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Marshall: Do voters want experience, or experienced youth?

Elaine Marshall (Photo: ElaineMarshall.org) hspace=4
Elaine Marshall (Photo: ElaineMarshall.org) hspace=4

This week during Morning Edition, WFAE is airing profiles of the three leading North Carolina Democratic candidates running for the U.S. Senate. Yesterday, we focused on Cal Cunningham. Tomorrow, it's Ken Lewis. Today, North Carolina Public Radio's Laura Leslie talks to Elaine Marshall. The crowd at a recent Lillian's List luncheon gave warm welcomes to several Democratic Senate candidates. But Elaine Marshall got the longest and loudest ovation. Marshall did have something of a home field advantage. Lillian's List is a state political group that supports Democratic women candidates. But supporters like Kristina Fowler are quick to point out that Marshall earned that advantage the hard way. She was the first woman ever elected to statewide executive office in North Carolina. "Over the years I've watched her holding that seat, churning out the voters predictably - to me, that says she is the candidate of choice. Although Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Lewis are probably great guys, they're not well-known statewide. Secretary Marshall broke the glass ceiling, and she has stayed there." Elaine Marshall won her first election to the state senate in 1994. She was still in her first term when party officials recruited her to run for secretary of state in 1996. Her Republican opponent was a household name - race car driver Richard Petty. "People didn't give me a chance," Marshall recalls. And yet, Marshall hung on to win that race, and then three more. Gender bias was one of the issues that propelled Marshall into politics. Her undergraduate degree was in textiles. She was teaching high school and community college when she decided to open her own decorating business. But when she went to the bank to get a line of credit, the loan officer wouldn't work with her. "My husband had to talk to the banker. I was like a potted plant over in the corner. And I knew that if this loan was gonna get paid off, it was going to be due to my work product, my labor, my ingenuity, my creativity. I was just doing a slow burn. I was just not happy about it," Marshall says. So she went back to school and earned a law degree at Campbell. She practiced criminal and business law - experience that made her a good fit for the secretary of state job. During her tenure, the size of her division has almost doubled, due to changes in corporate law and more securities enforcement. She also oversees lobbying regulations. She's been pushing to reform the state's lobbying laws ever since 1996. And she's had some success. Lobbying is much more tightly regulated now than it was then. In the U.S. Senate, Marshall says she would have supported the president's health care reform bill and the stimulus package. Her number one priority next year would be getting the economy back on track. To her, that starts with one word. "Oh, it's got to be jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. We have got to just really concentrate on creating jobs, setting the platform so that credit can be loosened up in the appropriate ways. The reason the jobs are not coming back now as fast as they did in the last two recessionary swings is that banks are involved in this one." Concern about vitriol and dysfunction in DC is a common theme among the Democratic Senate hopefuls. Marshall's opponents say their youthful energy will help them overcome the partisan divide. But Marshall says what sets her apart is experience. She's the only contender who's ever won a statewide race. And she ran for Senate once before, back in 2002. "That's what the voters will have to figure out. Do they want experience, or do they want inexperienced youth?" Marshall says, chuckling. Marshall was the first Democrat to enter the primary last September. But some weren't sure she'd stay in the race after her husband Bill Holdford passed away at Thanksgiving. Marshall says her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008. Still, they were hoping he'd be around to see her sworn in to the US Senate. Dropping out wasn't an option. "Bill was very committed to the campaign. In fact, the day the doctor said, 'You need to be thinking about calling Hospice, and you need to spend your time doing things of meaning to you, he'd pump his fist and say, 'Doc, that's the campaign!'" This is the second time Marshall's been widowed. Her first husband also died of cancer in 1999. She says she learned then the best way for her to deal with grief was to keep moving forward. This time, she's keeping her eyes on DC. *** Of course, all the Democratic candidates hope to defeat incumbent Republican Richard Burr in the general election. A poll released yesterday shows Burr with low approval ratings. A Public Policy Polling survey shows only 32 percent of voters think he's doing a good job. For Democratic candidates, that's the good news. But the same poll shows an unpopular Burr is still more popular than any of his Democratic challengers. He continues to lead them by 6 to 8 points.