LEXINGTON, KY. – Almost a year and a month to the day after Stephanie Hofeller turned American politics on its head by reaching out to Common Cause North Carolina about her family affairs, she stood in the middle of her small Kentucky apartment with a Marlboro Light hanging from her lips and a glass of red Kool-Aid in her hand. She exhaled a thick haze of white smoke and then took a deep breath before delving into what her life has been like in the aftermath of releasing the personal files of her dead father – notorious GOP mapmaker Tom Hofeller.
“When I turned those files over to Common Cause, I didn’t know it would be ‘annnnndddd spotlight,’” she exclaimed, moving her arms like she was turning an actual spotlight.
That light shone bright immediately following news of the files, and Hofeller became a household name overnight – but it was a brutal 15 minutes of fame.
The documents Stephanie released eventually showed that her father intentionally gerrymandered North Carolina by manipulating voting districts to benefit his political party and disenfranchise the other, and that he advised the Trump Administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census to help discriminate against people of color for redistricting purposes.
Litigation over the files is still ongoing, but a judge has already refused to make most of them private despite Republican protests. Some of the files were used in state and federal litigation, and while parties to those cases have yet to release any documents, Stephanie made her own copies and provided them to media outlets, including Policy Watch.
Before getting that far though, Stephanie became the center of attention in an ugly court battle over the files, and Republican attorneys painted a picture of an estranged black sheep daughter out for blood. They said she overpowered her incompetent and frail mother and stole files to tarnish a dead man’s legacy and settle a family score.
She laughs now when she talks about the attacks. She’s tough, and she wants people to know it – she wears a buzz cut to “avoid misunderstandings” and touts that she’s good at putting herself back together after traumatic situations. She was made for this fight, she said, and considers it extremely insulting that Republicans insinuate her father’s work was his legacy.
“I’m his legacy; his grandchildren are his legacy,” she said. “My character is a reflection of him, too. Just because he was too short-sighted to hitch his wagon to my star doesn’t mean that wasn’t the case. I can’t think of any better way to elevate him than to try to correct his mistakes.”
As Stephanie talks, the resemblance to her father becomes so strong it’s disconcerting. Their faces are similarly symmetrical, and they have matching dimples on their chins with full lips.
Stephanie’s grayish-blue eyes are rounder and wider, with pronounced laugh lines when she smiles, and she has a deep smoker’s voice with a cough.
“There’s a lot of him in me,” she acknowledged during a series of wide-ranging interviews at her home in Kentucky and on the phone over the past month. “Now that that conflict isn’t in conflict anymore, that makes it a lot easier to embrace the parts of me that echo him.”
Her attorney sees the kinship too in their personalities. Tom Sparks, of Fiduciary Litigation Group in Raleigh, said during a phone interview this week that although he never met Tom Hofeller, he suspects Stephanie is a lot like him – driven and highly intelligent.
“And I’ve heard people say they’re like the same person just on opposite sides of the spectrum,” he added.
A checkered past
It would be an understatement to say Stephanie and her father’s relationship was strained when he was alive. They were mostly estranged for the last six years of his life and severed ties completely in the last four years. She didn’t learn of his death until she got a gut feeling one day to Google him.
“I came to find my children disinherited, my property gone, my father’s estate being fought over by disgusting vultures, my mother being treated with tremendous disrespect and a lack of understanding, and well, North Carolina,” she said.
To understand where Stephanie is now and how the relationship with her father became so fraught, you have to dive head first into her past.
She spent the first several years of her life in California but moved to Washington D.C. with her family when she was 11 years old. She went to junior high and high school there while her father worked for the Republican National Committee and started redistricting consulting. He was one of the first to recognize how manipulating voting district lines could secure Republican power in state legislatures across the country, and he became a key strategist in those redistricting efforts.
Several people who worked with Tom Hofeller when he was alive did not respond to messages for comment for this story, including North Carolina Republican redistricting leaders, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, Rep. David Lewis of Dunn and Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine.
Dalton Lamar Oldham, his business partner at Geographic Strategies – a political consulting firm he co-founded – also did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Oldham’s attorney, Bob Hunter, who served on the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court, declined via email to comment on behalf of his client while litigation is ongoing.
“When we first came to DC, it wasn’t his idea to become the evil genius and take over,” Stephanie said of her father. “He was much more interested in the technical aspects.”
And she was interested in testing the waters. Early on, she had an affinity for her father’s work, and even considered herself an apprentice to him, but at a certain point, her mind became her own and she started debating him. At home, though, she always knew her place when it came to Tom Hofeller.
“If I was advocating my father’s position, then I could eat at the table, but if I wasn’t, then I had to run away or be burned at the stake,” she said.
She said she never really liked school, but that she did really well. She described herself as a rebel, but not the “in-your-face” type, “more like the talking out of turn smart-ass” type. For example, she once opened a window in class to keep from falling asleep. When the teacher closed it, Stephanie opened it again and said out loud that she wouldn’t need a blast of cold air if the lecture wasn’t so boring.
She attended the College of William and Mary for about a year and completed a semester at Catholic University before dropping out.
In her late 20s, she met Peter Lizon, her now ex-husband and a foreign national who shared her aversion to authority and affinity for activism (the two were arrested in 2004 for destroying Bush-Cheney campaign signs). She attributes her childhood with her father and the 16 years she spent with Lizon on a remote farm in West Virginia as the reason she became a radicalized anarchist.
Their love story is where the tale of complicated family dynamics really begins. Before Stephanie became known as the daughter of Tom Hofeller, “savior” of North Carolina democracy, she was known as the battered wife of Lizon. Media accounts of a criminal complaint, that she has since claimed was overblown and not true, detailed a decade of her severe abuse and torture.
At the time, it was also reported that Stephanie had delivered their first child, a stillbirth, in chains in a basement and that the couple had buried the baby’s body in their backyard. She confirms the stillbirth, but said she delivered in a hospital in West Virginia, and denies the basement torture. About a year later she gave birth at home to their son, and a couple years after that, a daughter followed.
Stephanie’s physical demeanor changes when she talks about her past. She rocks in her seat and then gets up and paces around her bedroom. She talks fast and her voice rises, but not in an intimidating way – she’s passionate about her injustice.
Attempts to reach Lizon were not successful. Stephanie was caught in a cycle of domestic violence – she doesn’t refute that now, but the stories about it were inflated by a domestic violence shelter and then used against her, she said. She had escaped to that shelter when her son was about a year old, and the events that transpired afterwards eventually led to a criminal investigation into Lizon (he was never convicted) and then an abuse and neglect case in civil family court involving them both.
“We were crazy in love; it was like a fucking movie,” she said about her relationship. “You can’t choose who you love.”
The details of all that happened are chaotic, and it’s difficult to keep Stephanie on track when she talks about it. She meanders and is easily distracted by other thoughts she has along the way – she also becomes agitated when she talks about her children and experiences with the West Virginia court system. But she blames her father for participating in the termination of her and Lizon’s parental rights. The elder Hofellers had custody early on of their grandson, but ultimately placed him in foster care, according to court documents. They never had custody of their granddaughter, because she was born in the midst of the civil case.
The family case is sealed, but the records of Stephanie and Lizon’s individual appeals state that their rights were terminated because of their failure to protect their children from domestic violence. Their rights were terminated in less than a year, and they were never given an “improvement period” – or an opportunity to correct their mistakes – because the court at the time, documents state, believed they would not cooperate fully in proceedings. An appellate court ultimately denied their appeals, and the children have since been adopted by another family.
Stephanie has since divorced Lizon, and she says she would have left him at the time if the court had forced her to choose between him and her children, but she was never given the chance, and she didn’t know where to go or what to do. The couple had been in therapy together and individually, and attempted to work things out during the civil case, documents state.
“No, I don’t want to stay, but where the fuck else am I going to go?” she said of why she stayed with Lizon for so long. Faced with the prospect of moving back in with her folks, she added: “There’s a certain level of starvation of the soul and the pursuit of happiness that is intolerable.”
An unconventional life
Stephanie’s domestic violence case has inspired an entire academic project by Dawn Moore, a professor in the Department of Law and Legal studies at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. Moore didn’t respond to emails from Policy Watch seeking comment about the study and her relationship with Stephanie, but she confirmed the younger Hofeller’s story to The New Yorker earlier this year. The two have also collaborated on an essay titled “45 Colour Photographs: Images, Emotions and the Victim of Domestic Violence” that appears in the book “Emotions and Crime: Towards a Criminology of Emotions,” published by Routledge in June.
Photographs of Stephanie’s abuse were taken at that first domestic violence shelter, but somehow ended up in the hands of her father. Moore has studied the case extensively and maintained to The New Yorker that Tom Hofeller was largely responsible for the termination of Stephanie’s parental rights.
The essay studies how emotions stick to images of violence and criminalize non-traditional victims in domestic violence prosecutions. It also enabled Stephanie to voice her own lived experience and explain how her and Lizon’s unconventional life together (including “our appearance, our accents, our political, religious, and social viewpoints, the crazy, weird music we listened to”) contributed to the outcome of their cases.
“I did then, and will continue to, insist that, how, exactly, it unfolded is (although an interesting story) not the important, or even pertinent, question,” the essay states. “And it was for this very attitude that I was really put on trial. I continued to resist, and complain, and show myself a whole person, fully desirous of exercising my natural right to life and liberty and, conscience. I was found guilty and punished accordingly. Disobedience is the official finding.”
The custody case was the nail in the coffin for Stephanie’s relationship with her father. She eventually fled her husband again and took shelter in another domestic violence shelter in Kentucky for five months. She stayed in hiding, though, until her father’s death. When she divorced Lizon a few years ago, she took her family name back.
She’s not emotional when she talks about her past, but her resentment and the pain of losing her children is obvious. When she finally finishes telling the story about it, she lights another cigarette and pauses before moving on to a tangent about her former life, working as an exotic dancer at a strip club in the ’90s. She shows pictures of herself. In one, she’s wearing a blue bra with gold tassels, and in another, a leather corset-looking top and crushed velvet bell bottoms. She cracked a joke about her “princess hair” – it was black and reddish-orange, curly and long with a lot of volume.
“It didn’t matter how tough I looked – I had a knife sticking out of my combat boots, and it was still like, ‘oh, she’s so sweet,’” she said.
She won’t wear her hair like that again, and she damn sure won’t ever get married again, she said.
Fast forward to 2018, after her father died, and Stephanie says she saw an opportunity to reconnect with her mother, Kathleen, a Ph.D. who has written two books about domestic violence. She also felt it necessary to “rescue her” from attorneys who Stephanie believed to be politically and financially motivated to take advantage of her parents’ estate.
Her re-emergence partially prompted Raleigh attorney Christopher Morden to file a petition to declare her mother incompetent, according to court documents filed in Wake County. That’s the legal battle that prompted Stephanie to take legal action beyond defending her mother. Morden, who Stephanie does not believe ever met her mother, represented the elder Hofellers in their estate planning. He declined to comment to Policy Watch about the petition and client matters in general.
Stephanie said she was just minding her own business and trying to help her mother when so many other parties became involved in her life. She had initially reached out to Common Cause NC to ask for help finding an attorney to represent her in the incompetency hearing. Conversations from that point evolved, and led to Stephanie turning over her father’s files.
“When I didn’t have to be afraid of him anymore, the sadness could come in but past the sadness is resignation,” she said. “Now I’ve worn myself out being sad, and now I could get angry.”
Her mother was never declared incompetent and instead agreed to a settlement that put most of her assets into an irrevocable trust with a neutral trustee to oversee financial matters. Property in West Virginia was dispersed to Stephanie (who didn’t sign on to the agreement), property in Arizona to Tom Hofeller’s brother, Tracy William Smale, and a vehicle to Kathleen Hofeller’s brother, Christopher Hartsough, according to the document.
Smale, a businessman who lives in Japan, declined to comment to Policy Watch about his family.
“Doesn’t seem to me that family ‘rumors’ contribute anything to ‘policy’ reporting, the focus of your publication,” he wrote in an email. “But, having worked with journalists for 40 years I do know you will write what you need to write. My comments will have no value to anyone.”
He added in a later email, “I might be ready to write the story in 5 years. I will write it. Or, I might be dead by then. Who knows!”
‘A true public service’
Stephanie said she had a lot of different motivations for releasing her father’s files. The first, she says, was that it was the right thing to do; but the others stemmed from her children being rejected by her father, her mother being treated badly in the incompetency matters after his death, her guilt over her father’s actions to manipulate voting districts and the Census and her belief in the people’s right to know.
“My children, they’re from quite a family,” she said. “They aren’t rejects. We wanted them; they had to steal them from us. They’re very important people, and my father doesn’t get to be the last word on who we are.”
As for what was in the files, not even the daughter of a purported “evil genius,” could predict the full scope of how her decision to release them would impact American democracy.
“His work was never not shocking,” she said, adding that she knew about it all from a very young age. “My father would come home from work and say something shocking every day. You know what the shocking thing was – it was that anyone gave a shit.”
Her attorney also didn’t know quite what he was walking into when he agreed to represent Stephanie during the incompetency case. When Sparks learned about Tom Hofeller and the gerrymandering, though, he was invested.
“I’m not politically affiliated,” he said. “I was politically motivated, because I think it’s important our votes count. … I’m not a fan of gerrymandering.”
He said he was “shocked” to learn “a man who was so assiduously careful and hesitant to put anything in writing was so lackadaisical about having so much information left behind.”
“Was I shocked Stephanie would want them to become public?” he asked. “Not at all.”
Sparks does a lot of work as an attorney in matters that involve incompetency, and he never got the sense that Stephanie’s mother was frail or incompetent – she just wanted to be left alone, he said. It was important, because part of the argument over the Hofeller files involved trying to discredit how Stephanie came into their possession.
“I don’t know how you can come into somebody’s life under those circumstances and just overbear their will,” he said.
He described their relationship now as loving and not forced. “You really wouldn’t know that they’re estranged or ever were.”
Sparks described his and Stephanie’s relationship as a pleasant one with a lot of intellectual banter and “delightful” conversations. He confirmed that she is a woman true to her convictions whether others agree with them or not.
“She is so political that she is a-political, and she wants people to be educated,” he said.
He’s a Navy veteran who said he steers clear of politics typically and doesn’t vote often, because before Stephanie’s case, he didn’t believe his vote mattered.
“I thought it was rigged,” he said. “I didn’t really want to know I was right, and you can’t un-ring bells.”
His reaction to the truths the Hofeller files unveiled are not dissimilar to the general public’s, particularly in North Carolina, where elections had been declared unconstitutional for almost a decade because of some form of gerrymandering.
“Once you give it up (Dad said of discovery) don’t expect to get it back,” she tweeted Dec. 6. “Of course I made fucking copies before I FedEx’d #thehofellerfiles to Arnold Porter [the Washington D.C. law firm that argued the Common Cause case.. Barring the unexpected (or a petulant malaise) my copies will be uploaded to http://thehofellerfiles.com by Monday…”
A series of technical difficulties have prevented those files from being published on time, but it’s still in the works. She has a small team of millennials helping her, moving about her apartment as she tells her story. One of them balked not only at the content of the Hofeller files, but the sheer volume of it all.
When asked what she wants people to think of her father once they read the documents, Stephanie paused. She was sitting on a black stool, one of the few pieces of furniture in her living room.
“What this is priceless for is an analysis of my father,” she said. “It gives you quite the little character study. … I don’t think protecting someone dead is actually protecting them. Nobody’s one dimensional or two. So, anything and everything they want. I want them to know what Google wants them to know.”
Social media users have praised Stephanie online as a hero and thanked her for her bravery in releasing those files – which litigants have acknowledged were vital to plaintiffs winning the Common Cause v. Lewis partisan gerrymandering fight earlier this year in North Carolina.
Releasing those files though, in a lot of ways, has turned Stephanie’s life upside down. It hasn’t made her rich, and it hasn’t brought her peace. What it has brought is a barrage of inquiries about the documents from attorneys and reporters alike and thousands of dollars in legal fees that have yet to be paid – though Sparks noted he will continue to represent her if any other related matters arise.
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the national Common Cause organization, said Thursday that her organization has not had any contact with Stephanie since she released the files to it, except for communication through counsel in connection with the litigation.
“Common Cause has not provided and will not provide any financial compensation to Stephanie in connection with the files,” she stated in an email. “Because Ms. Hofeller provided witness testimony in the lawsuit brought by Common Cause, it would not be appropriate for us to provide financial compensation to her.
Stephanie Hofeller has provided a true public service to the cause of fair representation for thousands of North Carolinians. The Hofeller files introduced at trial in July had a significant impact on the Common Cause v. Lewis litigation. They provided direct evidence of the mapmaker’s discriminatory intent in manipulating the state legislative districts for partisan advantage, and the state court also found that they proved the legislative leaders misled a federal court.”
Patrick Rodenbush, with the National Redistricting Foundation, which bankrolled the Common Cause litigation, responded in an email that it has not provided any financial support to Hofeller and was unaware of her financial situation before Policy Watch reached out.
“We have not had any direct communication with Ms. Hofeller – all communication has gone through our litigation team,” he wrote.
He, like Flynn, emphasized how important the files were to the lawsuit.
Stephanie has been left relatively in the dark when it comes to litigation – mainly because of the perception there could be an impropriety with regard to her turning over the files. She’s not bitter, though – in fact, she said her life has improved since her father’s death, particularly with regard to her freedom and her ability to have a relationship with her mother again (and she still has a soft spot for Common Cause North Carolina).
Stephanie’s own relationship with her father now is impossible to decipher. On one hand, she recognizes him as a human being and points out that there is “evidence of his torment” all over the Hofeller files, but on the other, she doesn’t have sympathy for that torment because “we all have to make these decisions every day.”
At her apartment, she is surrounded by reminders of him. It was communication through dreams and visions from a Loa that Stephanie attributes to her finding out about her father’s death. A Loa is a spirit or god in the Haitian Vodou culture, and there are pictures of it hanging in almost every room of her home. The Loa is a kind of muse for her as she works on a non-traditional piece of writing about her father’s death and how it impacted her.
In her bedroom, there is a bookcase that belonged to her father filled with his things, including the folded flag from his funeral, a picture of his father and step-mother, a framed will written by his mother’s ancestors and her own jewelry box that she found at her parents’ home.
She knows things are complicated, but she’s working through it in her own time. While she’s referred to her father as a monster on more than one occasion, she’s also responded without a beat to the question of whether she loved him.
“Of course! I never stopped loving him,” she said matter-of-factly. “He’s my dad.”