Yesterday, former Democratic US Senate candidate Jim Neal posted a video that brought back a flood of memories. The interview on WRAL was Jim’s first meeting with TV reporters in his race to unseat Republican Elizabeth Dole and at the time, he was the only Democrat in the race. The headline says it all. “Neal Plays Up Being Outsider, Not Being Out.” Jim was only the second openly gay candidate in the history of the country to run for US Senate. At the time it was a big deal and a big controversy.
Jim contacted me in the fall of 2007 about running when nobody else seemed to be stepping up to take on Dole. The incumbent had rock-star status and a race against her seemed like a fool’s errand to many establishment Democrats. Jim, who had raised pile of money for John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004, believed he could make a go of it.
The world was different then. We hadn’t had much of the marriage equality debate and the idea of a gay US Senate candidate seemed far-fetched. In early meetings we tried to talk him out of it. We had long discussions about the impact on him and his family. Jim, though, was determined.
Jim came with a lot of assets but no political resume and one big liability. He was smart, well-informed, good-looking with a natural flair for retail politics. He had a commanding presence and access to people with money. He was also gay.
Jim announced his candidacy to little fanfare but a great deal of curiosity. We got a few blurbs in newspapers around the state but he was unknown in Democratic political circles. His announcement didn’t mention his sexual orientation and focused on defeating Dole.
Within a few days, we started getting calls urging Jim to get out of the race. When a caller told me, “Thomas, your candidate has serious skeletons in his closet,” I responded, “There is no closet.” Another caller told me that when news got out about Jim’s sexuality, he would jeopardize the whole Democratic ticket.
We had always known that we would have to break the news about Jim’s sexuality. We just didn’t know when or how. The time came more quickly than we had hoped. We were still in the early stages of setting up his campaign operation. However, we also knew that we wanted to control the message and the process.
We developed a plan to give us maximum coverage while having as much control as possible. We scheduled a series of interviews with state political reporters on a Monday and Tuesday in mid-October. We scheduled a live-blog for the preceding Saturday on BlueNC and publicized it on DailyKos, the national progressive standard bearer for blogs at the time.
The live blog started with a series of mundane questions about running for office and issues bubbling up in Washington. Then, a question came up that simply said, “I heard you’re gay.” Initially, some of the participants gave the questioner push-back, but Jim answered simply. “I am indeed. No big secret and no big deal to me—I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think otherwise.” After several additional comments, the questions from participants went back to the issues of running for office.
Nationally, though, the news was travelling quickly through the blogosphere. Gay and lesbian bloggers like Pam Spaulding from Pam’s Houseblend, quickly got up stories. Low dollar contributions began pouring in and Jim instantly, if relatively briefly, became an internet sensation.
But those days were different. We didn’t have twitter and Facebook was still pretty much the realm of college kids. While bloggers across the country chatted and blogged about a gay candidate for US Senate in North Carolina, the mainstream media didn’t get the news.
On Monday, our first interview was with the AP. The reporter called me about two hours before the interview and he was hot. We assumed he would have gotten the news over the weekend. Instead, he felt blindsided. He calmed down as he came to understand that he was breaking the story for most the political establishment in the state.
With the AP article circulating across the state, Jim did a day of interviews on Tuesday with the political press, including the WRAL spot. We got a mix of support and skepticism. It was one of those times when, as they say, you find out who your friends are.
Within a couple of weeks of the interviews, Kay Hagan announced her candidacy. The next six months were the typical rollercoaster of a campaign—at times exhilarating, frustrating, and exhausting. Jim never got the support from the LGBT establishment—the professional gays, as he called them—but did receive support from other less expected places, like older Democrats who we thought would be more conservative on the issue.
Jim obviously didn’t win the primary but he did introduce a lot of young people to politics. I still work with people who first got into politics because Jim Neal ran for Senate. Jim always said he didn’t want to be a cause candidate or “the gay candidate.” But to some people, he was a cause. He was the first openly gay candidate to run for statewide office in North Carolina. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal today, but it did back then.
Maybe in eight more years we’ll wonder what the fuss over HB2 was all about. I hope so.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >