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As the 116th Congress is sworn in, the 2020 election cycle begins. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, candidates are lining up to become the next lieutenant governor; two Democrats (State Senator Terry Van Duyn and former State Senator Cal Cunningham) have already announced with many other actively considering their own bid, and Republicans are watching their own primary grow with several candidates expected to announce soon.
While Western North Carolina is home turf for Van Duyn, Cunningham plans on cutting into her geographic support in the region. The Lexington native addressed Henderson County Democrats on Wednesday about his own bid for the second highest office in the state and his vision for the office.
Cunningham dives into his background of public service. He says, “We have a shared destiny as a people, and we have an obligation to make our state better. That is why I’m running.” Steve Wilson/Cal for NC
Cunningham began with his background: his small town roots, fighting against sexual harassment and for voting rights as a military prosecutor during three tours, service in state government as the youngest state senator and vice chairman of Governor Roy Cooper’s Crime Commission, and business experience founding a waste management company.
The office of lieutenant governor is fairly ceremonial in North Carolina after the General Assembly stripped many of its powers in the 1980s. However, as Cunningham stresses, the lieutenant governor serves as acting governor upon the absence or untimely death of the governor. He believes Cooper needs a strong ally to faithfully execute the office in his absence. The lieutenant governor’s other formal powers include influence on numerous board and commissions across the state.
Aside from those duties and others the governor may assign the lieutenant governor, the office has a lot of room to champion a wide array of issues. Cunningham yearns to take that flexibility to promote a “boldly progressive agenda for the people of North Carolina.” Broadly, he wants to innovate with the lieutenant governor’s office and how it functions. Cunningham plans on working with business and community leaders to make sure all voices are included in the governing process and enacting reforms. Behind his thick resume and conventionally attractive politician physicality, a determined and bold policymaker sets out a path for North Carolina to restore itself as a bastion of the South.
While in the State Senate, Cunningham was one of the original architects of NC Pre-K. He wants to use his education policy experience to establish merit-based free community college system in North Carolina. He also plans to continue investing in early childhood education. He said, “The first two thousand days of a child’s life set his or her trajectory and will be at the heart of my work as our lieutenant governor.” Pending a report from a bipartisan commission working with the court system, Cunningham plans to use their suggestions as the foundation for education funding reforms to end the link between zip code and educational destiny.
Cunningham targeted big money as well. He recalled the 2014 U.S. Senate race between Senator Kay Hagan and then-State Representative Thom Tillis that became the most expensive Senate race in history. He wants to advance the progress he made on campaign finance reform by replicating the public financing of judicial elections for other offices and ending the way “corporate interests dominate our politics.” Cunningham is also adamant about ending gerrymandering. He argued now is the time to create fair maps so voters can choose their politicians rather than the other way around. Citing case law dating back decades and population demographics over the years that could punish both parties, Cunningham said this may be the only window we have to enact an independent commission in a bipartisan manner.
Cunningham believes one of the most pressing issues facing North Carolina is climate change, and he is prepared to present bold ideas to reach sustainability. Through WasteZero, Cunningham has consulted localities across the east coast how to “put their waste in the right place.” He wants to bring that knowledge and passion for a clean environment to chart out an aggressive green pledge during his candidacy. Cunningham called for a “Green New Deal for North Carolina” to put the state on a path of environmental sustainability. While acknowledging his proposal may not match the Green New Deal that is catching fire at the federal level due to state-specific needs, he hopes to shift North Carolina towards a more ambitious green energy plan.
Cunningham describes his experience in the military serving alongside those of many backgrounds. He wants to make sure North Carolina cares for immigrants that came to protect the United States as well as find a better life. Isabel Cutler/Henderson County Democrats
The audience threw other questions at Cunningham. Among those, Cunningham backed a plan to allow municipalities the right to invest in public broadband internet options. He supported expanding expand mental health services across the state, ensuring North Carolina is a welcoming place for immigrants, and improving gun safety. Cunningham believes he can actively push all of these issues over his first four years in the office.
Near the end of the discussion, one attendee asked why Cunningham didn’t decide to run for U.S. Senate against Senator Tillis. Cunningham seemed to give a knowing smile and responded, “When I ran for Senate in 2010, it was tolling on my family. I believe I can best serve North Carolina as your lieutenant governor.” He said his children factored heavily into his decision to run for lieutenant governor after his daughter asked him what he was doing to clean up North Carolina’s politics.
Cunningham wrapped up by saying every Democrat in the race would be an improvement for lieutenant governor compared to the current one, but he believes he is the best one for the job. Not only will he work hard, he says, but he plans on listening to people all across the state. He wants to share the lessons he learned growing up in North Carolina, “I learned tolerance; I learned optimism; and I learned that things get better when you love them enough to stand up and fight.”
If you would like to contact the Cal Cunningham For Lt. Governor campaign, you can call (919) 256–3632, email info@CalForNC.com, or go to CalforNC.com.
Author’s Note: I am not affiliated with the Cal Cunningham for Lt. Governor campaign. This is the first part of what I hope to be a series about North Carolina’s 2020 Democratic candidates across multiple races.