Elizabeth Warren touts ambitious agenda in first North Carolina campaign stops

Democrat Elizabeth Warren touted an ambitious progressive agenda in her first campaign appearances Thursday in North Carolina, a key battleground in next year’s presidential election.

Warren spoke to more than 400 people at N.C. A&T University. More than 3,500 people got in to see her at an evening rally at Raleigh’s Broughton High School.

Speaking at A&T with CNN contributor Angela Rye on stage, Warren told supporters that government works great for those with money — but not for anyone else. “That is corruption, pure and simple,” she said.

Warren is a favorite of liberals who like her call for “big structural change.” She advocates for Medicare for All, free college tuition and higher taxes on the rich. She would break up tech giants such as Amazon and Facebook. Asked Thursday whether she would break up big banks as well, she said “yes.”

The crowd in Raleigh roared after Warren said, “Here’s what North Carolina understands as deep as most: We need a federal law to ban all forms of gerrymandering.”

At A&T, one of five public historically black colleges and universities in North Carolina, Warren reiterated her pledge for $50 billion for HBCUs. With more than 12,000 students, A&T is the largest HBCU in the United States.

Warren said she would pay for the HBCU investment with a wealth tax. The tax is at the center of funding many of Warren’s initiatives, including providing universal child care and universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old.

In Raleigh, chants of “two cents” broke out after Warren described her plan for a wealth tax that would take two cents of every dollar after someone earns more than $50 million.

“The more people listen and look at her ideas . . . they’re gaining in popularity,” state Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat who has endorsed Warren, said in an earlier interview. “Her message really resonates to helping the average citizens and working people. That’s why I support her.”

‘It’s about getting elected’

Warren leads rivals in Iowa, according to recent polls, and trails only former Vice President Joe Biden in national surveys. At the same time she has been surging among voters 18-29, gaining on Sen. Bernie Sanders, a favorite of young voters.

But her visit to North Carolina comes as she faces doubts about her electability in the state.

A New York Times/Siena College poll this week showed her and two other leading Democrats trailing Donald Trump in the state, even as she builds a broad ground campaign.

Political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said while North Carolina is a battleground, it still leans Republican.

“The question for someone like Elizabeth Warren,” he said, “is, you can energize a liberal base but can you bring enough moderates into the fold without scaring them off?”

Michael Green, a Wake Forest University law professor, gave Warren $1,000 in the last quarter. But he calls her costly health care plan “a mistake” and no longer believes she’s the best candidate to challenge President Donald Trump.

“To me it’s about getting elected; that’s the be all and end all,” he said. “The problem she’s going to have is the government taking over your health care. It’s baked into our DNA, keeping the government at bay.”

Rufus Edmisten shares concerns of those worried about Warren in North Carolina.

He lost the 1984 gubernatorial race in part because of an unpopular presidential nominee. Democrat Walter Mondale lost in a landslide to Republican Ronald Reagan that year, both in North Carolina and across the country.

“It was devastating to my campaign for governor,” recalls Edmisten, who supports Biden. “The top of the ticket has a tremendous impact on other offices in North Carolina.”

Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist, said conventional wisdom is that Warren is too liberal.

“(But) some people say she’s the got the potential to reshape the electorate by drawing in new voters who want big changes, and primarily that would mean younger voters.”

Supporters in North Carolina

Kori Hennessey and Jordan Manus, both from Apex, were also among those waiting for Warren in Raleigh.

“I love Elizabeth Warren. I believe it is time for a female to run our country and she’s the person,” Manus said.

Hennessey likes Warren’s policy plans, and said “it’s nice to see a candidate is there to support queer individuals like us.”

Caitlin Emmons drove from Jacksonville to attend the event in Raleigh with Izzie Atchley-Martin, her 4-year-old daughter. Atchley-Martin held a sign that said, “Preschoolers for Warren” on one side and “Because that’s what girls do” on the other

Emmons outlined several reasons for her support of Warren, including her stances on child care and student debt.

The family, Emmons said, is a military family and continues to work in public-sector jobs in part because if they made more money it would trigger higher student debt payments. After graduating from a public college and law school, Emmons said, her total student debt was about $270,000.

”I want them to not ever have to worry about this,” Emmons said about her children and student debt.

Warren has a plan that would forgive at least some of the debt of about 45 million Americans, with about three-quarters of those people seeing their balances cleared.

Emmons expressed skepticism that Warren would be able to gain substantial support in deep-red areas like her Onslow County home. But, Emmons added, she believes having detailed plans could sway some otherwise-hesitant voters. “When you can sit down and explain to someone, ‘This is how we’re going to fund something,’ it becomes less of a pipe dream,” Emmons said.

Appealing to African Americans

At A&T, Warren spoke to a mostly black audience. At both events, Warren brought out U.S. Rep Ayanna Pressley, an African American congresswoman from Massachusetts who has endorsed her home-state senator. Pressley said Warren doesn’t pander to black audiences. She said her plans would benefit all Americans.

A Winthrop University poll last month showed Warren far behind Biden among black voters in South Carolina.

“Black voters are an important block in the Democratic Party, but they are not monolithic,” Kaye Usry, assistant director of the Elon Poll, said in an email. “Some may need convincing that Warren could win against Trump. Others may be skeptical about her commitment to combating racial inequality.”

“Although Warren has unveiled several policy proposals related to racial inequality, she will also need to make connections with Black community leaders and secure endorsements from key party leaders and elected officials who have credibility with Black voters.”

Many of the students in the audience in Greensboro appeared to be there as much out of curiosity as support.

“I’m here more for curiosity,” said graduate student Shannon Brown, 25. “She was one of the first to challenge (President Donald Trump) directly and I think that sat well with a lot of young people, especially in the African American community.”

In Raleigh, East Carolina University student Chloe Thompson came to the rally to learn more about Warren. She’s not a fan of Biden, citing his role in passing a crime bill in the 1990s which she said furthered mass incarceration.

Thompson said she likes that Warren wants to work on the high maternal mortality rates of African American women, as well as women’s health.

Similarly, Stephen Fusi of Holly Springs said he appreciates that Warren has acknowledged that black women have childbirth mortality rates three to four times higher than white women. By acknowledging the problem, Fusi said, Warren is more likely to advance solutions.

Fusi predicted Warren would ultimately emerge from the crowded primary field as the Democratic nominee.

“She has a very high degree of energy that people will gravitate to,” Fusi said. “I think she’ll do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, and I think there’s a lot of parallels to former President (Barack) Obama’s campaign.”

Lingering doubts about Obama’s viability began to dissipate after his victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus, Fusi recalled, eventually sending him to the nomination and then the presidency.

Fusi cited Warren’s plan to reduce or waive student debt as a key reason for his support. Fusi said he’s been making payments for 15 years and will probably continue doing so for about five more.

“It’s just a thing that I need to get done with,” Fusi said.

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Stephen Fusi of Holly Springs attends an Elizabeth Warren rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Nov. 7, 2019. Adam Wagner awagner@newsobserver.com

Building an organization

Last month the Warren campaign drew hundreds of volunteers to organizing “barnstorms” from Asheville to Greenville. The campaign says it’s building an operation that will have a statewide presence. Jane Whitley, Mecklenburg County’s Democratic chair, has seen it.

“Warren’s campaign appears to be the only one hiring organizers in North Carolina and putting down roots in Mecklenburg,” Whitley said.

A poll last month by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning group, showed Warren, Biden and Sanders all leading Trump in North Carolina. An August survey for the conservative Civitas Institute, however, mirrored the recent Times poll and showed the major Democratic candidates trailing in the state.

“Of the five front-runners in the party she is the one that makes a Trump victory most likely in my mind,” said Civitas President Donald Bryson.

In a statement, Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis blasted what he called Warren’s “radical liberal agenda.”

“Elizabeth Warren’s plans to raise taxes on the middle class, eliminate employer-based health insurance, implement a government takeover of the economy through the Green New Deal, decriminalize illegal border crossings, and provide taxpayer funded health care for illegal immigrants would be disastrous for the people of North Carolina,” he said.

Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Cotten sent a statement about Warren’s visit by email.

“Whether it’s supporting the impeachment witch hunt against President Trump or tax hikes to pay for her plans, North Carolinians will reject (Warren’s) socialist agenda. Warren should go back to work on the real issues Americans care about, like securing the border and passing the USMCA,” Cotten said in the statement, referring to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College. To subscribe to The Observer, go to: www.charlotteobserver.com/jim.