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Kenneth Lewis is the only declared candidate running for U.S. Senate against Richard Burr.  On Friday he gave me an hour of his time for an in-depth, on the record interview.  If, like I did, you had dismissed him as a political unknown, I encourage you to read further and take a longer look, if for no other reason than he raised $109,000 in 21 days.

Lewis is running for the United States Senate to ensure that the "arc of progress" that took his family from slavery to a Duke/Harvard education and a successful law practice is available now and for future generations.  He said he has the background, the experience and the insights gained from each to represent North Carolina and to lead in the Senate.

His family story is a significant factor in Lewis’s decision to run for the Senate.  

The arc of my grandmother being born on a plantation where her mother was a slave to the kind of opportunities that I and my cousins were able to have, shapes the way that I view the greatness of our country and also the needs of our country.  I want to make sure that that arc of progress exists for our generation and for future generations and when I go to the United States Senate I want to lead on that issue.  I want to lead on making sure that we preserve an opportunity for people to grow into the middle class and to stay in the middle class.  The issues I will fight for will be centered around making sure people have that opportunity.

Community Building

Lewis said he has worked hard to make a positive impact on other people’s lives through his profession as a lawyer and through volunteering his personal time.

As a business, or transactional lawyer, Lewis has worked shoulder to shoulder with a variety of businesses, but some of his most valuable work has been in the affordable housing arena.  Lewis said he sought that area of practice out because he wanted to make sure that his skills were being put to use on behalf of things he cares deeply about.  Through his work with non-profits, Lewis said he was able to see how the skills of an attorney could positively impact peoples’ lives.

Lewis has also given his personal time to organizations that he says are focused on providing access to the middle class to people who otherwise might not have that access.

One such organization is The Center for Community Self Help in Durham.  Lewis said that in his 14 years on the board he saw the organization go from a really small North Carolina based community bank to a national model for community development banking.  Self Help has also served as a model for fighting predatory lending practices.  

For Lewis,  the organization’s goals matched his personal goal to ensure the opportunity to grow into the middle class was there for others.

What they were working on that really caught my interest was making sure that capital was available to low wealth communities and making sure it was available on reasonable terms. They were providing capital to people who could use it to build businesses, charter schools - to build institutions that would sustain communities.  They not only help themselves but they make the communities in which they live stronger and by extension make the North Carolina economy stronger and the national economy stronger.

Lewis served on the corporate advisory board for Action for Children and later joined the board itself.  He said he was inspired to work with Action for Children because they had a very clear focus and message which was to make North Carolina the very best place in the country to be a child.

He also served on the board of Planned Parenthood.  

I served on the board for many years and was very proud of the work that we did there to fight on behalf of women’s health and women’s reproductive rights.

Can he win?

The Lewis for Senate campaign is about more than having a compelling personal story or a long history of community service.  Kenneth has a realistic idea of the energy and time it takes to run a statewide campaign.  He has experience raising money and proved he can raise money by pulling in $109,000 in 21 days.  Instead of waiting to see who else might jump in, he stepped up to lead early and he committed to a strong, viable campaign by taking the step to hire Joe Trippi, a pioneer in internet fundraising and messaging.

You may not have heard about him, but Lewis has been active politically for 22 years.  He helped organize a neighborhood in Charlotte for Harvey Gantt when Gantt ran for mayor, but the bulk of his grassroots experience was gained in the past few years.  While he has been touted as a fundraiser for Barack Obama, his involvement in the campaign actually has more of a grassroots foundation.

Lewis attended Harvard Law School with Michelle Obama and met Barack at a Harvard function.  He liked him and was excited to hear he planned to run for the Senate.  He did raise money for Obama’s Senate and Presidential campaigns, but his entire family got involved on a local grassroots level.  The Lewis family traveled to South Carolina on primary day.  They went door to door in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in an effort to get out the vote.

The family also traveled to Goldsboro, North Carolina where they went door to door getting people registered to vote and educating them on the electoral process.  They were in public housing and mobile home communities meeting with people who had not been a part of the process in the past.  

The very process of knocking on doors - me and my young family - and inviting them to the process had a tremendous impact.  I had many people who told me that if we hadn’t shown up they probably wouldn’t have gotten involved.

What I learned most is that we have lots of people out here who are willing to be a part of this process.  Those of us who really believe in Democracy and want to see it work the way it was originally envisioned – we have a responsibility to go out to our fellow citizens and invite them to the process.

Lewis said that his family campaigned together for Barack Obama for 18 months, so they all have a good idea of the demands of a full-time campaign.  He is already doing a fair amount of traveling across North Carolina and finds that people are very supportive.

Another impressive move, especially to those of us who do much of our political organizing on the internet, has been the hiring of Joe Trippi.  Trippi, who gained recognition for his work for Howard Dean and John Edwards is in great demand and Lewis said he is happy that Joe is on board.

Lewis pays a lot of respect to those of us who use the internet as our tool of choice for political organizing.  He calls it one of the best things to happen in American politics because of its capacity for democratizing participation in the democratic process.  They plan an aggressive internet presence.  

When asked if he felt there was still a barrier for an African American in a statewide campaign he gave this answer:

Throughout my life I have been the first at a number of things.  I was the first African American lawyer hired by Moore & Van Allen, which at the time was the largest law firm in the state.  I was the first African American partner at the firm.  I was the first African American partner at Womble Carlisle to be located in the Research Triangle Park office, so I’ve been a half-dozen or so firsts myself.

I’ve also grown up in a time when I’ve seen a lot of firsts.  I’ve seen the first black fire chief in my hometown, I’ve seen the first black supreme court justice, the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl and the first black coach to win the Super Bowl.  I see all these firsts. And here’s what I know about firsts.  There’s never a break in the clouds or a thunderclap that occurs to let you know a first is about to happen.  It doesn’t happen that way.  The first just happens and once it happens no one talks about it being the first anymore.  That whole way of thinking just fades away.  And, so it will be with the senate race in North Carolina.

Red Meat

I had already taken more of Kenneth’s time than originally scheduled, but he agreed to a few issue oriented questions that my fellow bloggers at BlueNC had asked.

First, where does he see himself politically?

Lewis considers himself to be progress oriented.  He thinks one thing that has held candidates back is that they get stuck in the low taxes/small government narrative.  

I think these categories of left and right are labels that we often put on the wrong questions.  I understand why these labels exist as a way to help us organize our way of thinking but they often get in the way of really thinking about the world from the perspective of our interests. What is it we are trying to accomplish?  How do we align our resources – financial and policy – with achieving our interests?  

I think the burden on people who have views that are progress oriented – and I think my views are progress oriented – is to articulate for the voters the basis for their views and to strongly articulate why we should move in a certain direction.

Climate change?  

I think global warming is a critical issue.  I think the scientific community is quite clear that it has been caused, in part, by the actions of man.  I think there’s no serious debate about that that I’m aware of.

Health care?  

I think that we have to have meaningful health care reform and we have to have reform that reduces our cost, that gives people a choice and that we aren’t just mandating a particular plan and I think we have to have the kind of health care that is broadly available for all.  I think we should have a plan that you can‘t lose if you lose your job or that you cant be denied coverage if you have a preexisting condition.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

I’m a firm believer that we should not discriminate against people.  That’s part of my core belief structure.  We have men and women of all sexual orientations serving in the military.  The idea that we would remove an officer or anyone because of his or her sexual orientation is abhorrent to me.

Employee Non-Discrimination Act?

I have not read the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, but I will repeat that I do not believe we should discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.

Civil Marriage?

I understand people and their religious beliefs and I respect that very much and I would not want to do anything that infringes upon someone exercising their religion, but with respect to government actions and as a society of people who have a variety of faiths and non-faiths, I do not believe we should discriminate.

Kenneth Lewis may just transcend identity politics.  Who knows if the color of his skin alone will excite African American voters and bring them to the polls?  Who knows if Kenneth’s compelling family history in North Carolina’s rural Person County will endear rural voters to his candidacy.  Who knows if his history of supporting women’s health and reproductive choices will bring out women voters.  Lewis isn’t counting on these factors to drive voters to his candidacy or to motivate voters for down ticket races.  He has committed early.  He’s shown fundraising prowess and with his hiring of Joe Trippi he demonstrates a commitment to running a professional, high-energy campaign.

To donate to the Kenneth Lewis for U.S. Senate campaign please follow this link.  

Originally posted to The Southern Dem on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 08:22 AM PDT.

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