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Cunningham: Tough times spark U.S. Senate run

Cal Cunningham (Photo: CalforNC.com) hspace=4
Cal Cunningham (Photo: CalforNC.com) hspace=4

In the Democratic primary, there are six candidates running for U.S. Senate. This week during Morning Edition, WFAE will air profiles of the three leading Democratic candidates who hope to face Republican incumbent Richard Burr in the general election. Laura Leslie of North Carolina Public Radio kicks of the series today with a profile of Cal Cunningham. Cal Cunningham's booth was the first stop for Democrats on their way into a recent state party meeting in Durham. Throngs of activists clogged the hallway, posing for photos with the candidate. Diane Byrne of Concord is excited about her candidate. She thinks he'll motivate younger voters. "I think all three candidates are very good. I think he's the most electable, and I think with his military background - that's what we need," Byrne says. Cunningham grew up in Lexington, graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill as student body president, and then from Carolina Law. He won a state senate race in 2000, but his district was carved up by redistricting during his first term. In the meantime, September 11th happened. "I accepted a commission in the Army Reserves (and began training). I was mobilized once to Fort Bragg in 2005, and was mobilized and deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2008." Capt. Cunningham served as a military prosecutor at Fort Bragg for crimes on base, and in Baghdad, for contractor crimes, sexual misconduct, and procurement fraud. "I took that opportunity at Fort Bragg to also go through Airborne School and become a paratrooper and do a lot of other training," Cunningham says. "It was important to the ethic at Fort Bragg - home of the Airborne - and I'm current attached to the 7th Special Forces group." Military service aside, Cunningham doesn't have a lengthy political resume - just the one state senate term. But he's convinced he's got the right mix of skills to be a good senator for North Carolina. "I bring to this a whole set of life experiences that are unique and, in fact, of note that I would be the first Iraq War veteran in the U.S. Senate. From a state with million military families and a million veterans, I think it's a very important part of the fabric of our state." When you ask Cunningham what his top priority in the Senate would be, his answer is immediate - jobs. He says he takes it personally. "When I walk out the front door of my home in Lexington, I look right past the church where I've been a deacon and an elder, and there are hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty furniture manufacturing space," Cunningham says. This is the place where the people I grew up with - this was their livelihood. Sixteen years ago, there were thousands of jobs in downtown Lexington, and there are none except for some of the smaller shops on Main Street now." Cunningham shies away from labeling his political philosophy, other than to say he's a pragmatist. He says the federal budget needs to be balanced, but he also says the stimulus bill was the right move for the country, though he thinks it would have worked better if the money had moved into the economy more quickly. And he says the health care reform plan is imperfect, but he supports it as the first step in a long, badly needed process. "This is one of the places where our country is at a competitive disadvantage with most other industrialized nations. This is crippling our business infrastructure. This is crippling small businesses. We have to reform health care." Cunningham almost didn't enter the Democratic primary. Last fall, he announced he wouldn't run, but changed his mind two weeks later. "There are a lot of political ingredients that have to come together for a successful United States Senate campaign against a tough, entrenched incumbent, and I was not convinced those ingredients would come together. I have to be able to look people in the eye and say, 'when I ask for your vote, we have what it takes to go all the way.' " After bowing out, Cunningham says, he got some calls from party leaders here and from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in DC that made him more confident about the campaign. And he's come to the conclusion this is the right year to run. "These types of challenges that we're facing today, the economic challenges, the job losses that we've suffered, the loss of folks' houses, this is what calls us to public service." Political insiders are calling Cunningham the favorite in this race, a mantle that irritates his top opponents, secretary of state Elaine Marshall and Durham attorney Ken Lewis.