Jim Jenkins

Bob Hall, a guardian of democracy, has served NC voters well

Bob Hall, of Democracy North Carolina, who filed the complaint with the board has the final say during a State Board of Elections hearing in 2009.
Bob Hall, of Democracy North Carolina, who filed the complaint with the board has the final say during a State Board of Elections hearing in 2009. News & Observer photo

It is one thing for one’s friends to say, “You know, you’re really kind of a genius,” and quite another to have an official verification of sorts, from, for example, the MacArthur Foundation, which awards no-strings-attached “genius grants” to those doing good and noble work to make the world a little better.

They are typically very focused people, and more often than not, quietly modest. They’d just as soon the MacArthur grant info not be in the first paragraph of anything written about them and don’t talk about it much.

The characterization fits Bob Hall (grant winner, 1992), who is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a watchdog group that’s brought a tough spotlight on parts of the political system from campaign finance to voter suppression to the influence of special-interest groups (bankers protecting an industry’s tax breaks, for example), with one of the goals being to see that all voices are heard.

In talking to Hall, it hit me that he is a righteous brother, in the literal and not the show-business sense of the word. He’s done a lot of good for this state and for average folks who need to have some good done, whether in the form of seeing to it that they get a fair shake from their government or that they have clean air to breathe.

Hall, who’s 72 and sometime back announced he’s planning to retire, hesitates to talk about himself or the prospect of moving on to other interests. He says he wants it clear he is not yet retired and that the day may not be coming soon. He’s still in there pitching – mostly the high, hard ones at those in government who bend to the wishes of special-interest groups or want to skew the election process in favor of big money influence.

It is hard work, frustrating because it’s tough to gain the attention of politicians of different philosophies (Hall’s most certainly a liberal, though respected by Republican leaders) and always, it seems, running up against groups with more money and clout.

But Hall’s kept at it for more than 25 years, and in that time has taken on: how state Board of Transportation members misused their offices (reform has come); special-interest contributions to legislators and the influence they gained; the influence of big developers over environmental laws; illegal contributions from an owner of rest homes to Democrats; the influence of video-poker interests through campaign donations; big investments (tens of millions) from Republican Art Pope in various conservative groups over many years; reform to advocate public financing for judicial elections; and same-day voter registration, something he figures may have brought 400,000 people into the electoral process. Sometimes Democracy North Carolina has helped newspapers in attempts to report on some subject; other times it has raised attention by filing complaints with the State Board of Elections.

In virtually all cases, Democracy North Carolina has put a light on issues that needed it. The powerful have often been offended, many times angered or embarrassed. We in newspapers have called the group a “watchdog,” but it’s been an aggressive advocate for honesty and openness, and no matter how those in power may sometimes resist criticism and and minimize it, the fact is that once Democracy North Carolina has come calling, a better government comes out of the visit. Oh, some battles have been lost, to be sure. But some have been won.

Hall came by his righteousness honestly. “I was raised in the church by a single mom,” he says, “who taught me the difference between right and wrong. I understood class difference very early and got swept up in the civil rights movement and I was seized by that spirit … what Dr. (Martin Luther) King talked about.”

A righteous young man he was; a righteous 72-year-old he still is. His people in Central Florida were preachers and teachers and choir directors. Though his diplomatic skills and education might have taken him far to lucrative ventures in business or even high office in politics, he probably was destined to do good and do right and enjoy a clear, focused life. And he’s not done yet. Democracy North Carolina will not quickly or easily replace Bob Hall; North Carolina itself won’t, either.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com