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Deep Pockets

State senatorial candidate Jim Crew is fighting an uphill battle to overcome the huge campaign coffers of millionaire incumbent John Carrington.

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So your local state senator rarely ventures out to meet his constituents, frequently misses votes and is rated 50th of 50 senators in job performance. It should be a simple matter for an energetic upstart to unseat him, right? Wrong.

In North Carolina's 36th Senate district, Jim Crew is finding out just what a Herculean task he has before him in his challenge to three-term Republican incumbent John Carrington. Never mind cleaning out the Augean stables--Crew first has to figure out how to get his message out to the 130,000 voters of his precinct without enough money for a single TV ad.

Crew's reason for taking on the challenge is refreshingly direct: "I just felt like we're not getting very good representation," says the 62- year-old candidate, recently retired from 30 years of teaching business at North Carolina Central and Meredith College.

His opponent, the three-term incumbent millionaire Republican John Carrington, has cut a check for $100,000 to his campaign treasury to support about $5,000 in PAC and individual donations. His personal wealth gives him a 5-to-1 spending edge over Crew, who must make do with personal funds and small individual contributions.

Carrington is president and majority shareholder of the Sirchie Group, a consortium of firms that market law enforcement products, particularly fingerprinting supplies. One notable aspect of his business is the retailing of police riot-control equipment.

Four years ago, the Independent reported Sirchie's history of selling riot gear to repressive foreign regimes, including Iraq and apartheid-era South Africa. His company also tried and failed to obtain U.S. governmental approval to ship instruments of repression to Suharto's Indonesia and Pinochet's Chile.

After moving his company from New Jersey to the Triangle in the early '80s, Carrington quickly devoted himself to winning elective office. Spending a total of $1.7 million of his own money, Carrington made four unsuccessful runs for lieutenant governor, secretary of state (twice) and U.S. Congress. His ship finally came in with the Newt Gingrich-led Republican tidal wave of 1994, when he unseated the one-term N.C. Senate incumbent Linda Gunter by outspending her 2 to 1. Or, to put a more bald face on it, by paying $6 per vote.

Gunter, a longtime Cary schoolteacher, recalls her encounter with Carrington's money with a mixture of disbelief and anger.

"Before Labor Day, Carrington wrote a check for $130,000 to his campaign," she says. "From Labor Day clear on through the election, he had one-minute TV commercials on constantly."

Carrington campaigned almost entirely on television and did none of the face-to-face campaigning, the pressing of the flesh, that traditionally cements the bond between a community and its legislators. Shortly after defeating Gunter, he boasted to an interviewer that he had won "with about $157,000 and one public speech. Did you hear me? One public appearance."

This did not come as news to Gunter: "I only met the guy once, and that was the day before his inauguration. He said to me, 'How did you have the time to do this?' He thought it was a part-time job!"

The available evidence shows a remarkably inactive legislator. The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research rated Carrington 50th out of 50 senators. This was the conclusion of a biennual survey the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization gives to legislators, lobbyists and liaisons. Ann Hale, an analyst at the center, says respondents are asked to rate the senators on numerous criteria, including participation in committee work, respect commanded from peers and aptitude for the overall legislative process.

After his first term, Carrington checked in at number 45, which is perhaps to be expected for a new legislator. But his star has continued to fall. He was number 48 the following term, and he finally claimed the big prize, number 50, as a result of his work during his third term. (In a 1995 interview, Carrington pledged to place term limits on himself, but did not specify how many terms. He declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Carrington is no slouch at missing votes--only seven senators in the last term missed more. Furthermore, in his six years in office, he has sponsored a mere three bills, all of which died in committee. Though one can speculate that the conservative voters of the 36th district would not object to a representative who legislates as little as possible, a recent informal survey at Cary shopping areas revealed a more fundamental reality: Few voters have any idea who their local senator is.

Carrington should be vulnerable to an energetic challenger, but Crew has gotten no financial help from the Democratic party. He has to fight the race with the only asset he has: his own sincere belief in the importance of accessible and active legislators. He campaigns eight to 10 hours a day, going door to door in his huge district, shaking hands and putting up signs. He goes to every community meeting that will have him, introducing himself and making the case for more vigorous and responsive representation.

Last Thursday at the Crabtree Marriott, for example, Crew prepared and delivered remarks at a candidates' forum and dinner sponsored by the Wake County Medical Society. The participating House and Senate candidates had been asked to prepare answers to three questions of interest to physicians. Crew's opponent, also invited, was not present.

When Crew's turn came, he gave the correct answers to the first two, uncontroversial questions. Then, however, he distinguished himself from the other challengers by giving the unpopular response to the third issue, which dealt with legislation to impede malpractice lawsuits.

After the dinner, Crew remarked to a physician: "I'm going to have an open-door policy, I'm going to be very accessible. The guy we've got now, you noticed he didn't even come tonight."

"I wish you were in my district," the doctor replied, apparently startled by Crew's earnestness.

If elected, the soft-spoken, self-effacing Crew would not shake the Senate rafters. His positions are moderate to liberal: opposition to school vouchers, cautious support of charter schools and strong support for the Hunt/Easley education agenda, and support for the 3.1 billion university bond referendum. He is skeptical of the need for a death-penalty moratorium and is committed to strengthening environmental controls. He would not object to a state lottery. Most pertinently for his own underdog status, he is committed to the public financing of political campaigns.

The 36th district was created after the 1990 redistricting, and was designed to corral large unruly herds of Wake County Republicans into a single district, thus giving the Democratic Party control over the county's two other Senate districts. The gerrymandered 36th district consists of parts of Cary, Apex and Garner to the south, and above-the-beltline Raleigh to the north. On a map, the two land masses are nearly symmetrical and look like pincers around downtown, joined only by the Crabtree Valley Mall.

The district is so big and sprawling, ex-Senator Gunter says, that "it's impossible to get around and meet people. That's the thing I love, the door-to-door contact, but you can't knock on enough doors. It makes democracy a farce." Television becomes the only effective means for getting the message out, and ordinary citizens like Gunter and Crew simply don't have the resources.

Crew is also a victim of the realpolitik of party priorities. The Democratic party holds a 35-15 lead in the Senate, but its 66-54 margin in the House is more vulnerable. Losing control of the House this year would cost the party outright control of the upcoming redistricting, which is, Crew acknowledges, "the first order of business." Helping a little known, underfinanced challenger defeat a free-spending incumbent senator is simply not a priority.

Without the backing of his party, it falls to Crew, his family and friends to place yard signs around the district. One of his sons summoned some TV-producer friends to shoot two 30-second "wonderful, top-quality" spots, but because of the cost of TV advertising, these commercials seem destined to be broadcast only on the Crew family VCR. Polling, the requisite intelligence tool of a modern political campaign, is also out of reach. A single poll of the district costs no less than $9000, Crew says.

In today's political climate, it is nearly impossible for the ordinary citizen-legislator to be elected. Chris Heagarty of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a pro-reform group, observes that "the system has become so heavily dependent on money that the average person cannot afford to run."

Though most campaign finance reform proposals are directed only at soft money and individual contributions, it would take far more radical measures to allow ordinary citizens to combat millionaires who self-finance their campaigns. Heagarty pointed to one possible remedy: the Clean Elections bills that are gaining popularity in other states (see last week's Independent). Measures of this sort provide funding for candidates pegged to an amount determined to be the minimum required to win the election. Should the wealthy opponent suddenly raise the bar, such measures would provide "rescue money" that would double the public-funds recipient's initial grant.

In Wake County, a winning state senate campaign treasury could easily require upwards of $200,000. It remains unclear if the public has the stomach to provide this kind of money, but Jim Crew is making the search for campaign reform a centerpiece of his agenda.

Despite the long odds of his candidacy, Crew has no regrets. "It's all been very rewarding," he reflected, pausing as he hammered in yet another yard sign. The candidate remains convinced that victory is a possibility, "if I can get my message out. But if I lose, I just might run again." EndBlock

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