Rob Schofield: Carolina In My Mind

Come election season, some of us who live in solidly “blue” states like California or New York take our activist selves on the road to so-called “swing states,” where our door-knocking will make the most impact. One possible destination next Fall for energetic canvassers is North Carolina, one of the nation’s most “purple“ states. This week on Sea Change Radio, we take a deep dive into North Carolina politics with Rob Schofield, the Director of NC Policy Watch. We recap the last few elections in the state, learn about battles over the fundamental right to cast a ballot, and take a look at some of the candidates and races slated for upcoming election cycles.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability, I’m Alex wise.

Rob Schofield 0:26   It is emblematic of just a long litany of legislation that’s going on for a decade in which Republicans have generally tried to make it harder to vote, particularly those classes of people that they perceive are likely to vote democratic. That means older citizens. That’s why we’ve had battles over voter ID people of color, immigrants, young people, all the people that they view as not necessarily being part of their natural constituency. If they can figure out a way to put up barriers, they do it.

Narrator  0:55  Come election season, some of us who live in solidly “blue” states like California or New York take our activist selves on the road to so-called “swing states,” where our door-knocking will make the most impact. One possible destination next Fall for energetic canvassers is North Carolina, one of the nation’s most “purple“ states. This week on Sea Change Radio, we take a deep dive into North Carolina politics with Rob Schofield, the Director of NC Policy Watch. We recap the last few elections in the state, learn about battles over the fundamental right to cast a ballot, and take a look at some of the candidates and races slated for upcoming election cycles.

Alex Wise  1:54  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Rob Schofield. Rob is the director of North Carolina policy watch NC policy watch calm Rob, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Rob Schofield 2:04  Hey, Alex, thanks so much for having me on.

Alex Wise  2:07  The political environment in your state is fascinating. And it’s one of the most purple states in the union right now and going to be focus for the 2022 election and the 2024 election, I think, why don’t we first take a step back, though and look at what happened in 2018 with the Mark Harris fiasco and kind of recap that for our listeners and explain why that’s was an important template for where we are now in terms of voter rights in the state.

Rob Schofield 2:37  Well, 2018 was symptomatic of this ongoing situation in which North Carolina is sort of a razor Razor’s Edge state. It’s a deeply purple state, actually, historically, as a result of historical trends still has more registered Democrats than Republicans. But it’s basically evenly divided certainly ideologically, like a lot of parts of the of the country. There’s a there’s a broad divide between urban and rural areas. The 2018 election was of course, one that featured a fairly formidable Blue Wave both nationally and here in North Carolina. We had, we’ve gone through just repeated court decisions and redrawing of our congressional and legislative maps and 2018. We were battling through another one of those but what happened was that we had an election in what was then the ninth district of North Carolina at the time, North Carolina had 13 seats in the house. And there was a an empty seat beak as a result of a of an incumbent Republican who had some corruption issues losing in the Republican primary guy by the name of Bob Pittenger actually lost to a sort of dark horse candidate who was a fundamentalist preacher by the name of Mark Harris. And Harris was an interesting character and he was running against a guy, a Democrat, a very formidable Democrat, actually a Democrat with a military record. And this is a district that runs across the southern tier of North Carolina. And Harris made league very early on in the campaign with forces within the Republican Party who he had been told, these are the people you need to talk to if you’re going to do well in southeastern North Carolina, including a very rural county with a very colorful and in some ways troubled history, a lot of racism called Bladen County, which is a very rural county in southeastern North Carolina Harris made a deal with a local Republican operative, who probably at one time had been a democratic operative guy by the name of McRae, Dallas, who was kind of a shady character and he ended up pursuing something very effectively a vote collection or vote harvesting scheme in which he would literally distribute and then collect absentee ballots pay for them. It was clearly in violation of North Carolina, North Carolina law, but frankly, it probably been going on for quite a while, and Dallas took it to a new level. Harris ended up winning the election by the narrowest of margins and that ultimately, that scandal once it came to light led to the election actually being overturned for corruption, which really hasn’t happened in many if any congressional elections in the United States. So it spoke both to the issue of how closely we divided we are ultimately a another Republican, was selected to run after Harris was forced to withdraw and then actually won in a special election over McCready. But it also speaks to this whole issue of voter fraud and the integrity of elections. And, you know, I think a lot of people were struck by the irony that here we have the party of Donald Trump, the party that makes incessant claims about supposed voter fraud polluting our politics, being the authors of the of the most egregious and most noteworthy example of voter fraud, and probably the only example of that kind of widespread voter fraud and a North Carolina election and decades. So it’s a it’s a remarkable story. It’s actually captured in a book called The vote collectors that was recently released by a pair of journalists who covered the story in 2018.

AW  6:05  So let’s fast forward two years from the 2018 election to what happened in North Carolina with both the Cal Cunningham Senate race, I guess we could call it the Thom Tillis Senate race, and the Trump Biden election there. What did you see as a keen observer of North Carolina electoral politics?

RS  6:25  Well, what I saw, of course, was and what we all knew was coming was that it was going to be the most expensive race in history that North Carolina would be, you know, literally inundated day and night, on every television channel and every means of communication really available to candidates with ads, touting their candidates, lots of dark money coming from unknown sources, all trying to elect their particular candidates. We knew that this was true, because we’re such a closely divided state. We knew this was going to be a very close election, it turned out to be that way. I believe that in the end, two things really worked to the to the detriment of the Democrats. One was that Senator Thom Tillis, who had been underwater in the polls, pretty much throughout his six year term in Washington, was running against what seemed like a very compelling democratic guy by the name of Cal Cunningham, who had been a state lawmaker. What had a significant military record, it’s a very compelling, attractive young candidate, he seemed poised to win. And literally a couple of weeks before Election Day, word leaked out, well probably was intentionally leaked out of a quote unquote, sex scandal involved, cutting him allegedly having an extramarital affair, apparently, indeed, having an extramarital relationship of some sort, which was just enough to do him in and probably have a huge effect on our country. If you look at the way the United States Senate is divided right now, the other thing that happened was that during the latter days of the pandemic, Democrats, I think responsibly took the position that it would be dangerous to send their people out to walk precincts to go door to door, it was a time Yeah, it’s hard to remember already because we didn’t have the vaccine Masks, we’re still sort of a, you know, a little unclear who wore masks and when a year ago at this time, or 13 months, so 14 months ago, and the Democrats really, I think lost out in that last few weeks of making a push in the election while the while the Trump Republicans, of course it was no holds barred, they went completely for it. They said there are people out there, the risks of COVID be damned, and you know, you could blast him for being irresponsible. When it came to winning an election. I think it made a real difference and it was probably enough between that and the Cunningham development and Trump being in the state repeatedly to sort of tip things in favor of the Republicans so that they were able to hold on to power and do very well in the 2020 election although most of the margins were very, very narrow.

(Music Break)  9:00

AW  9:56  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the director of North Carolina Policy Watch Rob Schofield. So Rob, you mentioned how Barack Obama won the state of North Carolina in 2008 against John McCain, but then narrowly lost to Mitt Romney in 2012. Let’s dive into the racial component of voting in the state. First, let’s just look at the difference between 2008 and 2012.

RS  10:22  Well, it’s clearly I mean, you can’t talk about elections in North Carolina without talking about race. It is. I mean, you know, you have to remember that 150 years ago, this state was a racial gulag. I mean, it’s a situation in which the repairs continue to this day, the vestiges and the reality of systemic racism continues to infect our society, as it really does everywhere in the United States, but especially so still in many parts of North Carolina. So race is an enormous issue. We have a significant African American population around one in five North Carolinians. Clearly enthusiasm about the Obama candidacy. And it’s a little hard to remember now 13 years later, what the world was like in 2008. But you know, it’s a different time, there was a there was just a really remarkable and unprecedented enthusiasm for the presidential ticket, I think amongst Democrats in both white and black in 2008, that we had not seen in North Carolina, in many, many years. 2012 was, you know, but even so, Obama only eked it out, he only won narrowly. And he only lost narrowly in 2012. It doesn’t, you know, it’s easy to draw big conclusions about what went wrong. And it’s but it’s sort of like, it’s like missing the last pass in a football game. You know, I mean, the game was even, I don’t know, it’s hard to draw any major conclusions. But I would say, you know, sure, the enthusiasm level in 2012 wasn’t quite as high as it was in 2008. And, you know, I mean, the 2010 election had been really a disastrous blowout for Democrats in which Republicans had really swept the swept things. And so I’m sure they continue to enjoy some momentum from that election and in 2012.

AW  12:05  It’s just when we look at what happened in Virginia, and how that’s gone, solidly blue over the last few elections in presidential elections, and then come track that to the promise that North Carolina showed for progressives after Obama took the state. I’ll be it narrowly in 2008. To then see Donald Trump win that state twice. What does it tell you Rob, what does it tell us about how Democrats and Republicans are viewing the state moving forward?

RS  12:35  Well, it remains a hotly contested state, I’d say, you know, what really distinguishes us from Virginia is we don’t have the DC suburbs. You know, we that mean? You can’t talk about Virginia politics without talking about the huge swath of Democrats who reside in Arlington and Alexandria and loud all those counties, just south of the of the District of Columbia, North Carolina has some growing urban areas, Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston Salem, there are some big growing urban areas, we don’t have any dominant, massive big city, you know, we’re a city or a state of medium sized cities. So I think that’s part of what distinguishes us from Virginia. I think, in some respects, we’re just we continue to be a few years behind Virginia when it comes making some of this progress in terms of the diversity of our population, the in migration that the you know, but you know, I’m sure you even see this in California, that when you drive into rural areas of North Carolina, you get outside the cities, there’s a passion, there’s a there is a deep seated passion for Trumpism that, you know, remains sort of mysterious, I think, to a lot of people of goodwill and who favor progress and moving society forward. A lot of is fear based, a lot of it is race based. A lot of it is just fear of change. These are such tumultuous times we inhabit. And you know, I’m sure that’s a phenomenon you see in really in rural parts of America everywhere. And so it’s just, it’s just something that ebbs and flows. And often the elections just turn on the turnout in, say, a moderate, more moderate suburban area and which way things break. And I think things continue to trend slowly in the direction of a more progressive leaning for North Carolina over time, but, you know, it’s a long, slow, torturous process. And the thing that’s happened in the meantime, is that because Republicans succeeded in capturing the legislature, they have gerrymandered the district’s to just amazing levels.

AW  14:33  So I wanted to ask you about that there are two bills right now in the North Carolina Senate and one in the house that are up for vote, or were up for vote in November. Maybe they’ve been voted on since I’ve read about them, but then we have Governor Roy Cooper who’s a Democrat. Can you first explain what these bills are? And the reality of them turning into law in the face of A potential veto from the Democratic governor.

RS  15:02  But we have since in the last few weeks, got a couple of vetoes. Here’s the there’s sort of two tracks going on in the battle for voting in North Carolina. One is you have this gerrymandering in which the districts have been redrawn in such a way that they’re completely rigged to elect Republicans in a 5050. State. They guarantee majorities in the General Assembly in the congressional delegation. Our State Supreme Court recently, which actually is four to three democratic recently sort of took control of those cases in announced a schedule for reviewing the gerrymandered maps put. candidacy sort of on hold, delayed the primary which had been scheduled for March because March has now been pushed back to me. So that’s the gerrymander. On the other end, there’s the battle over voting rights. When the Republicans took over at the beginning of the last decade. In 2013, they passed something called the monster voting law, which was ultimately struck down by a federal court, which announced that it had targeted African American voters with surgical precision in a way to suppress the vote of, of blacks, particularly blacks, and but people of color. And that battle has gone on back and forth. For the last eight years, Republicans tried to pass bills to make it harder to vote to make absentee ballot, harder to cast that they have to be in by election day. They can’t come in a few days afterwards. This was the subject of these bills that you allude to that had been debated here. In recent weeks, there was a bill that would have again, set a deadline for mailed absentee ballots that have to arrive by election day, or they were tossed out, that would have meant 1000s and 1000s of ballots wouldn’t have been counted in 2020, because there was a buffer given. Governor Cooper vetoed that bill, it remains over at the legislature for possible override, but I think the Democrats will hold it. There was another bill, same story, this one would have prohibited local boards of elections from taking outside funding to come in from grants and from foundations to help supplement the puny funds that they have right now to run elections.

AW  16:55 What is the argument – that there are partisan organizations that would then issue these grants?

RS  17:01  Yeah, sure. I mean, that’s the that’s the implication of all the the Republicans have taken the position that despite their success in North Carolina, they’ve continued to try and drive home the Trump message that, you know, elections are rigged in favor of Democrats, there’s massive voter fraud that Democrats are collecting, or committing, it’s probably, you know, voters of color, as always sort of underneath the surface as the implication of it.

AW  17:26  That’s really what this is about is is like these people shouldn’t they’re not fit to vote. So we need real Americans to be voting. When we look at it as progressives and we think this is crazy to them. They’re convinced that there’s shenanigans happening on the other side.

RS  17:43  Yeah, well, and of course, the irony here in North Carolina, as we alluded to, at the beginning of our conversation, is that they’re the ones who only people who’ve been proven to do this were Republicans in a rural area. But yes, for instance, in 2016, when we had a very closely contested gubernatorial race, and a Democrat actually ended up narrowly defeating the incumbent Republican that Republican a guy by the name of Pat McCrory, who’s now actually running for US Senate sought to contest the election sought to have a recount, sought to contest in particular the results in Durham County, which is, of course, one of the few minority, largely not necessarily majority black counties in our state, but has a very progressive County, a lot of African American elected officials. It’s perceived as being perhaps the most liberal county in the state. And here it was, that’s the one he selected that he decided there must be voter fraud going on in term County. So it’s sort of the same old story and that’s what this bill about limiting grants from nonprofits or from foundations to local admittedly underfunded boards of elections was about again, this bill passed with Republican majorities But Governor Cooper has recently vetoed it so the hope is that it will stay vetoed

(Music Break)  18:58

AW  19:49  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the director of North Carolina Policy Watch, Rob Schofield. So Rob, you just broke down the two North Carolina  bills in the Senate that would put up barriers for people to vote in about the most basic terms, I can frame it. But there’s also a bill in the North Carolina House – House Bill 259. Want to explain what that’s all about, please?

RS  20:15  Well, this is again, this is sort of the latest in a long series of patterns. And before I get into it’s worth pointing out again that so called “monster voting law” that was passed back in 2013, did make some changes that remain on the books that have all sort of targeted the idea of making it harder to vote, for instance, give you a classic example. We used to have something called pre registration for teenagers, you can register pre register as a kid in high school, you can vote in mock elections and you’ll be automatically registered to vote when you turn 18.

AW  20:48  It’s probably a really good way to get kids engaged….

RS  20:51  Yes, they repealed that the Republicans repealed that. Obviously, their their fear was that you’d have more young people participating in the election, and that they would tend to vote democratic. So the vote the bill, but the bill you refer to as a bill that’s really sort of targeted at intimidating immigrants. It’s actually a bill that would make it easy to purge people from the pole from the voting rolls, if they had been excused from jury service in the past. And we had, with the implication being that people excused from jury service because perhaps they were non citizens. But we know for a fact that the record keeping on excusing people from jury service is notoriously inaccurate. There’s all kinds of plus there’s plenty of people who have been excused from jury service who then later on, get their citizenship get their their right to vote. There was no provision for that in the legislation, we actually had this bill before it was vetoed previously by the governor. There’s also a provision in the bill that would have made a lot of this information public, which we know for a fact that, you know, there’s a whole class of these ultra conservative sort of professional vote Intimidators, who would have targeted some of these people, many of them immigrants for intimidation, we know that they would have been had access to their names and addresses and birth dates and other personal information as a result of this bill. So, again, the governor has vetoed it in the past, it looks like it’s probably going to not make it through the session. But again, the real message here and since its story is that it is emblematic of just a long litany of legislation that’s going on for a decade in which Republicans have generally tried to make it harder to vote, particularly those classes of people that they perceive are likely to vote democratic. That means older citizens. That’s why we’ve had battles over photo voter ID, people of color, immigrants, young people, all the people that they view as not necessarily being part of their natural constituency, if they can figure out a way to put up barriers, they do it.

AW  22:46  Okay, so in the limited time we have left, I want to kind of do a speed round with you, Rob, if we can, and let me name a few Democratic politicians in North Carolina and you kind of give a quick, maybe explain who they are and, and you want to give your honest opinion about them feel free. So let’s start with the Attorney General Josh Stein, who I believe is running in 2024 for governor.

RS  23:14  That’s sort of the assumption with Stein. So we have a two term limit for governors in this state Roy Cooper has been elected twice. So he’ll be term limited out in 2024. He was the attorney general for many years before he became governor Josh Stein was one of his top assistants in the Attorney General’s Office headed the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s office. He comes from a family of civil rights attorneys, and advocates he is generally perceived as someone who will make that race in 2024. And I think is widely seen as a really sharp, committed, tough guy and I think a lot of progressives have a lot of hope for his candidacy.

AW  23:52  Okay, now, let’s hear what you have to say about Sherry Beasley, that’s ch E. Ri. She was the former chief justice of the state, right?

RS  24:00  Yeah. Well, we have a lot of elections in 2022. We don’t elect our statewide offices like Governor and all that but we will elect a US Senator Richard Burr has been a senator in North Carolina this he’ll have be completing his third term burns retiring. So it’s an open seat. There are two main Democrats competing Sherry Beasley is the I referred to her earlier she’s former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, an African American woman, very accomplished attorney, longtime judge who lost her election for a Supreme Court by 400 votes in 2020. She’s opposed by a guy named Jeff Jackson, who is a young up and coming state senator from Charlotte Mecklenburg area guy also with some impressive military background, but a very progressive guy should be a spirited primary. And then on the Republican side, we’ve got two main candidates. Donald Trump has announced that he’s endorsed a guy by the name of Ted Budd, who is a congressman who got elected a few years ago in a very crowded primary he eked out A small percentage of the vote. He’s a gun store owner by trade. So you can pretty much guess where he comes from politically.

AW  25:06  I would never have guessed that from his name.

RS  25:09  Yeah, yeah. He’s very loyal to Trump. That was a sort of surprise endorsement that Trump conferred upon him. And he’s opposed by Interestingly enough, this former governor, also former mayor of Charlotte, who once had a reputation as being a pretty moderate guy, but has done his best or worse, depending on your point of view to continually run to the right a guy by the name Pat McCrory. McCrory will be his main competition in that Senate race.

AW  25:36  So we have a couple of women Congress, people from North Carolina – Kathy Manning, and Deborah Ross. And then there’s an up and coming State Representative named  Zack Ford-Hawkins. Why don’t you kind of give us a real quick snapshot on those three, if you can?

RS  25:53  Well, the future of all of them like a lot of North Carolina politicians very much up in the air right now, because we really don’t know how these districts are going to turn out. But right now Ross, and Manning our new members of Congress, who were elected in 2020, we temporarily had somewhat fairer maps maps that allowed five Democrats to win seats out of 13, contested races. We’re actually gaining a seat in 2022. So we’ll have 14 seats, but the districts remain up in the air as they’re drawn right now. It’d be hard for some of these people to advance but Deborah Ross is a brilliant attorney from the Raleigh area. Frank, a civil rights lawyer, Kathy Manning, also a really smart She’s an advocate and attorney from the Greensboro area and other one of our larger cities. Both were newly elected in 2020. very progressive, very promising members of Congress. I think it’s really up in the air, what’s going to happen with redistricting, I think there’s still hope that they’ll both be able to return but you know, a lot of seats are up in the air. Zach Hawkins is an example of a young up and coming state legislator, he’s from Durham, I reference Durham earlier, which is a very progressive city in our state. He’s a young African American state representative who I think people have a lot of hopes for. There are, you know, that’s been one of the downsides of Republican gerrymandering. They’ve been so successful in drawing maps that made it hard for Democrats to elect candidates that they’re just the pool is shallower here of promising young candidates working their way up through, for instance, the legislature but Hawkins is one person who is an exception to that there are others there are other promising young lawmakers are mentioned. Jeff Jackson is actually running for state for the US Senate as a state senator. So I mean, I think the future remains hopeful. It’s a state that continues to grow more diverse, lots of in migration, growing urban areas, shrinking rural areas, but it’s going to be a dogfight for the next decade. As the competing parties battle over control the legislature control the congressional delegation in the statewide offices.

AW  27:53  He’s the director of North Carolina Policy Watch, Rob Schofield. Rob, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

RS  28:00  It was my pleasure, Alex, thank you anytime. Good luck to you.

AW  28:03  Thanks

Narrator  You’ve been listening to see change radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex wise. Additional music by Ben Webster, M. Ward and James Taylor, check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.