Larry Hall stood tall Thursday in a bright red jacket holding a cigar in one hand and a similar-colored cover in the other. He had just been recommended by a Senate committee for confirmation as Secretary of the state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs.
“This is Marine Corps red,” Hall told a reporter. “The Marine Corps has a tradition you’ll notice, usually it’s a red stripe down the dress blue trousers, and that’s a blood stripe.”
He wore his military regalia with pride and was most at ease surrounded by the veterans who turned out to support him at the hearing.
It took a subpoena to get him there, but once Hall made it to the Legislative Building, there was no denying his presence and his confidence in his ability to serve veterans.
“You know what they say, once a Marine, always a Marine,” he said during his opening statement.
The crowd behind him shouted “Oohrah!,” a Marine Corps battle cry that stands for “charge.”
Hall kicked the hearing off by describing his family’s military history, his Army career officer father’s influence on his life and his own experiences in the Marines. Hall served 16 years in the Marines and the Marine Corps Reserves and served in the support of the Operations in the Middle East in Lebanon and Iran.
He also talked about his time at the legislature. But his greatest honor thus far, he said, has been the opportunity to serve veterans in the position Gov. Roy Cooper appointed him to.
“I am honored and privileged to be entrusted with this responsibility to serve the needs of these great military members represented in this room and their families who also served,” he said.
Hall answered questions for an hour and a half that ranged from topics on his basic experience and willingness to follow the law to whether or not he’d ever had contact with Russians — a query from Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Bertie, Chowan, Edgecombe, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Tyrrell, Washington) that evoked a raucous laugh from the room.
Two Republican senators grilled him about his voting record and the current political power struggle between the General Assembly and Cooper, and how it would affect his performance moving forward.
“I guess the first question I need to ask in the process, Secretary, is he the governor’s nominee for the Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs?,” asked Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey).
The heart of Cooper’s argument that the Senate confirmation hearings are illegal is because the state statute requires that he initiate the advice and consent process by formally notifying the Senate president of his nominees — which he has not yet done.
The court considering Cooper’s legal challenge will decide next week whether the hearings are constitutional. Cooper filed a lawsuit after the process was hastily enacted during a special session in December.
Hall asked Hise to repeat his question before responding.
“I’ve been referred to as Secretary, so I’m almost at a quandary with you all as to, am I being referred to as the Secretary or the nominee? I’m not sure what the terminology difference is,” he said. “I was told I would be nominated; I haven’t seen any document that says I am being put forward for confirmation, but I hope that document comes.”
Hise was none too pleased and changed the question to, “are you currently serving as Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs?”
He went on to ask about Cooper’s role in directing Hall to attend or not attend the previously scheduled confirmation hearings (Hall said the governor did neither) and what Hall would do if faced with a conflict between following the law or following a Cooper directive to break the law.
Hise also asked why Hall didn’t attend the previous meetings.
“My reading and understanding of the court’s order was that the meetings were not being properly held,” Hall said. “As I indicated before, I am an officer of the court and I do not wish to be in contempt. … I understand, again, the committee’s intent to exercise their rights; I would only hope that, again, in preserving our democracy, we don’t penalize other entities for exercising their rights as well. We may not agree, but we’re all bound by the same Constitution and by the same courts that render their opinion.”
Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) asked about Hall previously voting against the creation of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and if he thought that could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
He responded that the bill she was referring was an omnibus bill than contained other provisions and that sometimes legislators had to vote against things they wanted to vote for because of other provisions.
Republicans all around were pleased with Hall’s answers during the hearing and thanked him for his service. They voted unanimously to propel him to the next hearing, which also approved his nomination after less than five minutes.
The full Senate is expected to vote on whether to confirm Hall on Monday.
Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter said after the hearing that “Hall is a dedicated public servant and will fight every day to ensure North Carolina remains the most military friendly state in the nation.”
“We look forward to the court hearing next week to determine the constitutionality of the confirmation requirement, and in the meantime, we hope the legislature can address pressing issues like repealing HB2 and raising teacher pay,” he added.
Hise, who wanted to vote last week to deny Hall’s confirmation, said he changed his mind because “he showed up.”
“I promise you that had he not been here today, I would have made the motion that he not be confirmed,” he said.
He said moving forward, he didn’t think there would be as much patience for other nominees’ absences, should there be any.
“My recommendation to them would be to follow the request of their committees and not continue this animosity,” Hise said of Cooper’s other nominees. “We clearly have shown that we have the power to use a subpoena and will do so if necessary if that day comes, but I think it’s unlikely.”
Hall said after the hearing that it was a learning experience.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for everyone to just relax a little bit and understand, this is a first and we’ve got to work the kinks out of it as we go and we should all have an opportunity to represent our interests,” he said.
The hearing Thursday gave Hall the opportunity to discuss his priorities for the department. He said he wants to create more veteran businesses and support veterans’ education. He also wants to maintain North Carolina’s military bases and add to them when possible to retain military talent.
Hall spoke at length about visits he made in the last week to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and conversations he had there about needs and issues.
He’s also visited High Point and the nursing program for veterans at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and he said he will be at Camp LeJeune on March 10.
“We have veterans that don’t know they can transfer their education benefits to their children so they can attend college,” Hall said. “We have to do a better job of engaging them and ensuring that our veterans get the benefit of their service.”
He also used the hearing to throw in a few budget requests to legislators and said the department could use all the money it could get.
“I will be a dogged advocate and a determined advocate for veterans’ rights, for their position and value in whatever budgets, whatever staffing, whatever initiatives that we may [encounter],” he said. “Our veterans are an investment; they’ve invested in us and now we have to invest in them and their families.”