SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Sorting Through Candidates
Every election cycle, the issue always pops up: When is someone a "serious" candidate and who should be left to make the determination?
During each election, some fringe candidates always come out of the woodwork to pay filing fees for presidential and gubernatorial elections.
In New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary, it isn't unusual for five dozen people to pay the $1,000 election filing. Some are perennial candidates like the Hemp Lady, Caroline Killen, running to legalize marijuana, or the Rev. Billy Joe Clegg, a vocal abortion opponent.
North Carolina has always had its share of fringe candidates too. In the current gubernatorial race, a retired Air Force colonel, Dennis Neilsen, has announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination for governor by running on a platform of school vouchers and tougher enforcement of immigration laws. Core Democrats voting in a primary should really warm to that message.
For better or worse, media types and debate organizers often become arbiters of who is and isn't a serious candidate. Air time and newspaper space is limited, and judgments ultimately are made about whether candidates have a realistic shot.
Of course, journalists or debate organizers shouldn't impose their will upon voters either. That notion is part of the internal debate that goes on within news organizations when it comes to covering candidates who, at first glance, don't appear to have the chops to win public office.
Still, paying an election filing fee and announcing to the world that you intend to be the next governor hardly makes your candidacy legitimate. A few years ago, a political activist from Winston-Salem paid the filing fee of a homeless man to try to muddle the re-election chances of former State Auditor Ralph Campbell. Was that fellow a legitimate candidate?
Candidates typically aren't taken seriously when they've never held any local elected office, make few public appearances and show little ability to raise the money needed to be competitive.
But creating some formalized criteria is problematic too. John Edwards held no elected office until his U.S. Senate bid. And making campaign fund-raising a determiner of legitimacy is akin to embracing the out-of-control political money chase.
I began pondering the issue of candidates' legitimacy after writing a column about the lieutenant governor's race. In the piece, I stated that Robert Pittenger, a state senator from Charlotte, appeared to have cleared the Republican field of serious candidates seeking the post.
Greg Dority, a security consultant from Washington who is seeking the GOP nomination, took exception. In a cordial e-mail exchange, Dority let me know that he was serious and hadn't been "cleared" at all.
He noted that he had made the rounds at Republican functions around the state, had filed organizational papers with the Board of Elections and has been competitive with Pittenger in polls.
Maybe he's right. Maybe I was wrong. There's no science to any of this.
But come May, we'll have an answer.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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