Anatomy of an upset

Five days after Murphy’s historic victory, political observers throughout Kinston and North Carolina are still wondering how — in a city that boasts a Democratic Party registration approaching two-thirds of the population — could a Republican pull off a victory in the most heralded elected position in city government?

Nov 08, 2009 (The Free Press – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) — When the final results of the 2009 Kinston mayoral election were announced Tuesday night at the Lenoir County Board of Elections, only two of the three candidates were in the packed conference room. While unaffiliated candidate Earl Harper and Democratic candidate Jimmy Cousins were waiting with family and supporters, Republican candidate B.J. Murphy was a short distance away, feeding his supporters and volunteers pies from Pizza Villa.

As the final numbers appeared on a screen in the conference room of the BOE, Harper and Cousins both stared at them for a few seconds before it sank in: a Republican was going to be the mayor of Kinston for the first time in more than 100 years.

Cousins, then Harper spoke to a Free Press reporter and went live on local cable airwaves on TACC-9 with Rick Vernon and Martha Bishop.

Around five minutes after the final numbers were posted — Murphy defeated Harper by a scant 61 votes, while Cousins finished 434 votes back — the new mayor-elect walked into the BOE, shook hands with both candidates and made his rounds with media and supporters.

Five days after Murphy’s historic victory, political observers throughout Kinston and North Carolina are still wondering how — in a city that boasts a Democratic Party registration approaching two-thirds of the population — could a Republican pull off a victory in the most heralded elected position in city government? Planting the seed Lenwood Morris Murphy Jr. — he’s called B.J. (Buster Junior) after his father’s nickname — first came on the political scene four years ago when he took on three-term Democratic mayor O.A. “Buddy” Ritch. Although he was only 25 at the time, the former Pride of Kinston director finished a respectable 299 votes behind Ritch.

That was almost considered an upset in its own right as Ritch is considered one of the most popular mayors in Kinston history.

Cousins, who won his second term as a city councilman in 2005, praised Murphy’s inaugural campaign.

“He did a fine job four years ago when he only lost by a handful of votes to a veteran politician who had a tremendous following in a Democratic town,” Cousins said. “He wasn’t so far away in the last election.” In that close 2005 election, Murphy said he learned some valuable time management lessons that he applied this year.

“When I walked into a neighborhood four years ago, I knocked on every door in that neighborhood,” Murphy said. “I thought that was the way it needed to be done. If the homeowner wasn’t home, I left a doorhanger.

“What I realized four years later, after watching other political campaigns — especially President Obama’s campaign — was that a lot of people don’t vote in a city election. … What I realized was that I didn’t need to knock on every door. I knocked on doors of the people who vote. It was the same way with (telephone) calls. I think that was the major difference this time — planting good seeds this time, as opposed to last time, when I thought I planted good seeds, but I was knocking on the wrong doors to make it happen.” Three candidates, one position In February, anticipating a decision from the U.S. Department of Justice on nonpartisan voting, Harper declared his candidacy for the mayoral position as an unaffiliated candidate. Harper — who didn’t return messages from The Free Press to comment on this report — was a successful, popular and philanthropic businessman who had served six years as a Republican county commissioner. Billboards and signs sprung up almost overnight all over Kinston following Harper’s announcement.

On June 1, Murphy formed an exploratory committee to gauge public interest in another run for the mayoral position. He was so pleased with grassroots reaction to his committee that he filed as a Republican candidate for mayor on July 6.

The wildcard was the announcement from Democrat Jimmy Cousins on July 16 that he was seeking the office. Cousins, a popular city councilman, had told county and city leaders at a meeting in January that he was not interested in running for the mayoral job.

That pronouncement encouraged those leaders — virtually all Democrats, including Ritch and his wife MaryMac, county commission chairman and then-Lenoir County Democratic Party chairman George Graham and downtown business leaders John Marston and Rob Bizzell — to throw their support behind Harper.

Following the DOJ’s controversial decision to keep Kinston’s municipal elections partisan in August, Cousins easily defeated political newcomer Ronnie Isler in September’s Democratic primary and moved on to Tuesday’s election.

Cousins’ muddying of the political waters, though, ultimately helped Murphy’s effort, said many local observers.

“That factor, more than anything else, contributed to B.J. being elected,” said Kinston’s preeminent independent political mind, TACC-9 talk show host Reece Gardner, of the three-way race. “You had two candidates vying for a lot of the same voters and an energizing situation on B.J.’s side that brought a lot of people to the polls who ordinarily wouldn’t vote.” Lenoir County Republican Party Chairman Harry Edwards, who was also Murphy’s campaign manager, said the three-way race “certainly had an effect on the outcome.” “But, that aside, the reason he got the most votes was because he effectively communicated the issues and he communicated his position on the issues,” Edwards said. “Of the three candidates, the people said ‘This is the one we want.’ ” Graham blamed his own party — whose city and county elected officials all supported Harper, the unaffiliated candidate instead of Cousins the Democrat — for Murphy’s victory.

“The division within the Democrats created this,” Graham said. “Democrats generally vote a straight ticket and in this particular situation, a lot of Democrats supported Mr. Harper. B.J. was able to keep a solid foundation while the Democrats were divided.” Lenoir County Democratic Party strategist Rita Spence was even more succinct.

“The bottom line is this: B.J. won because Jimmy Cousins split the vote,” Spence said. “Regardless of party, the vote was split.” Murphy said the three-way race never shaped his campaign’s strategy.

“Our strategy, from Day 1, was to knock on as many doors as we can and we’re going to make as many phone calls as we can,” he said. “Depending on money, we were going to send as many mail pieces as we could.

“Would we have won, based on the election results we have? I don’t know, but it would have been interesting to see. I’m glad we don’t have to go down that route.” How it happened Although Murphy agrees that the three-way race helped his effort, he said his attention to the city’s sagging economy was what pushed him over the top.

“It was an umbrella issue and it included our spending, the taxes and the way we handled our funds,” Murphy said. “That one issue resonated throughout the community because it ties directly into our property tax rate and projects that come up all of a sudden.” He said he was surprised by how passionate Kinston residents were about their streets.

“When I looked at the top four issues, I was thinking housing, taxes, jobs and electric rates,” Murphy said. “But when I started going door to door and doing the forums, people were talking about streets. I was amazed that it was an issue that brought out the emotions that it did.” Murphy said one resident told him that he drove his wife down College Street to help his pregnant wife burst her water.

“That means we have to do something about our streets,” Murphy said with a chuckle.

The mayor-elect also said his campaign’s organization was key to victory.

Murphy had four “captains” that headed up different issues: fundraising, the campaign treasury, manning poll workers and phone calls. In particular, Murphy was proud of the phone call aspect of his campaign that used 60 volunteers — including a core group of five to 10 volunteers — who made “more than 5,000” calls to Republican and independent Kinston voters in the final three months of the campaign.

“That means someone picked up the phone, dialed 252 and the other seven digits and either talked to or left a message for somebody,” Murphy said. “That takes a lot of time. … In our war room, all they did was make phone calls.” The impressive fact is that these dozens of volunteers worked for Murphy’s campaign for free. Murphy said that, in his mind, it was simple why those people volunteered hundreds and thousands of hours to his campaign.

“They wanted to see the change that I wanted to see,” Murphy said. “A person told me a long time ago that I had the uncanny ability to do things, whether they wanted to or not, and do it for free. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I think people had a lot of hope in, not me, but what I represented.

“The volunteers were the ones that made it happen. I was just the vessel, they’re the ones who made it happen.” Murphy also contested the notion that his victory was an upset.

“It was a calculated victory,” Murphy said. “We set out a gameplan and we worked that plan. We won in the phone calls. We didn’t win in the public eye; we won behind the scenes, on the phones and shaking hands. That’s where we won this election.” Reaction to the victory Murphy’s victory not only made headlines in Kinston and Eastern North Carolina, but all over the state, too. The morning after his victory, he was being interviewed by television crews, magazine writers and online news sources.

His victory also drew the attention of the state’s top GOP member, N.C. Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer.

“It’s certainly a historic election in Kinston,” Fetzer said. “It’s very encouraging and bodes well for the future of the party; the future of our party is very bright when we have young people like B.J. Murphy stepping up and taking positions of leadership. I am very proud of him.” Edwards said the Lenoir County Republican Party has become even more energized by his candidate’s victory.

“This tells me that in the beautiful Kinston that I love, there’s an opportunity for anyone to make a difference, irregardless of party affiliation, race or creed,” Edwards said. “People are looking for good things to happen in Kinston and they’re going to elect the person it takes to get them there.” Although he lost to Murphy, Cousins said he’s ready to support the mayor-elect.

“He’s a sharp young man and I think he’ll do a fantastic job for the city,” Cousins said. “I don’t have any worries about how he’s going to take care of the city.” Cousins continued: “Now, what is important is for all of us to get behind our new mayor and council members and let our voice be heard behind the scenes to make sure we keep going forward. This city is poised for great things; we need good leadership and we now have good leadership in Mr. Murphy.” Murphy has done his best to deflect all the attention away from himself and onto Kinston.

“This does nothing but tell people across the state and across the nation what kind of wonderful town we have,” Murphy said. “Kinston has a lot going for it; electing a new style of leadership — and young, at that — really speaks well for this town.

“When you say, ‘Kinston is on the way,’ it has a new meaning today.” Bryan C. Hanks can be reached at 252-559-1074 or at bhanks@freedomenc.com. For more information on this story, including more quotes and background, check out Bryan’s blog at bhanks.encblogs.com.

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