WILSON, N.C. — As Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) works one side of the food line at the Bill Ellis Convention Center here Saturday, he takes a lengthy pause from his handshaking and backslapping for an in-depth conversation with recently retired tobacco farmer Marshall Shingleton.
Shingleton has come to the luncheon sponsored by Universal Leaf Tobacco Co. with a purpose — to talk to Burr and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) about his eligibility for the proposed tobacco buyout legislation currently stalled in Congress.
After 30 years of farming a small tobacco crop, the middle-aged Shingleton got out of the business last year. Like many other tobacco producers in eastern North Carolina, he has since looked to other means to make a living.
“At my age I decided that I better look at other things before I got too old to do anything else,” he explains.
But the House version of the bill stipulates that only those who are farming the crop in 2004 would be eligible to receive buyout money — cutting Shingleton, and hundreds of others like him, out of revenue they feel they are rightfully owed.
Almost two hours later — after the crowd of 350 tobacco farmers and quota holders have gobbled down heaping plates of pork barbecue and coleslaw and listened attentively to Burr and Dole — Shingleton reveals he’s still undecided about whether he’ll vote for Burr or Democrat Erskine Bowles in the Senate race this November.
Tobacco farmers, and the proposed buyout that would pump an estimated $6 billion into the state’s rural economy, have taken center stage in the Tar Heel State’s Senate contest. Shingleton observes that the ability of Congress to complete a conference and pass the buyout, currently attached to an international corporate tax bill, before adjourning next month could ultimately determine the outcome of the race to succeed Sen. John Edwards (D).
“If it gets passed before the election, I think that will be a big plus for Richard Burr,” Shingleton says. “If not, if it goes after the election, it could swing to Erskine Bowles.”
Both Burr and Bowles claim their only interest is in getting the bill passed and helping the struggling producers and quota holders who need it.
“I don’t do legislation for the accolades and the praise,” Burr tells the Universal Leaf audience. “I do legislation because I understand the human face behind the issues that I deal with.”
Afterwards, however, Burr concedes that the bill’s passage before the election would benefit him.
“Is it politically beneficial? Absolutely,” he says. “I’d be crazy to tell you that it’s not. Our objective though is to get a buyout. We’re not going to do something that costs us a buyout [by] only trying to get it by a certain time.”
While Bowles says he too doesn’t care about the credit, he was quick to take what Republicans describe as more than his fair share after the Senate passed the bill in July, and he launched radio ads explaining how he’d lobbied Democratic Senators to get it done.
Access to a rural, tobacco-friendly audience brings both candidates to Ellis’ landmark establishment Saturday. In turn, the candidates bring two of the state’s most beloved political figures with them to Wilson, a county that ranked eighth in the country in tobacco production as of 1997.
Both men support a buyout and there is little doubt that both will claim some level of credit if the measure gets passed before the election.
At a breakfast hosted by former Gov. Jim Hunt (D), Bowles emphasizes the importance of getting the measure passed before December, when farmers and quota holders face another 30 percent cut in the amount of tobacco they are allowed to grow.
“We have to have this tobacco buyout and we have to have it now,” Bowles tells the packed crowd of party faithful as they feast on a buffet that includes scrambled eggs, biscuits, fried pork tenderloin, bacon and slabs of ham. “Our farmers cannot go through another quota cut.”
But Burr, without mentioning Bowles by name, implores the lunchtime audience of growers and quota holders not to be fooled about the one-time Clinton White House chief of staff’s commitment to the legislation.
“If he says he’s a friend of tobacco, it is a recent conversion on his part,” the Winston-Salem-area Congressman tells the luncheon crowd. “As the chief of staff for the president of the United States he had every opportunity to institute a buyout.”
Not so, says Pender Sharp, who lays the blame for the buyout stalemate on Burr and House GOP leaders who oppose Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco, a provision that was included in the Senate version of the bill. Sharp, whose family operates Sharp Farms Inc. in Wilson, has been Bowles’ top surrogate in the rural tobacco community. Sharp says he encounters many other disgruntled farmers who are supporting the Democrat.
“Basically from where I’m standing, I’m just preaching to the choir,” he says. “It’s farmers that understand what has happened to them and understand why. You’re going to see Bowles win this thing big time, especially in the farm community.”
‘I Didn’t Come Here for a Political Rally’
While almost every member of the lunch-hour audience is sporting the Burr for Senate lapel sticker they’ve been handed, even the die-hard partisans in the room admit that this is not a Republican crowd. The diners have been drawn to the event because the officials will be discussing the buyout.
Among those in the audience is Max Matthews, a farmer from rural Harnett County, 60 miles southeast of Wilson. Matthews and his brother, Harry, farm 70 acres of tobacco, and due to the closure of other facilities, they now have to drive to Wilson to sell their crop. Both are wearing Burr stickers but say they are Democrats and are undecided about the Senate race.
“I vote for the person. I don’t care what his political affiliation is ’cause I’ve been in politics all my life … and it don’t work to pay the party,” Matthews says, as he douses his barbecue with a vinegar sauce.
After listening to Burr speak, Matthews leaves the event fed up with the large dose of “politicking” he’d just been fed and disappointed in the realization that nobody knows just what will happen with the buyout.
“I didn’t come up here for a political rally,” he says. “I come up here to find out if they were going to keep me from going broke. And I didn’t learn a thing.”
The Battle in the East
Located about 50 miles east of Raleigh, Wilson is not only the epicenter of the battle for tobacco votes in the race between Burr and Bowles. The county of about 74,000 also typifies the geographic battleground that both sides agree will ultimately decide the contest.
Two years ago when Bowles ran and lost to Dole, he was beaten badly in this part of the state and must improve his margins here to win in November.
Most polls have shown that he has made substantial gains. They have also shown him with an 8- to 10-point statewide lead over the lesser-known Burr — a margin that both sides expect will narrow shortly.
Rural Democrats in this part of the state are the demographic routinely credited with re-electing Sen. Jesse Helms (R), the conservative icon Dole succeeded.
“If you don’t have the conservative Democrats in the East, you can’t win regardless of what your party affiliation is,” says Alex Keown, a reporter for the Wilson Daily Times.
It comes as little surprise then that Hunt, a Wilson native and former four-term governor who remains widely popular, is playing such a visible role in Bowles’ campaign.
In introducing Bowles to the predominantly older crowd at Bill’s BBQ on Saturday, Hunt touts Bowles’ role in getting the 1997 balanced budget amendment passed and his willingness to work with both parties as White House chief of staff.
“He worked with everybody to get the good things done for America and for North Carolina,” Hunt says.
Bowles builds on that same theme in his remarks to the group. As Burr seeks to link Bowles with Clinton and national liberals in the final weeks of the campaign, conservative Democrats and even some rural Republicans make up perhaps the most critical piece of the coalition Bowles must hold together between now and November. His campaign is counting on those ticket-splitters to pull the lever for him, even as they vote for President Bush.
Bowles bemoans the polarization and partisanship that afflicts the political climate in Washington and pledges to bring people together from both sides of the aisle if elected.
“If the Republicans bring a bill that I think is a good bill for North Carolina I’m going to support it,” he says. “And if the Democrats are behind a trade bill that I think is bad for you or bad for our farmers, I’m going to fight like a dog.”
Bowles tells the audience that while Burr brags about the fact that he votes with the Bush administration 96 percent of the time, Bowles won’t be a reliable vote for either party.
“I don’t think we need a rubber stamp in Washington,” he says. “I think we really do need somebody who will go up there and put North Carolina first.”
Just as Bowles makes no mention of Clinton on the campaign trail, he rarely invokes the name of the man he’s seeking to succeed. But his pledges to make North Carolina his top priority are a subtle appeal to the feelings of betrayal that many voters here harbor toward Edwards, the current Democratic vice presidential nominee who defeated Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) in 1998.
“The people are fed up,” says Connor Dempsy, a Bowles supporter who believes he will get things done “unlike the last Senator we had that’s been running for president ever since he got there and hadn’t helped any.”
A Difference in Style
Hunt introduces Bowles as a “North Carolinian through and through” — another subtle reminder of his differences from Edwards, who was born in South Carolina.
Bowles, who made millions as an investment banker in Charlotte, grew up in Greensboro and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (some of his old fraternity brothers attended the breakfast in Wilson). His father, Skipper Bowles, remains a household name here after he helped raise the funds to build the Dean Smith Center — otherwise known as the Dean Dome — on the UNC campus. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1972.
Burr, meanwhile, grew up in Winston-Salem and was a football standout in high school and at Wake Forest University. Before being elected during the GOP revolution in 1994, he worked as a sales manager for a wholesaling firm.
While both men say they’re having a blast in this campaign, the two men couldn’t come across more differently on the stump.
Burr is a thoughtful and serious orator. He talks in a measured tone and concise sentences while attempting to explain the inner workings of Capitol Hill policy making, such as what a conference committee does.
Burr, often dressed in a pink shirt and khakis, quotes Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln for audiences. But the former smoker who now chews tobacco indicates he’s especially at home speaking to tobacco farmers and rural crowds.
“I feel like at a group like this I can actually put it in and keep it in,” Burr says after the Universal Leaf luncheon, with an undetectable wad of chew still in his mouth.
Bowles, meanwhile, can best be described as a jovial and affectionate campaigner. He is a hugger. At a Democratic Women’s Convention on Saturday night, Bowles is surrounded by women waiting for their chance to meet him.
Bowles makes liberal use of hand motions and constantly yanks up his pants waistband. And he doesn’t hold back from poking fun at his trademark oversized glasses or his generous personal spending on his failed 2002 bid.
On Saturday, he recounts to two different audiences a recent encounter at a Durham Burger King, where he estimates he eats about 99 percent of his meals (his favorite is the chicken sandwich). After several double takes, a man finally approaches Bowles, having figured out where he’s seen him before.
“Finally he said, ‘I know who you are,’” Bowles says, getting into character by using a different dialect and voice tone. “I said, ‘OK, who am I?’ He said, ‘You’re the weatherman!’”
After the laughs and applause have died down, Bowles delivers the final punch line.
“So y’all spend $10 million and y’all can be the weatherman too,” he says, cracking up along with the audience.
His exuberance, he tells audiences, is a reflection of his encounters with voters on the campaign trail, most recently on a statewide bus trip he did with Hunt.
While Bowles was panned during the 2002 race for being a cardboard candidate and too uptight, his ability to connect with audiences this time around has not gone unnoticed.
“He’s become one of the best candidates I’ve ever seen in politics,” Hunt says. “He’s energetic. He’s excited about it. Wonderful with people as he gets around, meets them individually, listens to them then tells their stories.”
Bush vs. Clinton
President Bush plugs Burr at a rally in Charlotte on Friday before launching into his remarks — although the two do not appear on stage together.
“I’m in town not only to talk about my race but also to talk about his race,” Bush says. “He needs to be elected to the United States Senate.”
Later that night, the president attends a reception that raises $1.5 million for Burr’s campaign and the state GOP’s joint victory fund.
A day later Burr is still basking in the glow of the president’s visit as he recounts how he stood “knock kneed” for almost an hour on stage with Bush as the commander in chief told story after story at a private reception.
“I hope you’re tired because I’m exhausted,” Burr recalls telling Bush when the event was over. “He wore me out.”
Burr is still not known as well as Bowles throughout the state, but there is little doubt that the party faithful will support their Senate nominee in November.
After the Bush rally, church buddies Betty Chastain and Pat Adams admit they know little about Burr, but they plan to vote for him anyway.
“Because he likes George Bush,” Adams, who lives just outside Charlotte in Concord, explains.
Behind in the polls with six weeks to go before Election Day, Burr is in a final sprint in which two things are certain: The race is going to get tighter and nastier.
Last week his campaign began airing ads that linked Bowles to Clinton and the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.). Bowles, who regularly touts his accomplishments as chief of staff without mentioning Clinton, has called the attacks unfair, but expected. Bowles is already up with a response to Burr’s ad and says he’s ready to respond to others.
Burr takes exception to the characterization of the ads as negative, noting that Bowles took a similar track in his race against Dole two years ago.
“I’m not beating him down. I’m just trying to share with North Carolinians exactly what his track record is,” Burr says. “I think it’s important that people judge both candidates based upon our track records. I’m sure that he will exploit mine.”
Part of Burr’s strategy is to tie Bowles to Clinton as much as possible, while reminding voters that he will stand with the president.
The first applause line of his speech to the tobacco farmers comes not during his discussion of the buyout, but some 20 minutes into his talk when he implores the audience to re-elect Bush.
“I would plead with you today re-elect George Bush,” Burr said. “I think he deserves it. But more importantly, the world will know exactly the direction this country will go.”
In his closing remarks at the Saturday luncheon, Clay Frazier, senior vice president of Universal Leaf, reminds the crowd what’s at stake in the election and is the first one call out Burr’s opponent by name.
“When I think about the choices to represent us, our industry and the people of North Carolina,” Frazier says. “When the choice is Erskine Bowles and Hillary Clinton versus Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole, I think the choice is pretty clear.”