If it wasn’t for the news crews and campaign staffers floating around the lobby of MacFly Fresh Printing Company in Camp North End, it wouldn’t have seemed like a campaign event.
Former North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley didn’t give a stump speech. She didn’t try to convince anybody to vote for her. Other than asking questions, she didn’t do much talking. Beasley’s campaign strategy in her bid for the U.S. Senate has, so far, centered around events like this, where she meets with small groups of potential voters and does more listening than pitching.
“That kind of campaign strategy really does matter,” she said. “It’s important to hear people, and have constructive conversations with people about the things that they really care about.”
Despite winning a statewide judicial election in 2014, Beasley lacks name recognition among her potential base. Her campaign has gone across North Carolina to meet with business owners, local party leaders and other voters, hoping to build familiarity.
Campaign strategy: Listen.
Taj Polite, a co-owner of MacFly Fresh Printing in Charlotte, said the strategy worked with him. Beasley waited until the very end of their conversation to ask a question that related directly to her campaign: “What do you want out of a senator?”
“She was really more interested in learning about our story and our business,” he said on Monday.
“That seemed genuine, like we probably could have talked for a lot longer about the shop and she would have been just as engaged.”
Beasley will face at least two candidates in the Democratic primary who have committed to a 100-county campaign: Jeff Jackson, a state senator from Charlotte, and Erica Smith, a former state senator who represented northeastern North Carolina. All are vying for a shot at the seat of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who isn’t running in 2022.
During her visit to MacFly Fresh Printing, Polite told Beasley that he wants a senator who is visible in the community. The pandemic, which he said forced their business to reevaluate their strategies, emphasized for him the need for elected leaders to truly connect with the people they represent.
Asked about the name recognition of the candidates, Polite said the only one who he thinks has broad recognition is Pat McCrory, the former governor who is running as a Republican.
“You need to be seen,” he said. Had Beasley not visited his shop, “I might not have known that she was even in the race, and now she’s in the lead for me.”
How Beasley, Jackson and Smith will differentiate their political views to woo voters remains to be seen. Smith has detailed platform and policy statements on her campaign website, and Jackson has been addressing specific policy issues during his campaign stops. Democrats Rett Newton, the mayor of Beaufort, and Richard Watkins, a virologist, have also launched Senate bids, but their campaigns have yet to find the reach of Beasley, Smith or Jackson’s, who many already consider the mainstream party favorite.
Beasley, though, has not spoken in as much detail about her platform.
In her campaign video, she says broadly that too many people “have been left behind and ignored for too long,” and that Washington often “only responds to the well-connected.”
Lori G. Gilcrist, a non-profit worker in Mitchell County who met with Beasley during a recent campaign event there, said she was drawn to Beasley’s campaign through her work on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Beasley was the state’s first Black chief justice.
Gilcrist also said she was impressed that Beasley came to Mitchell County at all, though at least two other candidates, Jackson and Smith, have already visited or have plans to. She said Beasley seemed receptive to the idea of coming back, to meet with a broader range of people. During her recent visit, Beasley met with local Democratic party leaders.
‘The magnitude of this race’
And though Beasley’s record on the Supreme Court was the primary thing that built Gilcrist’s trust, she added that she liked the idea of a Black woman representing North Carolina.
Just two women, both white, have served as senators from the state, and there are currently no Black women in the U.S. Senate. Smith and Beasley are both Black.
Gilcrist says, “I just keep seeing North Carolina Democrats putting up candidates to appeal to North Carolina Republicans, and I really don’t think that’s a very good strategy.
“We want a fairly decent looking white guy who’s been in the military — and that’s not saying anything against them, some of them are great guys, but it seems like we don’t have a lot of imagination here.”
“We’re not going to have an October surprise when it comes to Cheri Beasley and that’s worth something to me at this point,” she added, referring to the news of an affair that rocked the campaign of Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham last year.
Speaking to a crowd at a Juneteenth event in Charlotte this weekend, Beasley praised the Biden administration for recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday, and asked the crowd to reflect not just on Black history, “but where we want to go.”
Asked about the significance of her skin color in the race, Beasley acknowledged that it would be an important step forward, but said she decided to run to fight for policies that would improve people’s lives, not just to diversity Congress.
“It’s certainly not lost on me at all, the magnitude of this race,” she said.