First, let me be clear that my purpose is not to say whether Democrats should vote for or against Roy Cooper for governor or Deborah Ross for U.S. Senate in the primaries next March.

I do, however, want to note that each of these worthy white candidates, both odds-on favorites to win their respective nominations, has a serious primary opponent who is African-American. And I’ll bet you can’t name either one. That, to me, representsin a state where almost half the registered Democrats are African-Americansa complete systems failure.

Five African-American candidates, in fact, are running in Democratic primaries for statewide office, including one for labor commissioner and two for lieutenant governor. It’s possible, though, that none of them will win, and that the Democratic slate next Novembercandidates for nine offices from governor to auditorwill all be white.

Again, I’m not telling you that any of the black candidates merits your support. One or more might. As a group, they’re not strong, frankly.

But consigning them to obscurity six months before the vote, as the party establishment seems intent on doing, while treating favored white candidates as inevitable, is more than unfair. It’s myopic.

It’s unfair because in 2016, to coin a phrase, Black Candidates Matter. They matter for the same reason Black Lives Matter, which is that the black experience in this country is profoundly worse than the white experience, and the Democratic Party must strive to understand both. That means black leadership must be cultivated.

Nor will it do to let the money from special interests and wealthy donors dominate primary races, money that inevitably skews white for obvious, historic reasons.

But forget what’s fair. Let’s deal with the myopia. To win North Carolina in 2016or 2018 or 2020Democrats will need the same turnout of black voters as occurred in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama was running. But, starting next year, no Obama.

All the more reason, then, to put the black candidates who are running, for governor and Senate especially, on stage and online against their white opponents in a series of debates that give them, if not an equal chance to win, at least a reasonable opportunity to reach the voters. That’s the establishment’s job.

Show black candidates some respect and watch the number and quality of black candidates explode in future campaigns.

And then watch black turnout soar.


For governor, then, I give you Ken Spaulding, a Durham attorney who at 70 is neither a novice to politics nor a lightweight, but rather a foreceful member of a storied African-American family who was elected to the state House and served on the N.C. Board of Transportation. He’s been running for a year.

Yet all the establishment types see is Cooper, the state’s attorney general. He also campaigned for a year before his official announcement two weeks ago. Cooper’s entry was hailed by the Democratic Governors Association, abandoning all pretense of neutrality. Spaulding? No comprende.

Naturally, Spaulding challenged Cooper to a series of debates. Cooper dismissed the idea as beneath him. “There will be plenty of opportunities for Democratic primary voters to meet and hear from both candidates,” a Cooper spokesperson said.

Well, I thought, perhaps the N.C. Democratic Party should stage the debates, which would raise Cooper’s profile and Spaulding’s, and sharpen them up for whichever one takes on Gov. Pat McCrory.

Debates would also level the playing field some between Cooper, who’d raised $3.5 million for his campaign at mid-year, and Spaulding, whose total was $167,000.

But that’s not the party’s job at all, NCDP spokesperson Ford Porter told me.

“Debates are not typically organized by the party, but by campaigns and media organizations,” he said.

Sure, why would the party care if a black candidate is dissed? Why help a loser?

In the Senate primary, the establishment’s preference for Ross, the former ACLU leader and state House member from Raleigh, is less apparent, given that she didn’t start campaigning until mid-October.

But her African-American opponent, Chris Rey, a small-town mayor in Cumberland County, got started months ago, and he did not get the blessing of the very important Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington. Soon, I expect, Ross will. (Kevin Griffin, a white Durham businessman, is also in the field.)

I’ve never met Rey, but he’s got quite a résumé at 38: track star at East Carolina; Army intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan; law degree from William & Mary; runs a health care nonprofit called Cumberland HealthNET.

Ross is first-rate and, if elected to the Senate, would do us proud. But let’s also give Rey a look, if not for this office, then for a future one.

Debates, please!

Here’s the backstory: North Carolina’s elected exactly one African-American to a statewide executive officethe late Ralph Campbell, who was elected state auditor in 1992 and re-elected twice. That’s it. We’ve never elected a black governor, U.S. senator, attorney general, nada. You can count the number of black nominees on one hand.

This used to be excused on grounds that only white Democrats could win against the Republicans. With the GOP now holding both Senate seats and the governor’s office as well as both houses of the General Assembly, what’s the excuse now?

This article appeared in print with the headline “Black candidates matter”