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Politics & Government

Charlotte Democrat Jeff Jackson enters U.S. Senate race


North Carolina state Sen. Jeff Jackson announced Tuesday that he is running for the U.S. Senate in 2022, the latest candidate to enter what could be a large field to replace outgoing Sen. Richard Burr.

Jackson, a 38-year-old Democrat from Charlotte, is in his fourth term in the state Senate. A former Gaston County prosecutor, Jackson is a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and an Afghanistan war veteran and a commercial litigation lawyer for a large international firm.

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Burr, a Republican, announced during his 2016 campaign that he would not seek a fourth term in the Senate.

Jackson released an introductory campaign video on his Twitter account, highlighting his children and outlining a plan to hold town hall meetings in all 100 counties.

“We should have higher expectations for this office than we currently do. I want to be a Senator who raises your expectations, and who does it by showing up and standing up,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson, who is married and has three young children, opted not to run for the Senate in 2020 after meeting with Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer.

Democrat Cal Cunningham won the nomination, but lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis by about 106,000 votes.

Jackson, speaking to a politics class at UNC Charlotte during the 2020 campaign, said that if he ran for Senate he would hold “100 town halls in 100 days” in each of the state’s 100 counties.

In a leaked recording, Jackson said Schumer told him that was the “wrong answer. We want you to spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money, and then we’re going to spend 80% of it on negative ads about Tillis.”

Jackson, though, is planning to canvass the state as part of his campaign — if COVID-19 allows. He said it is not about “political tactics.”

“It’s about asking yourself, ‘What if you were actually just trying to do a good job at this?’” Jackson said. “This is what you would do. You would treat the campaign as preparation for the job. You would travel the state, you would listen to people and you would incorporate what they told you into an agenda that works for the state.”

Control of the Senate

The U.S. Senate is currently split 50-50 with Democrats holding control because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. The 2014 and 2020 Senate races in North Carolina set spending records, with last year’s race totaling more than $298 million in candidate and outside spending.

The only races more expensive in U.S. history were the two recent Georgia Senate races that lasted an extra two months, due to the runoff, and determined control of the chamber.

Jackson, who grew up in Chapel Hill, announced on Dec. 8 that he was going to talk over a run with his family, including his wife Marisa and children, ages 12, 5 and 2. He wrote at the time that his first priority was getting his youngest potty trained. Jackson tweeted on Sunday that she’d reached that important milestone.

But it was the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump supporters on Jan. 6, Jackson said, that made his decision an easy one.

“That cemented the decision,” Jackson said. “Marisa said, you’ve got to run. There wasn’t any other conversation about that. We both understood the point she was making. There’s no other way I could spend the next two years of my life that would be more meaningful than trying to restore honesty and decency to the political process.”

The U.S. House of Representatives impeached Trump for inciting a riot. The Senate trial will begin in earnest on Feb. 8. Jackson said the Constitution’s impeachment clause “clearly applies here. His conduct clearly applies.”

Jackson said he considers his campaign the opposite of what happened on Jan. 6. In the weeks before the riot, Trump and other Republicans repeatedly cast doubt on the election outcome and tried to overturn the results.

“Those politicians, their business model is being intentionally dishonest and grossly manipulative,” Jackson said. “My approach is to be straightforward and honest and real.”

Democratic history

Jackson made statewide and national headlines in February 2015 when he showed up at the statehouse by himself on an icy day. Jackson created a viral moment by “passing” laws by himself. It was picked up by national outlets across the country, including MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

“It taught me the power of the Internet to reach people in a different way,” Jackson said. “It was like six or seven tweets six years ago and it comes up all the time.”

Jackson, whose state Senate district was redrawn into a more competitive seat for 2020, spent the final weeks of last year’s race at out-of-state training with the Army National Guard and off the campaign trail. Marisa took over the campaign for the final week.

Jackson won the race by about 13 points, defeating Republican Sonja Nichols.

Former state Sen. Erica Smith, who finished second to Cunningham in the 2020 Democratic primary, is running again. Jackson and Smith sat next to each other in the Senate chamber — and they have history.

Nichols, in her race against Jackson, posted an endorsement from Smith on her website. Smith says she never endorsed Nichols, but wrote in a recent column for Daily Kos that they “are both women of faith who are deeply committed to HBCUs and North Carolina’s black entrepreneurs and community.”

“I understand that in the midst of a heated campaign, a few hours of confusion and a statement consisting of praise of a Republican could create the perception that I was somehow undercutting our attempt to flip the Senate. That perception is not the reality,” she wrote. “I apologize for any confusion that may have been caused. I cannot apologize for an endorsement I did not make and I will not apologize for refusing to be baited into attacking a friend and a woman of color.”

Jackson endorsed Cunningham over Smith in the 2020 Senate race.

Jackson shares some of the same biography as Cunningham, whose loss to Tillis came after he led in polls throughout the cycle but after Cunningham admitted to exchanging sexual text messages with a woman who was not his wife. The woman said the pair had an extramarital relationship.

Cunningham, too, enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve after Sept. 11, 2001, and received his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Both are white men with young families, though Cunningham, 47, is nearly a decade older and served just one term in the state Senate in the early 2000s. Cunningham had lost a run for U.S. Senate in 2010.

“We cannot go back to the SAME playbook & expect different results,” Smith tweeted Tuesday after Jackson’s candidacy became official.

On the Republican side, former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, of Greensboro, has announced he is running. North Carolina native Lara Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law, is considering a bid. Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a former congressman, said he is not running for Senate.

Jackson’s decision to run creates an open seat in 2022 for the 37th state Senate district in Mecklenburg.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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