‘I know where I came from’: NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall says she’s focused on stopping the state’s rural ‘brain drain’

‘I know where I came from’: NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall says she’s focused on stopping the state’s rural ‘brain drain’

NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall at a Scotland County event in May. Marshall is running for re-election to this important Council of State position in November. (Photo via Marshall campaign)

By Billy Ball

June 25, 2024

Nearly 30 years since Elaine Marshall became the first woman elected to a statewide executive office in NC, she’s running for reelection on a promise to boost rural economic growth and help small businesses get off the ground.

NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall grew up on a farm, so she lights up when she talks about rural issues.

“We’ve got rural North Carolina hurting,” she said in a recent interview with Cardinal & Pine. “We have counties that are shrinking in population and they’re mostly experiencing brain drain.”

Marshall says that’s why her office—which is one of the first points of contact for aspiring small business owners—is focused on rural economic growth through its Rural RISE (Resources for Innovators, Startups, and Entrepreneurs) program, connecting entrepreneurs with advice, counseling, and their local chambers of commerce. 

Marshall, who’s been in public office in NC for more than 30 years—first as a state legislator, then as secretary of state—is running for re-election this November. Her re-election campaign is, like NC Democrats’ overall strategy this year, centering on rural places

“The ecosystem for entrepreneurs in places like Raleigh and Charlotte and Durham is thick. It’s abundant,” she says. “But once you get to Bladen County or Halifax County or Clay County in the west or Cherokee, the ecosystem for entrepreneurs is pretty thin and they really don’t know where to go and they feel like they’re on their own.” 

NC is one of the least expensive places to launch a new business, but the lack of local resources can be fatal for new business owners. About a quarter of new businesses fail, and the problem is most acute in rural areas, Marshall says. 

“So those counties lose leadership,” she says. “They lose opportunities. And so if I can do just a little bit to turn that tide around, I will feel like I’ve done a good day’s work.”


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READ MORE: Why no one should sleep on NC’s race for secretary of state

What the secretary of state does

In addition to serving as an access point for small businesses, NC’s secretary of state also regulates investment advisers, and plays a small role in elections—helping to convene NC’s Electoral College meetings and file the correct election certifications. 

The secretary of state’s office does not, however, count the votes and certify elections. That power resides with the state Board of Elections, which is appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper and the state legislature. 

Marshall is running this year against Republican Chad Brown, a Gaston County Republican who’s served 12 years on his local Board of Commissioners.  

Recently, Cardinal & Pine talked to Marshall about her career, what she’s hoping to accomplish  in another term, and the concern that, if a Republican is elected, the GOP-controlled state legislature would change the powers of the office to allow an “election denier”—meaning someone who makes the unfounded claim that the 2020 election was stolen—to exert more control over elections. That’s a major concern for democracy advocates. 

We’ve also reached out to Brown for an interview, and will link to it here if he agrees. 

Scroll below for our full conversation with Marshall. [Editor’s Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.]

Elaine Marshall

NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (center) during a meet this year with local leaders in Clinton, NC. Marshall is touting her Rural RISE program for connecting small business owners in rural NC with resources. (Photo via Marshall campaign)


As soon as people say, ‘I want to start a business,’ then they start to learn all about the secretary of state’s office.


Well, we are the first contact for somebody that has a dream that they’re turning into a business. I mean, people woke up this morning and said, ‘Today’s the day, and I’m going to go start that business.’ And they go look to see how to do the formation of either a corporation, an LLC, or a nonprofit. 

Now we are very quick to tell you, if you have an idea and you’re just starting it today, we’re probably not the first place to go to. You really need to be thinking about what kind of business plan you’re going to have, about how you’re going to continue the company and who you’re going to sell to, how you’re going to price it, how you’re going to market, keeping your books, getting some things about HR and legal in your head. Getting off to a good start is much more than filing the documents with us.

I mean, I think we’re probably the sexy part of that equation, but unfortunately we know that 25% of business entities that are started are gone within three years and 50% are gone within seven years. 

We are the first contact for somebody that has a dream that they’re turning into a business.

Our new project, Rural RISE: Rise stands for “resources for innovators, startups and entrepreneurs.” Every time a new person sends something to us, we send back this information. 

And the ecosystem for entrepreneurs in places like Raleigh and Charlotte and Durham is thick. It’s abundant, but once you get to Bladen County or Halifax County or Clay County in the west or Cherokee, the ecosystem for entrepreneurs is pretty thin and they really don’t know where to go and they feel like they’re on their own.

I grew up in a rural community and I know what it’s like to feel like that you’re not being heard or government doesn’t pay any attention to you. So that’s why this program has started with rural folks. And it’s Rural RISE and every time they touch us, we send out this bulletin for their county and it has local contact information in it.

It’s not Raleigh-centric government information. We tell ’em the name of somebody there at the Chamber of Commerce who’s supposed to take care of them. The name of the person at the (local) community college small business center, which so many people have never heard of, and they have low or no cost, mostly no cost, confidential counseling.

And I’ve met these business counselors. A lot of them have started businesses and sold them themselves. They’re well qualified to help people. So I’m really enthused about that as we go forward. I’ve got a lot on my agenda If the folks will just re-elect me, re-elect me and let me do it.


I appreciate you bringing up the rural side of this equation. I think that that’s something that I try to talk about a lot. I’m also from rural North Carolina. I know that it tends to be an area that people forget to talk about and especially when you’re talking about small business development, I feel like that’s really where the rubber hits the road.


We’ve got rural North Carolina hurting. We have counties that are shrinking in population and they’re all experiencing, mostly experiencing brain drain.

It’s a real tragedy when kids get educated and they finally say to mom and dad, ‘I’d love to come back here to small town North Carolina, but I can’t, the lady I’m going to marry doesn’t want to do that because there’s not much activity here. Or there’s just not the ecosystem here where I think I can earn a decent living with what I’ve learned to do in school or in trade and what have you.’ 

So those counties lose leadership. They lose opportunities. And so if I can do just a little bit to turn that tide around, I will feel like I’ve done a good day’s work.


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And the kind of information that we’re putting out there is not going to be out of date six months from now. It is valid information that’s going to be needed for a long, long time for these organizations, and they can be stronger from the beginning and not get into some of the ditches that businesses get into because they haven’t kept their books right. 

Or I am kind of railing against folks that say nobody lends to small businesses. That’s not true. Especially right now there’s been a big infusion of lots of dollars here from the small business administration into North Carolina, into local lenders who are lending. When that person tells me they don’t lend those small businesses, the first thing that goes off in my mind, I don’t ask it, but I go, how did you take care of your books? 

If you treat your LLC like your own family piggy bank and think you’re really outsmarting the IRS by trying to expense everything that you can think of, including things that are not related to the business, like your kid’s orthodontist bill or buying that new bicycle for a kid on and on and on—and people do that kind of thing—I tell ’em, I can just about guarantee you have zero chance of having an IRS audit for tax evasion. 

We’ve got rural North Carolina hurting. We have counties that are shrinking in population and they’re all experiencing, mostly experiencing brain drain. 

But if you go to borrow money, you’re about again going to have about zero chance because you haven’t shown that you have a profit. And that’s what bankers and lenders are looking for. So we’re really trying to prepare people to avoid some of those mistakes that can be fatal in the long run.


What is the thing that you think small business owners in these communities most need?


They need back office training. They need information about how to set up their books. They need a little bit of legal, they’re going to need some H.R., whether they need it right now or not, or law around employees, that kind of thing. 

The other thing that people do that involves or don’t do that involves the Secretary of State’s office is trademark their name. I run into people on something of a regular basis that say, ‘What can I do? I’ve been running this gym and it’s called Fancy Feet,’ just pick a name. And they’ve been in an LLC, but they haven’t trademarked it. 

And then one of their employees, their best performing employee says, ‘Well, I think I want to do this for myself.’ And they go across town and they open up Fancy Feet, Also, they haven’t protected their name, and it’s sad because their reputation and quality that they’ve invested in can be squandered away. 

So we really hope that folks will trademark their name if they’ve got a cute design that’s unique to them. Definitely, definitely because somebody else can copy it. When you have a trademark, you have to protect it yourself, but you’re far better off if you’ve established it with us, you’ve protected that cute little logo with us. 

That is the foundation that’s going to make you successful. 


People know your name. You’ve been in this office for a number of years, but what do you think people should know about you, the type of person that you are? 


I know where I came from and I’m very willing and feel an obligation to give back. 

What I’m saying is that I would still be on the farm somewhere, which is not a bad thing. But my parents knew not much about the outside world, but a public school teacher saw something in me and encouraged my family to let me go to college. 

But more significantly was the 4-H program. I excelled at 4-H. 4-H is the kind of program that when a young person excels, there are just more opportunities and more opportunities and more opportunities, and you develop better skills, and these are life skills in the long run. 

And so I continue to work on the 4-H board here. I am plugging 4-H every opportunity I get because it’s an excellent co-ed program of youth development with very positive outcomes and long-lasting impact on folks you have to do or you can do.


I want to talk a little bit about your opponent, Chad Brown. One thing that stuck out to me is he is talking a lot about election security and stuff that isn’t a huge part of what your office actually does.

But that’s something that we’ve seen in other states, Republicans talking about using the secretary of state’s office to protect the “integrity” of the election, even though there’s no credible evidence that voter fraud is a significant issue in this country. 

What do you think about all that focus that you’ve seen from your opponent on election integrity? 


A lot of my colleagues in 2022 that were up had election deniers, fomenting and running serious campaigns to become Secretary of State because they believe they should set the rules or they should be the ones in charge of what they call election integrity. 

I have seen the partisan battles at the National Secretary of State Organization. I’m a spectator on that since we don’t do the registration of voters nor the conduct of elections here. 

Our role in elections is very, very tail end after elections are certified. We mostly are a transmission conduit to the appropriate people at the federal level or here at the state level. We put what I call the bells and whistles on a document to say, this is the valid report coming from North Carolina. And then we of course convene the Electoral College, which is based upon the elector thing, which made a lot of news in 2020.

What my opponent is saying to the crowd he’s campaigning to is that if he gets elected, if there’s a Republican in the secretary of state’s office, then he will petition the General Assembly to move the election to him. 

And he thinks if there’s a Republican General Assembly, they will willingly do that, which would be a game changer for North Carolina.

That I think is not very positive. Historically, North Carolina has had in its whole history an election board to run elections. I shouldn’t say the whole history because the history goes way back to the founding of the state, but in a long time, what the intellectual people think is the right way to do it. 

You don’t have a partisan person running what should be a nonpartisan activity of major consequence. You’ll never be able to convince me, even my colleagues who are Democrats, that their personal choice of party and their knowledge of people within that party doesn’t have something to do with how they feel about elections.


Now, a lot of them do have firewalls between themselves and the election administrator, but here in North Carolina, we have the best firewall of all because it’s not a part of an elected office. And when somebody is appointed to the Board of Elections or is employed by the Board of Elections, they are required by law to leave whatever their party affiliation is behind. They can’t participate in political activities. They can contribute, they can attend something, They do have their freedom of speech and can write a check, but it’s de-minimis engagement with anything political. 

So I think that’s the better type of program for every state. But it’s what we’ve had and enjoyed here in North Carolina and our election fraud or election problems have been almost to the point of being insignificant in this state, not enough to change the outcome of an election. 

And unfortunately, a lot of our problems are driven by some campaign, whether it’s the candidate themselves or one of their overzealous operatives. It is the campaign workers of a political persuasion for a political candidate who are the ones out there trying to game the system in some way. It is not the rank and file voters who are just trying to cast their ballot, which is their right, and I would say is their duty to participate in democracy by participating in elections.


It sounds like it’s a power you don’t want your office to have.


I’ve been asked about that for years and I have deflected it. Yeah, we do have an independent group, and it needs to stay that way. It needs to be away from a partisan elected official.


Not to belabor it, but one thing I wanted to draw attention to: Do you think it’s a possibility that if your opponent is elected, that the legislature would change the powers of this office? 


Absolutely. I feel very confident about that.

… I don’t think he could have won his primary without that, because two candidates that we followed were talking about elections. He could not have won the Republican primary without being an [election] denier himself.


What do you hope that voters are thinking of when they go into the polls this year? Because they’re getting a lot of different messaging right now.


I think they want to hear about the future, a future that has democratic principles, that democracy is being defended, that the rule of law does apply, and that they are looking for stability as opposed to chaos. Chaos is not good for anyone. 

Businesses want predictability. They’re not going to make huge investments (without it). We see that all around the world. If a country doesn’t have a solid rule of law and predictability, there’s not enough insurance, and you can’t buy enough insurance to protect against instability out there. 

Markets get disrupted, economies rise and fall dramatically when you’ve got instability in government. So I hope that the people will look to say, ‘Who’s thinking about the future? Who’s going to protect democracy so that I have my rights? And who’s going to have a stable environment for the government?


Anything else you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask?


We’ve had this tremendous explosion in business creations in North Carolina since the beginning of the pandemic. I give total credit to my wonderful staff for how they’ve processed. When you have a 50,000 increase in one single year, and that increased number is our new number, my folks are doing between 650 and 700 new business entities every day that the doors are open. 

That is astronomical. We’re not perfect, but we’re doing a heck of a good job in processing what the folks want for economic development in this state. And we’re part of the reason that North Carolina is the number one state for business, and I think you need to keep the same Secretary of State and office to assure that.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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