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How an embattled state Senate candidate, busted for drugs, ran for election

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[This article has been amended; see Correction at end.]

Shackled and clad in an orange jumpsuit, Democratic state Senate candidate Clarence Bender was being led out of court by a bailiff when he calmly took questions from reporters in a hallway of the Nash County Courthouse.

"Will your campaign continue?" someone asked.

"Everything is going to continue," Bender replied.

Bender has been in jail since Oct. 18, the first day of early voting. He was arrested on the way to the polls, his lawyer, David Braswell, contends, for allegedly selling 119 Oxycodone pills to an undercover DEA agent. If convicted, Bender could face a maximum 19 years in prison and at least a $500,000 fine.

But even before Bender's legal troubles, his campaign had stalled. He had no money. Although he had spent three years as a town commissioner in Castalia, a blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet in Nash County, he had no familiar name to tread on. He had no significant support from the state Democratic Party. His campaign treasurer, who resigned after only two months, now says Bender was at best "misguided" and at worst a "con man."

And yet supporters remember him saying that he would win over his Republican opponent, E.S. "Buck" Newton, in a landslide.

Republicans and Democrats are forced to spend their money and time in districts they believe are winnable. But this year the state Democrats were up against gerrymandered Republican districts and had little money, which meant they had to neglect more districts than usual.

The race for Senate District 11, historically a Democratic stronghold, didn't make the party's cut. In such districts, the door was left open for hucksters, dreamers and the otherwise unqualified. In other words, candidates like Clarence Bender.

Bender's ambitions were grand, but he came from a small town, Castalia, population 268. Just north of Nashville, an hour east of Raleigh, it has a main drag flanked by a gas station, a diner and an antiques store that doubles as a honky-tonk.

The town is incorporated and has a mayor and town commission. That's where Bender started his short career in public service.

He ran for town commission twice and lost, garnering 38 and 14 votes, respectively. But on his third try in 2009, Bender cruised to victory with 29 votes. In that non-presidential election, 106 people, nearly half the town's population, voted. Despite the three other candidates on the ballot, the second commissioner elected that year won as a write-in.

The write-in candidacy, in fact, was an effort to keep Bender off the commission, according to former Castalia town commissioner Freda Roberts. Bender was convicted in 1993 of welfare fraud, according to his lawyer. The town's old guard knew about it and didn't want him to serve.

But Roberts says Bender was driven to win. "Clarence Bender, he has a charisma about him," she says. "He stood out there every day on the elections. He really wanted it. I'm just not sure why."

Bender refused multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

Once he became a town commissioner, a post he technically still holds, Bender butted heads with his fellow members.

"Clarence hasn't been the most cooperative of commissioners I've ever worked with," says 76-year-old Mayor Ellene Leonard. "He has a huge ego. He came in with his own agenda. He wanted to get his way instead of working with the board, and that's not how things get done here."

Rumors also surfaced that Bender didn't really live in town. Leonard says that civic engagement in Castalia is weak. But residents began to approach her with complaints that Bender was rarely seen at the one-story house with a faux-log cabin facade he claimed to rent. Leonard lodged an official complaint with the Nash County Board of Elections over Bender's place of residence, but it was dismissed for insufficient evidence.

No one from the Democratic Party recruited Bender to run for Senate District 11, which includes parts of Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties that border Wake's southeastern rim. He simply walked into the board of elections, paid the filing fee and put his name on the ballot. With no primary challenger, he was by default the Democratic Party's nominee.

"I certainly didn't think it was the thing for him to do," Leonard says. "But he was so determined that he was going to be top dog, I thought, 'Well, that's Clarence.'"

One other man did consider running: Asa Gregory, chairman of the Wilson County Democratic Party, who would later serve as Bender's treasurer and unofficial campaign manager. When Gregory saw another Democrat had filed, he retreated and began finding out who Bender was.

"I was prepared to help him," says Gregory. "On the surface, here's a guy who is a veteran. He's a working-class guy. He's been a small business owner."

Gregory also saw dollar signs. He, along with two others, ran a political consulting firm he hoped Bender might hire.

But Bender never hired the consulting firm. In fact all of the $2,370 in disbursements listed in his campaign records went to himself, many for gas and food. One in particular is listed as $547 in cash to "pay [the] candidate back," according to campaign finance records. On a previous report, Bender lists the money as an individual contribution, not a loan. He is currently in noncompliance for not filing his latest campaign finance records, according to a November letter from the state board of elections.

Other details about Bender's life point to a man who couldn't make a realistic run at the state Senate. He was an out-of-work contractor with a sporadic employee history. According to Gregory, Bender was licensed, but a search of the state's general contractors database returns no Clarence Bender.

Bender lists his occupation as "disability" on campaign finance documents. His attorney says Bender is on medication for a severe disease known as pseudogout, which causes joint inflammation.

He also frequently showed up to campaign events in torn, tattered clothing, according to Gregory and another political observer who spent time on the campaign trail. "He'd show up in these T-shirts, or old torn polos, and I was like 'Dude, you have a suit,'" says Gregory.

Gregory knows Bender has a suit because Gregory's mother bought it for him. Gregory's parents also paid for a Camp Wellstone training event for politicians in Raleigh, which he says energized Bender.

Bender's gift was his ability to relate to small-town people. He even broke through the good ol' boy culture in Johnston County. Clarence, who is African-American, "went up to this old white guy, this old country guy. He said to Clarence, 'I'm tired of Buck Newton. He's treating me like a black man. And Clarence was like, 'I know what you mean,'" says Gregory.

"I guess he was a real well respected person in the community. So once that happened and they had that laugh, people started coming around and having these conversations and really listening to Clarence. In that sense, yes he did excel with the everyday people."

But there were red flags, too. At the onset of his campaign, Bender said he wanted to run on education issues. But his grasp of that and other political topics was spotty, Gregory says.

A video posted on local blog Wilsonian Voices indicates as much. In a short, muddled speech, Bender criticizes Republican legislators for "making classrooms bigger for students, and less attention put to the students." He continued, "Of course, teachers are employees also, so therefore it seems like they have a war out on teachers and state employees."

Bender never connected with large donors. And when his fundraising failed, Bender copped an attitude, Gregory says. "He had a problem with people because they weren't lining up to throw money at him," Gregory says. "They told me, 'Absolutely not.'"

According to the most recent campaign finance documents, Bender raised just $2,834 compared to Newton's $91,285.

None of his listed financial donors returned calls seeking comment. On Aug. 27, Bender complained to the Wilson Times about being shut out of party fundraisers and a general lack of support from local Democrats.

Shortly after Gregory signed on as Bender's campaign treasurer, Bender withdrew $120 from the campaign accounts for cash. He did not provide the receipts to account for all of the withdrawals, Gregory says. As a result, two checks drawn on the campaigns accounts bounced. Gregory says he was forced to cover the difference with his personal funds.

"I read him the riot act," says Gregory. "I said, 'You can't do this.'"

Bender overdrew the account again, says Gregory. "When I put the money into the account to make it positive [again], I was done with this guy."

In August, Gregory wrote to the state board of elections resigning as Bender's campaign treasurer. "After that, he dropped off the earth," Gregory says.

Although the campaign was in trouble, Bender didn't tell his family. "He said he was doing OK," says his brother, Kenneth Bender. "We didn't get in it to lose. I wouldn't have been surprised when he won."

To his wife, Patricia, Bender remained confident. The two are separated, but Bender maintains a friendly relationship with her and their six children—so friendly that a "Bender for NC Senate" yard sign sits out front of her trailer home.

"Going up against Buck didn't bother him," she says. "He had no fear. No doubt. That's how he ran for town commissioner two times before he got it. He always wanted to be the person to make a difference."

"For state and local Democratic parties, they need to go through a great deal of soul searching and figure out how they can make a comeback," says Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. "They've got to find the right kind of candidates, who can run a campaign that raises the kind of money that's needed. After something like what hit the Democrats, it takes parties a while to figure out the best strategy."

District 11, like many others across the state, went Democratic for years until 2010, and given its current breakdown—44 percent Democrat, 34 percent Republican and 22 percent unaffiliated—could again.

Even still, it wasn't on the North Carolina Democratic Party's radar. NCDP Chair David Parker doesn't remember meeting Bender. "Somebody just called me and started sputtering about a party nominee being in jail," he says.

But Parker maintains that it can't fall solely on the state party to recruit good candidates. "It has to come from the community and civic organizations as well. What makes me sad is that we don't have more qualified people from both parties running in toss-up districts."

Parker's first hope for a Democratic comeback is that gerrymandered Republican districts will be struck down by the courts. He points to the fact that 48 percent of votes cast in the N.C. House races were for Democrats, but Democrats only ended up winning 36 percent of the seats.

While Bitzer says the figure is representative of gerrymandering, he doesn't believe it's enough for the courts to throw out the new maps. "The U.S. Supreme Court has said that political gerrymandering is not something they will get into," he says. "The party in power has the right to draw the lines as they see fit."

In other words, Democrats' time would be better spent working on a game plan than hoping to see the current district maps—which Republicans went to great pains to ensure were legally gerrymandered—overturned.

In late summer, the Nash County Sheriff's Office began investigating Bender for alleged drug trafficking. Official documents indicate that on Aug. 28, a confidential informant approached a sheriff's deputy about Bender. The informant reportedly told deputies who Bender was and where he could be found. The informant said that Bender was a candidate for state Senate and that he was selling prescription pills, the documents say.

That afternoon an undercover DEA agent, working with the sheriff's office, drove with the informant to Bender's home on Red Bud Road, the same home that Castalia's mayor previously accused him of not living in. When the officer returned minutes later, documents say, he had bought 119 pills from Bender with $360.

On Oct. 18, two months after the alleged transaction, sheriff's deputies arrested Bender as he was driving a 1993 Mercury Sable to the polls, his lawyer later said.

He was charged with three counts of narcotics trafficking. Through his lawyer, Bender maintains his innocence. In that same hallway interview, Bender called it "funny" that he was arrested at the start of early voting, hinting that there may have been a conspiracy to derail his campaign.

Castalia's mayor says Bender's commission seat is waiting for him, if he manages to return without a felony conviction. But for now "we are moving forward without him," she says.

Bender spent Election Day in the Nash County Detention Center, unable to campaign and to get to his polling place to cast a ballot for himself. He remains in jail, awaiting trial.

Nonetheless Bender still managed to get 40 percent of the vote: More than 34,000 people cast ballots for him.

"That's heavy," says Bender's brother, Kenneth. He promised to tell Bender about the results during their next visit. "At least somebody still believed in him."

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Clarence Bender is still in jail. He was released on bail Monday, Nov. 12.

This article appeared in print with the headline "One man's fall from the bottom."

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