Between the Party Lines
The room is decorated like a typical craft brewery, one of many that have sprung up in cities like Raleigh, North Carolina in recent years: exposed brick, concrete floors and high ceilings that held shining stainless-steel pipes connecting huge tanks of fermenting beer.
The snippets of dialog that float around the room are less stereotypical. A quick walk past the handful of tables reveals conversations about bitcoin, Ayn Rand, lunar colonies and Ross Ulbricht, the infamous leader of the black-market drug website Silk Road, who was recently sentenced to life in prison. (“I’m a big fan,” someone says).
The audience also isn’t exactly the young, hip crowd you might expect in a venue like this. The room is overwhelmingly white men, most with graying hair. As a result, the handful of young people, few women and the one black man stand out.
When I sit down — likely the youngest in attendance — I’m immediately approached by this group’s leader: David Ulmer, the chair of the Wake County Libertarian Party. He greets me with a smile and notes that I’m a new face. When I identify myself as a reporter he was no less friendly, helpfully pointing out different people across the room who were running for office. He’s clearly aware of the demographics and takes pains to show that they’re working on it.
“We have some candidates this fall that appeal to a broader base,” Ulmer tells me, highlighting a 24-year-old and a handful of women running on the Libertarian ticket for local or state office. “We’re trying to get more people, more 18–34 [year-olds].”
He explains that their biggest challenge is fighting the general perception of his party. “The stereotype is ‘you’re Republicans who support weed and gay marriage,’ he says, “but we’re trying to change that.”
I was invited to watch the Wake County Libertarian Party’s weekly meetup by Brad Hessel, the group’s treasurer and a Libertarian candidate for state Senate in North Carolina’s 18th District. The three dozen at the meeting had gathered to catch up, drink beer and listen to a presentation about a subscription healthcare model that offered an alternative to traditional insurance-funded primary care visits.
I first met Hessel from the front seat of his white sedan, which he was driving for Uber one late night in Chapel Hill. He was wearing a pinstriped suit, straw fedora, striped red shirt, and a yellow tie, looking almost like a Southern politician from the 1920s. He explained this was for his campaign photoshoot, and encouraged me to look for the photos on his website later that week.
Hessel started driving for Uber in 2016 during his last campaign for state senate, when he realized he often talked about the “sharing economy” in stump speeches but never experienced it. He started driving a few nights a week — mostly when his wife was working or traveling — and he soon became a regular.
“I enjoyed doing it, it’s a service folks need and I did get a chance to talk about some of my ideas,” he said. “I actually got contributions from some of my riders in 2016. It was useful to try out ideas and get feedback from folks.”
Driving for Uber isn’t Hessel’s main occupation, however. He spends most of his time as a “knowledge management” consultant, advising businesses, nonprofits and political campaigns on how to best manage information inside their organization.
Hessel grew up in a suburb north of New York City and attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Brown University. After graduating in 1975 he worked for video game and tech companies in the New York area, eventually moving to Raleigh to work for an IBM subsidiary in 1992. Soon, he decided to go off on his own as a financial advisor before shifting his business to knowledge management.
His first introduction into libertarian ideology was in college when he read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” — a book many in the room describe as formative for their beliefs — but Hessel said he self-identified as a Democrat for a decade then as a Republican for another 20 years, before he grew fed up with both parties.
“I became disenchanted when the Democrats were so focused on interest groups, instead of focusing on the whole society,” he said. “It was ridiculous how the Democrats were splintering people into different groups.”
“So I stuck with [the Republican Party] for a while,” he explained, “although I started getting disenchanted with them… What finally turned me off was the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq”
This eventually pushed him towards Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and he became involved in the Wake County Libertarian Party and took on the role of treasurer in 2013.
Hessel said most people should agree with the Libertarian platform, which currently focuses heavily on school choice, de-centralizing healthcare and reducing corporate taxes and regulation. He likes to sum all of these into a more succinct policy.
“Libertarians really have two rules,” he said. “Don’t hit folks and don’t steal someone else’s stuff.”
Hessel is running again this cycle because he couldn’t find another candidate to run in his district, which contains about 200,000 suburban and semi-rural residents in neighborhoods north of Raleigh. He said that as a party leader, it was his job to step up if they couldn’t find a volunteer.
“If you’re the coach, you can’t ask people to do things you aren’t willing to do yourself,” he said, comparing his role as party treasurer to his other hobby of coaching youth soccer. Running as a Libertarian, he said, is often a hard sell.
“It’s gonna take time, you’re not gonna win, it’s going to be frustrating and it’s going to cost money,” he tells candidates. “But it’s important to give folks a choice beyond Democrats and Republicans, show the [party] flag and reliably give people the sense that there’s always going to be a Libertarian available.”
For Hessel — and everyone else I spoke to at the Wake County Libertarian Party meetup — this is their real goal. They know winning is near-impossible, at least in today’s gerrymandered, hyper-partisan North Carolina legislature. Hessel won only 4.5 percent of the votes from his district last cycle and there are no Libertarians (or independents) in either the General Assembly or state Senate. They figure that if they can run a candidate in every race and beat the difference between the two main candidates, that will force the major parties to compete for Libertarian voters.
“Our tactical objective is to beat the spread in as many races as we can, then our issues will get more attention.”
The end goal, Hessel explained, is to promote libertarian ideas. “We don’t necessarily have to win to do that,” he remarked. “But it would be easier if we did.”
This story was originally written for Mark Stencel’s class, “The Art of Profile Writing,” at Duke University. Thanks to Professor Stencel for his editing help and guidance throughout this piece.