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Against the Wind

Bob Hall reflects on the fight for democracy in North Carolina

In the last decade, North Carolina has gone from a Southern model of moderation to the vanguard of spiteful ultraconservative rule and partisan governmental dysfunction. Its 2013 cuts to unemployment benefits, with the state still reeling from recession, were the nation’s deepest. Federal courts, in several decisions since the 2010 census, have ruled its legislative and congressional maps unconstitutional thanks to racial gerrymanders. In late 2016, Republicans in the state legislature used an emergency session called to address hurricane damage to strip newly elected Democratic governor Roy Cooper of key powers in appointing state officials.

To many, the drift is an embarrassment. To Bob Hall, dancing in the hurricane, it’s been an expanded to-do list. Since its 1991 inception, Hall has led Democracy North Carolina: a nonpartisan, progressive watchdog group devoted to expanding voter participation and curbing the influence of money in the state’s politics in hopes of spreading political power more widely. Challenging abuses of power is the work of decades. In 1996, Democracy NC examined how campaign donations from North Carolina’s big polluters shaped environmental regulations. A 2004 investigation[*] into illicit contributions led to state Speaker of the House Jim Black’s indictment and resignation. After the 2016 elections, the organization filed a series of complaints against outgoing Republican governor Pat McCrory’s campaign for defaming hundreds of legal voters as frauds.

Hall, winner of a 1992 MacArthur “Genius Grant,” retired from his executive directorship at the beginning of this year and handed over the reins to Tomas Lopez, formerly of the Brennan Center for Justice. On his way out, Hall sat down with The Baffler in his wife’s painting studio in Hillsborough, N.C., to take stock of the state’s and nation’s politics. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.

Sammy Feldblum: Before Democracy NC, you were involved in activism and journalism all across the South. Is there anything particular about North Carolina among Southern states that made it riper to delve into?

Hall: There’s a book that V. O. Key wrote in ’49, called Southern Politics. The chapter on North Carolina is called the “progressive plutocracy”: the hegemony of banking, agribusiness, textiles, and tobacco coming together and using government as a force for economic development. As opposed to what was going on in South Carolina, where they were fighting government. They didn’t want any government, so they would bankrupt it.

North Carolina developed a state highway system, a state university system—we were unusual in having a state banking system. That was actually the framework that enabled us to become the banking giant, to be able to buy up other banks. It was the way capital formation could occur.

The idea of judges raising money from the attorneys who come into their courtroom just seemed pretty stupid.

Democracy NC used the “progressive plutocracy” that has shaped the state’s history from the forties on. We did our organizing both at the grassroots and at the grasstops. Public financing as an alternative way to finance campaigns was an early goal, an approach to changing the political system that we adopted in the early nineties, when we first started—because it would give a chance for other candidates to compete who didn’t have ties to big money. And it would take people off the money chase, so they wouldn’t have to always be thinking about it.

Feldblum: You got that reform passed with judges, and it seems like it worked for a while.

Hall: It did. The idea of judges raising money from the attorneys who come into their courtroom just seemed pretty stupid. So that was what we got steered to by our allies in the legislature. The judges started opting into it: in the first cycle, all but one went into it. It turned out to be enough money, and something that they appreciated. Republicans and Democrats were using it, winners and losers. It was a real attack on private money controlling politics. Which meant [Republican mega-donor and state kingmaker] Art Pope didn’t like it, because he was a big advocate and practitioner of big money and trying to buy elections. So he fought it but lost. It became effective after the 2004 election.

Feldblum: And lasted until when?

Hall: 2013. When McCrory became governor and named Art Pope as his budget director, Art Pope immediately zeroed it out of the budget. It really was a personal vendetta that Art Pope had against public financing, because it gets to the heart of the private funding system.

Feldblum: It undermines his power.

Hall: Exactly.

Feldblum: It seems like Art Pope is almost the antithesis of Democracy NC.

Hall: Not really. We worked with the [Pope-funded, libertarian] John Locke Foundation and Pope on disclosure. Lobby reform: they were for lobby reform. They didn’t think that lobbyists should use their money to buy access and curry favor. They believe that they are a meritocracy and their ideas are best. It’s just that Pope has no idea that people are not born on third base and can go home and score a run. He was born with a silver spoon, private school and all, and he has no understanding of the hardship people go through, and why public education is so important. He’s against public education.

There’s a lot of ways we are opposed. At the core of it, the stuff around the privilege of private property as opposed to human rights is where our conflict is most heated. We are committed to a government that respects human rights. They want to put private property as primary. From the framers of the constitution—that is the legacy of so much of our legal tradition, protection of private property.

But, you know, we filed complaints against different Republicans and Democrats throughout these years: against [Democratic Speaker of the House] Jim Black, against [Democratic Governor Mike] Easley. Now, they think we’re a stooge for the Democrat Party. Which is just bullshit.

Feldblum: Could that also be a function of the fact that Republicans have almost total control right now? So any good-governance advocacy, or pro-democracy advocacy, would be against abuse of power, and the people who have power are Republicans?

Hall: It’s beyond that. This is an extremist group of Republicans. They are hyper-partisan, and beyond the Republicans that used to be concerned about the state. They are so committed to their narrow ideology, and to their own reincarnation every two years, that they really don’t pay much attention to the public interest the way Republicans have in the past.

Fortunately, there’s still some sensible folks. When we were doing the advocacy around early voting in 2016, and [state GOP chairman] Dallas Woodhouse was telling the Republican county board members, “be partisan about your decisions. Don’t allow Sunday voting. Don’t put early voting sites on campuses,” there were a number of Republicans who said, “No, that’s not right. We’ve done it before, it is something that’s a service to our voters. If we don’t take care of early voting they’ll all show up on Election Day, and we don’t have the capacity to handle four and a half million voters on Election Day.”

I would say actually one of my biggest disappointments is that Phil Berger, who’s now the head dog of the Senate and vies with Governor Cooper as the most powerful politician in North Carolina—when he first came in office in 2001, he supported a version of public financing. He supported us on ethics reform. He had a lot of integrity at that time. He of course was in the minority party, but he was someone you could work with. Now he’s just gone berserk.

Feldblum: I’m reminded of Lawrence Wright’s piece last year in The New Yorker about the Texas state legislature. The author characterized this drama where extreme, tea-partyish, hyper-religious social conservatives have an increasingly powerful presence and loud voice in the state legislature. Democrats are totally sidelined. So the tension is between this model of pro-business, more moderate Southern Republicans who seem to have been more common a generation ago, and now this increasingly loud and vociferous group.

Hall: Sounds familiar. I think that race is in the middle of it. Race, and paranoia: white people feeling like they’re losing control of their culture, and just freaking out. So they’re doing extreme things, and being surprised that they get called extreme, or illegal, or unconstitutional. They’re really scared about their loss of control.

Feldblum: What would you hope to say to white people that feel that way?

Hall: You don’t need to feel so freaked out. You really could get along in a world where you’re not in the majority, even. You’re going to have a great life. You won’t have the arbitrary privilege, but you don’t need that to have a happy life. You actually will learn a lot more by living in a more diverse environment, and appreciating the more diverse environment. People that don’t look like you, that act different, that have different thoughts—it’s enriching. Your life will be more interesting. So welcome the future, and form alliances with the future, really.

The anti-immigrant mentality in the General Assembly at this point is horrendous.

It is about this white supremacist mentality, and it’s so deep that they don’t want to recognize that’s what it is. But that is exactly what it is. It’s a sense of privilege and authority, and it gets wrapped up in this protection of wealth and of property.

Feldblum: Thinking about race and democracy brings to mind voter disenfranchisement. What do you think of as the big threats right now to democracy in the state and nationwide?

Hall: I think certainly the attack on voting rights and the election system. There’s a willingness to undermine people’s belief that elections even matter, or government is important. What’s under attack is the whole social compact, the idea that you should be a citizen concerned about your neighbor. Their goal is to have people be very selfish, concerned about their own privilege and money, opposed to taxes to support anybody else’s schools—to have advantages over other people. The anti-immigrant mentality in the General Assembly at this point is horrendous. It’s absolutely astonishing, and it’s beyond immoral.

Feldblum: So for you it almost is less a question of voting conditions, gerrymandering—procedural questions—and it’s more a spiritual question about who we imagine ourselves to be, what we imagine to be the goal we each have.

Hall: Exactly. Why are these systems important for us to have? And why is it that generations in fact died for these systems? The voting system is something that our ancestors fought and died for. It wasn’t an accident. Talking to African Americans about this, among other folks, it is very much a part of your soul, and your heritage. Your voice now is built on the voice of others. You can’t let them take that away from you. That system of being able to vote, and organize with others so that your voice has an impact—it’s a historical legacy, and it’s a vision for your future. It’s what we want to see happening for the next seven generations.

Feldblum: You went to seminary, no? How do you think that education has affected your trajectory?

Hall: I was born in the seminary. My mother’s father was a Lutheran missionary who came over from Germany to pastor to Lutherans. And my father’s father was a Baptist missionary in the lumber camps. My mother was a church secretary and a choir leader soloist. So we grew up in the church and were indoctrinated in a very strong moral vision of right and wrong.

One of the first things I did in the civil rights movement of the early sixties was integrating a church.

I rebelled against all of the Bible stories and didn’t go to seminary to become a minister. I went because of these larger issues about the meaning of life, and our purpose. Those were philosophical questions in the sixties that I was answering in a number of ways: through Bob Dylan’s music, through activism in the Civil Rights community, through reading all the world religions—Taoism, Hinduism—and seeing how they answered those questions. It comes down to: you make up a story, basically, about why we are here. People have made up great stories, and a lot of them have similar themes. But you’ve got to make up a story that is compelling and then have the courage to stick with that story, and recognize when it needs to be adjusted.

My sense of right and wrong, and a moral mission, is from learning early from the church. One of the first things I did in the civil rights movement of the early sixties was integrating a church! I was in a church college, all-white at the time, and we were trying to integrate it, but we were also trying to integrate the big churches in Memphis, where our college was, with the black NAACP youth chapter. And folks would stand outside with their umbrellas like batons, and keep us away from coming in to worship. I would call to them, you know, “didn’t Jesus say: red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight? How can you do this? This is absolutely against what you have been preaching!”

Feldblum: What was the response?

Hall: “We don’t want our children going to school with black people. Because they’re going to intermarry! There’s going to be race-mixing.” That’s what it was. Race-mixing.

Feldblum: Do you find that pointing out hypocrisy—like this scene in Memphis—convinces anyone?

Hall: It does. It certainly did through the sixties. It includes suffering, often; that’s part of what Dr. King and the civil disobedience movement was about. It goes right on up to the Moral Monday movement. That was a moral statement calling out and showing hypocrisy, and being willing to get arrested about it.

But Reverend [William] Barber was very strong about having his facts together about what the impact of cutting off unemployment benefits was, or getting rid of the earned income tax. The documentation that we did about who was going to be impacted by bringing in the voter ID bill, and so on and so forth: we had all of that. So I definitely believe that you’ve got to have material and substance behind what you’re talking about. Can’t just be rhetoric.

Feldblum: What sort of impact do you think Democracy NC’s investigative work has? When you delve in and discover the way that the sausage is made, do you feel like it has pushed North Carolina into a direction of better and more transparent governance?

To me, you can’t have real democracy that suppresses minority influences. That’s not what democracy is about.

Hall: I mean, there were immediate consequences to investigative work into the Highway Department, the Board of Transportation: reform, people lost their appointments, they got indicted. Jim Black was a big one, for sure, to have the House Speaker get indicted. The complaint we filed after documenting all this illegal money, the board of elections then got access to his campaigns’ bank accounts. They found additional problems with money from chiropractors, and from optometrists. That was what really sunk him.

So I think we’ve had an impact on improving politics, not just from our investigative work but from our organizing work. What you don’t see in this kind of document is the work of the organizing staff of Democracy North Carolina. People on the street, gathering petitions and interrupting fundraising events and agitating, agitating, agitating.

Feldblum: Over the course of your time in these pro-democracy organizations, do you feel like much has changed? Or do you feel like things are largely the same, and it’s a fight that always has to be waged and is never won?

Hall: How do people answer that question? It’s a question that gets asked all the fucking time. Yes, things have changed, and the struggle continues.

Feldblum: Okay, that’s fair. It does seem like the government in North Carolina has been fundamentally different since 2010. Thinking about democracy in the United States, the time since 2016 feels fundamentally different from before. Those seem to be notable changes to me, that something has flipped recently.

Hall: Yeah, well, Trump did get elected. It wasn’t a military coup. It was democracy that put him in there through the vote. So if you don’t like it—that’s the challenge: really building a constituency for a better vision of democracy, a democracy that is not about suppressing minorities. To me, you can’t have real democracy that suppresses minority influences. That’s not what democracy is about. It’s not majority rule in that strict sense of “we get to decide everything, and screw you.” That’s a version of bullyism that comes from temporary power and defensive power. I don’t think that it’s permanent. It’s in place, but it’s subject to challenge and to popular counter-revolt. Our challenge is to continue to educate, and expose, and organize, and bring to the fore the pain that bullies cause on our neighbors, if not us. And if you’re not feeling the pain, maybe you should open up a little bit, and maybe you will if you check out what’s going on around you.

Feldblum: How big of a deal was it when Governor Roy Cooper got elected, and the legislature stripped him of appointive powers?

Hall: It’s very important. It’s an attack on this system that we need to exercise our democracy. They’re trying to establish a permanent power. We wrote an amicus brief in support of the Cooper position with the Brennan Center: going back to the days of the Founding Fathers, they were very worried about special interests entrenching their power, usurping any challenge by gaining control of more of the institutions. It essentially nullifies the will of the people. They want to have the chair [of the state Board of Elections] be a Republican in every presidential election. They don’t want to give Cooper the majority power that previous governors always had, which actually worked remarkably well under both Republicans and Democrats. Again, it’s this extremism. That attack against Cooper in December was symbolic of the paranoid mentality, and the privilege of being a bully, to see how far we can get away with things. We’re going to push it, and push it, until the courts say no, and then we’re going to call them partisan, and then attack the courts.

Feldblum: So now, as ever, the work continues.

Hall: The work continues.


[*] Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to a 2006 investigation into illicit contributions. The investigation in question began in 2004. The article has also been updated to reflect that Democracy North Carolina has worked not just on “curbing the influence of money” in politics but also on expanding voter participation.