Between Place and Party
Charles Graham has rejected party orthodoxy, gone internet viral, and run a dozen points ahead of the Democratic ticket. Now, his bid for an upset congressional victory highlights the challenge for North Carolina’s moderate rural Democrats // Photos by Roderico Díaz
One of the most viral ads of the current election cycle resurrects a little-told moment in North Carolina history. The video opens on Charles Graham, a Democratic state legislator now running for Congress. He strides alongside a gauzy background, recounting the winter night in 1958 when the Ku Klux Klan descended on a cornfield near Hayes Pond in Robeson County.
“The police chief warned the Grand Dragon: ‘These people don’t want your trouble,’” says Graham, a member of the Lumbee tribe, as archival photos catapult us back to an era of everyday cross burnings. “The Klansman called us mongrels, half-breeds, and told him the Klan would show him how to handle people like us.”
The camera zooms tight on Graham’s face. He is 71 and wears a bolo tie with turquoise inlay. A fringe of gray edges his thick, dark hair. “Fifty Klansmen. Not a bad turnout on a cold night. Problem is”—here, he cracks a smile—“they were surrounded by 400 Lumbees.”
The music surges. Graham talks about how his Lumbee elders broke up the rally and chased their tormentors into the swamp. The historic images give way to a montage of modern menaces: insurrectionists storming the Capitol; tiki torchbearers in Charlottesville; the St. Louis couple who aimed their weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. “Lies turn to violence,” the candidate says.
The video, almost three minutes long, racked up 5.6 million Twitter views after its October release. Celebrities like actor-producer Kerry Washington retweeted it. CNN’s Don Lemon invited Graham on air and told him, “Boy, do we need more folks like you now.”
That quarter, almost $190,000 poured into a congressional campaign headquartered in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties. The donations came from in-state addresses as well as California, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New York, Wyoming, and both Washingtons.
Then came the blowback. As Graham’s legislative record seeped out, it didn’t seem to square with the progressive messaging in the Hayes Pond ad. He was among 11 Democrats to support House Bill 2, which forced transgender people into restrooms that didn’t align with their identities. He voted to tighten restrictions on abortion and loosen restrictions on carrying concealed weapons. A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, he backed measures making it harder to mandate vaccines and face masks. He supported a Republican budget that, according to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, prioritized corporate tax breaks over teacher pay. Donors seduced by the video tweeted their buyer’s remorse.
Graham apologized for his House Bill 2 vote, explaining he had failed to research the fast-moving measure. “To the LGBTQ+ community,” he said in a statement, “and specifically to the transgender community who suffered real pain from this bill and the rhetoric that surrounded it, I am sorry.”
With the May 17 primary approaching, Graham now faces three other Democrats in U.S. House District 7, which includes Wilmington, part of Fayetteville, and the rural counties in between. The winner will most likely take on David Rouzer, a four-term GOP incumbent. The district leans 54 percent Republican, but Graham has won over ticket splitters before: In his 2020 state House race, he took 52 percent of the vote in a district that gave President Joe Biden just 40 percent.
“Let’s be honest: you want somebody running 12 points ahead of the ticket,” said Steven Greene, a political scientist at N.C. State University. “Gosh, wouldn’t Democrats love to have more people like that on the ballot in all sorts of places?”
Graham is seeking the upset that could install him as the only Native American in Congress from east of the Mississippi River. He’s touting his support for Medicaid, voting rights, compassionate drug policy, and a higher minimum wage, while defending his conservative votes on certain culture-war issues. He takes pride in his relationship with North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican. He can also be pointed in his partisanship. “Keeping the squirrels out of the house is a lot like keeping Republicans out of Congress,” he tweeted in March. “The more of them who get in, the more havoc they create.”
To make sense of these contradictions, you need to know where Graham comes from: a religious, deindustrialized county that voted twice for Barack Obama and twice for Donald Trump. You have to understand the rightward political shift of the Lumbee, a state-recognized tribe and the largest east of the Mississippi River. And you have to meet Graham himself, once a broad-chested teenage baseball player, standing on the pitcher’s mound in 1968 and trying to ignore the jeers from the sidelines.
The first baseball diamond that summer was in Wilmington. Or maybe Raleigh or Jacksonville; that detail is lost to memory. The rest is seared permanently: 17-year-old Graham, chosen for an otherwise all-white all-star team after his junior year at Pembroke High. They were competing for a statewide title, and the bleachers were packed. Graham stood on the mound—in his words, “an American Indian dark-complected standout.”
The bleachers were close enough to the field, Graham said, for the parents of the opposing team to notice that the pitcher striking out their sons was Native American. Close enough for him to hear their taunts. Wahoo. Yahoo. Redskin. “You couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from,” he said. “But I knew it was directed to me.”
This was unfamiliar hostility for someone who had grown up in a segregated Lumbee community. Graham came from a sharecropping family, harvesting cash crops like tobacco. Sundays meant church and gatherings of twenty or more relatives sharing farm-raised pork, peas, butter beans, collards, corn, and green beans. “Seasoned our way,” he said, which means generous with the fatback. Fresh-baked bread. Homemade cakes. Basketball with the cousins. “My circle was pretty much with that vast, large Indigenous community,” he said. “Didn’t venture outside that circle too much.”
Graham had plenty of support within the circle, including an eighth-grade teacher named Wade Hunt, who organized the boys at Deep Branch Elementary into a baseball team and encouraged them to study too. Hunt’s job didn’t stop in the schoolyard. One day, Graham said, he and some friends snuck away and slipped onto a southbound school bus. They got off near the South Carolina line, hiked a while, and hung out with the men working overnight at a wood-processing plant. Hunt joined the search for the missing boys, and visited Graham’s distraught parents after he hitchhiked home the following morning.
“After a lot of discussion and counseling and praying, he took me back to class,” Graham recalled. “The fact that he, during the middle of a school day, went to my home and … took me under his arm and said, ‘You’re going back to school today’—I’ll never forget that.”
Later he became a teacher himself. Hired in 1978 by Robeson County Schools’ special-education program, he walked into a system wholly unequipped to educate children with special needs. “The teachers didn’t understand it,” said the Rev. Jimmy Hunt, a Holiness Methodist minister and former Lumbee tribal council member whose son went through the system. “Said he was a problem child. The principal bring him down and spank him and all that.”
The movement to incorporate special-education students into regular classrooms whenever possible was gaining traction nationally. It found little favor back home. “There was a pervasive attitude among staff that these children can’t learn—they’re more of a distraction in my classroom than they are obviously an asset,” Graham said.
He gets emotional, even today, talking about this. “The students were castaways,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
As a young teacher, all Graham could do was advocate for individual students. He was more interested in systemic change, he said, so he went to graduate school at Appalachian State and then Lehigh University. He learned how to integrate special-needs kids into their home schools, then worked as a principal outside Philadelphia. In 1992, Robeson County needed a special-ed director. Graham, homesick, returned.
He wanted to align Robeson’s schools with the national inclusion movement. Faculty pushed back, saying they lacked support. “Teachers wind up having to bathe children, change diapers, and one was asked to give shots,” Glenna Hicks, president of the Robeson chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, told The Fayetteville Observer at the time. “Teachers went into the profession to teach.” Progress came slow: In 1996, four years after Graham’s arrival, a state audit panned Robeson’s schools for continuing to isolate disabled students.
Graham did press successfully for the closure of Bryan Learning Center, a school for kids with severe disabilities. “I said to my superintendent, ‘These children don’t need to be here,’” he said. “‘They need to be at the school with their friends who live down the street ... They need to be the hell out of this school.’” The center closed in 1998.
Graham, a former teacher at Purnell Swett High School near Pembroke, NC, stands in front of a public school bus // Photo by Roderico Díaz
During his 14 years on the job, Graham remained a persistent advocate, according to his admirers. “He knew how to stay calm and wait for the right moment,” said BJ Sanders, who worked as a physical therapist for the special-ed program. “He had perseverance. But he wasn’t pushy. And I know he wanted to be pushy, because he was very passionate that these kids were underserved.”
His patience had limits, though. Once, Sanders said, she had a showdown with a principal while discussing a child with a severe disability. Graham was called in to broker the tense meeting. “Mr. Graham didn’t say a word. He just sat there. And the meeting went on and on. And it was just horrible in every way,” she said. “And when the right moment came—he always knew when it was the right moment—he said to the principal, ‘I simply don’t believe a word you said.’”
Graham recalled the conversation as Sanders did. In an interview, he named the former principal, who did not respond to interview requests.
By the time Graham won his state House seat in 2010, he had retired from the school system and was running a home health care business, which he still owns. He was eager to champion public education, but the Republican wave that flipped control of state legislatures across the United States thwarted his policymaking ambition. In North Carolina, the GOP won majorities in the House and Senate, the first time it controlled both chambers in 140 years.
“They came in with a bang and had their agenda and they ran it,” Graham said. “And we were just there. We weren’t even at the table.”
For urban Democrats, the flip was primarily an ideological threat. For Democrats in low-wealth rural counties, it was existential. “These are hardscrabble districts,” said Bill Busa, a Democratic campaign consultant in Durham and an early critic of Graham’s legislative record. “If you’re not doing pretty much everything you can to bring money back to the district, you’re probably not doing it right.” That includes cultivating relationships with leaders from the opposing party. “I understand the conundrum,” Busa said. “They need to cooperate with Republicans in order to get some consideration in the annual budget process.”
Graham figured this out early on, and courted the two Republicans who ran the state House —former Speaker Thom Tillis and current Speaker Tim Moore. (Neither responded to interview requests.) “I learned very quickly: You better have a very as-mutual-as-you-can relationship with them. Go into their office and sit down and talk. Don’t run. Don’t hide from reality that I’m in the minority,” he said. “I felt like, if I could continue that relationship with the leadership, I would be able to have an opportunity to bring economic opportunities here to Robeson County.”
In 2019, Graham voted for a Republican budget that critics said shortchanged public education, failed to expand Medicaid, and prioritized tax cuts for wealthy businesses. But it also contained $91 million for a new health-sciences center at UNC Pembroke, a campus originally built to train Native American teachers.
The center would be a boon, both short- and long-term. “When a building goes up in Robeson County, there are Native-owned businesses that are going to bid on that. And that means jobs are going to be here for Native people,” said Mary Ann Jacobs, associate professor and chair of American Indian Studies at UNC Pembroke. What’s more, Robesonians have been eager for the school to expand its health curriculum. “For a long time, the big universities have guarded certain degrees,” she said. “We have a lot of Lumbees who have gone into health careers, and many of them have had to go away to get those degrees.”
Graham said his first duty was to secure funding for his undergraduate alma mater, even at the cost of partisan loyalties. “That’s my roots,” he said. “That’s a big part of our culture.”
Top: Rings and bracelets adorn Graham's hands; Bottom: An old campaign yard sign for Graham's state House race stands among several at an intersection in Maxton, NC // Photos by Roderico Díaz
Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill, calling it “a bad budget with the wrong priorities.” Two months later, Speaker Moore visited the Pembroke campus and issued a warning. “If we are unable to override the governor’s veto, the appropriations are in jeopardy,” he said. “We’d have to start over again, and it’s anybody’s guess what would happen.”
Several GOP legislators joined Moore that day. So did Graham, the sole Democrat. The override campaign failed. But when the governor finally signed a budget into law in 2021, it authorized construction to begin on the health-sciences center.
That’s how politics works in a resource-hungry district, said Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat who shares a Raleigh apartment with Graham. “People call it ‘the pork’ and all of that,” he said. “But this budget was just an opportunity for legislators, particularly rural legislators, to bring something back home.
“I think he did well in [the] budget,” said Pierce, whose district adjoins Graham’s. “I commend him for what he was able to work for the rural Robeson County.”
At his core, Graham reads like a Democrat: a champion of the underdog, forged in his own experiences of racism and his work with disabled children; someone who views poverty as a systemic issue rather than an individual failing; someone who believes that government at its best can both lift people up and prevent them from falling too far. At his Lumberton campaign office, a row of homemade motivational posters line the wall. One contains a succinct ideological summary: “The left is about protecting our democracy vs. the right is promoting fear.”
Much of Graham’s legislative record reflects this. He co-sponsored a bill last year to broaden Medicaid coverage and warned at a press conference, “The longer we wait to expand Medicaid, the more babies we will see die unnecessarily, particularly Native American and African American babies.” He also co-signed a measure decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot. “In NC, any adult can go into a CBD store and purchase Delta 8, a substance that closely mimics the effects of marijuana,” he later tweeted. “At the same time, folks are sitting in jail cells—separated from their families—for possessing marijuana. It’s unfair and frankly stupid. Let them out.” Both bills languished in committee.
Graham stands near the Lumbee Tribe Cultural Center // Photo by Roderico Díaz
When Republicans tried to limit how teachers could talk about racism last year, Graham rose on the House floor and called the effort “mean-spirited.” He recalled how, during graduate school, he spoke to an elementary-school class and was asked whether he lived in a teepee. “We need to be teaching about our Black culture and what it’s meant to this country, about our Native American culture and what it’s meant to this country, our Hispanic culture and what it means to this country,” he told his colleagues. “It’s been the foundation of who we are today.” Gov. Cooper later vetoed the GOP bill.
But Graham is also a product of Robeson County, where Christian conservatism coexists with historical Democratic voting patterns. In 2012, the same year Robeson voters endorsed then-President Obama’s reelection, they also approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage by a margin of 86 to 14.
“The Lumbee people are deeply religious,” said Olivia Oxendine, an associate professor of education at UNC Pembroke who ran as a Republican against Graham in 2020. “Whatever the Scripture says is the way I’m going to live my life. No deviation from the Bible.”
Robeson’s churches have gotten more involved in conservative politics. This became evident during the HB2 debate in 2016. The bill, which garnered months of unflattering press for North Carolina, restricted the rights of local governments to regulate labor practices and prevent discrimination. But its twitchiest trigger was the provision governing restroom access in public buildings: Transgender women would need to use men’s rooms and vice versa, unless their birth certificates had officially been changed.
After church on the Sunday before the vote, Graham’s phone rang incessantly. The voices at the other end, he said, were elderly. “The conversation would be: Don’t let a man go into my child’s or my grandchildren’s bathroom,” he recalled. “That’s all they were saying.” He knew many of the callers. “They were churchgoing people. They were very strong in their Christian views,” he said. “They were given orders: Call your legislator. And I was on the target.”
Graham said those calls shaped his decision. “I have grandchildren,” he said. “I looked at it through that narrow focus.”
After the legislature passed the bill, transgender voters knocked on lawmakers’ doors in Raleigh. They shared their personal stories, Graham recalled, and talked about the distress they felt over having to use the wrong restroom. “It was just a handful of people who came by my office, and they were very impactful,” he said. After those conversations, he concluded that he had been played by the Republican sponsors.
“That’s when I realized, oh, this is a very hard push by the right to use this as a wedge issue to divide our people,” he said. He thought back to his own childhood, to the adults who mocked and trivialized his core identity. “I can relate to discrimination,” he said. “And I don’t want to be a part of that.” Still, it took him five years to apologize.
“There’s a saying in Raleigh,” said Rep. Pierce, Graham’s roommate during the legislative session. “Vote your conscience No. 1, [then] your constituents, and then your caucus.” That ranking system helps explain why some rural Democrats break with their party on social issues. “We are Democrats, true,” Pierce said. “But a lot of our voters lean conservative, and that’s just a fact based on their religious preferences.”
The GOP has capitalized on the cultural gap between rural Democrats and the national party. Robeson, once reliably Democratic, has shifted distinctly red over the past decade.
This turnabout frustrates Graham. “Democrats are in the best economic interest and the best health-care interest of the people of this county,” he said. “But there’s other things that overshadow that, and I think that’s what’s happened. The Republicans have done a great job with wedging and promoting that Democrats are baby killers; Democrats are going to steal your guns; they’re going to take away your ability to own a gun. And look where we’re at. These people love their guns and they don’t believe in abortion. Very hardcore, deep-rooted.”
No issue is more loaded in Robeson than abortion, said Hunt, the minister, who has worked on numerous Democratic campaigns. “They seized upon that thing,” he said. “And they preached on it and preached on it and preached on it ... And your older folks, that’s a death threat right there. Somebody label you as being for abortion, then automatically they’re not going to vote for you.”
When Graham launched his campaign with the Hayes Pond ad last October, he made no mention of abortion on his website. Later he added a discreet position statement. “Charles believes that difficult health decision should remain between a woman, her family and her doctor,” it says. “Personally, Charles chooses life, but he believes reproductive health is a Constitutional right, and should not be overturned.”
What if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns that right, which is entirely possible within this year? Would he vote to enshrine or restrict abortion access in federal law? “Well, you’re asking me a hypothetical question,” he said. “And I’ll be very honest with you. I try not to develop a preconceived or a predetermination of how my vote might be … But right now, I’m a Democrat, and I believe my previous history has demonstrated that I believe in life.”
Graham broke with Democrats twice recently to vote for pro-life legislation. He supported a 2019 bill directing physicians to try to save the lives of infants that survive botched abortions and making it a felony if they don’t try. Two years later, he voted to require doctors to certify that a patient isn’t seeking an abortion because of the fetus’ race or sex or the presence of Down syndrome. Cooper vetoed both.
Critics described the measures as stealth efforts to chip away at Roe v. Wade by creating false narratives about why women choose abortions and how doctors practice medicine. “Do any of you really think that infanticide is legal today in North Carolina?” Rep. Susan Fisher, a Buncombe County Democrat, said during the debate on the “born-alive” bill.
But Graham said he couldn’t help but view that bill through the lens of his special-education career. “I’ve had students under my care that were just there,” he said. “They don’t even realize where they’re at. But we’re going to take care of them. We’re going to cleanse them. We’re going to make sure they’re as whole and as full as they can be. And I’ve advocated for that all my life. So why wouldn’t I advocate for an aborted child to be all he can, or she can, be for that day or for those two hours?”
Jacobs, the American Indian Studies chair at UNC Pembroke, said Graham’s record on the other big hot-button issue needs to be understood in the context of Lumbee history.
Graham was among 12 House Democrats who voted in 2020 for the GOP-sponsored 2nd Amendment Protection Act, which Cooper also vetoed. One of its provisions allowed concealed weapons at religious services on private-school campuses during off-hours. “I voted for that bill because I go to church,” said Graham, who explained that worshippers should be allowed to defend themselves. “My community was very adamant about that.”
Jacobs agreed that safety concerns drove some of the local support. “Our communities are still locking church doors at a certain time to make it harder for people who might want to come in with a gun and shoot people,” she said. “Because we’re in a rural community. Because people have watched that happen. Because Fox News says that Christians are under attack.”
But she added that, among Lumbees, gun ownership is bound up with political enfranchisement and the fight against white supremacy. The 1835 state constitution stripped Lumbees of their right to vote and to own firearms without a special permit—and still, Jacobs said, “people devised all sorts of ways to continue to use a gun.” During the Civil War, when the Confederate Army conscripted Lumbees against their will, armed guerillas led by Henry Berry Lowry fought back. When the KKK descended on Hayes Pond almost a century later, Lumbees carried weapons as they chased the would-be terrorists into the swamps.
During one of my interviews with Graham, we drove to Hayes Pond. It’s at the end of a road that has since collapsed, creating a canal where the asphalt used to be. A massive concrete structure juts out from the water and across its surface rests a downed tree. Spray-painted at the end of the pavement are the names of three women who accidentally drove off the road in 2019, hit the concrete, and plunged 20 feet to their deaths.
You could visit the site and have no idea what happened here in 1958. The official marker is a half-mile away on the main road. “I’d like to see something happen to preserve this place,” Graham said. “I’ve got to really talk to folks about trying to see if we can’t give it the honor it deserves.”
The Hayes Pond historical marker (top) stands a half-mile away from the pond itself (bottom) // Photos by Roderico Díaz
Among younger Lumbees, the Hayes Pond story goes mostly untold. “I never learned about that until I went away to college and people were like, ‘What’s a Lumbee?’ Or, ‘Do you live in a teepee?’ Or, ‘Do you wear shoes?’,” said Brittany Hunt, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment who grew up in Robeson County. “I didn’t know a lot about Lumbee history and so then I started just Googling things.”
The 5.6 million views for Graham’s campaign ad mean that considerably more people know about Hayes Pond now. What remains uncertain is whether he can leverage that new awareness into an electoral upset. To get on the November ballot, he must first defeat three other Democrats: Cumberland County Commissioner Charles Evans, school safety advocate Yushonda Midgette, and retired environmental consultant Steve Miller.
Graham acknowledges the district’s partisan tilt favors Rouzer, the GOP incumbent. “It’s not a toss-up,” he said. “I definitely have my work cut out for me.”
Nor is it clear whether he’d carry his home county in November. In Graham’s first three re-election bids, he ran unopposed. In 2018, he beat Republican Jarrod Lowery by 18 points. Two years later, Olivia Oxendine closed the gap to less than five points. Trump won 59 percent of Robeson’s vote in 2020, and every statewide GOP candidate carried the county too. The Republican National Committee sees so much potential that, in January, it opened a Pembroke field office focused on Lumbee outreach.
Some of this shift traces back to social issues like abortion. But there’s also Robeson’s beleaguered industrial history. Once a thriving textile center, the county saw thousands of jobs vanish after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Act—signed as a treaty by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993. “I don’t think people around here had a reason to vote for Republicans as long as they were embracing this free-trade, globalization platform,” said Cutler Bryant, chair of the Robeson County Federation of Teenage Republicans and one of the party’s go-to spokespeople. “But then Trump comes along and proposes this hire-American, buy-American agenda, America-first agenda ... That really struck a nerve around here.”
Then there’s Trump himself, whose pugilistic style has found favor among some Lumbees. “It’s not like we voted for Romney or Bush or some of the calmer form of Republican,” said Brittany Hunt, herself a Biden voter. “Lumbees are very bold people: very loud, humorous, funny. So I think sometimes candidates like Trump appeal to them in that way. The number one reason I heard from people on why they voted for Trump, apart from abortion, is he says what’s on his mind. He tells it like it is. He doesn’t sugarcoat things.”
A subset has even internalized Trump’s politics of racial resentment. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, 150 Black Lives Matters protesters, including Hunt, gathered in Pembroke in June 2020—only to encounter a larger group of counterprotesters, many of them Lumbee, some of them armed. A pickup truck sported a large Trump flag. “When I was walking, a Lumbee man looked at me and said, ‘I should call the Klan on you,’” she recalled. “It was such a surreal moment, knowing that we ran the Klan away in 1958.” Lumbee leaders condemned the taunts, and Hunt noted that Lumbees were on both sides, “the hecklers and the heckled.” Still, the moment troubles her.
In an environment this polarized, it makes one wonder whether there’s room for legislative ticket splitters like Graham. His continued electoral success flows directly from decades of community involvement and a moderate voting record. Robeson County voters know him well. Many love and trust him.
Turning that record into a congressional victory—in a large, conservative district that’s just nine percent Native American, where voters know him mostly as a viral video star—is a considerably more formidable task.
Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham. He has covered North Carolina for more than three decades. Find more of his work here.
Correction 4/24: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Charles Evans' position. He is a Cumberland County Commissioner.