The choices facing battleground North Carolina’s voters this November look like America’s in miniature — from opportunities to unseat key U.S. House members to the very real possibility of breaking the GOP’s seven year stranglehold on the state’s General Assembly. But no race on that ballot presents more stark contrasts, nor more promise of seismic repercussions, than that between state Supreme Court incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson (R) and the civil rights icon who would send her packing, Southern Coalition for Social Justice founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Anita Earls.
Earls is the adopted mixed-race daughter of an African American father and a white mother. She grew up in Seattle, where her parents moved because it was at that time illegal for them to marry in Missouri.
In an oral history at Duke University, Anita recalled of her youth:
This was a time, the late 60s, when there were riots in the streets in some communities [….] I always had this great fear that because my family looked the way we did, with my brother looking more black than I did, that if we were ever in a neighborhood and a riot broke out, people wouldn’t know that we were a family.
After Williams College and a Thomas J. Watson fellowship in Tanzania cut short by malaria, Earls attended Yale Law School (where, during her first year, she gave birth to her son).
I had this burning desire to be a lawyer and to try to bring about change [….] I was insistent that I wanted to become a lawyer and I wanted to work on issues of racism in the US.
She was recruited out of Yale by North Carolina’s first integrated law firm, where she practiced civil rights litigation for a decade.
Mostly it was wrongful death cases involving the police killing, almost without exception, people of color. I did a lot of voting rights work from the beginning. I also did employment discrimination, housing discrimination, some public accommodations cases, the whole gamut of civil rights cases.
From there Earls moved on to government service, with her appointment as U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Clinton administration. But in 2007, she returned to North Carolina to begin the work she is best known for: envisioning, building, and leading the Southern Coalition For Social Justice (SCSJ).
From its birth in 2007, under Earls leadership the non-profit SCSJ has grown into a multi-million dollar North Carolina civil rights powerhouse today. Among her many legal victories there, two will be most familiar to nationwide readers: the overthrow of the state’s 2013 ‘monster voter suppression law,’ which Earls’ persuaded a federal court to declare “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision,” and her last case before stepping down to run for office: Covington v. North Carolina. As plaintiffs’ lead attorney in Covington, she challenged the constitutionality of the state’s racially gerrymandered legislative district map in federal District Court, and ultimately before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning the redrawing of that map this year by a court-appointed special master.
Thanks to her victory in Covington, incumbent GOP state legislators now find themselves scrambling for votes in newly redrawn districts no longer engineered to rig election outcomes. In the eyes of those who would cling to power by disenfranchising ‘the wrong sort’ of voters, Anita Earls must seem dangerous indeed.
A contest of contrasts
Faced with an opponent of Earls’ caliber and accomplishment, what’s a Jackson campaign strategist to do? The answer seems to be: not much.
Jackson’s thin campaign web site evokes the wistfulness of a dusty participation trophy on an otherwise bare shelf. Its list of the incumbent’s accomplishments leads with her authorship of an unremarkable law review article, “To Follow or Not to Follow: The Brave New World of Social Media,” and wraps up with mention of her appearance on the game show, Jeopardy.
Earls’ campaign web site, in contrast, boasts a wealth of endorsements and testimonials from former governors, current congressmen, state legislators, fellow 2018 candidates, the AFL-CIO, Equality NC (the state’s potent LGBT rights organization), NAACP leaders, the Democratic Party, America Votes, Emily’s List, our own Daily Kos, and more. Meanwhile, Jackson’s site lists a mere two endorsements, including that of Cherie Berry, whose name is perhaps best known in North Carolina for gracing elevator permits statewide.
Earls’ site tackles head-on the tough issues reflecting her moral compass: voting rights, civil rights, desegregation, employment discrimination, gerrymandering, voter suppression, legislative overreach, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law. Jackson’s site offers only a single anodyne position statement in just six sparse words: “Judges should judge; legislators should legislate.”
Jackson’s strategy looks to be to let Republican operatives do her dirty work for her (she did not respond to requests for comment on the GOP’s ‘Dangerous Anita Earls’ ad campaign), and otherwise merely to ride the wheezing nag of incumbency as far as it might carry her.
But that might not prove to be very far, as the numbers have begun to point to a Jackson campaign in danger of being outflanked by Earls.
A series of polls sponsored by the ultraconservative Civitas Institute initially showed Jackson up by twelve points in January (43% to 31%), but by June running just neck-and-neck with Earls (a 35-35 tie). Curiously, Jackson’s shrinking support is paralleled by an uptick in ‘undecided’ voters over that same period (up from 18% in February to a whopping 29% in June).
It’s a trend that suggests Earls still faces an uphill battle to get her un-photoshopped face, qualifications, and message out to North Carolina voters, who seem clear that they don’t much like generic-Republican Jackson but aren’t yet all that familiar with Earls. The good news here is that Anita’s fundraising is currently outpacing Jackson’s: through the first half of this year she has brought in nearly $500,000 (mostly in small-dollar individual contributions, but including a boost from Trump critic Tom Steyer), while Jackson has raised just $225,000 — largely from law firms, business executives, developers, and Koch-lite dollar store tycoon Art Pope). Still, Earls’ war chest isn’t nearly large enough to broadcast her message across North Carolina, where 2016 witnessed the nation’s all-time most expensive state supreme court race.
As yet, the only independent expenditure group to weigh in on the race is the GOP, with its “Dangerous Anita Earls” smear campaign.
the worst of times is the best of times
Viewed from a national perspective, Earls’ run could hardly be more timely, or more strategic, for Democrats nationwide.
Hers is the only high-profile statewide race on the North Carolina ballot this year, so her message of a life devoted to bending the moral arc of the universe seems heaven-sent to galvanize progressive turnout in November. That in turn would have repercussions for other North Carolina races of more obvious national significance, such as those of House Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R, NC-11) and House GOP deputy whip Patrick McHenry (NC-10), both up for re-election this year.
Second, 2020 redistricting is coming. As President Obama and Eric Holder constantly remind Democrats, few things are more important for progressives right now than positioning themselves today to win fair ungerrymandered districts in key battleground states like North Carolina tomorrow. Many of those battles will be fought in state supreme courts, as in this year’s stunning Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision throwing out that state’s gerrymandered maps.
Finally, should the U.S. Supreme Court take the sharp reactionary turn many observers fear, state supreme courts could become progressives’ last line of defense for a woman’s right to choose, voting rights, environmental justice, and more. Still on the books in North Carolina are currently unenforceable laws — which, under a reactionary SCOTUS, might become enforceable tomorrow — including laws requiring that voters be able to read and write sections of the U.S. Constitution in English, and barring from office candidates who deny the existence of God, and banning same-sex marriage.
The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.