The important thing, Senate candidate Dan Blue says, is sticking with Democratic principles even when the party doesn’t.

This should be a winter of discontent for Dan Blue. No ordinary member of the N.C. House of Representatives, Blue is a former speaker with a glittering record. Yet in the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, he’s usually relegated to the list of “others running” while the media tag along to ice cream parlors with Republican Elizabeth Dole. When they digress to mention the several Democrats who might be her opponent, it’s only to say that Erskine Bowles, the White House chief of staff for part of the Clinton administration, is the likely winner ’cause he’s so rich and has the “party establishment” on his side.

And so it goes, at Blue’s house on the eastern edge of Raleigh, one Saturday morning in mid-January. The news of the week is Dole announcing that she raised $2.5 million in 2001; Bowles says he raised $1.7 million (he started later), and that’s without writing big checks of his own. And Blue? He’s declined to reveal anything until official reports must be filed on Jan. 31. Meanwhile, Blue has lost his campaign manager and is awaiting the arrival of a new one hired fresh from a borough election in New York City. (Molly Freeman, a veteran of Raleigh politics, left when she was offered the lobbyist’s job at the N.C. Association of Educators, her “dream position” and the only one she’d have left Blue for, she says. Jill Harris is her replacement.)

To make things worse, Blue’s fill-in driver this Saturday has gone the wrong way and failed to arrive at his house on time. So the candidate himself is at the wheel heading for a speech to the Pitt County Democrats in Greenville. He’s running 10 minutes late, he figures. Did you know that Blue was a math major in college? He displays his analytical bent by periodically recalculating the estimated time of arrival, adding five minutes when construction (“and no signs”) force him to double back from a wrong turn onto the Interstate 264 Bypass.

So is he just a little hot? On the contrary, he’s relaxed, enjoying himself and right in his element, which is to say that he likes being the underdog, and it’s hardly the first time he has been. Heck, he’s been a long-shot since the day he was born 52 years ago in Robeson County, a black kid whose lower-middle-class family lived in a four-room farmhouse in one of the poorest corners of the segregated South.

Even in 2002, Blue is the only African American in the country with a chance to win a Senate seat. The count today: 100 white senators out of 100.

So sure, Blue agrees readily, Bowles will have far more money to spend than he will. Bowles’ father, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, was the 1972 Democratic nominee for governor; his wife, Crandall Close Bowles, is an heir to the Springmaid textile fortune. Blue, by the way, still won’t say how much he’s raised, only that his report will show less than $500,000, and “it won’t land with a thud.” (Answering, in order, the questions: “A million?” “Half a million?” and “Will it land with a thud?”)

And sure, Blue concedes, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall has attracted supporters, more than he thought she would, frankly. Marshall’s popular, and she’s getting lots of help from women activists as she tries to be this state’s first female senator. Then there’s a fourth candidate, former Durham City Councilor Cynthia Brown, who’s really to the left politically, and like Blue, is African-American. So Blue can’t just claim the activists for himself, or the progressives, or the black voters either.

Yet Blue says he’s confident he’ll win the Democratic nomination. Why? His answer is, when rank-and-file voters look at the candidates’ records, only his will excite their passions. Only he has a record they’ll want to put up against Dole’s. “And a campaign is about passion,” he says.

Bowles and Marshall “are both excellent people,” Blue says. But Bowles, a Charlotte investment banker, was part of the Clinton team that sold Congress on NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Blue charges that NAFTA has hastened the loss of 170,000 textile jobs in North Carolina since it was enacted in 1995.

“What’s his passionate line?” Blue laughs. “I’m rich?”

Marshall’s candidacy does complicate his efforts with progressive voters, Blue concedes. She was a one-term state senator with a good, but limited record before she defeated racecar legend Richard Petty to become Secretary of State. She was the first woman elected to a statewide office in North Carolina. But against Dole, being “the first woman” will be no argument at all, Blue says.

By contrast, Blue argues, his record in 21 years as a House member shows him to be a principled fighter for progressive causes who’s won his share of the battles, lost some others, but won’t back down just because the big special interests are lined up against him. “When I’m advocating for working families, it’s not just words from a poll,” he likes to say.

Twice, Blue’s led the progressive side in dramatic throwdowns with conservatives over who should pay when taxes needed to be raised. Everybody equally, as the conservatives argued? Or the wealthy somewhat more, as Blue maintained? The first battle was in 1991, when he was speaker. The second was in 2001, when he dissented against the Democratic leaders who succeeded him. Both times, he won–progressive values prevailed.

In perhaps the most pitched legislative battle of the last decade, Blue as speaker forged major workplace safety reforms in the wake of the fire at the Hamlet chicken plant that killed 25 workers. In doing so, he prevailed over a coalition of business groups, Republicans and Democratic conservatives, when few thought that he could.

That was almost a decade ago, however. In recent years, Blue’s star has fallen and the top leadership positions in the Democratic party have been reclaimed by conservatives and moderates: Easley, Perdue, Basnight, Black, Cooper and so on.

They and their financial backers–the bankers and business crowd–wanted Bowles to be the Senate candidate from the get-go. They turned to others–former Gov. Jim Hunt, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge–when Bowles at first said no. They’ve fallen in line quickly since Bowles changed his mind in October, citing a post-Sept. 11 call to devote himself to public service.

Nonetheless, Blue remains preternaturally confident. Self-doubt just isn’t in him. By unanimous description of political friends and foes alike, he’s always been upbeat, always focused on his goals–he’s smart, he’s savvy, but he’s not someone who gets the big head. It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t like Dan Blue, even if they don’t agree with him.

A lobbyist who represents business interests in the legislature, for example, says Blue is “very bright, but also very down to earth,” and counts him as a friend, though they agree on little. For what it’s worth, though, this lobbyist knows a lot about politics, and he gives Blue “no chance at all” against Bowles’ backers. “They’ll paint him as way too liberal,” he says.

Another lobbyist, who works for progressive causes, says Blue is “brilliant … when he gets involved in an issue, he really knows the details of it. I would love to have him in the Senate.” But, she adds, “I’m not sure North Carolina is ready for him.”

Both asked not to be quoted by name.

Chris Fitzsimon, president of the Common Sense Foundation, a research and advocacy group in Raleigh, covered Blue as a television reporter in the ’80s and then worked for him as his spokesman when Blue was House speaker from 1990-94. “He’s extraordinarily bright,” Fitzsimon says, “and he’s in politics for the right reason, which I think is relatively rare.”

The right reason? Fitzsimon says it’s contained in the title of a speech Blue named after Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Blue’s in it for the common man, not for well-heeled friends and not for himself either, he says.

Fitzsimon isn’t supporting Blue–because of his position in a nonprofit organization, he doesn’t endorse candidates–but in an interview he spoke highly about Blue’s willingness to take on the establishment when he was speaker, illustrating his point with a story about the culture of the legislative building.

Before 1992, lobbyists used to camp outside the speaker’s office, and the offices of the other legislative leaders nearby, enjoying the comforts of several strategically placed sofas. Legislators literally couldn’t get to the bathrooms without “running the lobbyists’ gauntlet,” Fitzsimon says–and, of course, it was mainly the well-paid business lobbyists who could afford to sit for hours on end waiting to pigeonhole a legislator.

When Blue became speaker, the sofas were removed to another part of the building.

A few years later, when Blue made a controversial bid to regain the speaker’s post and failed–a key turning point in his career, and a big reason for his fundraising difficulties and underdog status today–one of those business lobbyists told Fitzsimon: “I knew (Blue) was going to have a rocky time of it when he took the couches out. He forgot who runs this place.”

Fitzsimon disagreed. “He didn’t forget. He wanted to change it.”

Right on his revised schedule, Blue arrives in Greenville. He’s pumped up. The meeting started 15 minutes ago. That means he’s still got 15 minutes before he’s supposed to start his speech. He plunges into the room, and it’s soon clear that he knows most of the 75 people in it. A lot of them are older–as Democratic party groups in North Carolina tend to be–and they’ve known Blue for a long time. In this racially diverse group, the black folks are enthusiastic; most of the white folks appear reserved.

Blue’s speech emphasizes his support for generous public school funding, especially to lift up low-wealth communities. He’s fought for more state aid. He’ll fight for more federal aid. “For every child in North Carolina,” he says, “whether they grow up in a wealthy subdivision in Wake County or a rural crossroads in Robeson County, I think that our obligation as a society is to create as much education as they can absorb so that they can develop to the fullest extent of their God-given abilities.”

Next comes a dig at Bowles on the trade issue. “There is no reason that we ought to participate in trade deals that hurt North Carolina,” he says. Blue’s position: He’s for trade liberalization, but only if the states that will lose jobs in the short run are “fully compensated” by Washington with money to develop or recruit new businesses and retrain displaced workers. “I am not going to be part of any deal that sells the industries of this state out for some abstract promise to help [the economy] sometime in the future.”

Blue is a polished speaker, but he doesn’t bring people out of their seats with applause lines. Instead, he speaks–even from the sketchiest outline–in complete sentences that comprise fully formed paragraphs and well-nuanced arguments. “Nuances” is one of his favorite terms, as when he criticizes politicians who only read the poll numbers and ignore “the nuances” that go deeper into people’s beliefs.

His punch line this morning is still a work-in-progress. It goes something like this: Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, but he wasn’t that good when he switched to baseball. Bowles and Marshall have done good things, but they haven’t shown their mettle as legislators, and the U.S. Senate is the most important legislative body in the world.

“I bring a history to this race as a legislative leader who will work for you,” he concludes.

The speech is received well enough. But Blue’s best moments always seem to come when someone else gets up and talks about his career and his family. Case in point: Andy Foreman, the Pitt Democratic chair, who’s young enough that apparently he didn’t know the family part when he got up to read from Blue’s resume.

Blue’s a graduate of N.C. Central University and Duke Law School. He was a protégé of Gov. Terry Sanford, and worked in Sanford’s firm before starting his own. “That’s impressive,” Foreman says, not sounding all that impressed. But then his eyes glance ahead on the page.

“Listen to this!” he suddenly blurts out. Dan and his wife, Edna Earle Blue, have three children, and all three graduated from Duke. And they all went on to Duke or Yale Law School. “Wow,” Foreman murmurs.

It happens a lot. Daniel III, a Duke Law grad with a Duke MBA to boot, is working for a Wall Street investment firm. Kanaka graduated from Yale Law School; she’s currently clerking for a federal judge in Richmond. Dhamian is a second-year Duke Law student.

“The first thing to know about Dan Blue,” says his friend Rep. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat and populist, “is the quality of his family.” Ditto retired District Court Judge Heman Clark, who introduced Blue last week at a gathering of Wake County Democrats. He’s been to the beach with the Blue family, he told them, so he knows Dan and Earle and their kids too. “Judge by the children,” Clark said. “They really are all wonderful children.”

They may say Blue is too liberal, but even the most sanctimonious conservative will never question his family values. If you doubt this, ask to see the Blue family albums. Start with the one from the anniversary party Dan and Earle threw last November in honor of his parents, Dan Sr. and Allene. It was their 55th anniversary. Don’t let the tuxedos fool you. They still live in Robeson County, as does Dan’s sister and family.

Remember, Dan Sr. worked all his life on his own small farm, and as a sharecropper on other farms nearby, all the while punching the clock at a mill owned by Burlington Industries until he retired on a small pension. Dan Jr. learned to work 16 hour days from his dad, Earle says.

Look at enough pictures, and you may think you’ve stumbled onto the set of The Dan Blue Show. There’s Dan and Earle visiting the Australian parliament in Sydney, when he was president of the National Conference of State Legislators in 1997. There’s Dan at home in a funny hat. There’s the family in Africa. And in Norway. There’s Dan at home in another funny hat. There are the kids jumping on Dan, and yes, he’s in a funny hat.

While you’re in their house, good chance one of the kids will call, just checking in with Mom or Dad. No kidding, they do.

Don’t miss the framed picture of Dan, from his college days, that’s over in the corner of the living room. Dan’s hair is short, by class of ’71 standards anyway, but check out the sideburns. Dan and his buddy, G.K. Butterfield, were the ringleaders among the civil rights activists on the N.C. Central campus, Earle says. Peaceful protests, she adds quickly. Butterfield is now an associate justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.

Until he was a senior, Earle says, Dan was headed to graduate school in math, and even when he decided on law school instead, he expected to stay at N.C. Central. But when his LSAT scores came in strong, he walked up Fayetteville Street and over to the Duke campus where, armed with a picture and some good luck, he spotted the law school dean in a hallway. Long story short, Duke Law had already picked its class, but Blue talked his way in anyway. “Once he decides on something, he goes all out, and he doesn’t worry that something may get in the way,” Earle says.

In 1998, though, something did get in the way. Blue tried to regain the speaker’s post in a contest he lost–by one vote–to the man who still holds it, Charlotte Democrat Jim Black. Black had been picked as the party’s candidate by the House Democratic caucus. Blue challenged him on the floor, backed by a handful of Democrats, all but two of them African Americans, and most of the Republicans.

Since then, Blue’s loyalty to the Democratic party has been questioned along with his judgment.

One more vote, and Blue might still be the speaker, still be wielding power in the legislature, and be the front-runner for the Senate nomination, not one of the “others running.” All the more poignant, then, to hear Nesbitt, his longtime friend, defend what Blue did and at the same time say he voted for Black. “I probably made a mistake,” Nesbitt says.

The Black-Blue struggle is highly nuanced, you might say, reflecting the way the Democrats have moved to the right since 1980. That was the year Ronald Reagan won the presidency, but it also produced the progressive “Class of ’80” in the legislature, including Blue, Nesbitt and such other future leaders as former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker and Chapel Hill’s Joe Hackney, the current House majority leader.

This “progressive class” has bucked the conservative tide ever since. The ’84 election was a Republican landslide for Helms and Gov. Jim Martin, and Martin was re-elected in ’88. After the ’88 election, a conservative coalition of Republicans and dissident Democrats overthrew incumbent House Speaker Liston Ramsey, a populist, and replaced him with Democrat Joe Mavretic.

Blue’s election in ’90 returned the speaker’s office to progressive hands, and he won again in ’92. Since ’88, Blue is the only speaker elected without the help of votes from the other party, Nesbitt notes. “Twice,” he adds.

In 1994, the spectacular failure of the Clinton health-care plan sunk the Democratic ticket and Republicans, for the first time in a century, took control of the House. They held it through the ’96 elections, but lost in ’98, setting the stage for the Black-Blue showdown.

Out of power, conservative Democrats argued that the party must move to the right, narrowing their differences with the Republicans. Black, who’d been the minority leader in the interim, was the conservatives’ choice. Blue thought they were wrong. “Dan Blue is a man of conscience, and he sincerely felt like the leadership of the party was on the wrong track,” Nesbitt says.

Blue counted on most of the Republicans to support him when he challenged Black, but he promised them nothing in return, he insists, except to conduct the House business fairly as he’d done in his two previous terms. “I’ll take all the Republican votes I can get this year if they want to support me knowing that I stand for Democratic principles,” he says.

Black, he argues, had gone back on a pledge not to use party money in the ’98 campaign to line up votes for speaker. Black also gave key committee positions–and policy influence–to the few Republicans he needed to win. “That’s something I never would have done,” Blue maintains.

It’s all “inside baseball” now, Blue says, and the voters don’t care. But that’s not quite true. Democrats, progressives included, still puzzle over how Blue thought he could be a progressive speaker while owing his selection to the GOP. “I would have been driving the train,” Blue answers. “And I know where I want the train to go.”

Rank-and-file Democrats also wonder whether Blue can overcome the fallout from his failed challenge to mount the kind of grassroots campaign he’ll need to overcome Bowles’ money. Can he count on African-American voters to come out in big numbers for him when key African-American legislators from Charlotte and Wilmington support Speaker Black? Will progressive voters rally to him despite hearing from party leaders that his challenge to Black was an act of disloyalty? Even Blue’s friends don’t rate him that highly as a political organizer; even as speaker, his independent streak–or, call it an insistence on being fair–kept him from building the kind of political machine that might have secured his future.

There’s no question that the current Democratic leadership is more conservative than Blue’s team was. There’s no clearer evidence than the way each responded to economic recessions in Budget Crisis ’91 and Budget Crisis 2001.

Crisis ’91 was arguably the more difficult. Blue took office at the height of the 1990-91 recession facing a $1.2 billion budget deficit. The 2001 deficit was about $1 billion, but remember, a dollar was worth more a decade ago.

Fighting both a Republican governor and conservative Democrats in the Senate, Blue insisted that business and the rich should shoulder some of the burden of balancing the budget in ’91. The Independent‘s Barry Yeoman, who covered the events, wrote back then that Blue “stood firmly against the high-powered Senate negotiators” who opposed taxing the rich and wanted deeper cuts in education spending. The final deal was largely Blue’s way: It cut spending by $600 million and raised taxes the same amount, with most of the money coming from a corporate income tax hike and an income tax hike on family incomes of more than $100,000.

Blue, Yeoman concluded, had answered yes to the question facing Democrats: “Can a liberal agenda move forward with good, fiscally responsible leadership?”

Fitzsimon agrees, and contrasts that outcome to what happened in 2001, when all the top Democrats, including Black and Gov. Mike Easley, wanted business and the wealthy shielded from higher taxes. They put together a package that included deep cuts in social services, raised the sales tax even though it falls most heavily on average folks, and still left a budget hole of at least $200 million.

Their plan had clear sailing in the Senate, where conservative Democrats are in charge. But in the closely divided House, it hit a wall of resistance with the so-called “Gang of Eight,” including Blue, Nesbitt and Rep. Bob Hensley (D-Wake). These progressive legislators insisted that the sales tax increase be pared back and a higher income tax put in its place on family incomes over $200,000. The “Eight” held out for a month and finally got their way.

Blue is proud of the outcome, but not pleased at the label Black’s side hung on his. “Gang?” is all he says. Left unspoken is what’s implied, since six of the “Eight” were African-American members.

The ’91 package gave the state a decade of fiscal strength, Blue argues, so that when the economy turned around, subsequent sessions were able to hand out more than $1 billion in tax cuts. Unfortunately, his party and the Republicans agreed that they should go mainly to business.

But Blue’s number-one priority is public school funding. A lot of legislators are “pro-education.” Where Blue parts company with most is in arguing that school funding should be equalized–that is, schools in poor places, in North Carolina mainly in rural areas, should have just as much money to spend as schools in rich ones.

That would be one of two priorities for him in Washington, he says. The other: health care for every American. Blue isn’t for a government-run system like the ones in most prosperous countries. He’s talking about “a modified version of the current insurance system.” Medicare should be reformed too, he says, so that prescription drugs for seniors are covered. “People ought not be faced with the choice of whether to buy enough of life-sustaining medicine,” Blue says.

Monday night, and Blue is speaking to the Wake Democratic Men’s Club, about 60 party regulars and elected officials with whom he goes way back. He doesn’t mention the battle with Black or the “Gang of Eight,” though the buzz in the room is about all of that–that, and the fact that because of his battles with the Democratic establishment, Blue’s fundraising is thought to be in the toilet.

Five or six big fundraisers without whom he can’t possibly win are known to have told him point-blank that they won’t help him, one Democrat says. Blue needs at least $3 million to be competitive in a race with Bowles, several say. They’ve heard that Bowles is budgeting $20 million for his campaign, including the primary and general elections. Guesses about how much Blue can come up with are in the $500,000-$700,000 range, though one Dem thinks Blue’s national contacts–from his years of work with the other state legislators in the NCSL–may help him surprise folks.

Without money to spend on television ads, people aren’t going to know about Dan Blue’s record, or his dad, or Earle and the kids. “It’s a shame,” one Democrat says, her eyes moist, “but I don’t think he can do it.”

Blue speaks for 10 minutes or so and answers questions for another 20. He’s for many kinds of campaign finance reform. “Representative democracy is probably undergoing its greatest challenge in our history.” On tax policy, he’s careful not to use the word “increase,” choosing instead to denounce the deficits that have resulted from the Bush administration’s tax cuts and its “grab-bag” stimulus package. “If you’re going to stimulate anything, you ought to stimulate people who are out of work,” he says.

His answers are longer tonight, thoughtful even, but his audience isn’t squirming. They want to hear more, it seems. They want to hear how Blue can possibly win.

He’s asked about race. Can a black candidate possibly win? is the underlying question. Harvey Gantt lost twice to Helms, Blue concedes. Gantt’s black. But Jim Hunt lost to him, and Hunt’s white. Two other white Democrats lost to Jesse. All it proves is that nobody could beat him, he says.

Blue’s story, he says, is the story of North Carolina. He was born in a segregated, rural community. He’s prospered living in the Research Triangle. “Just as North Carolina has emerged, so have I,” he says.

From race, Blue shifts smoothly–if indirectly–to party loyalty. That’s what’s hanging out there, after all.

In the ’96 state Senate race, Blue says, there were two white Democrats running in Wake County–Brad Miller and Eric Reeves–and one of the two Republicans was a black incumbent, Henry McKoy. Blue supported the Democrats.

He supported Carter in ’80 and Mondale in ’84 and Dukakis in ’88 and Clinton in ’92 when Bush Sr. was at 90 percent in the polls. Every time conservative Democrats were running away from their national ticket, he stepped up to chair the campaign and lead the fight. “I don’t think there is, has been or ever could be someone who represents the Democratic party more than me,” he says.

But there’s a limit, he adds. “You can’t be an automaton.”

A what?

The bottom line is Democratic principles, Blue says, not party politics that violate those principles. He gives an example: Two North Carolina Republicans, U.S. Reps. Robin Hayes and Cass Ballenger, recently voted for the “fast-track” trade legislation that passed the House recently after promising their constituents that they wouldn’t. It passed by one vote. It will hurt the textile industry in this state, already reeling from NAFTA. Hayes and Ballenger switched when President Bush called on their “party loyalty.”

Jabbing the podium, Blue comes to the point. “At some point,” he says, “you don’t sell your constituency down the river.” EndBlock