North Carolina is at a crossroads. Only a few competitive districts are up for grabs. The outcome will impact our state for years to come. And I’m humbled to be running for the North Carolina Senate in one of those districts. I was optimistic when I filed for office that even in this battleground state our campaign would be a contest of ideas. I hoped for a campaign that would make the voters proud; and I’m still hoping.
This campaign has provided a unique opportunity to be in the spotlight of our politics and to receive the encouragement and support of so many wonderful North Carolinians. For that I am thankful. Thanks to the generous donations of North Carolinians hoping for new leadership, we’ve out-raised my opponent. And thanks to the dozens of people from the district who want to give something back as volunteers we’ve got the momentum. Our most recent polls show us in the lead.
We’re in a position to win, and then to begin the work to improve people’s lives, and when it got this close I guess I should have expected the personal attacks. But I was hoping for a new and better politics. The kind the people deserve.
Because of the hard work of those involved with my campaign, I’ve had a target placed on my back by the opposing party. Earlier this week the Republican Senate Caucus created a hit website attacking my character and then sent out a mailer linking to the site. The attack uses anonymous quotes and a planted news story to call my ethics into question before adding a link to donate to Phil Berger. It’s loosely based on a college trip I took a decade ago.
I had the distinct honor of directing Heller Service Corps, one of the largest collegiate service organizations in the country while I was a student, and for that service I received recognition from President George W. Bush. On one of our trips my leadership team traveled to South Africa to inspect service sites and on the final night we stayed at a local hotel. Now without evidence, because there was a casino down the road, the Republican Caucus is embellishing the service trip into a story of luxury and fun. But it wasn’t.
I spent my youth managing a campaign, leading a statewide youth organization, volunteering in a nursing home, developing a process for recruiting community volunteers, serving the Christian Women’s Job Corps, and working in a congressional office serving the people of my home community. That’s what I did in college and after. That’s why I went on to law school and why I studied ethics at Duke Divinity School to become a minster. My life has always been about service. And that’s why I’m running for the North Carolina Senate now. And it’s a sad state of affairs for the leaders of North Carolina to make up stories about the college days of their opponents just to win a few more votes.
That’s not how campaigns should be waged. And that’s why people are losing their faith in government as an institution and in the politicians themselves. They think politicians are all the same, more interested than winning than in the truth. But I think politicians can be better.
Early August is usually reserved for positive pieces highlighting the incumbent party’s accomplishments. And if the North Carolina’s Republican Caucus is worried about losing seats they should be defending their record of achievement.
They should create a website addressing voter ID and why they think it’s not discriminatory after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled it was. They should create a website detailing an economic plan to help citizens experience their “Carolina Comeback” especially those in my district living in poverty. They’re trying to make this race about me. And it’s not.
This race is about a stagnant economy and people who refuse to offer incentives to keep jobs in Southeastern North Carolina. It is about the threats to the water we drink and the air we breathe through potential actions like seismic testing and offshore drilling. That’s what I’m going to talk about in my campaign.
For the first time in my life, voters are less optimistic about the country than they were before the election cycle started. There is a certain presidential nominee who is particularly fueling the cynicism, the frustration and the anger out there, but we all have a responsibility to do better, especially those of us on the ballot.
We face tremendous challenges in North Carolina and our politics should strive to meet those challenges. We should be using the campaign to shine a light in all the darkness—hopefully a light that leads forward.
I want a campaign about the issues, about jobs and the economy, affordable healthcare, and an affordable and high-quality education for our kids. And if the North Carolina Republican Party is afraid of losing a seat, they should talk about the issues people care about. But if this campaign becomes one about ethics, it’s one I’m ready to wage.
Ethics is habitual. I learned that studying in divinity school.
It’s a process where we make sense of our communities and the situations we confront. I care about ethics. I care about who I am, not just when the press is around, but when no one else is looking. I care about giving back to the community where I’m from and that’s been my life’s work since I can remember.
My former teacher, ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, put it this way:
A man may think of himself as a public servant concerned with the public good. Even though
he may be party to decisions that compromise the public good, he has a great deal invested in
continuing to describe them as contributing to the public good. To call certain decisions he
makes by their proper name would require too painful a readjustment in his primary
identification of himself as a public servant. Thus our deceit can be a function of wanting to
think of ourselves as honest persons.
By spinning false narratives about my youth, the Republican Party in North Carolina is trying to move the conversation away from voters and the stories of their lives. By labeling the opposition unethical, it allows Phil Berger to transfer the questions of ethics away from the NC Senate and into the personal lives of people on the other side of the aisle. As Hauerwas says, “self deception is correlative with trying to exist in this life without a story sufficiently substantive and rich to sustain us.”
As the NC Republican Party struggles to come up with a story of the ways it has strengthened our state through public policy, the party spins a new narrative as a last ditch effort. And we’re better than that.
One of the interesting parts of the campaign trail is watching the way that the opposing party presents you with a new version of yourself. But one of the most joyful parts is listening to real people and learning about them. It is those conversations that make the journey worthwhile.
The future of our state depends on people willing to do the work of legislating instead of the work of obfuscating. - It often takes people willing to blaze a trail. Two hundred and twenty one years ago, Hinton James walked the 170 miles from outside Wilmington to Chapel Hill to become the first student to enter the University of North Carolina, arguably our nation’s oldest public university. He was the only student for two weeks, but he kept working, laying the groundwork for public higher education in this state when others were slowly dragging behind. It took my home community to blaze the trail, and it will take us to begin rebuilding the North Carolina Senate.
If Republicans in North Carolina want to have a debate about ethics, I welcome that debate. In less than 30 years I’ve hosted a television segment where I asked tough questions of community leaders, pastored a church where I stood with people through birth and death, served as a trauma chaplain working with hurting families during their times of crisis, led a response to new healthcare legislation at a national law firm, taught college students as an instructor of ethics and speech, and fought each day for my community.
I look forward to making the road to Raleigh by talking about building a better North Carolina. It will be a lot more interesting.
*The article above is a longer version of an op-ed for the Star News.