ROCKINGHAM — Gene McLaurin’s phone is ringing itself hoarse.
Hours before tipoff in the year’s first Duke-North Carolina basketball game Feb. 17, legislative leaders released the new congressional maps. Before the halftime whistle, prominent Democrats began calling to draft McLaurin as a candidate in the redrawn 9th District, which includes the three-county core of his former state Senate seat.
“I was watching the ballgame at home when the calls started,” McLaurin said. “The problem is, my phone has not stopped ringing, and the people who looked at these maps continue to tell me that I need to run.”
McLaurin, who was Rockingham’s mayor for 15 years before serving in the N.C. Senate from 2012-14, hasn’t decided whether he will run for U.S. House. He’d face a June 7 Democratic primary against Christian Cano, a Charlotte businessman, and a short window of time to amass a campaign war chest.
“I’m not ready to say I’m going to do it, but I’m not ready to say that I’m not, either,” McLaurin said. “It’s not something I was expecting. I was very comfortable with my decision to help my friend Roy Cooper, and I have tremendous confidence in him.”
McLaurin serves on Cooper’s state finance committee and hosts fundraising events for the four-term Democratic attorney general’s gubernatorial campaign. Cooper raised nearly a quarter-million dollars more than Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the first two months of 2016.
In October, McLaurin ended speculation that he’d seek a 2016 rematch with state Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, who unseated him in his bid for a second term. The Quality Oil Co. president also held off calls to seek statewide office, saying he’d remain active in public service as a key Cooper aide.
“I made the decision I was not going to be a candidate in 2016,” McLaurin said this week. “When those district lines got drawn, it’s made me just think about it and keep an open mind about the possibility. I’m not leaning either way right now. I’m just listening.”
A SURGE OF SUPPORT
Legislators, party officials and former constituents have urged McLaurin to run in the 9th Congressional District if the new maps receive final approval from federal judges.
A decision is expected next week, ending a long-running legal battle following the 2011 Republican-led state redistricting process. A three-judge U.S. District Court panel ruled Feb. 5 that the 1st and 12th districts were gerrymandered based on race. The U.S. Supreme Court turned away legislative leaders’ appeal.
The new maps move Anson, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson counties from the 8th to the 9th district, which also includes Union County, southeastern Mecklenburg, southern Cumberland and western Bladen counties.
While he isn’t a fan of the new district boundaries, state Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, said he’s “a huge fan of Senator McLaurin’s.”
“I think he did an outstanding job as a state senator and has done an outstanding job in his business,” Richardson said. “He’s a man of great integrity and he would make a wonderful congressman.”
Richardson, a Fayetteville attorney, was appointed last September to fill the unexpired term of former Rep. Rick Glazier, who stepped down to accept a position as CEO of the North Carolina Justice Center, a progressive think tank and advocacy group.
“It’s going to take a pro-business, pro-education, pragmatic Democrat to run in that district,” Richardson said. “I think Gene is very qualified and would be well-suited to the voters in the Cumberland County part of that district.”
McLaurin is an adviser to the Main Street Democrats Legislative Caucus, a group of moderate, pro-business Democrats founded and chaired by Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond.
“Although that district still leans Republican, it could be won by a strong pro-business Democrat — especially in a presidential year,” Goodman said. “I think there’s some opportunity there, and I think Gene McLaurin is as strong a candidate as you could put in that race.”
Goodman, who worked closely with McLaurin in the General Assembly and considers him a good friend, said voters would cross party lines because the former senator “is a very pragmatic person, not an ideologue.”
“Gene’s a great public servant and he’s got a lot to offer,” Goodman said. “He’s a businessman. He’s interested in education and jobs.”
Christian Cano was the sole Democrat to file for the 9th Congressional District seat under the old boundaries and expected a clear path to a general election showdown with either U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-Charlotte, or Republican challenger George Rouco of Mooresville.
Since his Mecklenburg County home remains in the redrawn 9th District, Cano confirmed he plans to stay in the race whether or not the new maps take effect.
“In both maps, I still live in the 9th District,” Cano said. “Technically, we were the nominee for a couple of months, so when the redistricting occurred, it didn’t really change our plans.”
Cano said Thursday he wasn’t aware of any other Democrats considering a run for the seat, but he would welcome a primary opponent “deciding to join the democracy.”
“If someone does enter, we embrace him as part of our party,” he said. “We’ll give them a call and say ‘Welcome to the race.’ If we are primaried, we do feel confident that we would win in the primary.”
Zachary Deason, chairman of the 9th Congressional District Democratic Party, said party leadership would not endorse a congressional candidate before voters make their choice in the primary.
Dylan Frick, who chairs the 8th District Democrats, said he abides by the same general rule on endorsements, but noted he’s been a longtime McLaurin supporter.
“If Gene were to run,” he said, “that would be the first time I would have to break that rule.”
To outpace Cano, McLaurin would need to campaign heavily in populous Mecklenburg and Union counties. He would hold an advantage in Anson, Richmond and Scotland counties, which he previously represented in the state Senate.
On the Republican ballot, Pittenger plans to run in the redrawn 9th District. While Rouco’s Iredell County home places him outside the new boundaries, Todd Johnson of Union County has announced a bid to challenge Pittenger in a GOP primary.
WEIGHING HIS OPTIONS
McLaurin’s candidacy would be celebrated in the Sandhills, but his campaign would also face the challenge of raising six-figure sums in a short time.
“It’s a lot of work,” McLaurin said. “This is a big step if I decide to do it. It’s going to require an awful lot of money. My eyes are wide open, and I know it’s going to be a tremendous time commitment and financial commitment.”
If building a war chest is an obstacle, McLaurin’s familiarity with the cities and counties in the new district boundaries is one of his top advantages.
“I know this district,” he said. “Pittenger is unknown in this part of the district. It would be great for this part of North Carolina to have a congressman. Tons of folks have said to me, ‘Do we need a congressman from Charlotte?’”
If elected, McLaurin said he would bring the same moderate approach to the Capitol dome that won him respect on both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly.
“I think I proved with my voting record in Raleigh that I’m not an extremist,” he said. “That would be the approach I would bring. I just believe that both Raleigh and Washington need people who have that experience of bringing people together. They’re so polarized in Washington. Is there room for people like that? I think we need it.”
Though his phone continues to ring, McLaurin hasn’t made any promises. He’s still soul-searching and weighing the viability of a congressional run.
“I’m not trying to talk myself into it,” he said. “I’m keeping an open mind, but I have definitely not made a decision to run, nor have I made a decision that I’m not interested. I’m just trying to study it and do some research.”
A choice will be made before month’s end. Filing for congressional offices is set to open March 16 and close March 25.
In the meantime, McLaurin is looking to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina for clarity. The entire question could be moot if the maps are rejected and the 9th District isn’t extended to encompass his Rockingham home.
“The courts have got to rule on this,” McLaurin said. “It’s coming up on us very quickly.”
Reach Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670.