Jim Neal and the Politics of Innuendo

Like many here, I was very impressed with Jim Neal when he first announced he was going to run for the U.S. Senate and was flattered that he immediately reached out to BlueNC. I respected the way he handled the outing of his sexual orientation in the political arena and was fairly certain I had found my candidate.

Everything was fine until Kay Hagan reversed her decision to sit out the senate race. Many of us saw the hand of Chuck Shumer and the work of the DSCC trying to decide for North Carolinians who their senate candidate would be. We saw a Rahm Emanuel / Tami Duckworth situation looming in our future. We were quite angry.

Eventually, things quieted down and we enjoyed the blog posts being written by Neal volunteers. As far as I was concerned, I wasn't going to have to revisit this decision and could spend my time sizing up the rest of the races.

Several weeks ago I noticed a change in the Neal campaign. Instead of the positive campaign I had expected from Jim Neal, the campaign went negative, almost hostile. I first noticed it when Mark Binker blogged about it. I was a bit shocked, but too busy to look into the story behind the press releases, though I mentioned it in a comment at BlueNC.

Recently, it happened again. A couple of days before our scheduled live-blog with Kay Hagan, the Neal campaign accused Hagan of using her legislative influence to prevent other Democrats from supporting Jim Neal. Again, it was Mark Binker with the story, but Doug Clark who more clearly defined Neal's accusation. With the BlueNC Governors debate and Kay Hagan's live-blog approaching, I didn't have time to dissect what was going on.

That time has come.

The "Where's Kay?" Campaign

The first press release from the Neal campaign that I thought crossed the line came out on March 14. It was titled, "Where's Kay? State Senator Blows off Debates, Voters". It makes the following claims or accusations:

  • Kay Hagan ignored a debate invitation from the League of Women Voters and Public Radio East.
  • Kay Hagan has refused other "unscripted exchanges before the voters".
  • Kay Hagan has ignored a request from WTVD-TV for a debate.
  • This prompted an email from Judie Burke of the League of Women Voters to Andrew Kain, Jim Neal's campaign manager. In it she told him that Rob Christensen had been informed of the debate after his article on March 9 in the Raleigh News & Observer. In the email to Christensen, Burke listed those who had agreed to attend the debate and they included Hagan, Lassiter, Neal and Staley. She said that Mr. Williams had also been invited since he had recently filed to run.

    This exchange prompted another release from the Neal campaign on March 15. In this release the campaign makes the following claims or accusations.

  • Kay Hagan has made another public reversal of position.
  • Kay Hagan failed to meet the deadline to participate in the debate.
  • Kay Hagan came forward only after the Neal campaign made public that she had failed to inform Public Radio East she would be attending.
  • Kay Hagan has failed to respond to an invitation from WTVD-TV to debate her opponents.
  • The final press release in this series came in Neal's statement to the press the day of the debate. In this release, the Neal campaign makes the following claims or accusations:

  • WTVD-TV in Durham, WLTT in Wilmington, statewide African American Caucus and the Young Democrats of North Carolina have all offered to stage debates.
  • Kay Hagan only agreed to the League of Women Voters / Public Radio East debate after unilaterally changing the format.
  • The other senatorial candidates were excluded from the discussion about the format changes.
  • It's time to check some facts

    After speaking with folks involved in these events I have verified that the Neal campaign has been less than truthful.

    Here's what I learned:

  • Kay Hagan did NOT ignore the debate invitation from the League of Women Voters and Public Radio East.
  • Kay Hagan has NOT refused to face Neal in "unscripted exchanges before the voters" .
  • Kay Hagan has NOT ignored the request from WTVD-TV to schedule a debate.
  • Kay Hagan did NOT make another public reversal of position.
  • Kay Hagan did NOT fail to meet the deadline to participate in the League of Women Voters debate
  • Kay Hagan did NOT come forward and agree to the debate simply because the Neal campaign claimed she wasn't planning to debate.
  • Kay Hagan has NOT failed to respond to WTVD-TV's efforts to set up a debate.
  • Kay Hagan did NOT unilaterally change the format of the League of Women voters / Public Radio East debate
  • The other candidates for U.S. Senate had the same opportunity to offer format suggestions in developing the League of Women Voters debate.
  • WTVD-TV and the Alliance of Black Elected Officials have offered to host a debate and have contacted both parties.
  • WLTT and Young Democrats of North Carolina either have not offered to host debates, or have not set dates and formally sent invitations.
  • Almost every accusation or claim made by the Neal campaign is false or so distorted it doesn't resemble the truth. The following information from interviews I've conducted with principal participants tells a more accurate version of events.

    According to Judie Burke, President of the League of Women Voters the Hagan campaign had not ignored the invitation to debate or responded past the deadline. Also, with an email dated March 9 from Burke to Christensen listing Hagan as having accepted the invitation, it is obvious that Hagan's acceptance was not in response to the Neal campaign's March 14 accusation that she had ignored the invitation and it was not a public reversal.

    Burke also said that every candidate was given the chance to make format change requests. She said that the Hagan campaign made several suggestions, but the only one that was used was the request that the debate be 60 minutes instead of 90 minutes. Ms. Burke said the League discussed it and agreed that it made sense. However, she was adamant that every candidate was welcome to make requests or suggestions in regards to the debate format. In other words, Kay Hagan did not unilaterally change the debate format.

    I also checked with Megen George, the woman in charge of organizing the debate for Public Radio East. She is the news director, features producer and host for The Down East Journal. Megen said that while bringing the Hagan campaign on board took longer than the other candidates, the Hagan campaign did not miss any deadlines and did not ignore the request to debate. Megen said that once Colleen Flanagan was brought on board the Hagan campaign as Communications Director the process moved along more quickly. She also said that all the candidates wanted Kay Hagan to participate in the debate and that the Neal campaign would check in periodically. She said that the first press release came out several days after the Neal campaign had checked with her to see if Hagan was particpating. At the time of the phone call, Hagan had still not confirmed, but did so before the first press release was issued. The Neal campaign had not called back before publishing their release.

    It also isn't true that Hagan has avoided "unscripted exchanges before the voters". She's participated in numerous forums with Jim Neal including Think Tankers (Wake Forest), NC Association of Bankers, Charlotte/Meck Black Political Caucus and they will be at the Orange County Democratic Party forum.

    A forum the Hagan campaign missed was one sponsored by the Young Democrats of North Carolina that would have been held in Greensboro if a snow storm hadn't resulted in it being cancelled. Kay Hagan had a prior engagement that prevented her from attending that particular forum. In speaking with Zack Hawkins, President of Young Democrats of North Carolina, he indicated that Young Dems did schedule a forum that Senator Hagan could not fit in her schedule and if she had attended she would have arrived very late. He also indicated that Young Dems wanted to schedule two debates, but those have not been solidified and invitations have not gone out.

    WLTT radio - The Big Talker F.M. - out of Wilmington is home to conservative talk radio host, Curtis Wright. He interviewed Jim Neal on his radio talk show and his television show. At the time, the station was helping coordinate a gubernatorial debate but was having difficulty getting Richard Moore and Bev Perdue to participate. Wright casually floated the idea to Neal that if Moore and Perdue wouldn't participate maybe Hagan and Neal could take their places. Wright says he took the idea to the other participants and they felt it would not be fair to the gubernatorial candidate who had agreed to the debate, Retired USAF Colonel Dennis Nielsen. Wright and his producer Aimee Robbins both say the Hagan campaign was never contacted and the idea never went any further.

    There is a debate scheduled that will be hosted by the North Carolina Alliance of Black Elected Officials (not the statewide African American Caucus as is claimed on Neal's press release) and they are working out the details with WTVD-TV in Durham. I spoke with Mark Falgout from WTVD who said the Hagan campaign had not ignored the station's request to schedule a debate, but that they had first contacted the campaign in November and they are just now finalizing details.

    To be fair, I checked Kay Hagan's press releases during the time period the Neal releases were published. This release is the only one that mentions the debate. There are no negative attack releases coming out of the campaign directed at Jim Neal. The only releases coming from the Hagan camp that could be considered negative are directed at Elizabeth Dole.

    Embellished Endorsements

    In a post here at BlueNC, dancewater published the completed questionnaires for two of the candidates for U.S. Senate. Jim Neal was one of them. On the questionnaire he lists a group of endorsements. Here are just a few:

    List endorsements from organizations and/or individuals:
    Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg
    E-Quality Giving
    CORRECTION: Blue NC DID NOT ENDORSE PER NEAL CAMPAIGN
    Pam’s House Blend
    Howie Klein, co-founder of the Blue America PAC
    David Salie, the director of the groundbreaking on-line fundraising operation
    John Ross Hendrix, a former candidate in the race
    James C. Hormel, Ambassador
    Hillary Rosen, a member of the Democratic National Committee
    Bob Kerrey, former U.S. Senator

    Almost immediately James and I noticed and posted about the erroneous BlueNC endorsement. The campaign contacted Progressive Dems and had that retracted. Then Pam Spaulding spoke up and said that Pam's House Blend also had not endorsed Jim Neal, though she was personally supporting him.

    Honest mistakes, right? Only here's the deal. In politics, when you are putting together a list of endorsements you double check to make sure that you can list that person or entity as an endorser. This isn't simply listing your supporters. An endorsement is more formal than a simple statement of support and is supposed to carry more weight and meaning.

    One of the more prominent people listed as an endorser, former Senator Bob Kerrey has said that he did not endorse Jim Neal. I spoke with Senator Kerrey last week. He said that Jim Neal is a good man and that he likes Jim. Kerrey, however refused to endorse Jim Neal when asked. According to Kerrey, he told Jim that he didn't know the other person running, but that he does not endorse in a primary. Kerrey was very clear about this when we spoke. As a matter of fact when he returned my call he responded to my greeting with, "This is Bob Kerrey. I hear I've endorsed Jim Neal." He sounded quite amused and I got the feeling I wasn't the first person to contact him about his "endorsement".

    There was one other item that jumped out on this questionnaire. Under the question about the candidate's relationship with labor there is this claim:

    Because this is my first run at elective office, I am not eligible for union endorsements, because based on the rules of the AFL-CIO I must have a public voting record to be considered for endorsement for the office of U.S. Senate.

    This is completely untrue. I spoke with James Andrews, President, North Carolina AFL-CIO and he said that while a legislative voting record will be considered if one exists, it is not necessary in order to apply or receive an endorsement from the group. He also mentioned a previous candidate for U.S. Senate who had no prior voting record and who received an endorsement. That man's name is John Edwards.

    Jim Neal Accuses Kay Hagan of using Legislative Influence to Intimidate Prospective Neal Supporters

    On March 23, Mark Binker wrote an article with this lede:

    RALEIGH — Kay Hagan's chief rival in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate has accused the state senator of using her status as a powerful and politically connected committee chairwoman to intimidate his potential supporters.

    The problem with Neal's accusation is that he does not back it up. He doesn't even come close. In the same article, Neal gives this description of his "proof":

    "There is an inside machine that is working very hard to lock down the money in the state," said Jim Neal, a Chapel Hill investment banker and Greensboro native. On the stump and in phone calls to potential donors, Neal has told audiences that potential supporters were being "muscled" by political operatives friendly to Hagan.

    "Someone will agree, 'Jim, I'll throw a fundraiser for you.' And then all of a sudden we won't hear from them for a while and the next thing you know, they're throwing a fundraiser for Kay (Hagan)," Neal said when asked to describe how this muscling worked.

    Basically, what Jim describes happens all the time in politics and it usually has nothing to do with anybody being forced to support one candidate over another. Usually, it has very much to do with the process of choosing a candidate you think can win.

    Last cycle few, if any, moneyed Democrats backed Larry Kissell in this state. He was an untested candidate, much like Jim Neal and they didn't think he could win. Big donors do not want to sink money into a candidate that they think has no chance of winning. It happens all the time.

    Doug Clark commented on Binker's article in his blog post on March 24.

    It initially sounded like whining from a little-known, first-time candidate who, not surprisingly, is having trouble raising money. Potential donors naturally would be skeptical about sinking money into the campaign of a guy who stands little chance of knocking off Elizabeth Dole, especially when the same potential donors are being hit up by better-known Democrats like Bev Perdue, Richard Moore and, yes, Kay Hagan, the party's leading Senate candidate.

    But Neal seems to be saying more.

    :::snip:::

    As in, "Support me and I'll return the favor through the legislative appropriations process"?

    Or, "Support Neal and I'll punish you through the legislative appropriations process"?

    There are words for that: Bribery and extortion.

    Doug's exactly right. If Neal is going to accuse Kay Hagan or her "operatives" of extortion then he had better be prepared to back those accusations up with some names or he had better be prepared to back down.

    I called Andrew Kain, Neal's campaign manager. I asked if they planned to give us any names to back up their accusations. He said the Binker article spelled it out accurately and that it wasn't in their best interest to expose the people who had gone back on their commitments to raise money for Neal. In the Binker article, Neal is not quoted as saying Kay Hagan is directly doing the arm twisting which makes me wonder why the campaign would sit idly by if Binker and Clark have misinterpreted what Neal is saying.

    Kain emphasized that they don't know who is doing it, but that there have been people who committed to support Neal or hold a fundraiser and then the campaign never heard from them again. He said they don't know if it's Hagan, the state party or the DSCC, but they know it is happening.

    I asked the Hagan campaign if Kay was involved in this in any way and they said she is not. I emailed Jerry Meek and asked if the state party was involved in any political arm twisting and I have not heard back. I also called the DSCC and spoke with Matt Miller the communications director and he said the DSCC is not trying to muscle people into supporting Hagan.

    That leaves us with some very serious allegations and no backup whatsoever, just some vague claim that they, "know it's happening".

    Conclusion

    In a political season where people have touted one presidential candidate over another because he represents a new kind of politics and where people openly embrace the "politics of hope", I can't believe a Democratic candidate would conduct his campaign in such a divisive style. It's especially hard to swallow since Jim Neal has worked hard to draw parallels between himself and Barack Obama. Personally, I don't see these parallels.

    Early on I had such high hopes. I expected negative campaigns from Perdue and Moore and expected dirty campaigning in the presidential primary. I didn't expect such ugliness from Jim Neal. I thought he was different. Apparently, I was wrong.

    The following were interviewed to verify information:

  • Judie Burke, President, League of Women Voters
  • Bob Kerrey, former senator and President of The New School in New York
  • Megen George, News Director - Features Producer and Host for The Down East Journal, Public Radio East
  • Mark Falgout, Special Projects, WTVD-TV - I'm sorry Mark, I didn't get your exact title
  • Zack Hawkins, President, Young Democrats of North Carolina
  • Aimee Robbins, Producer, The Big Talker at WLTT
  • Curtis Wright, Host, The Big Talker at WLTT
  • Andrew Kain, Campaign Manager, Jim Neal for Senate
  • Matt Miller, Communications Director, DSCC
  • James Andrews, President, North Carolina AFL-CIO
  • Comments

    I've stayed out of this because I didn't have answers

    and because I like and respect all the BlueNCers who are/were both raising the questions and arguing these matters. I also support Jim Neal. A couple of Andrew Kain's comments particularly resonate with me...

    These are the realities of politics. One of the very reasons that we are running this year, is because the system, whether in Raleigh or Washington is broken. We all know it, and most of us, whether in polls, blogs, or with our Democratic voice, choose to make it known.

    I agree the system is broken, and IMHO Kay Hagan respresents that system. I almost fell over when I saw her campaign website video where she proclaimed with great sincerity that her first thoughts upon awakening each day were how to help the people of NC.
    If that were truly the case we wouldn't be in the mess we're in (mental health health care, crumbling infrastructure, tax giveaways to corporations, etc.) because surely some way of solving these problems would have popped into her head.

    and...

    I would never claim that I am above mistakes. It is only fair to have them pointed out; accountability is the cornerstone of ethics – in politics and in life.

    John Edwards paid dearly for the mistake one of his staffers made simply leaving a haircut expense in the report to the FEC. Rational explanations of why the barber was paid so handsomely (waiting time) and a correction to how the expense was paid never took the stain away....because his detractors chose to keep bringing it up.

    If Jim or anyone on his staff has made a mistake it appears to be smallish in nature and perhaps more a matter of perspective that fact.

    I'm sure Ms. Hagan is a nice lady. If she wanted to debate Jim Neal, surely by now she could have found the time and opportunity. We can each decide whether she's laying in the bushes hoping not to have such a confrontation....or is in fact so busy thinking of ways to help us she doesn't have time to be questioned rigorously about the issues.

    Stan Bozarth

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