Scroll To Top

The Man Who Would
Be Senator

The Man Who Would
Be Senator


Is out North Carolina Democrat Jim Neal too much of a long shot to unseat incumbent Elizabeth Dole? Andrew Noyes finds out.

Jim Neal's entry in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is stunningly short. In a nutshell, the North Carolina investment banker is a 51-year-old divorced Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Elizabeth Dole. Oh, and "in October of 2007, Neal publicly revealed that he is gay in an online discussion."

Though Neal doesn't believe his sexuality will work against him in the campaign, it remains to be seen whether his party -- and registered voters -- feel the same.

I catch up with Neal on a Sunday night in December after a full day of hand-shaking and speech-making. It's getting late and he's forgotten to eat dinner, but his enthusiasm is palpable, and the Greensboro, N.C., native is refreshingly frank. The novice politician, who opened a financial advisory firm in Chapel Hill after many years in New York, knows he has to become a household name. A top fund-raiser for retired Army general Wesley Clark's and Sen. John Kerry's failed presidential bids, Neal balked at conventional wisdom when he threw his hat in the ring to take on Dole. Could an openly gay man in the American South have a snowball's chance of beating the former chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee?

"They think a gay guy can't win in North Carolina," says Neal. "That's the same argument that a woman can't hold elected office or a black person. It's been proven wrong, damned wrong, in the past."

A November poll conducted by a conservative think tank disagrees. Of those polled, 47% said they were less likely to vote for a gay candidate, versus only 7% who said it made them more likely to do so, while 37% said it made "no difference" at all.

"People in North Carolina don't give two hoots about my sexuality," Neal says, calling it a blue state with red senators. "People who wouldn't vote for me because I'm gay wouldn't vote for me anyway."

Neal's first obstacle will be to defeat Democrat Kay Hagan, a five-term state senator with far more name recognition, in the May primary. Though some have wondered if the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recruited Hagan to run against Neal, spokesman Matthew Miller says no. The group, chaired by U.S. senator Charles Schumer of New York, had been talking to Hagan about a Senate run "for some time -- in fact, months before Neal ever declared his candidacy," says Miller. The DSCC has yet to endorse a candidate.

Neal says he is happy to have some competition for the nomination but adds that when voters go to the polls, "they'll be presented with a really stark choice -- status quo versus a fresh face," noting Hagan is "very much part of the political system." His comments about Dole are considerably harsher: "She's done a very, very poor job of representing the people of North Carolina, and there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with her performance."

Neal says he's not afraid of controversial issues, and he slams congressional lawmakers for failing to keep transgender protections in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or to address the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Yet raising the money to sustain his lean campaign is Neal's biggest hurdle. According to recent Federal Election Commission filings, Dole had $2.3 million on hand September 30. Hagan and Neal have not yet filed with the FEC, but Neal estimates he needs $1.5 million for the primary and another $8 million for the general election. He hoped to have more than $200,000 in the bank by the end of 2007. Massie Ritsch at the Center for Responsive Politics notes that if Neal "can return to the wells he tapped [for Clark and Kerry], that puts him in a good position."

Even if he gets the money, Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, lists Senator Dole as one of 2008's safest incumbents. "It would take a very strong Democratic trend, with the party's presidential nominee carrying even deeply red states like North Carolina, to put Dole into jeopardy," he says.

"Anything is possible," Sabato says, but adds, "I doubt it will matter much to the outcome whether the Democratic nominee is Mr. Neal or his Democratic opponent."

Furthermore, Neal lacks "institutional support." Beyond the DSCC, the North Carolina Democratic Party has not backed his candidacy, though executive director Caroline Valand points out the organization "does not get involved in primaries." A spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a high-profile financier that will write checks for more than 100 politicians in 2008, could not comment on Neal "until, and unless, he is endorsed by us."

"It's always a good thing" when gays and lesbians run for office, says Log Cabin Republicans president Patrick Sammon, but he says Neal "would face an uphill battle no matter where he was running," particularly when it appears "the Democratic establishment doesn't want to get anywhere near him."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Outtraveler Staff