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Lewis: Health care reform needs public option

Ken Lewis (Photo: KenLewisforSenate.com) hspace=4

This week during Morning Edition, WFAE has been airing profiles of the three leading Democratic candidates running for the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Republican Richard Burr. On Wednesday, we focused on Cal Cunningham. Yesterday, it was Elaine Marshall. Today, North Carolina Public Radio's Laura Leslie profiles Ken Lewis. Politics is sort of a family pastime for the Lewises. Neither Ken nor his wife Holly has ever run for office, but they've campaigned for many candidates, most recently Barack Obama in 2008. Holly Lewis says their three kids - teen-agers Evan and Marshall, and 9-year-old Maya - have grown up with activism. "The very first thing they said when Ken told them he was running was, 'Does this mean we're going to have to knock on doors every weekend again?'" Ken Lewis grew up with activism, too. His father was a professor at Winston Salem State who campaigned for former Governor Jim Hunt. Lewis went to Duke, and then to Harvard to earn his law degree. Lewis worked for a large law firm before starting his own practice at 32. He wanted more flexibility to work with small businesses and non-profits, especially community development and affordable housing groups. He says 23 years of business experience makes him the Democrats' best choice. His opponents, Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham, have more political experience than he does. But he's not convinced that's a liability. "I'm not a career politician. I've not spent my whole career in government. I bring this fresh perspective. People want change, and you can't get change just sending people we've had in the past," he says. In the Senate, Lewis says his top priority would be getting the country out of the recession through job creation. He thinks Congress should be doing more to help, even if it requires deficit spending. He says it's a choice between red ink now or red ink later. "If we don't act in a decisive way to end the recession, we're going to have long-term deficits because we're going to have continued contraction of our economy," Lewis says. "If folks are not working, then they're not paying taxes. The government is getting less revenue. If they're not working, they're not buying goods and services, which means that businesses are not making a profit - they're not paying taxes." Lewis is a big believer in the private sector, but he says there are some things the government can do better. One example is health insurance. Lewis supports the current health care reform bill, but says it won't succeed in the long run unless lawmakers add a public option. "I come to this conclusion because I was a small business owner. I bought health insurance plans for my employees. I saw what the private market produced. There was very little competition, very little choice among the plans." As important as it is to stabilize the economy now, Lewis says, Congress also has to focus on long term prosperity. To him, that means investing in two key areas - a low-carbon economy, and education. "The future belongs to the country that best educates its people, so we have to make sure we are reforming education in a way that provides for a 21st century workforce. That begins from birth to college and beyond, and that's including retraining our workers." Unlike many candidates, Lewis isn't shy about labeling his philosophy. He says he's a progressive - personally and politically. On the campaign trail, he likes to talk about his grandmother, Amelia Stewart Winstead. She was born on a plantation to a former slave. "I have this great picture of my 100-year-old grandmother and my then-3-month-old daughter. You can look in that picture and see the span of progress that has occurred in North Carolina," Lewis says. "In a single lifetime, she could touch the hand of slavery right here in North Carolina, but also clutch the hand of my daughter who at 16 is growing up with Bev Berdue in the governor's mansion, Kay Hagan in the United States Senate, and Barack Obama in the White House. That kind of progress is possible, but I tell people that kind of progress was not inevitable. It didn't just happen." Lewis knows it won't be easy to beat incumbent Senator Richard Burr this November. But he says his candidacy will energize the same grassroots Democrat who helped Barack Obama turn the state blue in 2008.