ROCKINGHAM — Gene McLaurin will forego a state Senate race and instead help Attorney General Roy Cooper in his 2016 bid to unseat Gov. Pat McCrory.
The businessman and former Rockingham mayor joined Cooper Monday evening as the four-term Democrat formally announced his campaign for governor at Nash Community College in Rocky Mount.
“He has asked me to play a key role in his campaign,” McLaurin said. “I think it’s a good opportunity for me to help somebody I have a lot of confidence in. There are other ways to be involved in public service than being an elected official.”
Cooper spokesman Jamal Little said McLaurin will serve on the Roy Cooper for North Carolina statewide finance committee.
Following 15 years as mayor of Rockingham, McLaurin represented Senate District 25 in the 2012-14 N.C. General Assembly term. He narrowly lost to Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, last November after the 2011 redistricting process added a swath of right-leaning Rowan County to the Senate district for Richmond, Scotland, Anson and Stanly counties.
McLaurin had long considered challenging McInnis to reclaim the Senate seat and his name had also been floated as a prospective candidate for statewide office.
“After 17 years in elective office, I think now is a good time for me to serve my community and state in other ways,” he said in a statement to residents and supporters. “I am grateful to so many people who have encouraged me to run again, either for the Senate or another office. It has been an honor to serve and I have enjoyed working for you. This does not mean I am retiring from public service. Far from it, I have plenty of energy and interest and plan to be active and involved.”
In the end, McLaurin said, his “almost 20-year friendship” with Cooper and his desire to help elevate the sitting attorney general to the Executive Mansion superseded his own political ambitions.
“I’ve followed his career not only in the legislature, but in his time as attorney general,” McLaurin said, noting that he met Cooper in 1998 when he was Senate majority leader. “I think he’s the right leader at the right time with the right experience to move North Carolina forward.”
Cooper served as the keynote speaker at a September 2014 fundraiser for McLaurin’s re-election campaign at Discovery Place Kids, and McLaurin has since hosted a Cooper fundraiser at his Rockingham home.
McLaurin said Cooper is the leader who has the vision to move North Carolina forward.
“Everyday North Carolinians, especially in the rural parts of our state, are struggling with economic and education policies that have made our state less competitive for new jobs and better wages,” he said. “Our students, teachers and all of our citizens deserve so much better from their state legislature and governor.
“Many people have expressed to me similar concerns. Rather than dwell on negatives, I’ll just say we need different priorities to get North Carolina back on track.”
Cooper has long been courted for higher office, having passed on gubernatorial bids in 2008 and 2012 and the opportunity to run against U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in 2010. Speculation about his 2016 candidacy began more than two years ago.
Monday’s announcement marks the formal start of Cooper’s campaign, but his plans to run against McCrory have been widely reported. In a May 16 speech during the 8th District Democratic Party Convention in Rockingham, Cooper confirmed his candidacy to spontaneous applause and a standing ovation.
“I talked to my wife, Kristin. I talked to my daughters. We are beginning to plan my campaign for governor of North Carolina,” Cooper said at the convention. “We will have an official announcement later.”
The North Carolina Republican Party, which had long accused Cooper of running a “shadow campaign” for governor, said on its website that it considered him to be “officially a candidate” after the Daily Journal published his May 16 remarks.
In advance of Cooper’s Monday announcement, the state GOP launched a website taking aim at the presumptive Democratic nominee, www.BacktotheFutureNC.com. The party’s theme of Cooper seeking to lead North Carolina into the past coincides with the 30th anniversary of the “Back to the Future” movie release in 1985.
Cooper will face Ken Spaulding, a former state legislator and transportation board member, in the Democratic primary next spring.
Statewide polls show a tight race, with McCrory leading Cooper 44 percent to 41 percent in a Sept. 30 Public Policy Polling survey and McCrory ahead 41 percent to 37 percent in an Oct. 8 Civitas Institute poll. The gap between the candidates in both surveys is within the margin of error.
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @corey_friedman.