This month, the Tarheel sat down with Steven DiFiore, recently elected Mecklenburg County Libertarian Party Chair. Steven has been active in both the state and local party, having served the prior two years as an At-Large member of the LPNC Executive Committee, and having also run for Charlotte city council and state governor previously.
Steven is taking over from Jeff Scott, who the Tar Heel interviewed in February, and who continues to serve on the LPMeck Executive Committee in an At-Large role. Mecklenburg is also the most populous county in North Carolina, and, as we have noted in the Tar Heel before, one of the taller mountains to climb for the Liberty movement.
Nevertheless, Steven, a lover of the arts, and know to be quick on the retort with a wry sense of humor, is certainly up to the task. We asked him about his history, his vision for Meck, and how the state party can continue to come together in this expansive Chair Chats interview.
Tarheel: Steven, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We asked Jeff this same question first, so it seems fitting. You are in Charlotte now, and we are glad to have you! Are you originally from Charlotte? Can you give us a little of your backstory, and how you ended up specifically in the Queen City?
Steven DiFiore: Well, I’m originally from New York State, but don’t hold that against me. I’m from the Adirondacks, which is the rural mountainous part of New York close to the Canadian border. My grandparents lived on the Crystal Coast and our family would visit every year while I was in high school. These summer trips are how I first fell in love with North Carolina. When I was in my early twenties I moved from the frozen north to Emerald Isle in 2004, and then to Charlotte a year later when I applied and was accepted by UNC Charlotte. I’ve been here ever since.
Tarheel: And further to your backstory, when did you realize you were Libertarian? What issues are most important to you? Tell us your Liberty journey.
DiFiore: When I was in New York, I was part of a college program called the Senate Session Assistant Internship. As part of the program, I moved to Albany and worked as an intern for a state senator in the state legislature. Senator John L. Sampson from Brooklyn as I recall. It was a fun and interesting experience, and you got to see how the sausage was made.
Unsurprisingly, it left a bad taste in my mouth. I had always thought that individuals and communities were best suited to make decisions for themselves, but that viewpoint had no fertile soil in the state Capitol. I wasn’t too interested in politics and government until years later when I was at UNCC. In 2008 I was writing my senior thesis about the American elections, both national, state, and local. It was during the course of my research that I happened upon a few speeches by our very own Michal Munger when he was running as the Libertarian candidate for Governor of North Carolina. His positions were so sensible and well thought out, especially compared to his competition, that I just knew I was more in his camp than anyone else. It helped that during the 2008 Republican primary, an obscure Texas representative, Ron Paul, had fueled the ember of anti-establishment sentiment that had been dormant since my time in Albany NY. When he mentioned that he was a Libertarian, I thought, if both he and Mr. Munger are big and small "l" libertarian, perhaps I am too. When our party attained ballot access that year, I went to the DMV and switched my party registration, and I haven’t looked back.
Tarheel: Politically, Mecklenburg is a unique place, both in the south and for a city in North Carolina. What challenges do you see for the Libertarian Party to grow in our city?
DiFiore: Partisan pull is probably our biggest challenge in Mecklenburg County. Our voting public has been indoctrinated their entire lives into the notion that there are only two choices. It is a difficult hurdle to overcome, but it also provides an opportunity. Many of the smaller suburb cities of Charlotte have non-partisan elections. That helps overcome the strong partisan preference our voters carry with them into the ballot booth. In Charlotte, which has partisan elections, it’s a bit more difficult, but there are still opportunities. In the At-Large race, for example, it’s the top four vote getters that win those positions. While there are many Team Red and Team Blue folks who will never cross the aisle and vote for a member of the other team, that strong preference isn’t so strong with Libertarians. When I ran locally for the first time, most of my initial conversations, you know, just explaining who we are as a party and what I wanted to do as an elected official. I had the ability to write my own introduction and not get stereotyped by those I met as they had no pre-conceived notions. It’s still an uphill climb, but the unique demographic mix in Mecklenburg County has some significant advantages and opportunities for our party’s future growth.
Tarheel: Whenever we get candidates here, we like to ask about their campaigns. What differences can you give our readers between the campaigns that you ran? How did the office make a difference?
DiFiore: The first time I ran for office, I had no idea what I was doing, which is sub-optimal to say the least. However, I’m a fast learner and I didn’t make the same mistake twice, even though I think I made nearly every campaigning mistake at least once. What I think helped me through that steep learning curve and fostered future opportunities was that I created a team to help me in my campaigns and I approached the whole endeavor as a professional. For my first campaign, I created my team as I went, starting out mostly alone and building up a team as I went along. For the second campaign, my first order of business was putting together a strong campaign team. I can’t overstate how important it is to have a good team with a diverse set of skills to help on the campaign trail. The better the team, the more effective you can be at the local level for sure. I have no doubt that the team that I had for the Governor’s race would have seen me to victory for the City Council race if I had them when I first ran. I’ll say that running a statewide race is an order of magnitude harder than running locally, especially for a guy who still has to work a full-time job, but again, a campaign team helps shoulder that burden and is an absolute must for any serous campaign in my opinion.
Tarheel: Great insight, thank you. Further to that, what can you share about your campaigns that might help future candidates? What should they all be aware of, what pitfalls lie ahead, and what expectations should they have coming in?
DiFiore: I’ve already said that a team is absolutely necessary, but as the candidate you must embody the positive qualities of leadership and treat your volunteers well. They are volunteers after all. That can be hard, because there is a lot that needs to get done in a campaign to have any chance of making an impact, which means both you as the candidate, and those on your team will be spending a lot of time on the race and not with your family or furthering your career. That can be difficult to manage and keeping goals realistic without becoming self-defeating can be quite a balancing act. As a candidate, you will have an opportunity to grow as a person and as a leader. I would urge you to take that opportunity. If you avail yourself of the opportunity to grow, you very well might inspire others to become the best versions of themselves too and grow the party.
Tarheel: You are very open about ties you have with the Spanish community. Can you talk more about that, and maybe explain why it’s such an important demographic to share our message of Liberty?
DiFiore: During my first campaign I had the good fortune to meet and befriend a few local politicians, including local Democrat, Christina Cano, who is a Tejano with significant ties to the Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx communities. Additionally, I’ve worked in the construction industry for nearly a decade, and a significant number of my colleagues have been or are Hispanic or Latino. I should also mention that my better half, Mariana, is a Mexican citizen from Durango, so that helps my Spanish speaking community street cred even though my Spanish is very basic.
Over the past decade Mecklenburg County has been growing by leaps and bounds. A significant number of our new neighbors seeking their future and prosperity are from south of the border. For them, America is a shining city on the hill, and ours is a movement and political ideology amenable to immigration and multi-culturalism. America is a melting pot after all. As these communities tend to be close-knit, full of hard-working people, and don’t carry with them the political preconceptions that hinder our efforts with other demographics. My views aren’t Machiavellian though. The GOP and DNC don’t really have anything of substance to offer. They won’t improve the lives of all Americans. As I mentioned earlier, partisan pull is a tough hurdle to get over and if we have an opportunity to be first to figuratively bring our neighbors a welcome to the neighborhood pie, the more likely we’ll be to be able to organize effectively for political change, especially at the local level.
Tarheel: You also have been one of our more enthusiastic participants in the Charlotte Pride parade tabling event. Following up on the last question, the Tar Heel has previously aggressively pointed out how communities that are considered “marginalized” in the broader narrative are not viewed that way by Libertarians. What are we doing right in spreading our message that we will not compromise in our defense of everyone’s rights, and where can we do more?
DiFiore: While I know that Charlotte PRIDE isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I’ve always had a good time tabling there. It has a fun festival atmosphere and the organizers are very easy to work with. PRIDE festivals are more or less mainstream, as there are corporate sponsors galore alongside local business and organizations. This gives us a great opportunity to be seen and to put our best foot forward as evangelists for the cause of Liberty and freedom in our local communities. Folks come from all over the place to visit Charlotte PRIDE and we’ll have the opportunity to interact with not just folks from our own community but from other states and regions too.
One of the things we’ve done well in Mecklenburg County regarding our participation with Charlotte PRIDE is we keep it light-hearted and fun, while still doing the work of spreading the message and growing our local support base. We understand that not everyone will agree with us on every point, but even the folks who disagree with us walk away from our table with the thought that at least we're nice folks even if we emphasize guns and property rights a bit much for their taste. One of the things we do well is not infantilize or tokenize people, regardless of which “marginalized” community they perceive themselves to be in. Our emphasis on individuals and their individual rights and concerns is a boon to our outreach efforts. Where we can do more is on the volunteer and engagement front. Especially for high-energy festivals like Charlotte PRIDE, we need salesmen and carnival barker types, which at the moment are in short supply. I have hope, though, that as we grow, the more extraverted types will fall into our orbit.
Tarheel: OK, another question I asked Jeff almost exactly, but it comes with the territory since we have all attended arts events in Charlotte together! Art is, by its very nature, inherently political in that it is so deeply engaged with humanity. It should be the biggest sole marketing platform for Libertarians out there, with a rigid adherence to free expression, and yet we see so much art seems to have abandoned its purity and grown into a mouthpiece for political parties. Do you agree with this, and, if so, why do you think this has happened?
DiFiore: I absolutely love the arts. The theater and music scenes are some of the main reasons I stay in Charlotte, despite the high taxes. I disagree that the Arts are inherently political. They are inherently expressive and convey meaning, but that doesn’t have to be political.
There is the stereotype that theater folks and artists tend to be liberal leaning, and in my limited personal experience that seems to be somewhat true, but not fully. It takes all types to make a world after all, and good art is good regardless of the politics of those who create it. That being said, there is some art that outright pushes a political agenda or view, and sometimes I disagree with what is being pushed. Those are the shows I don’t patronize. It’s as simple as that to me. I can’t deny the cultural impact that growth of government power has had on all aspects of life, including art. As the malignancy of government corrupts all it touches, there is even greater cause to engage and maybe help other who share a common love of art to see another way of doing things.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ve an anecdote that highlights what I mean.
A few years ago, I was at a Charlotte Symphony concert and that year there was a bond on the ballot for the arts. Unsurprisingly, many in the arts community were in favor of the bond. After that specific concert the Maestro addressed the audience and asked them to vote yes on the bond. I couldn’t help but scoff at the Maestro’s comments, which started a conversation with a woman next to me. She was every bit a caricature of a big government lefty type, but we both loved the Symphony and earlier in the evening we discussed the different musicians playing, the conductor’s resume, and the sorts of shows we were looking forward to in the future. She seemed surprised that an obviously kindred spirit in the arts might have different politics. She asked why I didn’t support the arts. In our conversation I explained how I loved and supported the arts... after all I had purchased rather expensive seats to hear the Symphony play and was a season ticket holder. I just didn’t think others should have to subsidize the art I love. I ended by saying that I don’t like that my tax money goes toward supporting the Panthers Football Stadium and I don’t like the idea that working class families have to pay some portion of their taxes to support symphonies they may never get to enjoy. I remember her saying that she never had thought of it that way before and it was something to think about. I saw her at the next concert after the election and asked her about the bond, which passed. She said she did vote for it, and was happy it passed, but was thinking more carefully about such things in the future because of the points I had brought up last time. Personally, I think that is as much of a win as I could ask for in that situation.
Tarheel: OK, on to questions about MeckLP. What is unique about the party in Mecklenburg that has created such tight knit bonds? How can we build on that to grow the party here?
DiFiore: In truth, I’m not sure there is any particular magic sauce to the camaraderie we share here in Mecklenburg. We’re all in this together and we look to have fun while growing the party and creating positive change in our local communities. The nuts and bolts of politics aren’t for everyone, and Charlotte in particular has a strange political culture. The largest segment of our membership isn’t directly involved in local politics but involved in social clubs and non-political activity. For example, the book club, Carolina Freedom Fellowship, has been an unbelievable success. The Loaded Libertarians Telegram group is a great way for us to get together and put holes in paper the most fun way possible. We have Libertarians who love cars, musicals, or even hiking and jogging. One of the things we’ve done well in Mecklenburg is to foster a culture of fun and fellowship. If we looked for them, we’d be able to find differences and lines of division. That wouldn’t be helpful though, and it wouldn’t grow our movement. I know for myself, I’m always looking for a common thread, something we can agree on and work together on. I think that the positive and mindful attitude we adopt as an organization helps us move in a positive direction. I think that keeping things fun and doing more in the community is the surest path to continued growth in the county.
Tarheel: What is the biggest single issue in Mecklenburg that you think we can be messaging around, and how do we get that message out? Are there any available levers here in the Queen City, media for example, that we aren’t pulling where we should be?
DiFiore: Mecklenburg is a big county, with both the largest of the state’s cities and a bunch of small towns. There are even a few unincorporated areas. There is no biggest single issue, which is both a challenge and an opportunity as far as messaging goes. The challenge is finding the few issues that make the top of the list for each area, but that is also the opportunity. Outreach to the different municipalities or communities of interest is how we’ll learn what those messaging points will be, which is something we’ve engaged in already. In Charlotte, for example, a lot of folks are stressed about the cost of living and we have a libertarian solution for those issues. The smaller towns are nervous about Charlotte growing even larger and swallowing them up. We have a libertarian solution for that too. As far as levers are concerned, media is a big one that we haven’t had a good grip on for a while. However, technology and innovation continually provide more opportunities and options for getting the word out, fostering connections and relationships, and getting the work done of improving our local communities.
Tarheel: And just for you, anything big planned in your life or politics in the next two years?
DiFiore: I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. You’ll just have to keep an eye on the Meck. [editor's note: Stephen paused before answering, and had a huge smile for this one. We will be sure to keep you all updated on any developments.]
Tarheel: Thank you again for your time. One final question I ask everyone, what advice would you have for people just joining the Liberty movement, with passion but maybe looking for direction?
DiFiore: My advice is for those of us already in the movement. When we meet a new and passionate convert to the Libertarian cause, be a good Shepard. We were all new at one point and someone took us under their wing to show us how to temper and direct our passions. It is up to us to be good leaders and make sure that new people don’t feel like they are suddenly intruding on a close-knit clique, but have instead fallen into the open and welcoming arms of a community that values them.