Raleigh, N.C. — As Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs Larry Hall sat down to answer questions during a confirmation hearing Thursday, he fiddled with a battery-run microphone that wasn't amplifying his voice before determining that he could proceed with out it.
"Maybe it's been on for a couple weeks," Hall said, drawing guffaws from the room that knew a raucous legal battle had kept him from attending three prior hearings.
The Senate's Commerce and Insurance Committee voted unanimously to confirm Hall, and his nomination is scheduled to go before the full Senate on Monday night.
The former state House member from Durham has been at the center of a cat-and-mouse game between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers battling over whether the Senate has the right to confirm cabinet nominees.
After a month of contentious exchanges in the press and a flurry of court filings, Hall was greeted by 90 minutes of mostly civil questioning by a committee that subpoenaed him to appear. Last night, a three-judge panel refused to step into the dispute, clearing the way for Hall to finally testify.
Early on in the hearing, he said his office would be focused on making sure veterans knew about the services available to them that they may not be using.
"What we've failed to do is engage (veterans) and ensure they get they full advantage of every right and benefit they have earned," he said.
Other pressing issues for the office, he said, would be creating more jobs for veterans, ending homelessness among veterans and combating an epidemic of suicides among veterans.
Thursday's hearing was the first cabinet confirmation hearing in the state's history. Lawmakers set up the process after Cooper defeated former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in last year's election. Hall testified against a backdrop of partisan rancor between the legislative and executive branches, but he was backed my many well-wishers in the room, including fellow veterans.
Questions about conflicts
Many of the early questions in the hearing featured questions about Hall's biography, which he appeared to answer by reading straight off his resume. Hall is a Marine veteran who comes from a military family. He is also lawyer and former lawmaker.
The most pointed barbs of the day came not around Hall's qualifications but over the confirmation process itself and his votes as a lawmaker.
Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, for example, asked why Hall had voted against the creation of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in 2015.
"Can you please explain why and how this is not a conflict of interest?" she asked.
Hall responded that lawmakers are often confronted with bills some of which they like and some of which they don't.
"This was not a stand-alone bill," he said.
Wade followed up by asking Hall whether he knew he would be nominated to Cooper's cabinet when he voted against a law debated in December that created the confirmation process. Hall replied that he did not.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, focused in on why Hall had declined to appear at prior hearings. Hall said he believed he was prohibited from showing up by prior court orders issued in a legal battle over whether the confirmation process is constitutional. He noted that he was at the center of what amounted to a power struggle between two branches of government.
"I don't prefer to be a pawn in the process, but I want to be sure that all bodies do what they do consistent with the constitution," Hall said, adding that he would be sure to appear before the committee on matters of substance in the future.
After the meeting, Hise said he was satisfied with Hall's answers.
"He was here, and he'll be here in the future," Hise said. "My concerns were never about his qualifications."
Changes and windmills on the horizon
Other questions ranged through the typical set of queries any cabinet nominee might expect to face.
For example, Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, asked Hall what he might change about the department.
Hall noted that the department was cobbled out of several related divisions but relies on the Department of Administration for human resources administration and accounting help. That's a problem, he said, because his department oversees four nursing homes and a $13 million scholarship program that requires close monitoring.
"We need to have the financial controls to do that," Hall said.
At several points, Hall and members of the committee found common ground. For example, Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, asked about Cooper's budget proposal, which cuts funding for a grant program related to defending military bases against the Defense Department's Base Closure and Realignment process used to shutter less productive facilities. That budget proposal, he said, is less than what was budgeted last year.
Hall said that the department is trying to make sure it is a good steward of that money but that he would gladly accept more funding if the Senate were inclined to give it. Even more pressing, he said, is making sure that state spending on roads ensures that military families and units can get around when new units are moved into the area.
"Road improvements and utility improvements around the bases are key to what can be sustained," he said, drawing nods from a few committee members.
Hall was also quizzed on whether he was worried that new wind farms could interfere with military training. This has been an issue recently, with Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and others questioning whether a new Amazon wind farm in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties might impede the use of practice bombing ranges.
The nominee replied that base commanders had told him that current facilities are not a problem and that new wind turbines to the south of the area should be carefully studied to ensure that they don't interfere with radar installations. He also noted that it makes sense to locate power-generating facilities in the area.
"Some of the biggest customers Duke Energy has are military bases," Hall said. "It's a power-eating monster."