by Sam Wardle
After a forum for Democratic primary candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Richard Burr, Durham For Obama activists voted overwhelmingly to support local attorney and political newbie Ken Lewis.
Lewis, not to be confused with the former CEO of Bank of America, pulled in nearly 58 percent of the 182 votes counted. N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall came in a distant second with 32 percent. Former N.C. Sen. Cal Cunningham managed just 8 percent, and Lumberton attorney Marcus Williams, less than 2 percent.
Susan Harris and Wilma Ann Worthy received no votes. Neither candidate attended the event or returned questionnaires to Durham For Obama.
Since no candidate snagged an outright 70 percent of the vote, Durham For Obama will withhold its endorsement. But the results—though unscientific to the extreme—hint at who has the most pull with the state’s progressive, activist Democrats.
The vote came after a cordial forum at St. Joseph’s AME Church in Durham. Though the stakes—a coveted endorsement and some campaign momentum—were fairly high for what has been, so far, a low-key race, the candidates stayed relatively bland. On the agenda was praise for the president, scorn for Burr and more than a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia for the storied past that each candidate would like you to associate with him or her.
Superficially, at least, the four Democrats behind the St. Joseph’s pulpit couldn’t have presented a more diverse tableau, with only one individual (Cal Cunningham) representing that most hallowed of U.S. Senate institutions, the White Male.
Marshall was the picture of your seventh grade social studies teacher, impassioned about policy, careful with her elocution and occasionally a bit of a scold. Lewis was the Ivy League-educated lawyer, geekily comfortable talking about policy but less adept at selling himself politically. To Lewis belonged the night’s most intelligent moments, but also its most awkward statement—he was cut off by the moderator for going over his allotted time during a clumsy closing attack on Marshall and Cunningham.
Williams, a distant finisher in the 2008 Senate primary, was slightly overshadowed by the prominence of his alarmingly bushy beard, which promises—if elected—to become an overnight CSPAN sensation.
And former N.C. Sen. Cal Cunningham, channeling the pre-scandal spirit—and pompadour—of John Edwards, certainly wins outright the title of "Man Who Most Looks Like a U.S. Senator."
It was a mostly civil conversation, with the candidates saving their darts for Burr and pouring what eloquence they could muster into defining themselves as individuals, rather than policy adherents, since there appears to be little white space between them on nearly any matter they’d be likely to vote on in Washington, D.C.
The public option? They like it. The Republicans? Obstructionist. The Senate? Broken. Free trade? More like "fair trade." Lobbyists? Bloodsuckers. Education? Good. Deficit? Bad.
And jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. I’m happy to report that all four candidates believe we need to lower the unemployment rate. The proposals on the table to do so were mostly interchangeable, with frequent allusions to tax credits for hiring and investment in green energy. But when the interminable and indistinguishable policy blather was done, it was narrative that ruled the day.
Marshall, the former middle school and community college teacher, repeatedly noted that she was the first person in her family to graduate from college. The background in teaching showed. She was at her best, and was indeed the most convincing candidate of the evening overall, when discussing education.
Lewis pointed to his Harvard Law pedigree and his decision, as a young lawyer, to "leave a big firm and work for nonprofits." Of the four, Lewis most avoided using inspiring clichés and focused instead on details, statistics and history. He was also the only candidate to voice support for an unpopular policy, saying he would back a tax on carbon emissions. Such a tax is popular among economists but widely deemed a political impossibility in the oil industry subsidiary known as Congress.
Williams painted himself as a kind of big brother to President Obama, an African American toiling in the trenches to better himself and his state. Like Cunningham, he was once a student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was also most prone to answer unasked questions, providing, at one point, eight foreign policy priorities when asked for three and bragging on his staff-hiring chops when asked about the intransigence of the U.S. Senate.
Cunningham, of course, has made a science out of selling his narrative by oh-so-casually relating his service in Iraq to nearly any topic of conversation. In case you aren’t familiar with the tale: Cunningham was a N.C. senator when the Sept. 11 attacks happened and was inspired as a result to join the Army reserves, a commitment that eventually led him to a decorated service in Iraq.
It’s a perfect back story, and is admittedly both compelling and inspiring. After all, how many state senators do you know of who quit their jobs and left their families to fight a war? Were Cunningham to be elected, his staff is quick to point out that he’d be the first Iraq veteran in the Senate. That would be quite a feather in the Democratic Party’s cap.
Cunningham himself is more relatable and entertaining than his opponents, though he shares more downsides with John Edwards than just hair gel. He, like Edwards, has a tendency to seem over-practiced in his personal manner and relies a bit too heavily for this blogger’s taste on trite political rhetoric about the greatness of the American spirit.
At the end of the night, though, the Durham activists bought substance over story. What the results foretell for the statewide primary is anybody’s guess, but as Cunningham himself noted, it’s only 50 days until the real ballots are cast.
Actually, make that 49.
Correction: Ken Lewis does some work in Durham but lives in Chapel Hill.