Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, we're joined by Natasha Marcus, three-term state senator and candidate for North Carolina Commissioner of Insurance. Plus, we have a new gerrymandering lawsuit and campaign fundraising reports are in for the second half of 2023.
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Natasha Marcus: I of course wear as a badge of honor that they see me as such a threat that they had to draw a line through my precinct to make sure my house was on the wrong side and not in my district anymore.
JD Wooten: Welcome back to Carolina Democracy. I’m JD Wooten, and today we’ve got another great candidate interview, this time with Natasha Marcus, a three-term state senator from Mecklenburg County running to be our next Commissioner of Insurance. Senator Marcus has been an outspoken champion of countless important issues, from women’s reproductive rights to basic democratic norms, and of course my favorite, anti-gerrymandering. And to reward her for all that hard work and advocacy for the people of North Carolina, the GOP did her the courtesy of drawing her out of her state senate district under the latest maps. But as you’ll hear in our interview, she wears that as a badge of honor, rightfully so. And where one door closes, another opens, and she’s now taking her fight for the people of North Carolina state-wide. I’ll let you hear all about her reasons for running and what she hopes to accomplish when elected directly from her, but I really enjoyed this conversation and I hope you will too.
And, as we did last week, before jumping to other news, let’s review the deadlines for the upcoming primary election. The date of the primary is Tuesday, March 5th, which is just one month away. The voter registration deadline to be eligible to vote on election day is this Friday, February 9th. If you miss the regular voter registration deadline, you’ll need to go to an early voting site to do same day registration during in-person early voting, which begins next week on February 15th. If you miss the voter registration deadline and you do not go to an early voting site to complete a same day registration, you will not be able to vote on March 5th. Finally, the deadline to request a mail-in absentee ballot is February 27th, but I really don’t recommend waiting that long. Mail-in ballots must be received by Election Day to be counted under the new law. Yes, that’s an unfortunate change to the law, but for now let’s focus on getting the word out, planning accordingly, and helping everyone we meet be on time with their voting efforts this year. We can work to change that law after we win at the ballot box.
Now, perhaps the biggest piece of news for democracy in North Carolina from this past is that we are now up to four gerrymandering lawsuits. A new lawsuit was filed this past week by a trio of attorneys, including former North Carolian Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr. Justice Orr is a former Republican who was also one of the special masters appointed to assist with redrawing gerrymandered districts back in the good old days when partisan gerrymandering was considered unconstitutional in North Carolina. You know, like that part of 2021 and 2022, those good old days. So he was one of the people who saw fit to draw a Congressional map that resulted in a 7-7 split between Republicans and Democrats in the North Carolina Congressional delegation and included at least 1 true toss up district.
The lawsuit makes a novel legal argument, which is basically that despite the North Carolina Constitution not explicitly stating that elections must be fair, it does say elections must be frequent and elections must be free. If frequent and free elections are not fair, what’s the point of those frequent and free elections in the first place? The lawsuit goes on to state the constitution explicitly contemplates that the people have what are called unenumerated rights, meaning rights that aren’t specifically written down, and that this is surly one of them. Because again, what’s the point of frequent and free elections, in a democratic society, where the people are meant to be able to freely choose their representatives, if the elections are not fair? That logic has always appealed to me, but we’ll see how our state court judges react.
And for anyone who hasn’t heard yet, finance reports for the 2024 campaigns with fundraising and expenditure numbers through the end of 2023 are in. As I’ve often heard said, money isn’t the most important thing in politics, but all the important things cost money. I hate that our current system is so focused on fundraising, but alas that’s our reality. That said, with certain well-known limitations, fundraising numbers also can show a candidate’s overall support and can show which candidates have the drive to work hard on the campaign trail. But I’ll caution that comparing any two candidates isn’t necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s well known that women and people of color generally have a harder time fundraising than their male or white counterparts, and this is especially true for women of color. That’s not to say it can’t be done – just look at the rockstar fundraising Cheri Beasley did in her 2022 U.S. Senate race – it’s just that much more impressive when they do.
Now all that said, here are the numbers for a few of our top of ticket races in North Carolina going into the primaries. As expected, Josh Stein and Mark Robinson far outpaced their respective rivals in their primaries, with Stein far outpacing Robinson overall. Stein raised $5.7 million in the 2nd half of 2023 and entered 2024 with more than $11.5 million cash on hand. That’s a lot folks. Robinson raised $3.4 million in the same period and entered 2024 with $4.3 million cash on hand. Obviously not as much as Stein, but that’s still a lot and given the amounts that will likely be raised after the primaries and that will pour in from outside groups between now and November, it’s tough to know right now how meaningful a difference that is. Still, if it were me, I’d much rather be sitting on $11.5 than $4.3 million cash right now.
In the race for Attorney General, Republican Dan Bishop, author of the infamous HB2 bathroom bill and advocate of plenty of other atrocious policies is the Republican nominee with no other primary challengers and he raised $439,000 in the 2nd half of 2023. If he was a political newcomer running in a state-wide primary for the first time, I’d consider that a decent showing. But he’s already the Republican nominee with no opposition and a sitting member of Congress. Honestly, that’s pretty pathetic and I hope it reflects both a poor work ethic and low appeal, but we’ll see what happens in the coming months.
On the Democratic side, Jeff Jackson dwarfed everyone by raising over $2 million in the 2nd half of 2023. He’s also a sitting member of Congress, so this is much more in line with the kind of fundraising I would expect. His main opponent for the primary, Satana DeBerry, raised $44,000. She entered the race very late and likely faces many of the challenges I mentioned earlier in fundraising.
In the race for Lt. Governor, Rachel Hunt raised nearly ½ a million in the 2nd half of 2023, dwarfing her main primary opponent Ben Clark, who only raised $14,000. On the Republican side, Rockingham County attorney Seth Woodall raised just over a million dollars, but a million of that was his own money. A couple of other Republicans raised close to $200,000, and several more raised very comfortably into the 5 figures.
We’ll talk about other primary races in the coming weeks, but a final word of encouragement for our folks with primaries – be careful in deciding whether to engage in negative attacks on your primary opponents at this point . There’s certainly a time and place for negative attacks, like say your main rival tried to lead an insurrection to overturn the results of a democratic election. Yeah, that’s definitely one of those times, although in fairness their base also feeds on negativity so perhaps going negative is a helpful thing overall, I don’t really know. But over on the Democratic side of things, going negative is more likely to blow up in your face and tarnish your brand for years to come. If you’re down in the polls with a month to go, and the best negative line of attack you’ve got is something related to a candidate’s family member or otherwise has nothing to do with their fitness to serve, well let’s just say I’d suggest you hang it up and find a new hobby. The Republican base might eat that shit up, but the Democratic base will see right through it and spit you out.
My advice for everyone, at least on the Democratic side of the world, is to save any negativity for the summer and fall when you’re facing off against those who don’t share our fundamental values of a democratic society where everyone is loved and valued, and instead focus on what you personally bring to the table in the primaries. We’ll all be better for it.
Ok, enough on all that. Here’s my interview with Natasha Marcus, hope you enjoy!
JD Wooten: With me today is Natasha Marcus, three term state senator from Mecklenburg County and candidate for North Carolina Commissioner of Insurance. Welcome, Senator Marcus.
Natasha Marcus: Hello, thanks, JD.
JD Wooten: So, first question right out the gate, what's your earliest memory of politics or getting involved in politics?
Natasha Marcus: It goes way back. I believe I was nine or ten years old, and I have a distinct memory of marching with my father in a hometown parade in western New York State where he was running for some office, I don't even remember what office it was, but I walked with him in that parade and handed out literature to the families along the edge of the parade and said, vote for my dad, vote for my dad.
JD Wooten: That sounds like a tradition about as old as American politics.
Natasha Marcus: Yes, good times.
JD Wooten: So, let's go with a little background first. We'll get to your state senate run in 2018 in a moment, but prior to that, you were an attorney and did some non profit .Work as a fellow attorney, I always find it interesting to ask others, what led you to the law and then later your non profit work?
Natasha Marcus: Also relates to my father to give an answer again. My dad was not only an elected politician, but also a lawyer. And so I didn't necessarily plan to go to law school and run for office one day, but I was deeply interested in the work he did growing up. And we would talk at the dinner table every night about what was in the news and what was happening in the state legislature where he served and county government, etc., and so I always followed it. By the time I got to college, I studied public policy there at Hamilton College and wrote one of my longest papers ever on why there aren't more women in politics and assessed the reasons for that, the barriers there, interviewed a lot of elected women while I was in college to learn about that. And so I probably, without necessarily even realizing it, put that in the back of my head as a possible option for myself one day to help solve the problem of so few women in elected office. And law is a good path toward running for something. I think it always helps to understand the law, be able to represent yourself, learn to be an advocate. And I have found since serving in public office that that is one of the most important skills to be able to be an effective advocate for the people I represent. I'm not afraid to engage in a debate. I'm not afraid to stand up and speak in a room full of people who may disagree with me as is the case often in the General Assembly. And so those have been good skills that have served me well.
JD Wooten: So i'm curious quick aside How are we doing on those barriers to women running for office these days? Have there been any improvements lately?
Natasha Marcus: I see some hope and I also see some frustration. So we are more than 50 percent of the voting population in North Carolina and yet not 50 percent of the elected offices, obviously. My Senate Democratic Caucus is for the first time in history, majority female. So the 20 of us who serve in the North Carolina Senate there are more women than men, so there's one of the positives that I like to think about. There is progress being made there, but when you look on the floor of the Senate, who is leading, who, who are the people that get to make the decisions about what bills are heard? And it's all men, almost all older, white men as well. So there's a lot of progress we need to make not just with women's representation, but anyone who is not an older white man. We need more. We need more of you. It's one of the reasons that I mentor young women who are thinking about running for office and try to encourage every time I speak with young people, think about yourself as a possible candidate one day because we need people like you.
JD Wooten: We just had Tanneshia Dukes who's running for House District 59 on on the show and she shared that moment of her friends rallying around her and saying, hey, that could be you, that could be you. And finally talked her into it. But if I did my homework, right, your first bid for elected office was also a state house seat 2014. I'm curious what lessons you learned in that campaign that you still carry with you today.
Natasha Marcus: Biggest lesson I learned is the long shot campaign is worth it. So when I ran for that house seat, no Democrat had ever run for that house seat. It was the seat held by Thom Tillis for a decade when he, he was Speaker of the North Carolina House, one of the most powerful men in North Carolina politics, and he decided not to run again so that he could run for higher office. So, here I am sitting in my town in Davidson. I had worked with many, many neighbors who were angry with the way he was operating in public office, not at all representing what we wanted him to do. Everything from a terrible toll road contract that he saddled us with to generally being you know, against all the things that we stand for as Democrats. And so I thought, you know, there's that rare open seat, won't be an incumbent running, and I was encouraged much, much like you just mentioned by friends who said, Natasha, you've been doing this organizing work in our community now for years through the Obama campaign and others, helping us write letters to our state legislators to say, hey, we're, we do not agree with your fast tracking of fracking, for example, that was something that Tillis was, was on the side of that we disagreed with. And so I decided to step up and run. I had no help from the caucus, the statewide democratic party, because nobody thought a Democrat could win that race. They sort of written it off, but we came closer than anyone thought we could. I learned so much about how to run for office and made so many friends and supporters that the next time I did run, I was a better candidate, better funded, and able to win.
JD Wooten: I think that that's the sort of barriers that we need to demystify to get other people to step up and run and recognize hey, maybe the first time out the gate's not as successful, but next thing you know, you could be a three term senator and running for commissioner of insurance.
Natasha Marcus: And I will say, it's not just about me. It was worth it for me, for my own learning, etc. But another great thing that happened from that is the next year, two years later, another person ran. She was actually an unaffiliated candidate who ran against the then Republican incumbent. She lost, but came even closer. And then the next cycle, Christy Clark ran because she saw us edging closer to taking that seat, she ran and won. So I feel like I helped put that in motion for somebody else to go and do that race and see how, how to run it, learn from any mistakes or shortfalls that I may have had and end up winning it. So that's another reason why that long shot campaign is worth it.
JD Wooten: Oh, absolutely. I think we've seen that across North Carolina many times in the last several years. So totally, totally echo that. So fast forward to 2018, you ran for the State Senate, and you were part of the group that gave Democrats enough seats in the General Assembly. To break the GOP super majority and sustain governor Cooper's veto. So what led you to, yeah, what led you to jumping in that race?
Natasha Marcus: So after unsuccessfully running in 2014, I had my eyes on the map and in Mecklenburg County, we have been redrawn as with many parts of the state redrawn so many times. But there was a pretty entrenched Republican Senator by the name of Jeff Tartt, who had benefited from gerrymandered districts for many cycles. The shape of his districts were ridiculous to try to find enough Republicans in Mecklenburg County to give him a, a little boost and let him win. And so that had been the case time after time, but the courts were slowly forcing the Republicans to fix their gerrymandered maps. They had, you know, gerrymandered based on politics, but also based on race. And so once the maps were finally corrected and we had some fairer maps in 2018, his district was no longer gift wrapped for him. And it looked like a real opportunity to pick up a seat in the General Assembly. And so I thought, you know, I know how to run. I think there are people who will support me financially and on the ground and knock doors. And I know how to work hard. So I decided to jump in and do it, and we worked so hard we knocked so many doors and we won that seat.
JD Wooten: And the hard work never ends. So you're now in your third term as a state senator. You've been an outspoken champion of any number of important causes and, at least from what I've heard, keeping in touch with some of those folks, exceptionally well respected by your colleagues. So, as much as I would love to dive into all of the great work that you've done in the state senate, you're also running another campaign right now that we want to talk about. So let me ask it this way, if someone writes a biography of Natasha Marcus one day and includes a chapter on your time in the state Senate, what's one thing you really hope they include?
Natasha Marcus: Wow. What a, what a thought that someone might write such a thing. I will say that at my core, I always try to be this. And so this is what I would hope to be remembered for: someone who you can count on to do the right thing. And by that, I mean to speak up and fight for what's right for people whose voices are not heard, to speak for justice, fairness, equality, and really our very democracy that I believe is at stake right now. I don't always win the fight because of the circumstances that I am placed in, but I think it's important and I, I am grateful for the opportunity to have been able so far and hope to continue to be able to fight for what's right.
JD Wooten: Well, then let's shift gears to how we're going to continue that. So now we get to 2023 and the GOP was given the green light to go hog wild on partisan gerrymandering. And as I understand it, they drew you out of your district. But where one door closes, another often opens, and you're now running for Commissioner of Insurance. What led to that decision, aside from the redistricting obvious part of that answer?
Natasha Marcus: Right, which I of course wear as a badge of honor that they see me as such a threat that they had to draw a line through my precinct to make sure my house was on the wrong side and not in my district anymore. So, yes, you're right. I have set my sights on statewide office now and the reasons for that are many. One is my desire to continue to serve the people of North Carolina. I think there is a place for me and for my voice and my style of leadership. And I want to continue that where I can make a difference. So I know I have learned so much by serving in the General Assembly. I think it's important that our Commissioner of Insurance has experience in the legislature because so much of what the legislature does also impacts the rates that people have to pay for insurance in North Carolina. So I think I am uniquely qualified in that way, to take that experience to the commissioner of insurance job. Also, my legal background as I talked about my ability to advocate in a courtroom like setting is very important because one of the main jobs of the Commissioner of Insurance is to hold public hearings current Commissioner of Insurance skips that and hopefully we'll get to talk about that. But the ability to advocate for what is right, to cross examine evidence, and make a decision, I know that I will do a better job than the current Commissioner of Insurance, who is a two term Republican incumbent who is just not doing the job the way he's supposed to do. So there's my opportunity to step up and say, I'm going to take on the challenge of running statewide in order to flip this seat on the council of state.
JD Wooten: The Commissioner of Insurance, for better or worse, mostly worse, has been getting a little more attention in the media lately than usual, but for the benefit of our listeners, what's the role of the Commissioner of Insurance here in North Carolina, at least theoretically?
Natasha Marcus: I have found as I've been speaking to groups, I ask the group, how many people, tell me the truth, how many people here didn't even know we elect the Commissioner of Insurance in this state? At least half the hands go up. So, that's, that's interesting insight because that tells me that he is not working for the people. If they don't even know that they have a representative in state government who's supposed to be working on their behalf, what does that say about the job he's doing, right? So the job, J. D., in theory and in statute, is that the Commissioner is elected by the people to represent their interests in matters relating to insurance.
So that's the simple way of saying it and the way that's supposed to play out is insurance companies that's not who the Commissioner of Insurance is supposed to represent Insurance companies come through the Rate Bureau to the state, Department of Insurance, and ask for increases. They always ask for increases, as you can imagine, they never ask for the rates to go down. And the insurance Commissioner is supposed to look at their evidence and say, show me proof that the rates need to be at that number you're saying, and currently they're asking for a 42 percent increase in the homeowner's insurance rate. That's an average. They're asking for 99. 7 percent increase on the coast.
And he, now he, hopefully a she, soon, is supposed to look at the evidence and assess whether that is the right number. And when I say the right number, the law provides that insurance companies are able to collect a reasonable profit. That's what the law says. Reasonable, not extravagant profit, not any profit, not as much as they can possibly charge, but a reasonable profit. Why? Because it's a regulated market and we want to make sure insurance companies continue to write policies here and want to do business in our state. We don't want to turn into a situation like in Florida, where they're all pulling out and saying, we're not going to write any policies. That would be terrible. So we do need to ensure that they make enough profit that they will stay and write policies here. But not whatever they want to charge, and not in private settlements, which is how our current Commissioner of Insurance, Mike Causey, who has earned his nickname of Rate Hike Mike, as Wayne Goodwin first coined that term, because he keeps letting rates increase 19 times, that's an unprecedented number of times during his now almost eight years in office, and he never holds these public hearings. So there's no transparency. There's no opportunity for the public to see what is the evidence to prove that that's the correct number instead he makes a private settlement and he tells all of us trust me, trust me I made you a good deal was less than what they asked for and I'm just done with this idea of trust me I'll work it out privately and tell you later how it turned out like that's not good enough. That is not the job.
JD Wooten: So I'm already hearing it in your answer, I think to that question, but you've written before that your, your mission is to stand up to corruption, corporate greed, and bad government, and that we need somebody that's on the side of the people, not corporations. I really hear that coming through. So what's the top policy priority when you take office?
Natasha Marcus: In a word, JD, it's transparency. I am not going to promise to you, some people in this race even have it in their logo, they say no rate hikes, period, as if we can just say no to every time and that'll get us elected. But that is, that's an empty campaign promise. I'm going to be truthful with voters and say rates very well may need to go up. Climate change is happening. More storms, more damage that makes rates go up. Inflation is happening. The cost of repair is going up. We're having more people, more claims. But what I will promise is that rates will not go up one penny more than they absolutely need to to continue to have a vibrant marketplace of insurance options for consumers here. I'm not going to do these private settlements and say, oh, trust me. I worked it out, you know, and no, I'm not in the pocket of insurance companies. I mean, so we need transparency. Somebody who's going to work on behalf of the people. I do not have any ties to insurance companies. I've never worked for them. I've never lobbied for them. I come to this free of any bias. I want to represent the people of North Carolina and make sure they are getting a fair deal.
JD Wooten: Well, that sounds extremely pragmatic on the not making promises that you can't keep. I think one politician famously bit him a few years later when he ran on no new taxes. We'll leave that there. But turning back to this transparency you've already mentioned that the current commissioner is a bit absentee from public discourse to put it mildly. So what do you plan to bring to the table in terms of transparency and accessibility for the public? How do you intend for that to be different with you?
Natasha Marcus: So the previous Commissioners of Insurance that we had, they were both Democrats in recent memory, Wayne Goodwin and Jim Long before him. Both of whom got great marks and being Commissioners of Insurance who looked out for the people, maintained a vibrant marketplace. So not anti everything insurance companies asked for and drive them out, but not just trust that they're all on the up and up either. They had full public hearings, these under oath, like a courtroom situation, under oath testimony, cross examination by Department of Insurance staff and actuaries who can say, wait, wait, wait, wait now State Farm, you're saying you pay this number in claims, but we're showing this, what are your CEOs paid? And what are your actual profits? Those are the kind of public hearings. And those took as much as a month. So there is some serious evidence that should be out for the public to see. And so then if your rates go up by whatever percentage they need to go up, people will know why. And they'll understand that that is in fact the best deal we could get. It also played out just last week, a week ago, the Commissioner of Insurance was required to hold a public comment forum, not a hearing, because there was no back and forth. It was just the ability of the public to come either in person, and many did from all over the state, to a hearing room in Raleigh and some logged in online. All day long, it went from 10 a. m. till 4:30 p. m. I was there for most of that. I watched in person and then I watched from my office online. Commissioner Causey, who called this public comment forum, was not even there. He did not show up to listen to the people. When he heard the criticism, I said it and many people who were there traveled all over said, why isn't he here to listen to us on these proposed, again, 42 percent average rate hike for homeowners insurance statewide. He said something along the lines of he didn't want to be prejudicial against the insurance companies by listening to the people. So again, I think his understanding of what the job is supposed to be is just so far off if he, if he thinks it's prejudicial for him to listen to the people who elected him, just listen to their comments, and he won't even show up. I mean, we just need a new Commissioner of insurance. Pretty clear to me.
JD Wooten: Definitely sounds like we've got some mixed up priorities right now, and the process you were talking about, at least with previous commissioners, sounds at least similar to, I think, what utilities have to go through, although they have a formal, you know, judicial, quasi judicial part of that too, but still, it's insurance or utilities. These are regulated markets. And so right now, pretty big difference in how we're handling those.
Natasha Marcus: And the public does not get to elect the person in charge of that process for public utilities, but they do elect the Commissioner of Insurance. So all the more reason why that person needs to be somebody who's advocating for the people, the consumers of North Carolina.
JD Wooten: Couldn't agree more. So anything else Senator Marcus about your platform that you'd like to share with our listeners?
Natasha Marcus: We've covered so much. I mean, again, in the end, it's about transparency. Do you want someone who's a public servant representing you in this capacity, or do you want an insurance industry insider who's going to make side deals and tell you later, oh, just trust me. I do think we need to look for innovative ways to help bring insurance rates down. They're not going to go down on their own. We need an Insurance Commissioner, for example, who knows that climate change is real and that you can't outlaw it as this legislature has tried to do by saying you cannot consider sea level rate rise when you write policies and when you're building houses. We need a legislature that sees that too, obviously. We haven't updated our building codes in years and years and years and they just voted to disallow updating of our building codes, which again was going to cause more damage when the next storm hits. So we need to find innovative ways to bring the cost of insurance down, things like safer streets. There's a big push toward fewer accidents and fewer pedestrian fatalities. And which of course relates to auto insurance rates, which we haven't had as much time to talk about. But there are ways we can do that. I look forward to working with anyone who's willing to work with me once I'm Insurance Commissioner to find innovative ways to bring rates down.
JD Wooten: So let's turn to the most important question of the day. Where can people go to learn more about you and your campaign? Maybe sign up to volunteer, donate, so forth.
Natasha Marcus: Thank you. I hope folks will. It's a statewide campaign, and it's a lot of work, and I need support from every corner of the state. The easiest way to find me is to go to my website. It's just my name, so easy to remember: NatashaMarcus.com. I am on social media. You can find the links there. Donate if you can, any amount helps. And please sign up as a supporter so I can keep in touch.
JD Wooten: Well, Senator Marcus, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Natasha Marcus: Thank you for the opportunity.
JD Wooten: Thank you again to everyone for listening. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, please send me an email at email@example.com. And as always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and share this episode with a friend. Together, we can achieve a better North Carolina for everyone!