It's after nine o'clock on Election Night 2002, and Robin Hayes '67 is holed up in a small conference room on the seventh floor of the Lowe's Motor Speedway clubhouse in Concord, North Carolina. A few close aides are with him. His campaign manager is putting up county-by-county election returns on a white board as they come in over a radio and cell phone.
Chris Kouri M.P.P. '00 is driving along dangerously rainy and foggy Highway 74 from Fayetteville to Charlotte in his well-traveled black Saturn, a caravan of cars behind him carrying campaign workers, friends, and his mom.
The two men are at the end of a short, but intense race to be North Carolina's U.S. Representative from the Eighth Congressional District. The district was redrawn by the state's General Assembly early in 2002, in a bitter, partisan battle that resulted in more Democratic voters. Republican incumbent Hayes, who has represented the district for four years, is facing a stiff challenge from Kouri, a Charlotte attorney in his first political race. The campaign was delayed by the redistricting battle, first in the assembly and then in the courts, and the candidates have had less than two months for this contest. Those two months have boiled down to this moment.
Returns are beginning to air over the radio, and race after race is called. As the miles go by, the governor's race in Florida is announced for Jeb Bush. Incumbents all over North Carolina are holding onto their seats, and Republicans all over the country are doing well. The Associated Press and CNN call the North Carolina U.S. Senate race for Elizabeth Dole, but still the totals are not complete for the Kouri-Hayes contest. The key to the race could be the Charlotte precincts, which are favored to support Kouri and make up a large chunk of the voters in the district.
Kouri keeps driving. Hayes waits.
Sunday, November 3
Parks Chapel Free Will Baptist Church is one of the largest churches in Fayetteville, with a predominantly black congregation whose energy and emotion fill the sanctuary.
Kouri is part of that congregation today--not for the first time--and during a segment of the service devoted to announcements, just after one of the church elders delivers an impassioned minute of get-out-the-vote remarks, he is asked to speak.
He talks about his mother, a nurse, saying that she has been worried about him during this campaign when it slips into negativity. "She asked me, 'How can you continue?' I tell her, 'Mom, someone has to stand up for what's right,'" he says. "I will stand up for what's right, and I will stand up for you." He outlines priorities he'll have if he's elected, including jobs, prescription-drug coverage, and education, and then the former star quarterback alludes to his football career.
" When I played football, I led calisthenics," he says. "And I was always getting grief from my teammates for being all peppy and enthusiastic, even in practice. But I'd tell 'em--the key to winning a big game is to acknowledge how important it is just to be getting ready for the big game. And today, this Sunday, two days before Election Day, is the day. It's the day to be getting the word out, to tell your neighbor, to make sure people you know are going to go vote."
As Kouri finishes, a father sitting alone with his young son nods his head. "Yes, yes," he says. "Yes."
Monday, November 4
The Pilkington glass plant is one of Scotland County's largest employers, but has seen its workforce drop from more than a thousand several years ago to right around three hundred today. It's a good backdrop for Kouri's campaign, which has focused on North Carolina jobs lost because of "fast-track" legislation and the movement of American corporations to cheaper foreign locations.
Kouri has been invited to the plant by its union, and he spends a good bit of the morning there, touring the works, talking with employees, listening to their concerns about jobs and imports and the economy. Two steelworkers accompany Kouri back out to the gate, where the security guard notes, impressed, the duration of his stay: "two hours!" The steelworkers are each wearing stickers: "Chris Kouri for Congress" reads one, and "I'm a Steelworker and I Vote." Kouri talks with them for several more minutes, then, after shaking their hands, gets into a car.
First thing, he pulls out his cell phone and begins returning the calls that have come in while he was in the plant. Messages returned, he pulls out a list of numbers of supporters he needs to contact. Some he spoke to in person--brief conversations. For others, he left messages. They all boiled down to the same thought: "Tomorrow is a big day, and I'd appreciate your support."
Downtown Hamlet is quiet on this cool, damp Monday. Hayes is here for lunch with several local Democrats, including Hamlet's mayor, at the Main Street Cafe. There are many more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county, and Hayes hopes that some of them will cross party lines for him.
He might have some luck. Several of his lunch companions are wearing Hayes campaign stickers on their jackets as they eat barbecue alongside him. Though he seems at ease talking to anyone he meets, Hayes does as much listening as he does talking.
After lunch, Hayes walks down the street and visits with more locals. He is dressed conservatively in blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, with American flag and 82nd Airborne Corps pins on his jacket lapels. He sticks his head in at an insurance agency, saying hello to the secretaries working there, then meets a three-week-old baby in a gift shop and chats with a few retired men at the Birmingham Rexall drugstore. "You've done a lot for Richmond County," one of the men tells him.
As he sits with these men, retired railroad workers, veterans all, Hayes reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a pocket-sized Bible. His father carried it as a soldier in Europe during World War II, and it emerges from Hayes' pocket often on the campaign trail. He reads aloud a passage by Franklin Delano Roosevelt that is inscribed in the front--a message from the Democratic president to the American GIs fighting abroad.
" As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States," he reads.
" Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel, and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul."
That was the kind of Democrat Party he grew up believing in, Hayes tells the men. But the Democratic Party has moved away from those Bible-based ideals. And that, Hayes says, is why he's now a Republican.
Former Stanly County commissioner David Morgan, owner of a Ford dealership and staunch Democrat, has been one of Kouri's political mentors over the past eleven months. Running to reclaim his seat on the county commission, Morgan is ready to campaign with Kouri.
The afternoon is brightening. As he climbs into the front seat of Morgan's red pickup, Kouri sheds his jacket. He's dressed for a long day of campaigning and meeting people, wearing a plaid shirt and khakis. Morgan puts the truck in gear and heads out of town, west through Frog Pond and Locust toward a lumberyard and tool-and-die plant where Kouri supporters are waiting.
The two men talk high-school football along the way--Morgan's son is a standout--and then they talk county politics, ticking off the ten counties in the district and trying to figure which way they might go. "Hoke is strong," Kouri says. "Mecklenburg is strong. Scotland is getting stronger all the time. We'll see tomorrow."
Hayes is walking down the street, stopping in businesses along the way to shake hands and say hello. At The Daily Grind, a coffee shop, someone has written "Welcome Robin Hayes" on a chalkboard. There are a dozen or so people here getting their afternoon caffeine fix.
Hayes buys a cookie and says, "Who wants a bite of my cookie?" He gives half of it to a young reporter from the Laurinburg paper who's shown up for the visit and has become, for a few minutes, a part of the handful of people who surround Hayes as he goes down the street, talking to people and stopping at local businesses to shake a few hands, ask for a few votes, and listen to local concerns.
At Barron's, a men's clothing shop a few doors up from The Daily Grind, Hayes talks about the economy. "Is business picking up any or is it still sort of dragging?" he asks. "Still dragging," says David Stone, the owner. "I think the markets are just sitting there holding their breath," Hayes says. "If we get control of the Senate, you're going to see the stock market go [up]."
Stone later confides that although he's registered as a Democrat, he's already been to the polls and voted for Hayes. He used to be a Republican, he says, but switched his registration to Democrat so he could vote for local politicians he supported, but who had to run as Democrats to win local seats.
Continuing down the street, Hayes doesn't miss any chances to greet potential voters. He opens a car door to chat with a frail, elderly woman sitting in the passenger seat. "How are you? I'm Congressman Robin Hayes," he says. "Hayes, I'm your man," he yells at a man sitting in a pickup truck at a stoplight.
Safety glasses on, packet of disposable earplugs tucked in his shirt pocket, Kouri is touring a tool-and-die plant where rivets are produced. It's the kind of factory you see fewer of these days, and once again he's talking about keeping jobs in North Carolina.
His reception is mixed--first of all, it's a quiet shift, not many workers still on the floor. And there are definitely some Republicans among those remaining. But Kouri doesn't let a hint of difference come into his voice as he talks with them. "I'm not your man," says one lower-management-level employee. "I'm from Concord," referring to Hayes' home turf. Kouri smiles at him, friendly and respectful. "Well, we've got some support up there. I'd sure appreciate yours."
Elsewhere, a computer technician shakes Kouri's hand. "I've seen you on TV," he says. "You've got my vote." Kouri thanks him, then makes sure David Morgan gets introduced. "He'd appreciate your vote, too," Kouri says.
On the way back to Albemarle, Kouri and Morgan stop in Locust at a tire store to shake hands with the mechanics and a customer or two. Then it's back to the road.
The last stop of the day won't yield any "earned media," as the political insiders call it--coverage from reporters instead of advertising paid for with campaign funds. The Fayetteville Observer is the local paper here, and it's much bigger and more sophisticated than the papers in Laurinburg and Hamlet. They don't even show up; the paper's editors don't want to give Hayes extra publicity in their Election Day edition just because he made a stop in their town.
A few minutes before a bank closes, Hayes wanders in and shakes hands with customers and tellers. At a tire store, he
talks with mechanics who call him "Mr. Hayes." He also takes a minute to talk to a customer. "That lady's husband is in Afghanistan," he says afterward. "She's never voted for a Republican in her life.
You can bet she's going to vote for Robin Hayes tomorrow."
Nearby Fort Bragg is home to thousands of paratroopers and Special Forces soldiers, many of whom have been deployed in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war against terrorism. Though it's unlikely the few voters he'll talk to here will be enough to make a difference in how the election turns out, this is especially important territory for Hayes this year. "This is my new territory," Hayes tells several people in an urgent-care clinic he's stepped into for a moment. "Came in here to introduce myself. Love to have your support."
These sorts of visits also give Hayes a chance to meet the activists and local volunteers that power every political campaign. "You're going to be fine, Robin," says Alex Warner when Hayes stops in at Countryside Furniture Company. "I endorsed you yesterday in Sunday school."
Kouri managed to catch a quick nap at Morgan's house and is working on remarks for the keynote speech he will deliver at the Stanly County Democratic Party dinner in an hour or so.
The evening news comes on, and every commercial break is filled with political ads. Mixed in with all the rest are several for Hayes and several for Kouri. Then the news itself shows Hayes in Charlotte earlier in the day with former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The Republican Party has poured tremendous resources into North Carolina to shore up the campaigns of Elizabeth Dole and Hayes, and it shows: When the dust settles, federal election records will show that Hayes spent $2.4 million to Kouri's $650,000.
The Stanly County dinner is a typical affair--centerpieces of red, white, and blue balloons at every table, hot dogs and hamburgers, and a huge table loaded with homemade desserts. All the Democratic candidates present--about fourteen of them--are seated on stage and get a few minutes each to speechify. The crowd, loyal Democrats all, applaud with enthusiasm for everyone, but loudest when Kouri is introduced. They continue to clap throughout his speech. When it's over and people begin to head out to put up signs and make telephone calls, it takes him more than a half hour to work his way through the well-wishers.
Kouri still has a ninety-minute drive to Fayetteville. He's staying at a Holiday Inn there, so that he can be at the polls in the morning when they open at six o'clock. The highway is darker than dark, and when he reaches the hotel it's after eleven. But the Monday night football game hasn't quite ended yet, and he wants to see whether the Dolphins--the team he nearly made a few years ago after his football career at Yale--will pull it out.
Tuesday, November 5
Having snagged a quick breakfast of biscuits, orange juice, and a side order of politicking, Kouri is outside a polling place in Fayetteville. He voted days ago in his hometown of Charlotte so that he could focus on being present in some key precincts. Now he stands in the frosty air with a line of Democrats behind him. They hand out flyers for various candidates, and he shakes hands.
After forty-five minutes or so, there's a lull. Kouri's campaign manager pulls a football out of the Saturn's trunk. They toss it back and forth, halting from time to time to let Kouri greet a voter or two. Under a tent on the church lawn, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Ladies Auxiliary has set up tables with coffee and baked goods. "Come and get some of this banana bread," one elderly woman urges Kouri. "You need it this morning."
It's cool, gray, and windy, and rain is threatening at Weddington Hills Elementary School. The stage has been set for a little Election Day theater: TV news crews, newspaper photographers, and reporters have gathered to watch Hayes and his wife, Barbara Weiland Hayes '67, vote here.
A group of Hayes campaign volunteers and staffers are also here with signs and stickers, ready to demonstrate their support to the assembled news media. Rich Hudson, Hayes' campaign manager, lays out the congressman's schedule for the day to the reporters: vote, work some polling places, eat lunch with his mother, and then work more polling places in Charlotte in the afternoon.
At 10:40, Hayes and his wife pull up in their Yukon, and his campaign volunteers cheer and wave their signs in the air. They start a series of impromptu chants: "Robin, Robin"; then, "Two more years. Two more years"; and finally, "Go Robin go. Go Robin go."
With the cameras on him through glass windows, Hayes and his wife vote in the school's conference room, where the polls have been set up. Several school staff members gather in the front office to watch the media watch Hayes.
After he votes, he takes time for a quick TV interview. "President Bush has set an agenda that agrees with the American people," he tells the TV cameras. Hayes takes a few minutes so that campaign volunteers can have their pictures taken with him, and then he pulls out of the parking lot at 10:57 a.m.
A few minutes later, he's at another polling place in a predominantly black neighborhood. He chats with volunteers at the polling site, greets voters, and puts one of his campaign stickers on a child's jacket. As the rain starts to pour down harder, he leaves for lunch with his mother.
The right-of-way leading up to the fire station polling place in Hope Mills is crowded with signs for every candidate on the ballot. Kouri has been here for a couple of hours now, tossing a football with kids who have come with their parents, talking with voters, and keeping one eye on the sky, hoping it won't rain.
" I'm Chris Kouri. I'm running for Congress. I hope I can count on your support," he says again and again. Most people are pleasant. Some say, "Oh, right, I've seen you on TV." A few eye the gauntlet of workers from various campaigns that stands between them and the voting machines, tuck their heads down, and hurry on through it.
The rain is falling, a cold rain, sometimes pelting, sometimes just a fine mist. Kouri and his campaign staff discuss what it might mean for voter turnout--nothing good--and occasionally consent to stand under an umbrella while they wait to talk to voters.
This polling place is an armory, and, again, the line of campaigners and signs crowds the sidewalk where voters pass. "Farmers for Hayes," read two signs. Lucille Jones, wife of Kouri field coordinator Walter Jones, is huddled under a rainbow-bright umbrella with a friend, handing out Kouri stickers and flyers. She greets Kouri with a laugh and a hug, then settles back into her chair and rearranges the coats that are keeping her a little bit dry and a little bit warm.
The Hayes presence at this precinct is stronger than it's been at other polling places Kouri has visited today, but the atmosphere remains friendly. Everyone is here to do the same thing--get the word out, make one last pitch for their candidate, give the voters something to think about as they stand in front of the ballot.
" I feel good," he says when asked what he thinks. "We'll just have to see."
The afternoon is a cold and rainy succession of one polling place after another. Hayes greets voters, meets with supporters, and chats with a WBTV-TV news crew that's spending part of its day shadowing him.
As the day goes on, the weather turns increasingly cold and miserable. But his relaxed and friendly manner never varies. He greets every new voter, every poll worker, every reporter with the same energy he had when he voted at Weddington Hills Elementary that morning.
To an elderly man pushing his wife in a wheelchair, he says, "Thanks for coming out on such a rainy day," and shakes their hands. "I work for you in Washington," he tells a small boy accompanying his mother.
Many of the voters Hayes greets have never met him or perhaps any member of Congress before. But others have. "You probably don't remember me, but I'm on the board of the homeowners association in Concord," says one woman at a polling place. "I've met you just a couple of times. You're a good man."
Kouri detours briefly from his campaign schedule to try to find lunch. He arrives at a restaurant tucked away across the railroad tracks, famous for its home-cooked lunch buffet, just as the last diners are finishing up, and the kitchen workers are beginning to sit down with their own plates. He's almost missed it, but the workers insist that he grab a plate and load it up.
As he does, he starts to campaign a little, and right off the bat one of the women says, "You don't need to waste your time. I already voted for you." She's laughing as she says it. A few of the others look at one another, then confess they've done the same. Suddenly all the workers are chatting with him at once. It's a warm atmosphere, literally and figuratively, and it's as nourishing for the candidate as the plate of fried chicken, squash, and greens.
It's been a long afternoon at the public library in Rockingham, where district-court judge Scott Brewer joined Kouri and his mother for the last precinct of campaigning. The polls will be open for only fifteen more minutes, but each minute seems as long as the hour before. A sheriff's deputy waits in his car, ready to go in and pick up the ballots and take them to the courthouse.
But there are still those fifteen minutes. It's dark now, colder than it's been this whole, long, cold day, and nobody is coming at the last minute. They might, though, and Kouri is there to the end. So is a Hayes worker, a young woman who has come down from the Washington, D.C., office to help with the campaign. She seems as determined as her opponent to be the last one to give in.
In a ballroom at the Lowe's Motor Speedway, decorated with red, white, and blue balloons and featuring a couple of giant-screen televisions, people have begun to gather for Hayes' election-night party. Local TV crews are setting up for their live shots. Supporters are snacking on ice cream and grazing at a table laid out with snacks. A bartender is pouring drinks.
Felts, Hayes' press secretary, is wearing his lucky red, white, and blue sneakers. They don't match his suit, but nobody cares. He says he's never lost an election while wearing them.
TV reporters line up for live interviews with Hayes staffers, and the crowd watches silently as the broadcast appears simultaneously on the televisions. Sometimes they cheer and yell in the background as the reporters do live shots, as though they were all following the same script.
On the dot, the precinct workers come out of the library with the rolls of paper that show the computerized results, and the deputy steps in. Kouri has been given permission to see the totals here, instead of having to go down to the courthouse.
Results from other counties are crackling over his walkie-talkie, and various campaign workers are trying to capture the numbers, compare notes, and get a picture of the whole campaign from three or four reports. Kouri wins one precinct by a huge margin and narrowly loses two others. Until now, he has been relentlessly optimistic, confident that the grass-roots strategy that has served him so well to this point will continue to work, feeling good about his support and the things he's been hearing. But the numbers aren't what he'd hoped for. For the first time, a look appears on his face that acknowledges he might not make it.
But, the results are by no means clear and there's still cause for hope. Kouri squares his shoulders, goes out to the lawn, and picks up his campaign signs. He and his staff pile into their caravan of cars for the long drive back to Charlotte, where supporters are waiting at a restaurant to celebrate a victory or celebrate a campaign that came close.
Hayes shows up in the ballroom. He does quick interviews with the TV reporters, chats with campaigners, and poses for pictures. With supporters waving signs and cheering in the background, he tells a WBTV reporter that he wants to help "return to the values that guided this country before Clinton."
A few minutes later, he disappears into the kitchen elevator and heads upstairs. Meanwhile, as the early returns come in, the crowd cheers when they see Hayes ahead of Kouri. It's still too early to predict a winner, though.
By 9:45 p.m., some of Hayes' older supporters and those with young children have begun to leave. Still, there's a pretty good party going on. A live television report from Kouri's campaign site is greeted by a few boos, but there's no sense of real hostility in the room. Every time one of the TV channels broadcasts live from the room, the crowd cheers for the camera, and a new wave of energy sweeps through the room. As it gets later in the evening, one reporter begins a live update with "There's a growing elation here...."
The sense of hope held onto in Rockingham dwindles over the miles. By the time Kouri and his family and workers reach Charlotte, they've decided to go directly to their party instead of home to change.
Then the race is called. Hayes has won, and there's a tough speech for Kouri ahead.
He makes it with grace and polish, thanking the Deomcratic Party and the volunteers throughout the district who had worked for him, praising the grassroots effort. "That's what this campaign was about," he says, "bringing people together."
Party faithful around the room listen, applaud him wildly, line up to embrace him and each other. The buzz all over the room is that Kouri will be back, that he was too good a candidate not to try again, that he did a phenomenal job coming as far as he did, that he had gained statewide and even national recognition.
Kouri isn't ready to talk about the next race; he's still assimilating this one. A well-wisher hugs him and says, "You did good, you really did."
" Not good enough," he says, mustering a little smile.
Hayes enters the room to loud applause. Someone cranks up "Rockin' Robin" on the sound system. Hayes approaches the podium with his family and begins to speak. "Folks, I cannot thank you enough," he says. "They said it couldn't be done."
" You did it," yells someone in the crowd. Then, before he continues his speech and thanks his campaign staff and volunteers, Hayes bows his head and leads the crowd in a quiet prayer. "We praise You and worship You for your presence here...."
When totals were certified, Robin Hayes defeated Chris Kouri with 54 percent of the vote, winning a third term in office.
--Tosczak is a reporter for The Greensboro News and Record. Koster, Duke Magazine's former features editor, is director of communications for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Tulane University.