Winning Isn’t Everything

After pouring more than $100,000 of his own money into his campaign, Jim Neal only took second place in this year’s primary for the Democratic nomination to challenge North Carolina Republican US Senator Elizabeth “Liddy” Dole. Yet, he’s amazingly calm and upbeat.

“I am in anything but depression,” Neal told me in a recent phone interview. “I was passionate about what I was doing, and I continue to be passionate about the issues that drove me to run.”

That’s an incredibly refreshing response from a candidate. None of the multitude of candidates I’ve worked with over the years who spent their own money and then went on to lose ever were quite so gracious or so upbeat. Maybe it’s Neal’s Southern upbringing. Maybe it’s because, as a gay man, he understands just how long it really takes to win—whether we’re talking about one race or GLBT rights.

What could be more quixotic than an openly gay man running in a Southern state against a Republican incumbent? How about an openly gay man running in a Southern state primary election against an establishment Democratic woman candidate who was recruited to run so that he would not be the nominee?

Neal, who lost the May 6 primary to veteran North Carolina State Senator Kay Hagan, said, “People thought, ‘He can’t beat Elizabeth Dole, because he’s gay.’ Quite frankly, I think beating Dole would have been easier than winning the primary.”

The story of Neal’s campaign is simple. He was an insurgent Democrat running against an establishment candidate. He had success raising money from that establishment in 2004 for various candidates, but when it came to his own race, in his words, “politicians have very short memories.” He only was able to raise about $330,000, with close to a third of it coming from a personal loan he made to his campaign’s coffers.

Establishment Democrats weren’t the only ones to abandon Neal’s race. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund (GLVF) both took a pass. For those two groups, it all comes down to viability: Does the candidate have a field operation? Can he or she raise money? Can the candidate win?

I understand the notion of not supporting a gay candidate just because he or she is gay. There has to be a dividing line between investing campaign funds and throwing the money down a losing drain. But it seems to me that both HRC and GLVF missed the boat on this race.

According to Neal and media reports, he and Hagan were running neck and neck in the polls until a month or so before the primary. That’s when Hagan, who had access to money—lots of it—was able to put her message on TV. That’s when an infusion of cash from HRC, GLVF, and the network of donors who follow their lead would have been crucial for Neal to keep up.

“HRC and other GLBT interest groups do their own calculus. They have their own notion of viability,” Neal related. “But if people are going to wait to see if you’re going to raise money as a viability test, yet aren’t willing to give you money to get there, you’ll never meet the threshold. The logic is twisted.”

Viability is a real chicken-and-egg political question. Unfortunately, there’s no right answer. Each campaign’s strengths and weaknesses have to be taken into account.

In Neal’s case, I think HRC and GLVF only looked at the weaknesses. He has some real strengths: He’s a local boy who has made good; his heart is in politics to speak for those without a voice; and he understands how money has become the “dirty underbelly of our democracy.” He had a good campaign with a field operation across the state and access to the media. He went all over the state talking to real people about their real problems.

As Neal recounted, “I visited communities where folks didn’t have running water, and where they were going broke just trying to get to work. Unfortunately, there’s no money in these communities, so they don’t get the kind of attention they need when budgets are drawn up, and priorities are set. And these are the people who need it the most.”

Neal enthused that running for office was one of the most wonderful things he ever has done, because of the folks he got to meet along the way. And it’s those people—the ones without indoor plumbing, who can’t afford gas at more than $4 a gallon—who are fueling what he does next.

“Every day, people taught me more about what was going in their lives than any research paper or any article I could read in the local papers or The New York Times,” Neal stated.

And what are Neal’s next steps?

As Neal noted, “I have a couple of ideas about things I can do in the private sector to foster making social investments in communities—like putting money behind people who are trying to start businesses. The idea is to create a venture capital fund that won’t be earning competitive financial returns, but will be earning returns by strengthening the fabric of communities.”

Perhaps, like Al Gore, Neal can have more of an impact as a private citizen with a vision than as an elected official with an agenda.

Libby Post, the founding chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda, is a political commentator on public radio, on the Web, and in print media. She can be reached care of this publication, or at [email protected].

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