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Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy tests the Senate waters

Today, Chapel Hill, tomorrow, D.C.?

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Kevin Foy
  • Kevin Foy

Kevin Foy, mayor of Chapel Hill, population 50,000, would like to be Kevin Foy, a U.S. senator from North Carolina, population 9.2 million.

It's quite a leap, but after 12 years on the town council, including four terms as mayor, Foy is flirting with a run to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in 2010.

It may not be a far-fetched idea. A Public Policy Polling survey (PDF, 109 KB) released Aug. 14 showed Foy with 27 percent of the vote compared with Burr's 43 percent if they were to face off. Coincidentally, that's the same spread that separated then-Senate hopeful Kay Hagan and incumbent Elizabeth Dole at the same stage in the 2008 race.

"[Foy] polls just as well as any of the other Democrats who are talking about running," said Tom Jensen, PPP's communications director.

If N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper had opted to run for Burr's seat, Foy said he would have supported him. But with Cooper out, Foy, who also serves as chairman of the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, decided in May that he wouldn't seek re-election to Chapel Hill's top spot and instead would consider the Senate race.

"I think that this decision is not solely an individual decision," he said in an interview at his town hall office last week, his 4-year-old standard poodle, Sophie, lying at his feet. "I think that I need to make sure at this point that there are a lot of other people besides me who think that I'm a good candidate, and so that's the phase that I'm in now."

Other candidates who have publicly announced their intentions to run are Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (31 percent), former State Sen. Cal Cunningham (27 percent) and Durham lawyer Ken Lewis (27 percent). (See "Dems enter U.S. Senate race with a Burr under their saddles.")

Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's Program on Public Life and a noted state politics scholar, says the challenge of running for national office is threefold. "What astonishes first-time candidates is just how big the state is. It just wears you out having to move around and getting to see a lot of people," Guillory said. "The second thing is just the scope of issues. It's one thing to have a position and to work your way through a problem, such as the development of Horace Williams Airport and how the university fits and those important issues.

"But if he's going to run for U.S. Senate, he's got to think about Afghanistan; he's got to think about health care; and he's got to think about jobs and economic policy."

And Foy will have to worry about fund-raising. He said he expects to need $15 million to $20 million to finance a general election campaign, a daunting figure for a candidate who's never raised more than $25,000 for a race.

"For me it's likely to come 50 bucks at a time, which is a lot of donors," he said, adding that he is encouraged by the sum garnered by Barack Obama.

Counselors to the mayor thus far have all warned of the grueling path ahead, including sunrise-to-sunset calls asking for donations.

But some political observers say Foy could win.

Kennedy Comer e-mailed Foy in early August offering his advice. Comer helped run campaigns for Joe and Beau Biden in Delaware and was a central figure in Delaware Governor Jack Markell's election. He says Foy's experience with the Metropolitan Mayor's Coalition, a group of leaders of the 26 largest cities in the state, could provide an excellent base.

"By him already having an established connection with mayors and having automatically that empathy for what's gong on in their towns and their citizens, that's a huge bonus for him to reach out to them and then through them reach out to their communities," Comer said.

Guillory adds that 15 counties contributed about half of the total votes in last November's tally, and understanding issues in major population centers could carry a candidate's run.

He also quashed assertions that Chapel Hill's liberal label could hinder Foy, noting that both Governor Bev Perdue and N.C. House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, have local ties.

Foy said he's not afraid of the label, and he'd promote himself as a progressive.

"I don't think a progressive leader is at all outside the mainstream of N.C. leadership," he said. "In fact I think that Jesse Helms is the aberration."

While Foy is uncertain if he'll run, the issues—the foundation of his campaign—are already in place. Transit, environment, education and the economy will top his agenda.

He wants North Carolina, which is transitioning from a rural to an urban state, to be a model for the new green economy, to move forward on regional transportation and to be innovative in education.

In essence, Foy would continue the work he's done locally for years, but on a larger scale. That's what makes the thought of running, albeit unexpected, exciting for him.

"Those kinds of connections that you're able to see from the place that you sit, which is unique, and the way you're able to affect the daily life of your community and the future of your community is really exhilarating," he said. "That's what's at the core of me wanting to do this."

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