UPDATED: The State Employees Association of North Carolina is prepared to spend more than $1.8 million to help get Linda Coleman the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, even though she faces a highly touted primary candidate.
The organization launched its first radio advertisement Wednesday touting Coleman, the state's personnel director and a former state lawmaker, as "a champion for working people." It debuts as candidates are still considering whether to run for the state's No. 2 post -- a campaign that could get overshadowed by a Democratic governor's race on the May primary ballot.
The one-minute ad is airing on most radio stations in the Fayetteville area, said Dana Cope, the SEANC executive director. With a $13,000 price tag, the group is hoping to saturate the hometown of state Sen. Eric Mansfield, who announced his candidacy Tuesday for lieutenant governor.
Mansfield, a surgeon, military veteran and ordained Baptist minister, is well regarded inside many Democratic Party circles and considered an up-and-comer in state politics.
But Cope isn't impressed with Mansfield's first term in the state senate, saying he supported a Republican-backed medical malpractice reform and opposed President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
"Linda Coleman has a record of supporting working families ... really representing the 99 percent in North Carolina," he said. Mansfield "has stood firmly for the 1 percent."
Mansfield's campaign declined to respond to the accusations. But Mansfield opposed the Republican effort to block North Carolina from being exempt from President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
Cope said the SEANC board met last weekend and decided to get involved in the race sooner rather than later. "We want to get out early and often," he said. "It is a little bit atypical for us to do that, but our folks felt so strongly about Linda Coleman's candidacy."
The ad qualifies as an independent expenditure, meaning SEANC's efforts are not coordinated with the Coleman campaign. Cope said the group is prepared to spend "more than we've ever spent" to get Coleman elected. In 2008, SEANC spent roughly $1.8 million to help elect Bev Perdue as governor.
The radio ad will air until Feb. 29 in Fayetteville and is expected to debut statewide in coming weeks, accompanied with television advertising boosting Coleman and disparaging Mansfield.
The field in the Democratic race is still far from finalized. Attorney Hampton Dellinger and state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco also are mentioned as possible candidates. Other Democratic operatives expressed concern about putting so much money into an often-overlooked political office and not focusing efforts on defeating Republicans.
Cope said SEANC's political action committee (EMPAC) is not involved and will conduct its standard interview and endorsement process after candidate filing ends Feb. 29.
In 2010, SEANC also spent about $50,000 in independent expenditures to support Mansfield's Democratic opponent in the state Senate race.
Mansfield's political consultant, Thomas Mills, said he assumed SEANC would use the formal endorsement process before wading into the race "out of respect for their members."
"Linda Coleman has served North Carolina honorably for many years and we respect her service," Mills said. "However, right now, North Carolina needs leaders like Eric Mansfield who can lead us into the future and who have a broader view than than the narrow political interests in Raleigh."