The invitation was to an end-of-summer party in my Raleigh neighborhood. Guest of honor: Ty Harrell. Interesting. I hadn't seen him since he resigned from the state House of Representatives four years ago. He was a rising star in the Democratic Party, and then he wasn't. The State Board of Elections had questioned his campaign spending and launched an investigation. He had left his wife and was embroiled in a messy divorce. But all that must be far behind him by now, I thought.
The host of the party was a public relations consultant with prominent business and political clients. Her guest list read like a Democratic campaign committee. I assumed Harrell was launching a comeback.
So he was, but not the kind I expected.
After a few minutes of chit-chat, Harrell got up to speak. He looked as sharp as ever in his blazer and trademark bowtie. But he was nervous, and he said so. Ty Harrell, nervous?
He thanked the friends who'd stood by him, especially the host, Joyce Fitzpatrick. Finally, after four years, he said, the Board of Elections had notified him that his case was closed with no penalties. He'd been cleared. He could breathe again. His lawyer said a few words about his fortitude. Somebody—maybe Harrell himself—said he was looking for a job. He deserved a second chance.
Four years? I was stunned. I recalled the rumors at the time, and that Harrell had said they weren't true. Nothing ever came of his case. I imagined that he'd long since moved on and was once again—as he had been before running for the House—a political consultant and fundraiser.
I asked Harrell where he was working. In an auto parts warehouse, he told me. A supervisor, he earns less than $25,000 a year.
He lives for his two sons, Leighton, 14, and Kieren, 12. "I'm the face of the working poor," he said.
There was no crime, yet the punishment was appalling. We agreed to talk.
Ty Harrell was elected to the House in 2006, unseating a Republican incumbent, Russell Capps, in a North Raleigh-northern Wake County district with a definite GOP lean. At his victory party, Harrell told me how he'd calculated that Capps could be beaten with a well-run campaign. Harrell had run a good one for more than a year. A hotel ballroom full of young volunteers was his proof.
Harrell shared his family history that night with little or no prompting. I remembered that his parents were biracial—a black father, a white mother. Actually, he reminded me when we got together again, his mother was also biracial but very light-skinned. "She could pass," he said, laughing. "My father was more like me, a smooth mocha brown."
His parents adopted him, he had told me. They were older, friends with the grandparents of his biological mother, who got pregnant as a teen. His adoptive parents had died before his election. By then, Harrell was in touch with his biological mother. He was excited about an upcoming visit with her in South Carolina.
Harrell was 36 at the time. No doubt, he saw himself—and wanted to be seen—as the embodiment of a rising Democratic Party. It was racially diverse. So was he. So was Barack Obama. Obama was smart. So was he. He grew up in North Raleigh, started in Democratic politics while he was at Appalachian State, and went to Washington as a graduate student and, later, as a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.
He'd seen the party lose in 2000 and 2004. But in 2006, the pendulum swung back to the Democrats, and it wasn't by accident—and he didn't win by accident. He won in a Republican-leaning district by starting early, working hard, targeting the swing voters and by pledging to be open-minded, in contrast to Capps' narrow conservatism.
Two years later, Obama was president and Harrell, the first Democrat in North Carolina to endorse him for president, was riding high. He was on the short list to be ambassador to Canada, or so the Canadian press reported. He didn't get it, but state Democrats were having trouble finding a candidate to run against U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2010. Harrell thought he might fill the bill. And if not a U.S. Senate race, Harrell talked about a run for lieutenant governor in 2012.
But in mid-2009, it all came crashing down. In July, a TV reporter called asking for comment because his wife, Melanie, had filed for divorce. Harrell had moved out of their house three months earlier. Now, instead of an amicable split, she had charged in a court document that he was having an affair; meanwhile, the Board of Elections was being asked why Harrell spent $13,000 in campaign funds during the first six months of 2009—a non-election year. The board started an audit.
For the next two months, Harrell struggled to escape a web of allegations, innuendo and—worst—his own careless mistakes. A newspaper story reported that he was living in a friend's house outside his district. It neglected to mention that the friend was a man. Under the circumstances, it sounded like he'd moved in with a mistress. Other stories focused on his campaign accounts, which were vague to the point that his spending was mysterious—maybe nefarious.
Harrell wasn't dating anyone else, he insisted then and insists now. His campaign spending was to advance his political career, nothing else. Four years later, after supplying the missing details and receipts going back to 2005, the Board of Elections concurred, notifying him that his case was closed "with no outstanding issues."
He was required to pay the board $2,700—$1,700 of it the result of technical violations by his campaign contributors, not him. Only $1,000 involved campaign spending. Harrell had emceed a bachelor and bachelorette auction—a Young Democrats fundraiser—and the money was his contribution. Instead of writing a check, though, he gave it in cash to some of his volunteers to use in the bidding. The YDs didn't record it that way, however.
Before it would close the investigation, the board required Harrell to pay the money to its special investigative fund. One reason the case dragged is that Harrell didn't have $2,700. He was broke. He paid the last of it on a plan; it took him two years.
That was on top of the two years it took to sort out the "volunteer meetings," "planning meetings" and "donor cultivation" that Harrell had lumped together as campaign expenses. The money paid for dinners with supporters and potential supporters, small gifts for campaign workers and volunteers and for victory parties. The money paid for trips to political meetings and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That's not unusual except that Harrell, unlike most ambitious politicians, wasn't rich and didn't pay for anything out of pocket. He wishes now that he did. Or failing that, he wishes he had detailed the expenses.
"Absolutely, I should've kept better records. As long as I'd been in the business, as much money as I'd raised, I know better than [what I did]. I know the compliance issues. I needed to take the time to be more clear—to be overly clear."
He screwed up. He knows it now. He knew it then, too, because clients were quitting his fundraising business and House Speaker Joe Hackney, instead of defending him as a fellow Democrat, referred his case to the ethics committee.
When Harrell resigned, he thought he could clear things up in a couple of months, maybe three. Then the State Board of Elections launched an investigation of Gov. Mike Easley, and Harrell had trouble getting their attention. That's how his ordeal began.
For the next four years, he says, while he was living in a crummy apartment near N.C. State and, later, in a small rented bungalow on New Bern Avenue, Harrell played and replayed the scene in his mind of how he'd return to glory one day. He'd be gracious, but not to those who had scorned him. He'd be magnanimous, but he'd vanquish his enemies with a word.
And now he laughs at himself. With the case closed, he's been humbled by it. Sure, he remembers the slights. But in our two long conversations, he mostly talked about his parents and the book he's writing for his sons. It's a family history. He wants them to know who they are. He wants them to know him—and that he never gave up.
He is driven to prove himself to his father, he says. And for a time it was so easy. He was married in college, a high-flyer in his 20s, a star at 36. "I was the golden boy. That's not cockiness, that's the way it was. Everything I touched turned to gold." But he was running too fast, his blood pressure was sky-high, and he had massive headaches.
In retrospect, he was rising for a fall.
He took the warehouse job because he couldn't find anything else, and because he was determined to do right by his sons, contribute to their support, coach their soccer teams and be there for their football games. He wanted to be their hero the same as his father was to him—an imperfect hero, surely, but which hero isn't?
His cousin, Courtney Crowder, is a former legislative counsel to Gov. Bev Perdue. He has watched as Harrell put his sons first and his life together anew. "The long and short of it is, he took the time to answer all the personal and political questions about himself and answer them responsibly.
"Stepping back to answer them," Crowder added, "shouldn't exclude a quality individual from being in public service."
Harrell wants to return to politics. Not as a candidate again—not anytime soon, anyway—but he longs to be back in the fight against the Republicans and for the public service that his adoptive mother, especially, raised him to believe in.
While his case dragged on, he was treated like a pariah in the Democratic Party. Hopefully, that's over. For the first time in years, he says, he made it past the initial telephone interview and may be in the running for a job.
"As crazy as it sounds, I'm glad all this happened," he says. He's glad he worked in a warehouse and saw that, for all his troubles, others who work hard have worse problems than he does. "Seeing what they go through eased my pain," he says. The working poor isn't just a phrase or a talking point any more. He knows what it means in his bones—and why government must be on their side.
What he's not glad about is that he runs out of money before he runs out of month; once, he couldn't go to work because he couldn't afford the gas.
Harrell broke no laws. He flew high and he got sloppy. But then he did the right thing, resigned and put his life in order. He says he's a humbler, better man for it—and I think he is. We'll know when someone gives him a break and he gets back to what he loves.
In the meantime, he takes solace in a tweet he shared with me from his son, Leighton. "I respect my dad not only as a father and a mentor, but as a really good friend too." He tagged it with Harrell's Twitter handle: @bow_tyharrell.