It didn’t take long for Democrats to have their first spat.
As North Carolina’s legislative session kicked off in January, Republicans put forward new rules that would make it easier for bills to become law over the objections of the Democratic governor.
Unlike previous years, the House could now effectively take up vetoed measures without any advance notice. It was a further blow to the razor-thin margin House Minority Leader Robert Reives is working with this session.
Some Democrats were outraged and wanted to debate on the chamber floor.
But Reives believed that it wouldn’t be a productive protest. The Chatham County Democrat urged his colleagues to take it up later. He said he didn’t see it as a worthwhile messaging fight since a permanent rules package was expected to come up for a vote the following month.
“In my mind, yesterday should have been about celebrating families, the opening of session and that’s it,” Reives told The Assembly in an interview the next day.
Such is the job of Reives, the man tasked with unifying House Democrats in a fractious time—a skill set that will be tested repeatedly over the next two years.
If just two of the 49 House Democrats are absent or a single member votes across party lines, conservatives could capture major policy wins on abortion, the state budget, immigration, and more. There are three Democrats seen as the likeliest crossovers: Tricia Cotham, Shelly Willingham, and Michael Wray.
“Effectively, I’m calling it the governing supermajority,” Republican House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters after the first day of session. “We do have a number of Democrats who have indicated that they’re going to be willing to vote with us on numerous override opportunities that are out there.”
State Sen. Gale Adcock, a Wake County Democrat who served in House leadership in 2021 and 2022, acknowledged Reives’ unenviable position. She compared it to having a second baby.
“That is where courage comes, because you now know what pregnancy is going to be like, you know what delivery’s going to be like and you know what it’s going to be like having a little baby,” Adcock said. “Well, that’s what Robert’s like now. He knows what he’s gotten into.”
The Making of a Party Leader
Robert Reives Sr. and his son struck a deal. The kindergartener wanted to walk to school from their home in Sanford alone, but settled for letting his father trail a short distance behind.
Ruth and Robert Sr. were worried about their son’s first day. He’d narrowly made the age cutoff and was one of the smallest boys in school. They feared Robert Jr. wouldn’t be able to make friends.
By the time his mom picked him up, Reives had one kid carrying his books and a couple others walking out with him.
“I went up that evening and the teacher came out and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m so happy this child is here,” his father recalled. “‘He reads to the class at break time, and guess what, they can’t wait for him to read tomorrow.’”
Nearly 50 years later, Robert Sr. still struggles to pull his son away from folks. “Can you stop politicking for a minute?” the longtime Lee County commissioner begs as his son chats up colleagues before giving me a tour of his hometown.
Jan Tart, a childhood friend who now serves as Reives’ campaign manager, said keeping him on schedule is her greatest frustration: “You can’t get him out at any event.”
Reives, 52, spent much of his childhood in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Sanford but attended largely white schools. He got along with seemingly everybody: the jocks, the band members, and the honor roll kids. He served as a class officer and recalls often being the only Black kid at white kids’ sleepovers and birthday parties.
“I was the first generation of my family to go to integrated schools the entire time, and that was the same thing for all the kids I went to school with,” Reives said. “It was almost like we didn’t know any better.”
Will Rickard was a white kid who sat next to Reives in many classes at Lee County Senior High School due to their alphabetical proximity. They quickly became close friends.
Reives, Rickard said, stood out as someone who made friends with both Black and white classmates: “It didn’t matter to him and it didn’t matter to other people.”
Reives says he longs for a return to that aspect of the 1970s, when society was more open to new perspectives and forming relationships with people from different backgrounds.
“It was such a sweet spot because racism wasn’t accepted, and it was discouraged,” Reives said. “It’s not that you didn’t experience racism, but people were learning each other.”
At the same time, he is envious that the 71 House Republicans operate as a bloc.
“They’re a monolith,” Reives said. “They have views that ultimately the only way they can reach their goals is to stay unified. They probably recognize that better than we do at times.”
North Carolina Democrats are currently fighting on several fronts: There’s a contested state party chair race this month, which could shape 2024 strategies, and overall frustration with losses in both statewide and local races.
But Reives remains upbeat. He’s known for being quick on his feet, pointing out flaws he sees with proposals or processes. Both Democratic and Republican colleagues described him as an affable, approachable leader.
“His leadership style is the most collaborative of any leader that I’ve worked with down there,” Adcock said. “He truly wants everyone to have a piece of the action.”
But Tart noted the kindness should not be taken as weakness.
“I think some people have the misconception that they can roll over him because he is very personable and wants people to get along,” Tart said.
Reives is selective about the battles he picks, his allies say. One is abortion.
Republicans in both chambers have been meeting privately to discuss lowering the legal window for abortion from 20 weeks of pregnancy to 13. But Reives has drawn a hard line on the issue of abortion, cautioning Republicans against further restrictions that could lead to further inequities in the medical system. “The minute you start making gradations, you’re changing who has access to what,” Reives said.
Every Democrat in the House and Senate has signed onto a bill to codify Roe v. Wade, the recently overturned U.S. Supreme Court decision that provided federal abortion protections.
The measure almost certainly won’t get a committee hearing from House Republicans, but Reives viewed the Democrats’ proposal as important in demonstrating to voters a clear contrast between the two parties on the notion of equality.
“I don’t understand why in so many circumstances we create circumstances where working people are subjected to access and laws that people with means are not,” Reives said.
Carrots and Sticks
It was Rickard, Reives’ high school friend, who encouraged him to jump into politics when a House seat opened in 2013. Rickard was a Republican at the time, but now considers himself a left-of-center independent.
“He just had leadership qualities and people were drawn to him,” Rickard said.
Reives won, proving his friend right. Now, Rickard wants Reives to run for governor or U.S. Senate. That kind of chatter hasn’t become widespread, but Reives is clearly seen as someone to watch in his party.
Reives says he is focused on keeping House Democrats united for the next two years. His colleagues have twice unanimously selected him as their leader; his allies say he is uniquely qualified for the moment, pointing to his bipartisan work on a redrawn state House map as the latest example—a marked contrast to the state Senate and U.S. House maps—which failed to reach a bipartisan agreement.
“I’m pretty sure if you talk to anybody, Republican or Democrat, they would consider me moderate,” Reives said.
That moderation can come at the expense of the kind of bold policy proposals and messaging that excite the base. Reives said the party needs to get better at connecting with voters on the ground, but didn’t offer a clear vision of what it would take.
“I don’t know what those messages or bedrock principles would be,” Reives said. “What I do know is that we need to make sure that people understand that if you support us, your lives are getting better and that your lives matter.”
His approach has led to friendly relationships with the majority, with whom he’ll have to negotiate new voting maps for 2024—perhaps the most consequential political matter of the year.
Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican who serves as House majority leader, said he considers Reives a good friend and finds him approachable. He noted Reives supported the 2021 budget and has collaborated with Republicans on economic development.
“Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t,” Bell said. “But he’s always somebody I can work with. There’s never been an issue that Robert and I couldn’t sit down and have a discussion about.”
Other relationships have been more contentious at times, like in 2019 when House Republicans voted to override a veto on the budget when many Democrats were out of the chamber, as they were under the impression there would be no votes that day. Overrides require a three-fifths vote of all those present, so attendance matters.
Today, the incident is still top-of-mind as the close margins mean Republicans can override vetoes if just two Democrats are out of the chamber.
Reives, however, blames the 2019 incident on then-Rules Chair David Lewis. Moore, he believes, wasn’t involved.
“The speaker’s position has always been, from what I’ve gleaned looking at media reports, that he did not say that [there would be no vote]. And he’s correct.”
Reives said Moore’s decision to call the vote while Democrats were absent didn’t hurt their personal relationship. He touted bipartisan successes in bringing businesses into the state over the last two years, including commitments from Vietnamese car manufacturer VinFast and Durham-based chip maker Wolfspeed. Both companies announced plans to expand or build new facilities in Chatham County that would create hundreds of new jobs.
“We worked well together last biennium,” Reives said of Moore. “I think he and I together had the most successful biennium, economically.”
Moore, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told reporters on January 11 that he would be truthful with Democrats about when and whether votes would be held this session.
“I’m not going to stand up in front of this body and say, ‘We’re not going to have votes,’ and then have votes,” Moore said. “Credibility rightly would be zero at that point.”
Reives said he trusts Moore to act in good faith. “We’ve always gotten along. We’ll continue to get along. Whatever happens this session, we’ll continue to be friends and get along.”
Darren Jackson, who preceded Reives as House minority leader, said Reives is uniquely equipped to manage personalities and competing interests: “Robert has no hammers, so it’s all about relationships.”
Other Democrats, however, have been able to find hammers. Reives acknowledged Gov. Roy Cooper’s successful intervention in a Democratic senate primary, which appeared to be a response to frustrations with the incumbent state Sen. Kirk deViere over spending bills.
Reives said House Democrats shouldn’t be concerned about such challenges happening to them.
“Traditionally, we just don’t primary folks,” Reives said. “We don’t try to run them out of office.”
Reives points to a moment in his young adult life that made him more accepting of nuance and the need to make the best of difficult circumstances.
He was a 24-year-old law student at UNC-Chapel Hill when his aunt delivered bad news that his parents had intentionally hidden: Reives’ mother had stage IV breast cancer and was in the hospital.
“I went to see my mother in the hospital and my mother didn’t blink,” Reives said. “She was just like, ‘Nothing to worry about.’ She said, ‘This isn’t my time. God’s going to take care of me and get me through this.’ I never saw her cry.”
Robert Sr. said he and his wife wanted to insulate their only child, and not compromise his educational pursuit. But it had become apparent he needed to know.
His physical presence brought his mom strength and happiness. It also made Reives a more devout Baptist, convinced that a higher power would step in.
“I thought she was going to die,” Reives said. “Even in the 1990s, you still had a pretty high mortality rate from cancer at that stage.”
His mother got accepted into the first class of an experimental treatment program at Duke. It allowed her to live another 27 years.
“I believe her faith got her through that,” Reives said. “That gave me a perspective. Things that used to upset me didn’t upset me anymore.”
In her later years, she suffered from accelerated dementia. On June 10, 2021, the family gathered to be with her, not knowing how long she had. The very next day, Ruth died.
Reives missed the following two weeks of session to be with his family. Working through a busy legislative period without him brought Democrats closer together, Adcock said.
“While one part of him felt bad about that, the bigger part of him knew that the caucus had his back,” Adcock said. “All the members were going to do our jobs so he could put his family as priority first because only he could do that. The rest of us could keep the caucus together.”
Holding the Line
Reives is the first to acknowledge his power is limited. He doesn’t control where people sit in the chamber or which committee assignments they receive. He doesn’t have the same carrots or sticks of Republican leadership.
One particularly potent tool for Republicans is the budget process and its many earmarks. More money for your district can be a powerful incentive to vote with the majority.
“If you’re a person who perceives that the way you vote on bills or the way you do things may tie into how you’re treated in the budget, then I think that’s tough,” Reives said. “When you’re in the minority, all you have is ideology.”
Reives has to hold his fellow 48 Democrats together this session. Each of the three Democrats viewed as most likely to stray reiterated their independence from the party in interviews with The Assembly.
Willingham, a Rocky Mount Democrat who now co-chairs the Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee, said he’d like to be on a joint budget committee in order to increase economic development opportunities for his district. He said his colleagues’ opinions won’t influence his voting decisions. He compared himself to a cat.
“A cat sometimes, he’ll come and curl up with you and lay and all that, and other times, you can come walk up and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy,” Willingham said. “What benefits my district and what benefits the state, that’s what I’m going to do. My vote is not predicated on somebody else’s vote.”
Cotham represented the Charlotte area in the House for 10 years before launching an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2016. She’s back, and was named a chair for the education committee. Republicans see her as someone who could cross the aisle on issues like addressing learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cotham has previously spoken out against mandatory waiting periods for women seeking abortions and about having an abortion due to a life-threatening medical complication. But she suggested in an interview she could support tighter abortion restrictions than the current 20-week limit, but would oppose the 13-week ban that Republican leaders have floated.
“I’ve always been pro-choice, but I hear from so many different sides of some who want six weeks, some who want 13, some want it to be all the time nothing asked,” Cotham said. “Those are pretty extremes. And at some point, there’s a consensus somewhere.”
Cotham said she’d want to see specifics of a consensus bill between House and Senate Republicans before deciding whether to vote for or against it.
Wray, a small business owner from rural eastern N.C., is perhaps the Democrat most likely to cross party lines.
On the first day of the legislative session, he posed for a photo with Moore, who later tapped him to serve as senior chair of the influential Finance Committee, and as vice chair of the Agriculture Committee and co-chair of the Ethics Committee.
Wray declined interview requests, but sent a statement: “Throughout my career in the state legislature, I have made it a point to work across party lines to help my district and to help the people of North Carolina,” Wray wrote. “I will be steadfast in my effort to invest in our future and promote public policy that advance our state.”
Reives said he doesn’t think Moore made the committee assignments as part of a political calculus—a view many political watchers would find surprising.
“I don’t believe that the speaker makes those decisions based on perceived loyalty or expectation,” Reives said. “I think he gets the best people for the jobs. I think that in the spirit of bipartisanship, somebody’s got to get them. There’s nothing wrong with giving them to people you feel good about working with.”
He said he’s confident the three Democrats will vote with the party on potential veto overrides. “I don’t see them as hard to get in line. … When it comes down to it, they’ve all been really good and really solid under my time.”
Republicans have already offered proposals similar to ones Cooper has previously vetoed—an early sign that Democratic unity will be tested. Among them is a bill to compel local sheriffs to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as the much-debated Parents’ Bill of Rights.
Moore introduced a bill last week that mirrors one Cooper vetoed in 2021. House Bill 40 seeks to impose additional penalties on protesters who engage in looting or violent protests. Willingham, the Democrat seen as a member who could cross party lines, signed onto the bill. Willingham’s backing could give Republicans the veto-proof support for the legislation that they previously lacked.
Speaking to reporters on January 19, Cooper shared Reives’ optimism that Democrats could hold the line. But he was more pointed about the change in rules on voting notice, calling it a sign Republicans lack the crossover support they claim to have.
“I believe that we can hold vetoes,” Cooper said. “But with this latest rule change, it’s pretty obvious that Republican leaders in the House don’t think they can hold the veto without changing the rules to take away public notice [and] to not tell the members when votes are going to be held,” Cooper said. “They think the only way to do it is through surprise and deceit.”
Moore dismissed the governor’s critique during a gaggle with reporters, “I’m just flattered the governor takes an interest in our House rules.”
For Reives, there is no ignoring those rules. And after years of electoral disappointment, and with exceptionally tight margins, the genial lawyer will have to keep his caucus together.
“We’re going to have to decide that we’re in a fight for something and it’s something worth fighting for,” Reives said. “That’s what happened on the Republican side. They decided that there was a need for a fight and they had something worth fighting for. We’ve got to establish that same belief. When you do that, that’s what brings true unity.”
Bryan Anderson is a freelance reporter who most recently covered elections, voting access, and state government for WRAL-TV. He previously reported for the Associated Press and The News & Observer. You can subscribe to his newsletter here.