Hayes Faces Trio of Determined Democrats

Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., is patiently awaiting a field of spirited Democratic opponents who are expected to battle it out in a primary that has not been scheduled, in a district that may not yet exist.

The uncertainty of this race has not hindered the Democrats' tenacity to take the 8th District, which has been a goal since Hayes first won the seat in 1998. His three opponents include former state Rep. Billy Richardson, the likely Democratic frontrunner, former congressional aide and lawyer Chris Kouri, and school board member Tripp Helms, also a lawyer.

"I think the Democrats feel this is winnable, while the Republicans are feeling vulnerable," offered Marc Seigel, communications director for the Democratic Party of North Carolina.

But before the party can unleash the hounds, a state judge must approve the newly redrawn district map for North Carolina, expected any day now. Until then, the cancelled primary, originally set for May 7, has yet to be rescheduled.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on a lawsuit launched by the state of Utah against North Carolina alleging that it deserves the extra congressional seat due to its own increased population. Right now, North Carolina has the extra seat but if the court rules against it, that seat will cease to exist and the lines will have to be redrawn again.

"It's caused a lot of campaigning to be put on hold — you have a few things at play right now that are having an impact on all the races," said Bill Cobey, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.

The redrawn lines so far have given the Democrats a slight edge, adding 110,000 Democratic-leaning voters from urban Charlotte to the 8th. While President Bush carried the 8th District by 56 percent, Democratic hopefuls insist that it is a swing district that could go either way on Election Day.

But some also like to call it "Helms country" for its venerable conservative, Sen. Jesse Helms.

"They say it's a swing district, and I would have to acknowledge it's in the swing category, but you have to come up with an extremely strong candidate to have a chance here," said Cobey.

For his part, Hayes said he expects to continue his work in Washington, of which he is known for bringing home the bacon for North Carolinians. He doesn't appear too concerned that redistricting has given Democrats a 54 percent edge in this race.

"We've had a number of really encouraging, uplifting visits to Charlotte," he said. "These are good people, and they are looking for good representation and that's what we do."

Hayes said he's worked hard for the rural and manufacturing bases that make up this working-class district. He said he's also been at the forefront of the effort to increase the pay and quality of living for the soldiers living on the nearby Fort Bragg Army base.

"My focus is on my district," he said. "People are very well aware of who I work for and I work for them."

But his opponents are saying he turned his back on those people when he cast the deciding vote in December in support of the House trade promotion authority bill, which gives President Bush sole authority to negotiate international trade agreements. The bill passed the House 215-214. A Senate version that has to be reconciled with the House passed last month on a 66-30 vote.

In the last year, North Carolina lost an estimated 16,000 textile jobs — the district's key industry since before the Civil War — and critics say trade agreements like NAFTA, passed in 1994, are partially responsible for setting this area's job losses into motion. They insist that Hayes promised voters he would never vote for fast track authority, a charge his office vigorously disputes.

"Every time he goes to work, people in North Carolina lose their jobs," said Zach Brooks, spokesman for the Richardson campaign, which has raised a substantial majority of its money — $500,000 as of March — through a donation from Richardson's own bank account.

"The reason these towns exist is because of the mills," Brooks said. "After a congressman looks people in the eye and tells them he won't vote for [fast track] and then turns around and votes for it anyway in Washington, it's inexcusable."

Helms, a distant relative of Sen. Helms, actually agrees with his wizened kin that fast track puts the district in a bad place. "You have to look at the history of the trade deals that were made and the effect it has had on our district," he said. "He promised to vote one way and then voted another."

Jonathan Felts, a spokesman for Hayes, said his boss made no such promise. If anything, he told the leadership that he would not vote for fast track until certain concessions to protect the textile industry in his district were made, and they were. That's why he voted for it.

"We secured a number of provisions that were pro-textile," including stricter enforcement of illegal imports. "Now for the first time in a long time, textile is getting a major focus. We feel like it is a pretty solid victory."

But Kouri, who has worked in the Charlotte mayor's office in community development, said accepting a few concessions in exchange for a vote that bolsters the power of the president, not necessarily the people, is not a victory for the 8th District.

"A U.S congressman should not be accountable first to the president. I think he should be accountable to the people of his district," said Kouri. "Leadership is when you stand up for the people you're representing."

To that, Hayes replied, "People are very well aware of how hard I've worked for them."