The first time Rep. Duane Hall made Jessie White feel uncomfortable was in early 2016.
That’s when she says Hall, a nascent star in the North Carolina Democratic Party and a state representative, ran into her at the Anchor Bar in Raleigh.
Hall, 51, was looking for a new legislative aide for his office. White, a top campaign official with multiple Democratic candidates for the state legislature, said she spoke with the lawmaker about the vacancy.
“That’s when he said he wouldn’t hire me unless I gained 100 pounds,” she said. “Because I was too pretty.”
A charismatic politician with a lengthy list of connections among top North Carolina Democrats, Hall has risen since his 2013 election to wield significant influence as a member of the minority party in the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
But, behind the scenes, Hall has a reputation for more than his political prowess. Including White, five sources—some of whom requested not to be named for fear of repercussions in their current jobs—detailed persistent sexual innuendo from the three-term legislator and, in some cases, repeated, unwanted sexual overtures. Policy Watch knows the identity of the alleged victims, but has not published their names without their consent.
The allegations include claims that the lawmaker harassed a woman and kissed her without her consent at a 2016 Equality N.C. gala, and that he kissed a party official without her consent at a Democratic function in summer 2016.
As a result of Policy Watch’s investigation, top North Carolina Democrats called on Hall to step down Wednesday.
“Sexual harassment is never acceptable – no matter the party or politics,” said N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin. “These are serious allegations and Representative Hall should step down. The North Carolina Democratic Party has no tolerance for sexual harassment and we continue to encourage women to speak out against inappropriate behavior of any kind.”
Rep. Darren Jackson, the state House Democratic leader, also issued a statement Wednesday.
“The allegations surrounding Representative Duane Hall are serious and the women involved deserve to be heard and supported,” said Jackson, who represents part of Wake County. “He has made unacceptable mistakes in harassing women. Yesterday, I spoke with him and asked him to resign. I think it is right that he step back from public service, work to make amends, and learn from his past mistakes.”
Nationwide, many powerful figures are confronting their own behavior and increasing their awareness of sexual harassment and misconduct in and around the workplace. But during an interview with Policy Watch Tuesday evening, Hall denied talking about White’s appearance or propositioning her. He also denied numerous other allegations against him that were uncovered by Policy Watch.
Hall said he believes “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that he’s never sexually harassed any women in his time as a state legislator.
“I’ve been single since I got a divorce in 2010,” said Hall. “Since I’ve been at the legislature, I dated several different people, none of whom worked with me in my legislative office or in my legal practice.”
“Any person I’ve had a relationship with has been completely consensual,” added Hall.
Yet the statements Wednesday from top Democrats come as a stunning blow for Hall, who’s publicly expressed ambitions for statewide and national office.
Today, Hall, who specializes in real estate law and has an office across the street from the Governor’s Mansion, remains among an exclusive list of top Democrats in the N.C. General Assembly. In 2015, Raleigh Magazine named Hall one of the city’s “most eligible” singles, touting his rise as Democratic freshmen leader and his ardent stances on hot button topics like public school funding and voter ID legislation.
Meanwhile, Hall has emerged as one of the chamber’s toughest critics of a GOP-authored plan to overhaul North Carolina courts, all while building support for a bid to challenge for higher office.
Two years ago, insiders suggested Hall would be an apt opponent to challenge U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, although Hall later opted out of the race. And this year, Hall is a rumored candidate for lieutenant governor in 2020, reportedly loaning his campaign $100,000 last year in what would be a key race for one of the state’s top political jobs.
At a June 2016 Democratic event in Raleigh, Hall kissed a party official without her consent, according to a Policy Watch source who witnessed the encounter. Sources who witnessed the incident said the individual immediately rebuked Hall for his actions.
And at an October 2016 gala for the LGBTQ rights group Equality N.C., two witnesses said Hall made persistent sexual advances toward an unidentified woman.
Ben Julen, a former Equality N.C. worker assisting with check-in for elected officials during the gala, said Hall was accosting the woman. “He just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Julen said.
A second witness to that event, an advocate with connections to local progressive organizations, confirmed Julen’s account. She said the woman claimed Hall kissed her without her consent while he took a photo on his phone. When the woman demanded Hall delete the photo, he refused, according to the Policy Watch source, who added that she was ultimately forced to stand between Hall and the woman as a barrier.
Hall called the claims at the gala “absolutely outrageous.”
“Certainly, no one ever told me there was anything inappropriate at that gala,” said Hall. “There were hundreds of people there.”
Hall added that he’s “certain” that he did not kiss any women at the event.
“If someone took a comment or something that I did as insensitive or it was taken the wrong way, I can tell you with 100 percent honesty that no one ever said that to me, not Equality N.C., not a single individual.”
Another source, a legislative aide at the General Assembly who spoke to Policy Watch on the condition of anonymity, said Hall often made sexually suggestive comments to her, both inside the General Assembly and at legislative events.
“’You know you want me,’” the aide said Hall once told her. The aide said she rebuked Hall, telling him that his comments were “degrading,” although the aide said she did not file a formal complaint against Hall or spoke of those encounters with colleagues.
“There was no need to talk about him,” said the aide. “Everyone knew who he was.”
According to Hall, though, such a conversation never happened.
“One-hundred percent, I have never harassed at the General Assembly,” said Hall. “I have never harassed anyone or engaged in anything that was not completely consensual.”
White also related a story to Policy Watch of a second meeting with Hall in 2016, this time at the Green Light bar in Raleigh. White said she’d had a couple of drinks and “made the mistake” of mentioning her relationship problems to Hall.
Hall, she said, leaned in close and whispered in her ear, “If you give me two hours, you’ll forget about all those other guys.”
White rebuffed Hall, she said, closed her tab and left shortly after, but she said she will never forget the experience. His advance made her feel uncomfortable, she recalled, and she found his actions “very creepy.” A friend of White’s, a local business owner who asked to go unnamed, told Policy Watch that White detailed the same experiences to him.
Hall denied White’s descriptions of their encounters.
“I have never, ever spoken to Jessie in that way,” he said. Hall added that he believes White may be angry with him because he never gave her a job in his legislative office. He said that he recalls White speaking with him three times about such a position, but he had already hired someone else.
“I told her there was a guy starting to work there, and she took that to mean I did not want to hire a girl,” Hall said. “I have no idea why.”
But White said North Carolinians should be concerned about Hall’s actions. “It’s not the kind of behavior I would want from someone who is in public office.”
The General Assembly’s personnel manual includes an “unlawful workplace harassment policy,” which bars “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct” that comes with either an implicit or explicit threat to their job security.
The policy includes multiple avenues of complaint for employees who work for House, Senate and legislative services offices, although employees of either the House or Senate—such as legislative aides—would file a complaint with the leadership in their respective chamber.
A spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said no complaint has been filed against Hall, although it’s worth noting that the policy would conceivably require a worker affiliated with Democrats to file a complaint with a top Republican like Moore.
Some criticized the legislature’s policy in a December WUNC report, noting a lack of a confidential reporting process for victims of harassment.
A complaint may also be filed with the General Assembly’s Legislative Ethics Committee, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers with the power to hear violations of the state’s ethics act. A 2010 committee guideline forbids lawmakers from engaging in “harassing behavior,” including sexual harassment, either on the grounds of the legislature or at legislative events or functions discussing legislative business.
However, a committee member told Policy Watch Wednesday that no complaint has been filed regarding Hall.
Yet, regardless of whether any formal complaints have been registered with the legislator, Julen said Hall’s alleged behavior at the 2016 gala shocked him. Dozens of attendees likely witnessed it, he says.
“I had always heard about sexual harassment and things like that, but on a very general basis, not about one specific person, and definitely not in a progressive space,” he said, adding that “it’s a bipartisan issue.”
“To me, it just shows a general attitude of ‘look what I can get away with,’” said Julen. “I don’t know if that’s a statement about the greater culture of North Carolina politics as a whole or Duane Hall’s confidence in himself.”
For those who wish to contact Policy Watch with more information, please contact reporter Billy Ball at 919-861-1460 or at [email protected].
[Disclosure: Hall has donated $500 to the N.C. Justice Center, Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit, since 2016].