Party Hopping

Terry leads White in fundraising

Published Wednesday July 14, 2010: By Hilary Stohs-Krause, THE READER

Richard Carter went from Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and underdog Democratic candidate who opposed the war and Rep. Lee Terry in both rhetoric and action, to working for the 2nd District Republican in about a year and a half.

Critics say Carter, now chair of Terry’s 2010 reelection campaign, realized he had no future in the Democratic Party after losing the 2008 primary to Jim Esch with only 19.5 percent of the vote. Terry won the general election with 52.2 percent of the vote to Esch’s 47.8 percent — Terry’s closest election since he became a congressman in 1998.

“A couple of years ago [Carter] was calling for universal health care. He clearly has had quite the change of heart since then,” said Ian Russell, campaign manager for Nebraska Legislator Tom White, Terry’s 2010 opponent. “That’s certainly not what Terry is advocating now.

“I don’t want to speculate on the guy’s motives,” he said, “but that’s a pretty big about-face.”

David Boomer, Terry’s campaign manager, said Carter brings credibility to the campaign as a veteran.

“More importantly, he has become a good friend of Lee Terry’s,” Boomer said. “He’s a key advisor. His thoughts on what we’re doing and where we’re going are always welcome.”

Carter is adamant that his transition from Dem to GOP didn’t happen overnight. He first endorsed Terry about two months after losing the 2008 primary. It was tantamount to political suicide, he said.

“Your party’s obviously very upset with you,” Carter said. “They’re never going to support you again in a race. So it is a big consideration. … Had the Republican Party not been so open and accepting of me, it would have been a much more lonely world for me.”

Though originally registered as a Republican, Carter, 32, began his political career seeking office as a Democrat because of his position on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said. He wanted to end the war in Iraq immediately, and to bring the troops home. It was his major disagreement with Terry.

Carter is a captain in the Air Force Reserves who spent seven years on active duty, including flying combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also spent time in Japan. In the summer of 2009 he attended the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany, for special NATO reserve training.

“I thought that the war was being mismanaged, and really wanted to do something about that, something more,” he said. “There was a real call there.”

In a Feb. 24, 2008 live chat on the progressive Daily Kos blog, Carter sharply criticized Terry’s position on the war:

Question: “How do you feel we can improve upon the Iraq policy supported by Lee

Richard Carter: “By removing him from office. … Well, now that Lee has endorsed McCain, we can assume Lee wants us there for another 100 years. Lee has said ‘Stay the Course’ more times than I can count. It is in the best interest of our troops and our nation to get our troops home, and Lee cannot be trusted to act in those best interests. “

Question: “How do you differ w/Terry on military issues?”

Richard Carter: “I understand them.”

In the end, however, Carter said he felt compelled to support Terry for moral reasons. He believes Esch lied to a crowd during the primary about delivering a letter to Terry concerning political action committee funding. Esch said the letter challenged Terry to join him and together refuse money from PACs. Terry said he never received a letter from Esch.

“Gentlemen can disagree on things, but one thing you always have to support is morals,” Carter said. “I can’t support lying.”

Esch recalled the incident a bit differently: The issue of PAC funding came up twice — once in the primary, and again during the general campaign. When it arose during a primary debate, Esch said, he mentioned the letter he’d sent to Terry.

“I remember Terry saying he never received it,” Esch said, “which I found hard to believe. I remember saying to him, ‘Well, forget about whether we sent you a letter or not, or whether you received it or not — I challenge you right now not to take any more PAC money.’”

Esch shrugged off Carter’s claim that he purposefully sent the letter to Terry’s Congressional office instead of his campaign office: “I don’t know what office we delivered it to, but like I said, I don’t know why that makes any difference.”

While Carter said he talked to both Esch and Terry after the debate to discover the truth, Esch said he didn’t remember Carter ever talking to him about the incident.

“I suppose [Carter] could’ve talked to somebody in our campaign, but I don’t remember that,” he said.

For Carter, who teaches economics at Metropolitan Community College, the economy was a significant issue in the campaign. And as he watched Esch and Terry give speech after speech in early 2008, Carter said he realized his fiscal policies were more closely aligned with Terry’s.

So closely, in fact, that after the 2008 election, he became one of Terry’s economic advisors.

“I’ve always been a fairly conservative Democrat — a blue dog Democrat,” Carter said. But he was concerned the Democratic Party was moving increasingly to the left.

He acknowledged that Nebraska has a strong history of supporting conservative Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson. But Carter said there was no longer room for a conservative contingent in the Democratic Party.

“In 2009 and 2010, the blue dog Democrats I don’t think are viable anymore,” he said. “There are a few holdouts, but I think people are really having to show their cards. … We’re at a time when you can’t play both sides.”

But issues with the national party leadership are precisely what inspired him to become a Democrat in the first place, according to a statement he made in the 2008 Daily Kos live chat:

Carter: “I used to be registered as a Republican … but I have become so frustrated with Bush and Republicans in Congress that I switched to the Democratic party. I feel much more comfortable here, especially in Nebraska, where the party really does represent the best interest of the people, and there is no ideological litmus test for membership, as there seems to be in the Republican party.”

But Carter said he felt at home after endorsing Terry and becoming familiar with Republican Party members.

“Sure, [Terry and I] disagreed about the war, but we sat down and talked after the primary and talked about our differences,” he said.

“I basically found that my values, my issues, really feel in line more with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.”

But some, like White campaign manager Russell, say the back-and-forth was done merely to save his political career.

“This is a guy who got thrashed in the primary,” Russell said. “He chose his own path. He clearly decided that by playing spokesperson to Lee Terry, it helps his political career. Time will tell.”

Carter said there will always be critics.

“My phone number hasn’t changed,” he said. “Any of those people are welcome to call me to find out why I switched …. I think it’s unfair criticism just made by bitter people.”

While Carter “certainly hasn’t ruled out” running for office again, he said he’s content with volunteering and staying politically active until the right opportunity comes.

Republican to Democrat to Republican — when all is said and done, he admits worrying that voters might question his sincerity.

“Sure, it’s a concern,” Carter said, “but I’d be honest with people, and hope they’d be honest with me, and try not to lose any sleep over it.

“I think at the end of the day, people will respect the man that follows his convictions and doesn’t do what’s politically expedient,” he added. “I think it’s pretty clear … that I was following my political convictions.

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