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Do the NC Democratic Party’s candidates represent the party's diversity?

Political ad for Ben Clark
Ben Clark took a veiled swipe at Rachel Hunt — and touched on an important issue about representation in North Carolina politics.

This story originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

In North Carolina, 45% of registered Democrats are Black.

The state Democratic Party can point to Harvey Gantt, Anita Earls and Cheri Beasley among its successes in promoting African Americans for public office.

But as filing has started for next year’s election, have the Democratic Party’s candidates looked like the party itself?

First, a little history before we get to 2024:

Only one Black Democrat has won a race for Council of State, a collection of 10 statewide offices such as governor, attorney general, insurance commissioner and treasurer.

Ralph Campbell did it three times in 1992, 1996 and 2000. As auditor, he was the first African American to hold elected executive office in the state.

Last month, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper picked Jessica Holmes to replace Beth Wood as auditor. She is the first Black woman to be in the Council of State, though she hasn’t been elected yet.

Perhaps more significant, Black candidates have won only a few Democratic Party primaries for those same contests.

Democrats have had just six Black general election candidates out of 50 Council of State races in the last five elections — 2020, 2016, 2012, 2008, 2004.

  • Yvonne Holley lost to Black Republican Mark Robinson in 2020 for lieutenant governor. Holmes, who was just appointed to be auditor, lost to Josh Dobson for labor commissioner that same year.
  • In 2016, Linda Coleman lost the lieutenant governor’s race and Dan Blue III lost the treasurer’s race.
  • In 2012, Coleman lost the lieutenant governor’s race. 
  • In 2008, there were no Black Democrats on the November ballot for Council of State. In 2004, Campbell lost his reelection bid for auditor.

Looking ahead to next year, the party’s leading candidates for arguably the highest profile races are white — Josh Stein for governor; Rachel Hunt for lieutenant governor; Jeff Jackson for attorney general; and Allison Riggs for the state Supreme Court.
(When I say leading, I mean a combination of endorsements; money raised; media attention.)

But in a twist, some of their Black Democratic primary challengers aren’t just going through the motions. They are calling out what they say is essentially white privilege.

Former State Sen. Ben Clark, who represented Cumberland and Hoke counties for a decade, is now running for lieutenant governor.

“Nothing has been handed to me,” said Clark, who is Black. “I did not get a legacy admission to college, the U.S. Air Force, or the N.C. Senate. And I’m not asking for a legacy admission to the Lt. Governor’s office. In 2024, I’m running on my name, my record, my accomplishments — and no one else’s.”

That is a swipe at Hunt, a Mecklenburg legislator since 2018. Hunt’s father is Jim Hunt, who was governor for four terms and is the longest-serving governor in the state’s history.

In response, Rachel Hunt’s colleague, Natasha Marcus, wrote on social media: “A daughter who works hard and dedicates her life to public service to continue her father’s incredible legacy is honorable.”

In the Democratic primary for attorney general, Jackson, a Charlotte congressman, is considered the leading candidate. Last month, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry announced she was entering the race and immediately questioned Jackson’s qualifications.

She said people want “an attorney general who knows what they are doing. Someone who is a serious lawyer. I’m a serious lawyer and a serious person — not a national social media following.”

(It should be noted that race was arguably a factor in Jackson’s decision to drop out of the 2022 U.S. Senate race. Despite attracting large crowds, he ended his campaign to make way for Beasley, who in 2008 became the first Black woman to win a statewide office without first being appointed. National and state Democrats were enamored with Beasley’s experience, and wanted to run a Black woman for Senate after Democrats lost four consecutive Senate races with white candidates.)

In the governor’s race, Stein’s credentials as attorney general and former state senator are difficult for his opponent, former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan, to criticize.

In late August, Gov. Roy Cooper endorsed Stein, a move seen as an effort to dissuade Morgan from entering the race. In October, Stein held a rally at Shaw University, an HBCU in southeast Raleigh near Morgan’s home.

Morgan responded, calling it a “pop-up mirage” in response to his candidacy.

Man at podium
Stein campaign
Josh Stein at Shaw University rally

He added: “My community, and others like it all over this state, knows that there is a big difference between my opponent and me when it comes to credibility and authenticity among the people to whom this ‘rally’ is aimed.”

Michael Morgan’s response to Josh Stein’s Shaw rally. (Photo: Mike Morgan)
Morgan campaign
Michael Morgan’s response to Josh Stein’s Shaw rally.

Inside Politics asked Mecklenburg House member Kelly Alexander about this new dynamic. Alexander, who is 75, is leaving the General Assembly this year.

He said the assertiveness of Black candidates is “part of a natural maturation process” as AfricanAmericans gain more political power. (In Charlotte, for instance, the mayor is Black and eight of 11 City Council members are African American.)

But he said the state Democratic Party is still not supporting Black candidates enough when they do reach the general election.

“Black candidates are now fighting across the board in getting resources,” he said. “You can be the most qualified in a race, but if you can’t get your message (out), you are going to lose. And in this day and age, part of going that message out is about getting your base voters to turn out. That’s the invisible candidate that Black candidates are facing.”

In his view, the party didn’t put enough resources into the 2020 lieutenant governor’s race, when Holley lost to Robinson.

“The resources did not come to the Democratic candidate to support her in the general election,” he said. “And that race made Robinson a national star in the Republican Party.”

Alexander added: “Forget about race. It’s a green slate. (The leaders) have all been able to raise money.”

However the primaries at the top of the ticket pan out, Black Democrats are favored to be the party’s nominees in at least three of 10 Council of State races.

Holmes is running for auditor. Former Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston is running for Commissioner of Labor and doesn’t have a primary opponent yet. And Maurice Green is running for Superintendent of Public Instruction. He’s a former superintendent of Guilford County Schools and a deputy superintendent at CMS.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.