring a positive impact to people’s lives. Government can’t solve everything but it can provide leadership and bring opportunities to people.”
Neal is the father of two sons. The youngest still lives with him in Chapel Hill and the oldest works in New York City. He said being a father is what has most shaped him and had the most impact on his life.
“I’ve had a wonderful life, most notably as a parent. That has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the most daunting job I’ve had, but also the most rewarding.”
As for his expectations of the race, he said that he stands firm in his belief that once people get to know him, they’ll support him.
“When people meet me, they’ll see beyond the labels and into my character,” he said.
“Some think that North Carolinians are completely intolerant and will fall prey to fearmongers, instead of listening to the voices of those who touch their lives,” he explained. “I don’t think the fearmongers will prevail and I think it is a complete misrepresentation of the people in North Carolina.”
On the issue of his sexual orientation, Neal said it has absolutely nothing to do with how he’ll perform when working for and representing all the people of his state.
“[Being gay] doesn’t disqualify me from representing the people of North Carolina anymore than Dole’s sexuality disqualifies her,” Neal said, calling Dole’s history of legislative work a “de-facto rubber-stamp for the administration.”
“[Dole’s performance] has nothing to do with her sexuality and it won’t have a damn thing to do with mine either.”
Neal points to the presidential campaigns as a sign that times are changing for the better. The 2008 race for the White House is shaping up to be the most diverse America has ever seen.
When people say that Neal’s sexuality will be the “nail in the coffin” of his campaign, he counters that people “said the same thing about women and African-Americans.” He points out it wasn’t that long ago when people doubted that a black man, a woman or a Mormon could ever have a chance of sitting in the Oval Office.
“The debate and dialogue doesn’t revolve around gender, race, religion or ethnicity,” he said.
“The framers of the Constitution held a very important principle on their minds,” he added, “that being to protect the rights of the minority over the tyranny of the majority. I think that is a principle also embraced by the people of this state.”
He said he is a person “who does what he says he’s going to do” and doesn’t want to play a political game with wedge issues or insider deals.
He’s asking North Carolinians to be as straightforward. “If we want more of the same, then we could just vote for Dole or vote for the insiders and we’ll get the same performance.
“I need the support of every single person in North Carolina and amongst Q-Notes’ readership,” he said. “Go to my website and contribute whatever you can. Unfortunately, we live in a world where money is what gets you on the bus. I need the help of every person, and in that way I’ll be able to give a voice to those who have no voice in our society, across a broad spectrum.
“After all,” he concluded, “isn’t that what politicians are supposed to do?”
On the issue of marriage equality, Neal stated in the BlueNC.com forum, “It’s okay if churches want to unite same-sex couples; it’s okay if they don’t. That’s their Constitutional right, which I support 100 percent. But when it comes to the government, I’m not in favor of any laws that discriminate against anyone for any reason.”
On his campaign website, Neal lists his most important issues as Iraq, health care and economic security.
Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality NC, said Neal just might have a chance in the election, although there are some difficulties.
“I think that it is a very difficult race for any Democrat, particularly any Democrat that doesn’t have statewide name recognition,” Palmquist said. “That will be a bigger issue than his sexual orientation, however, I think he has a shot.”
Equality NC’s political action committee only operates on the state level and will not be able to contribute to Neal’s campaign. Palmquist said the group often defers to national organizations like the Victory Fund or the Human Rights Campaign.
The North Carolina Democratic Party did not weigh in on Neal’s viability as a candidate, but said that they are open to his candidacy, there is still the potential for another primary challenger and they trust voters to make their own decisions.
“We are an open and inclusive Party,” said Communications Director Kerra Bolton. “We welcome candidates from diverse backgrounds.”
She added, “We trust voters to make informed decisions based on Elizabeth Dole’s record of failing North Carolina.”
According to Justin Guillory of Public Policy Polling, Neal fairs well compared to other Democratic individuals with lesser name recognition and not holding statewide elected office. As of Oct. 24, his favoribility ranking came in just below N.C. House Rep. Grier Martin and tied with State Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek.
info: For more information on Neal’s campaign,
including how to contribute or volunteer, visit www.jimnealforsenate.com.