Politics & Government

Hayes’s resume: Congress, legislature, state GOP chair. Now he’s a defendant.

As an heir to the Cannon Mills textile fortune, Robin Hayes continued his family’s philanthropic work in Cabarrus County while serving as a Republican member of Congress, candidate for governor and state GOP chairman as the party swept to statewide victories.

This week, the genial, 73-year-old Hayes played a most unfamiliar role: a defendant under indictment for allegedly trying to funnel bribe money to the reelection campaign of North Carolina’s insurance commissioner.

That news came a day after Hayes announced Monday that he wouldn’t seek reelection as state chair, saying he would focus instead on recovery from recent hip surgery.

Party leaders at the time heaped praise on Hayes, crediting him with leading a Republican resurgence while serving as chair from 2011 to 2013 and again since 2016. The role confirmed his long-held gravitas among the party’s leadership, Christian conservatives and the business community.

“I could always count on Chairman Robin Hayes,” former Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement accompanying Monday’s announcement. “His dedication to public service, the Republican Party and his fellow man are unquestioned.”

“It’s because of his leadership that the national convention is coming to North Carolina in 2020!” added Susan Mills, vice chair of the Ninth District GOP.

On Wednesday, the party said Hayes would turn over his duties to district chair Aubrey Woodard, who will serve as the state GOP’s acting chair. Hayes looks forward to clearing his name from this week’s allegations, his attorney, Kearns Davis, said in a statement.

Hayes is the grandson of textile magnate Charles Cannon, the founder of Cannon Mills, once the world’s largest producer of towels and sheets. The company was sold in 1982 and, following the bankruptcy of its buyer, the landmark main mill in Kannapolis was demolished in 2005.

The family’s fingerprints on the state continue through its philanthropies. Hayes still serves on the boards of the Cannon Foundation, which makes grants for healthcare, higher education, human services and community projects, and the Charles A. Cannon Charitable Trusts, according to their websites.

Hayes was born in Concord on the August day in 1945 when Japan surrendered to end World War II. He’s the only child of Shell oil distributor Robert Hayes and Mariam Cannon Hayes, the daughter of Cannon Mills magnate Charles Cannon. He graduated from Duke University and worked as a hosiery mill owner and highway contractor.

His public service began in 1978, when he was elected to Concord’s town board. Years later he said former President Ronald Reagan had sparked his interest in politics.

Hayes was elected to the N.C. House in 1992, serving two terms and rising to majority whip. He ran for governor in 1996, losing to four-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, but was elected to the U.S. House representing the 8th Congressional District in 1998.

“He was devoted to the Republican Party and to conservative principles of government — that’s why this is so stunning to me. It’s so out of character for him,” said former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, who lost to Hayes in the 1996 Republican primary for governor.

Vinroot said he had been surprised that, following his decade in Congress, Hayes had invested so much of his time in building up the state GOP. “He may have gotten carried away with building the party,” he said, “but I know for sure he didn’t do it for Robin Hayes.”

In 2008, near the end of his five terms, Hayes was the eighth-wealthiest member of Congress with a net worth estimated at $82 million. Following the death of his mother, an auction that year of family treasures included a 19th-century Conestoga wagon and documents signed by presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson.

As a House member, Hayes came under heavy political fire in 2005 for flipping his vote to support the Central American Free Trade Agreement, breaking a tie that passed the measure. Democrats argued the deal would send textile jobs to Central America. Hayes insisted his vote would help save the ailing industry.

In 2007, he defended NASCAR fans after some congressional aides were told to get hepatitis shots before visiting Charlotte Motor Speedway on a fact-finding trip about public health preparedness at mass gatherings.

“I feel compelled to ask why the heck the (Homeland Security) committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown,” Hayes thundered in a letter to the committee’s Democratic chairman. “I have been to numerous NASCAR races, and the folks who attend these events certainly do not pose any health hazard to congressional staffers or anyone else.”

A ‘most successful’ NC GOP chair

Hayes’s 2008 campaign spent $3.8 million on his reelection, compared to his opponent’s $1.5 million, but Hayes lost to former textile worker and teacher Larry Kissell after narrowly defeating Kissell in 2006.

A slip-up two weeks before the election didn’t improve Hayes’s chances. “Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God,” he told a crowd in Concord before an appearance by then-presidential candidate John McCain.

Hayes initially denied making the remark but later said he “wasn’t thinking” when he did so. The comment dogged him for the rest of the campaign, and Kissell easily won the seat. Four years later, Hayes’ former district director, Richard Hudson, beat Kissell to reclaim the 8th Congressional District seat for Republicans.

In the 2012 elections, during Hayes’ first stint as state GOP chair, Republicans gained a veto-proof supermajority in the state House and expanded one in the Senate, gained three congressional seats and made McCrory the state’s first Republican governor in nearly two decades.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the “pro-family” N.C. Values Coalition, said it’s hard for her to square this week’s indictment with the kind, likeable Hayes she’s known since he served in the legislature in the early 1990s. “He’s a steady man of prayer, and I greatly respect him,” she said.

Fitzgerald credits Hayes as a leader in opposing abortion and advocating abstinence-based sex education. As state party chair, she said, he was skilled at bringing factions together.

“He has led the conservative movement in this state to a great degree,” she said. “He’s been a man of integrity and I greatly appreciate how he conducts himself.”

When Hayes returned as state chair in 2016, replacing the ousted Hasan Harnett after a series of controversies, the GOP delivered 15 electoral votes for President Donald Trump and took six of nine Council of State seats.

In a Charlotte Observer op-ed following allegations of election fraud in the 9th Congressional District last December, Hayes railed against “paid political mercenaries” and called for their prosecution as “a scourge on our democracy.” He wrote that the state GOP had no knowledge of the absentee ballot harvesting under investigation.

“This is a national embarrassment that can never be allowed to repeat itself,” he wrote.

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Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.