Winston-Salem, North Carolina— “Look around!” a young man shouted repeatedly, as Reverend William Barber transfixed an overflow crowd at Union Baptist Church with a sermon about the backlash to what he calls the “Third Reconstruction,” the progressive “fusion” movement that’s been uniting North Carolinians of every race in the last decade. It wasn’t clear if the young witness was telling us to “look around” at the movement, or at the ominous threats to democracy in North Carolina that are trying to thwart it. On the even of this crucial election, you can see both everywhere you look in this divided but thoroughly energized state.
In 2008, the new multiracial North Carolina elected Democrats Barack Obama president and Kay Hagan senator. In 2010, the old white conservative North Carolina fought back. With cash, energy, and ideas aggressively provided by Variety Wholesalers mogul and former state representative Art Pope, the conservative arm of the Republican party elected a GOP governor and legislature, which proceeded to pass voter-suppression laws and attack women’s rights and LGBT rights. They organized to vote down Obama in 2012 and vote out the popular Hagan in 2014. But Barber’s “Moral Mondays” movement, which since 2013 has grown to include those fighting the ugly anti-transgender “bathroom bill” HB2, as well as the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant backlash here and nationwide, has gotten ever more powerful. On November 9, Americans may be looking around at a new South, led by North Carolina.
In rural Smithfield, a day before Barber’s sermon, Democratic Senate nominee Deborah Ross was looking around for votes even in this rural Republican stronghold. Like Barber, in her own way, Ross is trying to include white people, as well as independents and even Republicans of good will, in her crusade to take back the seat held by incumbent Richard Burr. When I ask what happened to the state since the great victories of 2008, she tells me quickly: “It’s not a different North Carolina. North Carolina changed in 2010 because it was an off-year election. I don’t think that the people of North Carolina have changed, which is why I think this election is so ripe for turning it back.”
A lot is at stake on the ballot in North Carolina, but the Senate race could matter most. This is one of two swing states, along with New Hampshire, where there’s a race for governor and senator. In most recent polls, Clinton has a slight lead over Donald Trump, and Democrat Attorney General Roy Cooper has an even better lead over Governor Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor who was seen as a moderate and then rivaled Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in playing backlash politics once he got into office. Ross, a former ACLU director who left her seat in the state house in 2013, isn’t well known, and was considered a long shot against incumbent Burr, who barely campaigned in the state until recently. Since the fall, though, she’s run neck and neck with him. A Quinnipiac poll released Monday showed Ross and Burr tied at 47 percent each.
At Union Baptist, Barber didn’t mention Ross’s name, but he did mention Burr’s. The incumbent has been hurt in recent days by the revelation of several unfortunate boasts to supporters, captured on tape. In one, he expressed disappointment that a gun magazine put Clinton on its cover, without putting her in rifle sights. He’s declared “If Hillary Clinton becomes president, I’m going to do everything I can do to make sure that four years from now, we’ve still got an opening on the Supreme Court.” And this weekend, CNN broadcast tape in which he bragged, “I have the longest judicial vacancy in the history of the United States in the Eastern District of North Carolina. ”
In fact, Burr has blocked Obama’s nomination of two African-American women for that vacancy, and Barber went at him hard at Union Baptist on Sunday. “The Eastern District has never had an African-American judge, and two black women have been appointed,” Barber thundered from the pulpit. “Both have been blocked from getting a vote. One senator—named Burr—has blocked two sisters. They are more educated, more qualified [than he is].” It should be noted that Burr also voted against confirming native North Carolinian Loretta Lynch for attorney general. Barber added: “I’m not telling you who to vote for, I’m just telling on the one who’s been voting.”
* * *
North Carolina, along with Nevada and Florida, has emerged as one of the triangular cornerstones of Clinton’s presidential bid. She will end her campaign in Raleigh with a midnight rally Monday night, showing how crucial the state has become. Almost every major surrogate—President Obama and Michelle Obama, former president Bill Clinton, Senator Tim Kaine, Vice President Joe Biden—has hit the state; Obama himself has made four visits this fall, and Bill Clinton returned to Greensboro on Monday. The Democratic Party’s 2016 ground game has outpaced Obama’s by many measures—which makes some sense, since it includes veterans of both Obama runs—but it is fighting powerful headwinds, given the state’s herculean efforts at voter suppression.
After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina passed the strictest voting-suppression law in the country, imposing voter ID, curtailing early voting, eliminating same-day voter registration, and preventing 17-year-olds who’d be eligible to vote by November from preregistering. Earlier this year, a federal court struck it down, blasting the “surgical precision” with which it targeted African Americans for voting limits. Even so, since counties have always been able to regulate early voting, Board of Elections officials in heavily African-American areas dramatically cut the number of early-voting locations. In 40 heavily black counties, there were 158 fewer early polling places for the all-important first week of voting; Guilford County had 16 early voting places in 2012; this year it had only one. Early voting places were also eliminated at the state’s many historically black colleges and universities. County officials shut down Sunday voting to block the traditional “Souls to the Polls” movement in black churches. In that first week of early voting, black turnout cratered, compared to 2012.
The Democratic campaign, and black voters, fought back, and by the end of early voting the party had surpassed its overall totals for 2012. Disappointingly, if inevitably given the first-week limits, black early voting was down 9 percent, but amazingly, early voting by Latinos jumped 89 percent. “Blacks, whites, Latinos—we can shock the nation Tuesday night,” Barber told Union Baptist.
Deborah Ross would seem perfectly situated to ride a wave of black-voter discontent into the Senate. In a recent poll she won the support of 97 percent of black voters. In the state assembly, she sponsored early voting and same-day voting legislation; as ACLU director, she worked with the legislature to restrict racial profiling and reform the juvenile justice system. Derick Smith, a leader of the Greensboro NAACP, is an enthusiastic backer. “She has supported us on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration, voting rights, the environment and energy policy, opposition to neoliberal trade policy like [the TransPacific Partnership] and expanding Medicaid. Also, to a die-hard progressive like me, her ACLU background really has me excited.”
Ross also benefits from strong support among women. Emily’s List was an early backer. Though feminists nationwide were disappointed when Kay Hagan passed on a 2016 run, Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, headed to Raleigh to meet Ross when she learned she was interested in making the race. “I really didn’t know much about her. I sat with her in a little coffee shop and I said ‘Sell me, I’m not sure.’ Holy cow, she impressed me to the hilt: thoughtful, passionate, smart as can be. I left there saying, ‘I am going to be with you!’”
“When I served in the State Senate,” Hagan remembers, “she was the very best advocate for her causes. She was the best prepared. She knew every side of the issues. She’s talented, smart and energetic.” When she got to the state House, Ross chaired the judiciary committee, the election laws committee and the ethics committee. “She just has an energy that’s contagious,” Schriock adds.
* * *
The unconscionable decision by FBI Director James Comey to announce that agents had found “new e-mails” related to the Clinton investigation is believed to have hurt down-ballot candidates like Ross the most. Hagan worries that Comey’s Sunday night exoneration of Clinton may have come too late to help. “I think people have just made up their minds about it,” she told me. “It might help make null and void the concerns of people who haven’t voted yet.” Forty percent of North Carolinians have cast their ballots early this year, but that still leaves plenty of people to reach by the time polls close at 7:30 on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Ross is crisscrossing the state with her team, showing up at canvassing locations to give volunteers a boost. She’s in rural and suburban counties as well as Democratic urban strongholds. “We go everywhere! We are in a very very close race. Of course you want your urban areas and your democratic areas to run up the vote. But one of the mistakes people make frequently is to not come into the Republican areas. If you can make inroads and run the vote up… you gotta get every vote out, you just gotta do it.” I found myself wondering about that strategy—there are still many votes to get from the urban areas. But that’s where Ross will return Monday and Tuesday.
Even in Smithfield—the town where General William Sherman learned that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox and consolidated his forces before marching through the defeated South—I could see the new North Carolina emerging: Ruth Silva, a local laundromat owner who also farms sweet potatoes, had just returned from getting Hispanic voters to vote early; Crystal Roberts, an African-American former journalist, is running for the local Board of Education; Wendy Ella May, a transgender activist, is running to be a local county commissioner. There’s backlash, too; Silva had 25 yard signs supporting Democrats from Clinton-Kaine on down the ballot destroyed by locals. “They mowed them down completely, all of them,” she told me. Silva also got thrown out of the local flea market for registering Hispanic voters; now she finds them “at the stores where they shop. But people here make it very difficult.”
North Carolina is clearly at an inflection point, which is why the nation is paying such close attention. It’s still not clear if the “Third Reconstruction” that began, Reverend Barber says, with Barack Obama’s election, can accelerate its work again. Although as in most swing states, Trump appears to have little or no ground game here, the state’s GOP is well-funded and well-organized and hoping to thwart the progressive tide Barber and so many others work for.
It’s no accident that white, male Roy Cooper is running strongest of all the top Democrats in the state; he’s supported by even some Republican business leaders who are angry that McCrory’s extremist agenda is costing the state business, thanks to a wide boycott over HB2. Cooper doesn’t even identify himself as a Democrat in the many ads I’ve seen during a total of three weeks in North Carolina this election season. He’s been a strong advocate of reproductive rights, and he’s endorsed by Planned Parenthood. But he angered some progressives by echoing McCrory and calling for a “pause” in accepting Syrian refugees.
Back at Union Baptist, Barber is optimistic about the movement he’s catalyzed, but asks the crowd repeatedly to chant, “We better vote.” When Bishop James Mack asks his congregation members to stand if they’ve voted early, at least 80 percent jump to their feet. The Republican backlash, Barber tells them, “is not because you’re weak. It’s because you’re strong!” Again the young man shouted: “Look around!”
Stephanie Schriock has toured North Carolina extensively campaigning for both Clinton and Ross. “You can feel the energy of the progressive movement here,” Schriock says. “I feel like North Carolina is at a turning point and Deborah is part of it.” Hagan agrees. “Reverend Barber has pulled together the LGBT community, all the different faiths, and he brings a historical perspective—about poverty, about voting rights—to the people of North Carolina.” Barber’s “Third Reconstruction” will survive, and eventually prevail, no matter what happens Tuesday night. But it would be a sweet vindication—and a repudiation of the state GOP’s far-right, anti-women, voter-suppression agenda—if North Carolina elected the first woman president, and sent her a female Democratic senator to help push her agenda.