Jim Neal’s Senatorial dreams were dashed last week when he lost to fellow Democrat Kay Hagan.
The road to Washington wasn’t the most level, especially considering Neal’s relative obscurity and the fact that Hagan won the support of party leaders, who apparently worried Neal couldn’t take on Republican Elizabeth Dole.
While some would be sore about their loss, Neal’s taking it all in stride. He hasn’t yet decided what the future holds, but this homo-politicos sure of one thing: he made – and will continue to make – an impact.
Neal and our editor chatted yesterday about the candidate’s loss, gay group Human Rights Campaign’s non-endorsement and why this year will change America’s electoral process forever.
Andrew Belonsky: So, first, I’m sorry to hear about your candidacy.
Jim Neal: [Laughs] My candidacy or my loss?
AB: Well, the loss of your candidacy.
JN: It’s okay. I’m very proud of the campaign we ran and the statement that we made in North Carolina. I was surprised by the margin of defeat – Kay Hagan did give me a good thumping, but, by the same token, we didn’t have anywhere near the same resources. We were running against some party establishment figures. We gave it – we got twenty percent of the vote, 250,000 votes almost, which I believe is more than any Republican on the ballot statewide, with the exception of John McCain. All in all, it was a good show. We ran a good campaign, but I think that Senator Hagan has an excellent shot at knocking off Elizabeth Dole.
AB: You say that you didn’t have the same resources as Hagan and were going against the party establishment. Of course, your campaign crossed my radar initially with the Chuck Schumer scandal, which I know you and I discussed during our last conversation, but do you feel that may have been unfair: the fact that you weren’t getting funded from the party to run commercials and that you were pitted against the old guard?
JN: Parties make choices about candidates. Maybe if I were Chuck Schumer, I would have done the same thing. That’s what parties do: they make decisions about who they think the best candidate is going to be and who is going to carry the party agenda forward best and, in this case, that wasn’t me. Am I bitter? No. I’m not bitter in the least. I understand how parties work and how special interests work. That’s just the nature of politics.
AB: While we’re on the subject of support, I have to bring up Human Rights Campaign’s non-endorsement in North Carolina. They didn’t endorse you and they didn’t endorse Kay Hagan. Did that hurt you – emotionally?
JN: No. No. I think, once again, the HRC is – it’s an organization that has its own agenda and they make a calculus about who they endorse and who they don’t and, frankly, as I said all along, races are not won by endorsements, they’re won by votes.
AB: Do you consider HRC part of the political establishment?
JN: Sure. They’re just like any other inside the beltway organization. They make a calculus about whom they endorse and whom they don’t. They have their own rationale and reasons. The story here, contrary to what a lot of people thought, is that this wasn’t about Jim Neal the gay candidate in the least. This was about Jim Neal the outside insurgent candidate who – I mean, it’s politics as usual. Other than to the extent that some people used [the HRC non-endorsement] to discredit my viability against Senator Dole, it wasn’t an issue, because both Senator Hagan and myself polled identically against Senator Dole prior to the primary.
AB: I know that now you have pledged your support to Hagan, but what actions are you going to take to help her beat Elizabeth Dole?
JN: I will do anything she’d like me to.
AB: Have you spoken with the campaign since last Tuesday?
JN: Oh, yeah. I’ve spoken with Kay. Kay and I had a nice chat. I told her I would do absolutely anything I could. She said, “I hope I can count on your support” and I said, “Good gosh, you won and you won resoundingly” and I complimented her on the efforts of her whole family, her children who I saw out there campaigning for her actively and Kay said, “I’m a proud mama” and I said, “Well, proud mama, get off the phone with me and go raise money. You’ve got better things to do.” There was any animus between Kay and myself. We have differing points of view on different issues, but on a personal level we had and continue to have a very cordial relationship.
AB: After November, what’s next for Jim Neal? Or what’s next for Jim Neal now? What’s your plan?
JN: Andrew, I’m not closing any doors, but, at the same time, it’s only been a week. Seven months, 35,000 miles, twelve pounds less – I need to take a little bit of time and reenergize. I’ve got to figure out what my plan is going to be. I do know that a page has turned in my life and that whether I’m involved within the political system or not, my energy, focus and commitment is continuing to do what I said during the campaign, which is to bring a voice to the voiceless in our society – people who need government now more than ever, but who get the least attention from government. Those voiceless many are good folks and are the constituency for whom I’m going to continue to work. The reality is that I’ve got a voice now and I want to use it and use responsibly and use it in a way that’s consistent – this campaign was never about Jim Neal, it was about all those voices. And it will continue to be.
Post-script: Neal phoned back a few minutes after the call ended and offered some more thoughts…
JN: You know, I just had an after thought right after I hung up and it was with regard to your question about HRC, when you asked me if it hurt me personally. One of the things I learned very quickly in running for political office – you develop very quickly a very thick skin. With a couple of exceptions, there were very few things that I took personally during the course of this campaign and the lack of an HRC endorsement certainly wasn’t among them. If I took everything that happened personally, I would have been a basket case.
AB: I’m sure! The same is true as a journalist.
JN: Yeah. You really can’t, because it’s a huge distraction and it will take you out of your game. The other thing that I wanted to say that I think is really important – I’ve received hundreds of emails from young people all around the country who have followed this race and have been inspired by someone who is gay running for the United States Senate and feel like a door has been opened for them, or a glass ceiling. That’s been one of the most gratifying things: seeing that there are so many young people – and I mean, 16-year olds – who found the campaign. That is something that I did take personally and I felt very good hearing from young people – and it wasn’t just gay people; there were straight kids. It was just young people in general. There was an incredible amount of energy. It was really exciting to see young people involved.
AB: Oh, yes.
JN: I do believe – I firmly believe that the future of politics, of the political system – the way ultimately that the way our democracy will be enhanced and working more effectively is through the bottom-up campaign, which Senator Obama has run very effectively on the national level. I think that model will be ported down to statewide races. It’s just a question of when, not if, and when that happens, it’s going to make all the white noise of machines and all the other factors a lot less relevant. It’s going to take democracy back to the grassroots level. The genie’s out of the bottle – and that’s a great lesson I’ve learned.