On paper, there aren’t many stronger political résumés than Chris Rey’s.
He’s young, smart, energetic, good-looking, a Signal Corps officer who was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, a major in the National Guard, the executive director of a health care nonprofit that assists thousands of uninsured people each year, a cybersecurity expert who spent four years writing policy for the Department of Defense, and a graduate of William & Mary Law School. For the last four years, he’s been the mayor of Spring Lake, a town of just over 13,000 situated right outside the gates of Fort Bragg. He’s also African-American, a constituency Democrats need to prevail in this state.
In person, the 38-year-old has a knack for charming voters; when he filed to run for U.S. Senate in December, Rey was accompanied by his wife and baby daughter, inciting awws from employees at the Board of Elections. Rey also impressed likely voters at a December meet-and-greet at N.C. Central. “I think he has a lot of great ideas and a lot of energy,” one of them told the INDY. “He’s suggesting changes that can be made, and I think a majority of folks in North Carolina agree with.”
And yet almost no one expects him to win the March 15 Democratic primary, or even to have much of an impact. The big players (and the big money) are instead lining up behind former state legislator Deborah Ross, just as the Democratic elites have aligned themselves with Attorney General Roy Cooper’s gubernatorial bid rather than that of Durham attorney Ken Spaulding, another African-American. While Ross is backed by the powerful Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the AFL-CIO, and EMILY’s List, Rey’s endorsement list contains over a hundred local officials but just four state legislators. Though the state party remains officially neutral, Ross seems to have secured the Democratic establishment’s blessing.
So why has Rey been written off? On the surface, it’s simple: Democrats have decided Republican senator Richard Burr is vulnerable, and Ross, a proven fund-raiser and experienced politician, is most likely to beat him.
But Rey thinks there might be more to the story.
“You want our vote, but you’re not investing in the black leader,” Rey says. “It’s not about being divisive; it’s that we want the shot, and the shot isn’t coming, and you keep telling us to wait, wait, wait. When do we stop waiting?”
• • •
Sitting in his nonprofit’s office in Fayetteville shortly before Thanksgiving, Rey has clearly been waiting for this moment for a long time. “My entire adult life has been in the service of others,” he says.
That’s not an exaggeration.
Rey moved to Fayetteville from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands when he was eight; his family settled in Spring Lake two years later. He was a track-and-field All-American in 1995 and won an athletic scholarship to Eastern Carolina University, where he found his calling. “I was going to be an Olympic gold medalist, that was the plan,” he says. “But I got really involved in student issues at ECU, and that’s where I met [former U.S. representative] Eva Clayton, and the rest was history.”
After ECU, Rey followed in his uncle’s footsteps and joined the army; he started out as a computer systems information analyst and was later commissioned as a second lieutenant. He spent seven and a half years in the military, with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
After being discharged, he interned in the office of Representative John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, and went to law school at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, after campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, Rey had his first inkling to run for office. “There was a sense of empowerment, like, ‘Maybe this is possible,’” he says. But law school came first.
Rey didn’t envision returning to Spring Lake. Rather, he planned to move to D.C. But then he ran into some friends on a visit back home a few months before graduation. They asked him pointedly, “Are you coming back to North Carolina?”
“I didn’t have the courage to tell them no,” he says. “And if I was coming back to North Carolina, it wasn’t going to be Spring Lake. But one of them said, ‘Our community needs help.’ And it just moved me. You could see the despair.”
On the drive to his grandmother’s house, Rey made a decision. “I jumped on her bed, and I said, ‘I think I’m going to move back home and run for mayor.’” And that’s just what he did: Rey returned home in August 2010. A year later he unseated an entrenched mayor with 76 percent of the vote.
He won so easily because Spring Lake was in turmoil. Rampant corruption in the town’s police department had led the FBI to strip the department of its powers in 2009; two years after Rey became mayor, it regained full authority. The town was also hit hard by sequestration, the budget deal President Obama reached with congressional Republicans (including Burr) in 2011 to cap government spending, including for the military. Because of furloughs and job cuts, sequestration has hit Fort Bragg especially hard. (By the end of 2018, 842 troops there will be downsized.)
To combat sequestration’s impact on Spring Lake’s economy, Rey pushed to attract new businesses to the area, improve public services such as parks and playgrounds, and develop affordable housing units in some of the hardest-hit areas. From 2010 to 2014, the town’s population grew by 11 percent, nearly triple the state average.
It was obvious that Rey’s ambitions would quickly outgrow Spring Lake. There were rumors that he would run for lieutenant governor or challenge U.S. Representative Renee Ellmers for her seat; instead, Rey shot higher. Last September, he announced he would seek to run against Burr.
“In this state we’ve got a hundred counties, and you’ve got five counties that are really doing well,” says state Senator Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, thus far the only member of the state’s upper chamber to endorse Rey. “There’s a lot of small places like Spring Lake all over North Carolina, where the middle class is being squeezed. [Rey] gets that.”
But if he has such a solid track record, why is the party lining up behind Ross?
“Unique things happen when an African-American male decides to run for Senate,” Lowe says. “I remember Harvey Gantt, I remember Dan Blue [Jr.]. We still have our own challenges to deal with, but I think [Rey] gets what’s happening to regular folks.”
• • •
In 1990, Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt became North Carolina’s first African-American major-party nominee for statewide office, running for Senate against Jesse Helms. A week before the election, a Mason-Dixon poll showed Gantt in the lead, but Helmswho aired the infamously racist “Hands” ad during the campaignwon by six points.
State Representative Duane Hall, D-Wake, was a volunteer for Gantt. “Election night was tough,” Hall says.
Six years later, Gantt challenged Helms again and lost by a larger margin. “North Carolina wasn’t ready then [for an African-American senator],” Hall concedes.
North Carolina still wasn’t ready in 2002, when former state House Speaker Dan Blue Jr. ran for the same seat. Blue was an unabashed progressive. But Erskine Bowles, a moderate Clinton administration vet who had never held elected office, had the support of the party establishment from the outset. He easily defeated Blue in the primary. (Bowles lost in November to Elizabeth Dole.)
When this year’s Senate race first started taking shape, there was talk that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxxlike Gantt, an African-American former mayor of Charlottewould run. But Foxx declined; a spokeswoman admitted that the decision owed in part to Burr’s support for Foxx’s cabinet confirmation in 2013.
Rey saw an opportunity.
He’s now vying to be only the 10th black senator in American history. (There are currently two: Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.) Depending on how you rate his chances, Rey is one of three viable black Democrats running for statewide office. Linda Coleman is making a second bid for lieutenant governor after losing narrowly in 2012. And Dan Blue III, a former leader of the Wake County Democratic Party, is running for treasurer. There are six other black candidates for several statewide offices, but observers don’t give them much of a chance; one of them is long-shot Senate candidate Ernest T. Reeves, a retired army captain from Greenville making his third bid for officehe ran for U.S. Senate in 2014 and Greenville mayor in 2015in three years.
Deborah Ross is atop the Senate pack for good reason: Not only was she one of the state House’s top Democratic leaders, a former state director of the ACLU, and the in-house counsel for regional transit agency GoTriangle, she was also a top fund-raiser for Democrats around the state.
In fact, Hall says, part of the reason he didn’t run for Senate is because Ross is so formidable. “I think Chris is a great candidate and has a bright future, but she’s built those ties for so much longer.” Hall points out that a woman has never lost a statewide Democratic primary to a man in North Carolina.
For all of the talk that Ross is the presumptive nominee, though, polling indicates that the race is wide open. The candidates are largely unknown across the state, and most Democratic voters are undecided.
National Democrats put their finger on the scale anyhow. On January 21, the DSCC backed Rossthe day after the AFL-CIO announced its endorsementsomething it doesn’t often do in contested races. DSCC primary endorsements tend to be of national figures with established bases of support, or they come after a candidate has already cleared the field.
On the one hand, it’s easy to see why they did it: Ross is far better connected than Rey or fellow candidate Kevin Griffin, a Durham businessman who ran a few points behind Ross in a recent Public Policy Polling survey. But whereas Griffin makes a point of chastising “political insiders” and trumpets his lack of endorsements from national groups or state lawmakers, Rey has been active in the Democratic Party in both Virginia and North Carolina. That doesn’t appear to have helped him much.
Deep down, it’s worth considering whether North Carolina progressives who have memories of experienced and popular candidates like Gantt and Blue going down think Reyor anyone who looks like himcould actually win.
“This is still the South,” Lowe says, “and we still have our own battles. Regardless of party.”
• • •
“You mean to tell me that North Carolina has only elected one African-American statewide in its history, outside of our judges?” Rey asks. “I mean, that’s crazy.”
Crazy, but true. In 1992, Raleigh city councilor Ralph Campbell was elected state auditor, becoming the first African-American to win statewide office in North Carolina.
He went on to serve three terms, two of his victories coming in presidential years in which Republicans easily won the state. Many Democrats see state treasurer candidate Dan Blue III as a good bet to become the second.
“It’s simply not enough to be an African-American candidate,” Blue says. “You need to be a qualified and successful candidate. Mayor Gantt lost to Jesse Helms, but so did [former governor] Jim Hunt, and that was never a matter of race. It was a matter of politics.” (Blue, for the record, says he likes both Ross and Rey.)
Wake County Democratic Party chairman Brian Fitzsimmons adds that the state party is more diverse than ever, and says he believes North Carolina (and its Democratic Party) is definitely ready for an African-American candidate. “There are a number of groups within the party, myself included, that have worked really hard to get strong African-American candidates for office,” he says. “Especially in Wake County, we’ve been working to find strong African-American candidates and pro-choice women candidates to run for office.” (One such rising star is Wake County commissioner Jessica Holmes, elected in 2014.)
“Does race play for some voters? Yes, but much less than it did in 1996,” Fitzsimmons continues. “North Carolina is changing. … The idea of electing an African-American statewide is not only possible, but is becoming more of the norm.”
Perhaps. But Rey argues that if state Democrats don’t actively embrace minority candidates, that will hurt them down the road. “When the partyeither partydoesn’t demonstrate the ability to diversify the ticket,” Rey says, “it impacts future generations. … If there are younger folks who want to run for mayor or another office, but they don’t see black senators or governors, people being elevated to those higher offices, they believe it can’t be done.”
And there are still people who believe he can’t do it, either. “There are people of color who have literally said to me, ‘You’re not going to get elected, because they don’t elect folks like us. They don’t elect folks who look like us.’ And the reason they say that is because they haven’t seen the desire to get people of color to run for higher office.”
He says some people he’s spoken to within the partyhe wouldn’t name nameshave told him he should run for state legislature first. But Rey chafes at the idea that he should be patient. “My argument to them was that there are people all across America who have never served at all and just decide to run for higher office,” Rey says. “The only difference between them and me is that most of the time, those folks are very well off and have the ability to self-fund or have the resources to get off the ground.
“I always hear, ‘Chris, it’s not your time,’ and I’m sure they’ve said that to probably every African-American who’s decided to run in races like this,” he says. “I don’t know when ‘your time’ ever is.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Should Rey Matter?”