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Gubernatorial candidate James Protzman could rouse the Democrats



A funny thing happened after James Protzman declared he will run for governor in the 2016 election.

Protzman is a Naval Academy graduate, a successful businessman and a former Chapel Hill Town Council member. He co-founded and is the driving force behind BlueNC, for eight years the state's must-read progressive blog. On April 2, he announced that he was jumping into the Democratic primary race two years ahead of the usual schedule to confront the Republican "radicals" running state government.

"[Gov.] Pat McCrory and his gang are out of control," Protzman wrote on BlueNC, "and someone has to stop them. I wish that someone didn't have to be me. But until another voice for sanity emerges, I'll gladly step up."

The news that the 62-year-old Protzman was in the race so electrified Tar Heel television and newspaper reporters that they raced to their computers to write—not one word.

Ah, well, no one took Jimmy Carter seriously either when he started his presidential campaign.

Let me be clear. I'm not predicting that Protzman will win. Like him, I consider that a longshot—but, as he says, "stranger things have happened."

I am recommending that his candidacy be taken seriously, for two reasons. One is that Protzman is a serious person and arguably would be a helluva governor. The other reason addresses what it will take to topple the radical Republicans or at least persuade them to moderate their crazy, regressive agenda.

Toppling the Republicans requires protests, underlining the GOP's negatives, plus a positive platform, which groups such as Public Schools First NC are beginning to offer. I wrote about the "Moral Monday" protests last week, and they continue.

To crystallize a progressive alternative, however, nothing will succeed like good candidates on the stump. And while some good ones will try for seats in the General Assembly next year, the harsh truth is that the Republicans have so gerrymandered the districts that they are virtually certain to control both legislative chambers after the 2014 elections.

So unless the courts strike down the Republican gerrymander—and there's every reason they should, but given that the state Supreme Court is majority Republican, I wouldn't bet on it—the real opportunity to slow the right-wing Republican express is in the 2016 gubernatorial race.

A Democratic governor can wield the veto stamp. And the prospect of one might scare a few crazed Republicans back to sanity lest they lose their seats in a Democratic sweep.

That's why I've been waiting for some smart Democrat to seize the day and start the 2016 campaign. Protests and a platform are fine, but the missing ingredient is a gubernatorial candidate or candidates able to reach out and rouse the masses.

Protzman is a smart Democrat, when he's a Democrat. BlueNC readers are aware that twice in recent years he's left the party—changing his voter registration to unaffiliated—out of contempt for the likes of John Edwards, Jim Black and Mike Easley. Throughout, however, BlueNC has remained blue.

The best thing about Protzman is that he isn't a politician, and he has a near-compulsion to say what he thinks in the most direct, if sometimes profane, way. Protzman was one of the first people in North Carolina to accuse Republican moneybags Art Pope of, well, read it for yourself: "Art Pope is contaminating North Carolina politics with the sleaze and corruption of corporate money, just as is the national Republican Party."

Protzman wrote that in 2006, when he was the first to detail the Pope machine's many tentacles. Protzman dubbed Pope "the Puppetmaster" and his organizations "the Puppet Show."

Now, of course, Pope is the power behind the vacuous McCrory, serving as the governor's deputy budget director. It's a laughable title (the state constitution makes the governor the budget director), so Protzman calls McCrory the "deputy assistant governor."

Protzman is a liberal, but not an easy one to pigeonhole. After five years in the Navy, he used the G.I. Bill for graduate study at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism. There he met his wife, Jane Brown. She taught at the school until her recent retirement. Protzman created FGI, a communications and marketing firm, with three others (FGI was short for "Four Guys Inc."). At one time it had 500 employees.

He sold his interest in the firm, Protzman says, when he "could no longer manage the conflict [he felt] between my discomfort with the corporatization of government and the clients we were working with" who were trying to make government do their bidding.

He continues to work as a freelance writer, but only for companies and executives he admires, he says.

There's a strong streak of libertarianism in Protzman, which makes him an ardent women's rights advocate and a blunt foe of corporate personhood. Cut the ties between business and government, he argues. He's against taxing business profits—but all in favor of steeply progressive tax rates on income taken by business owners and executives.

Taxing corporations as if they're people allows them to claim free speech and political rights they should never have been given, Protzman says.

Protzman is a millionaire with a lakeshore house in Chapel Hill. His vehicle of choice? A Chevy S-10 truck on which he's stenciled the motto: "Do Good. Be Nice. Have Fun." Send him a self-addressed stamped envelope and he'll send you those words on a bumper sticker. He offers them free on a website. So far, he's had 10,000 takers, he told me.

Which suggests that he knows something about how to communicate with folks. And yes, he knows he should watch his language. But he insists, "What's inappropriate is what I'm swearing about."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A dark horse."

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