Jim Neal doesn't like being called a "cause" candidate. Not if the cause is that he happens to be gay. He'd rather be seen, in his U.S. Senate campaign, as a man with "real-world experience" who's ready to tackle the nation's biggest military and domestic problems.
However, the way the Democratic Party establishment has dissed the 51-year-old Chapel Hill investment banker's candidacy since he announced his intentions to run four weeks ago has made him into a cause for many progressives and gay-rights activists.
"Shameful" is how Pam Spaulding, a Durham activist, puts it. Spaulding's blog, Pam's House Blend, is one of the most read gay-advocacy Web sites in the country. "The complete lack of institutional respect for Jim Neal's candidacy based on his orientation," she says, "shows the two-faced nature of the Democratic party." They want gay votes, she says. But they don't want gay candidates.
Spaulding points specifically to the national Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and its chair, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who for unknown reasons wouldn't return Neal's phone calls.
"The cause," Neal said, "is that I'm not Washington's choice. I'm not Chuck Schumer's choice."
Neal, in the past a top fundraiser for Democrats like John Kerry, had expected to support Congressman Brad Miller of Raleigh for the seat now held by Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. But when Miller bowed out of the race in July, and no other Democrat stepped forward, Neal decided he would. Within a few days of Neal's announcement, two other prospects courted by Schumer, state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro and state Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh, declined the race as well, seemingly leaving it to Neal.
But then, answering a question, Neal revealed that, "yes, indeed," he is gay. Two weeks later, Hagan said she'd changed her mind and would run for Dole's seat. Many top Democrats had urged her to reconsider, Hagan said, including ex-Gov. Jim Hunt, who was working closely with Schumer.
Hagan said Monday that her reversal had nothing to do with Neal's sexuality, nor—contrary to widespread speculation—did she step aside initially because Schumer had lined up Martin to run instead. It was a case, she said, of not thinking hard enough about her responsibilities and what's at stake in the '08 elections.
"I'm a public servant," Hagan said. "That's what I am."
State Democratic Chair Jerry Meek acknowledged, though, that the timing of the various announcements "was unfortunate and led to a misperception" that top Democrats are afraid of a gay candidate. Not so, Meek said Monday. In fact, Meek said he knew in August that Neal is gay. "All I can tell you is, the state party at no time discouraged anybody from running," Meek said.
Neal was given a warm reception Saturday when he spoke in Durham at a conference hosted by Equality NC, a gay-rights advocacy group. "In terms of publicity," he joked, "it's never been so good to be gay." Still, Neal said he didn't want people's support because he's gay. "Frankly, my sexuality has nothing in the world to do with whether I or anybody else is qualified to lead," he said.
In a later interview, Neal said being gay is important to his campaign in one respect: Since he came out 20 years ago, he's been a bit of an outsider, a perspective he thinks is the right one for Washington.
That, he argued, his commitment to social justice, and his background as a Wall Street banker, chief executive of a company in the pharmaceutical industry give him "a fresh approach" to the issues. He's also raised two sons, now 22 and 20. (He declined to answer questions about his ex-wife, out of "respect for her privacy," he said.)
"I am a candidate, and I'll keep repeating this, who comes from the real world. I've lived, raised kids, and worked in the real world," he said. "Yes, I happen to be gay, but that is one of a multitude of things that I am."
Neal's biggest issues: bloated federal spending and the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else. He supports ending the war; cutting military spending beyond what ending the war would save; providing universal health care under a plan like the one proposed by former Sen. John Edwards; budgeting more money for education; and publicly financing federal campaigns.
Neal likened himself to former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who became president of the New School, a New York City university, while Neal served on its board of trustees. Known as a maverick, Kerrey "got in his own way" Neal said, by examining complex issues from every angle, not just the orthodox political one.
Neal said he once told Kerrey: "Washington needs more people who get in their own way."
If elected, Neal could be less partisan and more aware than most Democrats of the tradeoffs between government spending and its economic costs.
"I think you'll find that I'll be less prone to jump on a party bandwagon and toe the line in terms of whatever the Democratic orthodoxy may be."