State Rep. Duane Hall admits he’s a flirt. He insists he’s not a harasser.
“I have never harassed anyone. Never. Ever,” he said.
That’s his story, but this is a time with a more demanding standard. If there’s smoke, you’re on fire. And Hall, a three-term Democratic legislator, is seeing his reputation and career turn to ashes.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has called for Hall to resign. So have two men whom Hall considers his close friends, state Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin and House Minority Leader Darren Jackson.
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Sequestered at home, his phone filling with unanswered calls and texts, Hall worried on Thursday that conceding his office would also be conceding the truth of the allegations.
“I just know I didn’t harass anybody and I can’t leave and let that be the last word because it’s an admission of guilt,” he said. He added, “I would like to fight. I don’t know if I can win, but you have to try.”
The way Hall was engulfed has raised questions in Raleigh that also have surrounded harassment allegations in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere: What are the boundaries of acceptable behavior?
Hall, 51, who represents western Raleigh, was enduring a terrible day Thursday. There were news reports of several women alleging, mostly anonymously, that he took flirting to an intimidating and physical level. Hall was said to have kissed two women without their consent at public gatherings. Others said he spoke to them suggestively and made unwanted sexual overtures.
The allegations were first reported by NC Policy Watch, an online publication of the progressive advocacy group NC Justice Center.
Hall admits to inappropriately kissing a woman at a Democratic Party function in Raleigh while trying to be funny. He denies the other allegations. He said that he dated several women after his divorce in 2010 and he never felt he was coming on too strong. “I think harassment is when they say no and you continue,” he said.
He added that “even if (the allegations) were 100 percent true,” what was described wouldn’t be harassment as he understands it. He said the women involved were women he knew on a social level. They didn’t work for him and he had no power over them.
Hall, who was considering running for lieutenant governor this fall, is now looking at the end of his political career. That hurts, he said during a phone interview, but what hurts more is that he is engaged to be married and his fiancee must cope with the fallout from the allegations.
Several prominent Democrats expressed varying views on Hall’s situation.
Michael Schaul, a longtime member of the Democratic Party’s State Executive Committee and a friend of Hall’s, wrote a letter to The News & Observer saying Hall appears to be guilty of no more than being socially awkward and should stay in office.
Schaul wrote, “Unless there is something far more serious in the undisclosed stories, I think Duane Hall made a few mistakes navigating middle-aged single-hood, but I don’t think it deserves many of our mutual friends ganging up on him. He should continue to serve and lead.”
John Wilson, a Democrat and former executive director of the NC Association of Educators and the National Education Association, knows Hall. He said the calls for Hall’s resignation seem excessive.
“I’ve talked to many women who are feminists and activists who know Duane and they do not believe he is a harasser,” Wilson said, “My compass on this is listening to women. They have a higher sensitivity on this issue. Most of the people calling for his resignation are men.”
Other Democrats commented, but declined to be identified.
One, a liberal female activist, said Hall’s troubles were not a surprise and he should resign.
A male senior staffer said he felt badly for Hall, but the rules of politics have changed since the arrival of the #MeToo movement and the revolt against sexual harassment in any form.
A female Democrat now in elected office defended Hall. She said she had experienced sexual harassment herself in the workplace and couldn’t report it for fear of losing her job or being denied a promotion. She said the allegations against Hall sound more like misunderstandings than harassment.
She said the Democratic leaders should have waited “to get all the facts” before calling on Hall to resign, but the leaders were worried about appearing to be “not sympathetic” to women alleging harassment.
But another prominent female Democrat, a lawyer, said the number of women making allegations weighs heavily against Hall. It’s not a one-time thing, she noted. It appears to be a pattern. She added that politicians aren’t entitled to due process in these matters. The public expects them to avoid situations that give rise to harassment allegations.
She accepts that Hall believes he did nothing wrong, but she said he’s not seeing his behavior from the perspective of others. She has been at social occasions with Hall, she said, where he has overdone his overtures. “He thinks he’s invincible,” she said.
Now he knows, guilty or not, he isn’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this report said five women have complained about Hall’s behavior. According to Policy Watch, seven people have accused Hall of improper conduct, but some were witnesses.
Barnett: 919-829-4512 or firstname.lastname@example.org