A vision for North Carolina's grassroots, progressive future

Blair Reeves, of Carolina Forward and the Long Leaf Pine Slate, has thoughts on the GOP’s right-wing agenda — and the anemia of NC’s Democratic Party.

Considering what it would take to shake up Democratic and progressive politics in North Carolina has me thinking a lot about Stacey Abrams. 

It took Abrams a decade or more of hard, unglamorous organizing and fundraising work in the state level in Georgia before the Democratic Party realized significant gains in the last presidential election and helped the party tip control of the U.S. Senate. Those efforts in the trenches — and primarily in statehouse races — make her perhaps the most qualified among any modern day Democrat for a Cabinet position or senior posting within the Biden Administration or as a spokeswoman for Democratic politics writ large. She openly campaigned for the vice presidency but was always considered a long-shot and didn’t appear to merit serious consideration from the Biden camp.

And that’s a damn shame. It’s likely that Abrams wants to pursue a rematch and another chance to win the governor’s office in Georgia in 2022.  Still, despite the fact that Joe Biden has said some nice things about Abrams, I’d expect more talk about her role within the party and what the Georgia example shows about the future for Democrats across the country.

That status quo says a lot of things about what Democratic power-brokers prize but more about what they do not: organizing and winning at the state and local levels. There has been a clear failure in Democratic circles to understand that state and local bodies that enact progressive policies can make bigger change and have a bigger collective impact on the country than simply focusing on the parlor game represented by the four-year presidential cycle. And, as Georgia showed, small wins in smaller, state-level elections can mean big things down the road. 

This has played itself out in myriad ways over the years, but Democrats’ anemic stature in state politics combined with Republicans’ relentless organizing has meant states that are overwhelmingly dominated by the farthest right factions of the GOP. Democrats are certainly aware of the problem. But despite pouring in obscene amounts of cash to state legislative campaigns last year in the hope of finally moving the needle, Democrats failed to flip a single legislative chamber. (Republicans, meanwhile, took both the state House and Senate from Democrats in New Hampshire in 2020.)

Long fed up with the status quo in North Carolina, Blair Reeves, a software product management executive and progressive activist, has decided to push forward outside of North Carolina’s Democratic Party apparatus in North Carolina. Through grassroots fundraising for smaller legislative campaigns where small dollars could have outsized impact, he and fellow co-founders Nicole Quick, Dr. Rob Tabor and Jessica Holmes have sought to build a grassroots movement through endorsements of candidates in what they call the Long Leaf Pine Slate and Carolina Forward, a non-partisan progressive think tank and advocacy organization.  

Reeves said he knows it will be a long-term effort. Just two of the 19 state House candidates the Long Leaf Pine Slate endorsed and fundraised for in 2020 won their races, Democratic Reps. Ricky Hurtado and Brian Farkas. 

As Reeves wrote last year, convincing voters that state legislatures matter will be difficult — but it will be necessary to restore sanity to North Carolina’s legislative leadership. “[F]or most people at most times, your state legislature has much more impact on your life than Congress does,” he wrote. “Legislatures have a whole lot more power than local governments but are still much closer — and more accountable — to voters than the feds. State legislatures are one of the most effective places where voters can demand progressive policy change that they can actually see and feel. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands, the opposite is true too.”

Key to Reeves’ Slate fundraising success is using the Act Blue donor platform to allow donors to easily contribute to all candidates in the slate. “We were the largest grassroots fundraiser in the state [in 2020],” Reeves said.

The effort is entirely a volunteer one — Reeves and other volunteers do not take any percentage of the dollars they raise in stark contrast to other political groups. Carolina Forward is a 501(c)4 Political Action Committee that solicits donations that pays for research and polling. 

I have a special place in my heart for those who are on the outside of party circles stirring the pot —  they are the future of the left and a key toward steering our politics back to some level of both real stewardship for voters’ interests and, perhaps, a saner political system that isn’t dominated by a far right agenda that has little incentive to move legislation that most voters actually want. (I think about issues like private gun sale background checks, campaign finance reform and gerrymandering which voters across the political spectrum, left, right and center, largely agree on but which are stymied by moneyed political interests).

In that spirit, I wanted to catch up with Reeves for a look back at 2020 and a look forward at what he’s got cooking for 2022. Edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you get started in activism in the first place?

BR: Sadness about North Carolina politics? I don’t know (laughs). When Reps. Larry Pittman (and others) introduced a bill [in 2019] that would have allowed teachers and staff to carry loaded handguns in kids’ classrooms ... I have a now almost 4 year old, going into kindergarten. Can you imagine your kids’ kindergarten teacher with a loaded Glock on her? These guys are true believers they really want that to happen. They  just love their guns - it’s a total identity thing. It’s incredibly irresponsible and incredibly dangerous.

The bill also allowed for volunteers to come on your school property and patrol. If most parents knew about this stuff they would be up in arms. I want to be clear - we support the Second Amendment and gun rights. But we support common sense. 

The thing about a gerrymandered majority is it creates a safe space for the nut jobs.

Q: How did you look at what happened in 2020 at the state level?

BR: The Long Leaf Pine Slate’s goal was to support our candidates in 2020, and we got a couple of wins. The reality is that a lot of voting behavior reflects the top of the ticket and of course we lost in North Carolina, which went for Trump. But Trump won our state by the smallest margin in modern state history. They’ve done a victory lap, but they won by 75,000 votes. If you look at the trajectory where the state is going — it’s going to go blue sooner or later.

I also have a lot of frustration with the progressive infrastructure in our state. It is very weak and has not been very effective in the last decade. It’s weaker now than it was even in 2010. 

A lot of folks on the progressive side have been doing a lot of work over the last decade but it has not been effective. We have to do something else.  

Q: In terms of organizing, what do you see as the big difference between the two parties?

BR: The thing about Democrats as a party and the instruments inside the party is we are much less centralized than the other side. One of the advantages is we are a much more organic party, a bigger tent. One of the downsides of that is it’s a lot harder to herd the goats.

Look at how Republicans did REDMAP in 2010. They get people together, they write a blank check and Republicans go do it. That’s how you get REDMAP and they have a very strategic way of investing in the right races and the right cycles.

We don’t have that, the left isn’t as well organized. In 2020, [the Democrats] did raise a lot of money. And [Republicans] raised a lot of money too.

Money is a necessary but not sufficient condition — you can’t buy an election like that. There are big things we could have done. 

A lot of it is we had Trump on the ballot. By the way, our turn out the operation was very good and so was theirs. They pulled out a lot of whites in rural areas with explicitly racist appeals, and it worked.

What they are scrambling to figure out is ‘how do we turn Trump voters into Republican voters?’ In Virginia, Kentucky those races showed he can tweet until the cows come home but if he’s not on the ballot they don’t come out for him. We’re going to find out in '22 whether he can get those voters out.

Q: It’s kind of astounding to me that someone like you organizes and raises this money in this way as a part-time as a volunteer while the resources on the right — through Americans for Prosperity and other well-financed operations, including the state GOP apparatus — have ample resources and full-time staff.  

BR: It’s not like Democrats don’t have people doing this stuff. But tell me the last time you ever heard from the North Carolina Democratic Party? I don’t think the party is very well run. I don’t think they do very much - I’ve been very unimpressed with the party for a long time. The Republicans, they run a tight ship. They have a lot of money, a lot of paid staff. The chairman is paid. (Ed note: The NC Democratic Party chair is a volunteer position. The new chairperson,  Bobbie Richardson, told the News & Observer that Democrats need to be more visible. “The people must see us,” Richardson said. “They must be able to talk to us, and must be able to believe that we are listening to them.”)

Part of the reason for Carolina Forward is that Republicans do have a permanent campaign set up, and it’s called the John Locke Foundation. They have dozens of people working full time all year, pushing out all this garbage. A radio program, TV, conferences. They are taken very seriously in the General Assembly because you cant be a successful pol in North Carolina unless Art Pope is behind you. We don’t have that on our side.

Q: Do we need a Stacey Abrams or a similar icon in North Carolina as in Georgia? 

BR: Yes and no. That’s not a very satisfying answer. On the yes side is we have thousands of voters of color who would vote for us and we’ve got to register those people and we’ve got to engage them. Most people don’t hear from the Democratic Party in North Carolina for like 16 months or 20 months at a time. They have no idea what they’re fighting for and what they’re doing. 

There are good people who are starting that project in North Carolina. Aimy Steele is one of them.

The other side is we are not Georgia. And the quote-unquote Stacey Abrams approach is not a direct parallel - she was the House minority leader in Georgia for 11 years. We don’t have that here. I love Robert Reives, he’s my representative in Chatham. He’s an effective leader but is he Stacey Abrams? We don’t have a leader like Stacey Abrams in office today. She had a lot of power. He’s very popular but in different circles.

The other thing you have to remember is there are two really big differences between us and states like Georgia. Unlike Georgia and unlike Virginia we don’t have as big of a major metro area. Virginia has both Richmond and Northern Virginia. Our suburban voters don’t look like Georgia's. It’s a strategy tailored for Georgia, we don’t have that. Black voters are also 10 points fewer in North Carolina than they are in Georgia.

To be really blunt about it Democrats need to win white voters in North Carolina. And we have to win rural voters. And we don’t do that either.

In Virginia, Democrats can ignore rural voters now. They eventually broke the gerrymander - there’s no path back for the Republicans. They’re going to lose their governor's campaign by 10 points. North Carolina will get there, we will get there in 15 or 20 years.

We need to tailor our message and our engagement posture to our own  state. We have to win more rural voters we have to win more white voters, and we have to engage voters of color. And that’s what we haven’t done. 

Q: Do you think Democrats need a stronger rural agenda to compete? 

BR: We have a pretty good rural agenda. The subtext is that it’s not about policy. Democrats are about Medicaid expansion, rural hospitals, broadband and schools for rural areas. It doesn’t matter. I think we need that stuff because we have to give voters something to vote for. The reality is … rural white people don’t like what Democrats are. 

Racial polarization in North Carolina politics is real. 

Q: What changes could NC Democrats make to help their candidates be more successful? 

BR: Certain centralization is good and necessary but they need to give candidates a lot more freedom. Look at the progressive groups in Virginia - they told their candidates ignore the [Democratic] caucus [Ed note: which typically controls party campaign spending and resource allocation among the party’s candidates]. If the caucus has a problem with what a candidate is doing, we tell them to come talk to us. We want the money to be spent and spent well. That’s what we’re going to do to. We had some successes.

Al Kirby lost by 15 points. We gave him some significant amount of money. And yeah it was 15 points but we dramatically improved our party in that district.

Even if we force them to compete and spend that’s a win for us.

Q: How would you describe the Democratic Party’s role in all this?

BR: Do I think the Democratic Party should be doing all this stuff? Yes. But they aren’t. It’s a big state party. To structurally change how the party works you need Tom Steyer money or Bloomberg money. Honestly I wish they would.

I don’t know any of the people in the party. The North Carolina Republican Party is much much better run. It’s more professionally run and its more effectively run than anything the Democrats have done in the last decade.

I imagine most of the Democrats in the General Assembly would agree with that. We raised more than $300,000 for Democratic candidates. I heard from some electeds, from some caucus people but I never heard a word for the party.

I’d like for Democrats to make a concrete case that this is about long term structural power and that’s what’s behind every Republican pitch. We don’t do that.

I think a lot of good people, a lot of smart people have been working on this for a long time and have had some successes. But you’ve got to look at our track record and say do we want the 2020s to look like the last decade or look more promising for the left?

Q: Tell me what you’ve got planned for 2022 and beyond? 

BR: We’re going to continue fundraising in 2022. We’re not winning a majority and we need to stop them from winning a supermajority. We’re going to move down ballot too - county commissions and municipal races. The state party doesn’t get involved in that stuff. A decade of gerrymandering has completely devastated that Democratic pipeline. If you’re an ambitious local Democrat… there’s nothing to run for.  

We expect and everyone expects fewer competitive races. The districts have more or less been drawn already - we don’t have the final Census data back but we know what the districts are and they are going to rig the maps pretty hard. There’s a lot of disingenuous denials coming from Republicans right now. They’re looking at a one seat Democratic majority on the Supreme Court. 

They want to draw themselves a super majority - so that’s what we expect. We’re going to do the best we can. 

Enraging and/or inspiring

I don’t believe my alma mater UNC will be able to recover in any foreseeable future from the racist attack they levied against Pulitzer winner Nikole Hannah Jones of the New York Times

There is something to be said for the fact that NHJ forced a vote, got what she wanted … and then walked away. But she recognized that it was a fight that never should have happened and, even more importantly, suffered from a shocking lack of leadership from a university that refused again and again to do the right thing. 

UNC’s problems are not NHJ’s to solve, as she said when she walked away from what she had called her dream job. 

Joe Killian, a N.C. Policy Watch journalist who did pivotal work revealing how political interests killed NHJ’s tenure, summarized the state of affairs well in a tweet thread as NHJ”s bid for tenure was scrambled by the journalism school’s biggest donor, Walter Hussman, the Arkansas newspaper magnate:

It’s also worth reading Hannah-Jones’s statement, as she moves to a new position at Howard University:

I fought this battle because I know that all across this country Black faculty, and faculty from other marginalized groups, are having their opportunities stifled, and that if political appointees could successfully stop my tenure, then they would only be emboldened to do it to others who do not have my platform. I had to stand up. And, I won the battle for tenure.

But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight. And I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.

Do people give a shit about local news?

On the local media front, which I explored recently: One important part of this we didn’t address in a piece mostly focused on how the biggest players in the space in North Carolina are navigating this difficult world is the notion that there isn’t a big enough group of people who care about local news. Can any business model work in the long term if that’s the reality? (My hope is that smaller but dedicated audiences willing to pay more — in some cases for business or political intelligence, not necessarily meat and potatoes city hall coverage — can help subsidize other efforts).

Either way, it’s a core part of the issue, as Jack Schafer of Politico wrote recently:

The local news movement won’t make much progress until its proponents realize that its primary obstacle is a demand-side one, not a supply-side one. It’s not that nobody wants to read local news; it’s just that not enough people do to make it a viable business. Maybe the surfeit of local news of yesteryear was the product of an economic accident, a moment that cannot be reclaimed. But even if you were to underwrite local news with taxes and philanthropy, and distribute it to citizens via subsidies, you’d still have to find a way to get people to read it. Until some editorial genius cracks that puzzle, the local news quest will remain a charitable, niche project advanced by journalistic, academic and political elites.

A Big Pharma story that explains it all

Important reminder: Scrutiny from journalists matters

UNC’s police went undercover … to protect the racists

I encourage you to read the email from UNC’s police chief in 2017, linked. It is astounding.

And a little encouragement…

The imitable Kevin Van Valkenberg on Simone Biles:

Her athleticism is so remarkable, her balance and body control so mesmerizing, it serves as a testament to its own singularity. There is no one on earth like her. She is, in the simplest terms, boundless liquid grace.

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