Democrat Lisa Grafstein was elected to the state Senate in November following a long career as a civil rights attorney. During her career, Grafstein focused on fighting for the rights and freedoms of those living with disabilities.
The 2023 North Carolina General Assembly session is now underway, and Cardinal & Pine is conducting interviews with several newly-elected state lawmakers in order to help their constituents get to know them better, ask about their priorities, and serve as a reference point for their time in the General Assembly.
Today, we’re publishing our interview with state Sen. Lisa Grafstein, who represents Raleigh in the state House after serving as a civil rights lawyer for 27 years. During our interview, Grafstein talked about everything from Medicaid expansion to the need to protect reproductive freedom to the importance of pushing back against divisive legislation meant to gin up outrage.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Cardinal & Pine: You’ve obviously lived in North Carolina for a while. What do you love about the state and then more specifically your community?
Sen. Grafstein: North Carolina is a beautiful state. It’s a beautiful place to live. There’s a great variety of people and a great variety of nature.
I personally like the combination of folks who’ve been here forever and folks who have wandered in from other places. It just makes for a nice culture. I’ve been in Raleigh since 1990 and I’ve seen a lot of growth. The last 10 years for sure has seen not just numbers, but just the richness of the community.
And that’s really one of the things I also like about my district. It’s a diverse district in a lot of ways from a socioeconomic perspective, from a cultural perspective; it’s just a really rich environment where people have chosen to live.
What’s your favorite place to go or thing to do in Raleigh?
My favorite place to go in Raleigh? That’s tough. I really like Schenck Forest. It’s a really nice place to walk around. I enjoy downtown and some of the new restaurants coming up. In terms of cultural attractions, the Greenway really is the place I spend the most time. I run on the greenway several times a week. I think it’s just a lot of the outdoor life that’s available.
You obviously have lived in your community for a while and love it. How did that love translate into running for public office? What inspired you to run?
A lot of it has to do with not just sort of the physical location of where I live, but also just a lot of the issues that I’ve seen over the course of my time in Raleigh, which kind of overlaps with my time as a lawyer for the last 27 or so years.
The issues that came out of that revolve around things like making sure people have access to economic opportunity, access to good jobs, access to personal freedoms. Issues around choice are obviously big right now and important. Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, all the things that have informed my career a lot. Disability rights has been a huge piece of my career over the last 11 or so years.
All those issues really find expression in our communities. Certainly that’s true in Raleigh and making sure that we have a voice to really speak to those individual freedoms, but also that economic justice piece where people have the access to the American dream.
You mentioned, obviously you’ve been a civil rights attorney for a while. What are you most proud of in your legal career?
I think I’m most proud of taking on some of the cases for people with disabilities that are really below the radar for a lot of folks. I think a lot of folks have specific ideas of what they think disability is, but there have been a number of issues over the years where we were able to identify a group of folks who didn’t have access to the economic mainstream and bring cases that really affect a lot of people.
For example, there was one case where we had a set of people who were being shut out of work essentially because of some aspects of the benefit system that said, ‘if you work, you’re no longer eligible for Medicaid in certain contexts.’ For folks with disabilities, a lot of times the disability may be such that they need assistance in certain ways, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t work.
There was a benefit available under state law that said ‘you can work and still maintain your Medicaid,’ because for folks who need that benefit to work, it’s a bit of a catch-22 to have to essentially live in poverty by not working in order to maintain Medicaid benefits.
We were able to secure benefits for probably hundreds, if not thousands, of people who otherwise would not have been able to stay in the workforce or join the workforce. I’m really proud of that case.
Speaking of discrimination, we’ve seen a huge uptick in anti-LGBTQ legislation and rhetoric. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel sad for the kids today who are coming out. I came out when I was 15 years old and I did not have the kind of horrific experiences that you hear about, but it wasn’t fantastic and it breaks my heart that we’re going backward and instead of forward. It makes me angry.
I’m afraid that we’re going to see some bills that are going to attempt to again, create what people sometimes call ‘culture wars,’ but are really about who has a right to exist free in our society and not having to live in fear or live in a way that makes them feel like they’re surrounded by people who have animosity toward them.
It’s not a great feeling. I don’t wish it on anybody. And I’m going to do everything I can to push back against those efforts.
Speaking of the session, what are some of your priorities this year?
Everybody’s priority I think is Medicaid expansion. We certainly all want to see that. To the extent that some of my background around Medicaid issues and disability issues is useful, I hope to play a role in that effort.
On the disability front, we have a lot of people who are waiting for services who can’t get services. We have significant problems with the mental health service availability in our state as well as other disabilities, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance use disorder. That’s something that I want to spend some time working on this term and an area where I think there’s a lot of bipartisan concern and maybe some opportunities really to move the needle on some of those issues. So that’s going to be a big priority for me.
Obviously another big priority also is protecting people’s reproductive freedoms and personal freedoms and making sure that we’re not rolling back some of the advances that have been made. Those are going to be some of the more divisive fights, but I think it’s important that we engage in conversation and really let people know that North Carolina remains a state where you can live and have your freedoms protected. And so we’re going to keep fighting for that.
Those are some of the priorities. There’s lots to do around things like affordable housing. There’s lots to do around things like wages. We really need to raise the minimum wage in our state as well as other protections for workers.
You mentioned reproductive freedom and North Carolina is currently one of the few states in the South where abortion is legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. Republicans have talked different proposals in recent months, including a possible ban after 12 weeks. What would you say to people in North Carolina who are worried that the state could ban abortion this year?
I would say speak up. Now is the time. Because I think we’re going to see lots of debate and I think the main arguments right now are within the Republican caucus about what they want to propose, because they have a supermajority in the Senate. They don’t have a supermajority in the House, so they may be trying to find ways around that. But I would say speak up and be really vocal about what your freedoms mean to you.
It’s important that people understand the consequences. Tell your stories. And I think that’s really the key thing for people.
I wish that I could say, ‘don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.’ But we’re going to have to fight back really hard to limit whatever damage happens and to make sure that we’re planning ahead for the future for a time when we can ensure everybody’s freedom and not be fighting over things that really relate to how much the government’s going to control your body as opposed to whether the government’s going to control your body.
Voting rights and gerrymandering are pretty much always an issue in North Carolina. How do you plan to try to fight and uphold democracy during your term?
That’s a great question and it is a long term issue. One thing I think that people lose track of sometimes when we start talking about gerrymandering and voting rights is that this is actually about people’s ability to control the decisions that relate to things like whether there’s affordable housing or whether they have the kinds of freedoms that we were just talking about in terms of LGBTQ rights or reproductive rights, around other things like tax policy and whether we raise wages. So all of these things that really go to people’s individual lives.
It’s not that democracy is not an important thing, it’s core. But I think sometimes we lose track of the fact that when you allow people to gerrymander themselves into power and stay there, then they don’t have to be responsive to people on those issues.
So how to push back I think is talking about that with folks and making sure that we are being clear about what’s at stake and that there are consequences if folks try to overreach when it comes to things like voting rights and gerrymandering. In the voting rights context, we have a good system in North Carolina where we have access to early voting. Many people take advantage of early voting and rely on it. That also includes voting by mail.
I think efforts to roll that back would be really ill-advised because people do enjoy that method of voting and it makes it more possible for more people to access the ballot. I think we’re just going to have to be pushing out clear messaging around the consequences of trying to limit these freedoms and then doing the best we can with whatever bills get produced to try to limit the harm that comes out of them.
Another issue that has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years is education, for a variety of reasons, from the efforts to limit what can be taught in classrooms to the Leandro case in North Carolina. What are some of your priorities you are most focused on regarding education this year?
I think we have a lot of needs in the education context and obviously a huge piece of that is funding.
I know that there are going to be bills around things like making sure we have a teacher assistant in every classroom, making sure we are doing work around other folks in the school environment like counselors and social workers who really are needed to help support teachers, so that they’re not trying to play all these roles while managing their classrooms. I think those kinds of funding priorities are really important in making sure we have equity across the state.
In terms of things like what’s being taught in the classrooms and what books are in the library, I think these are issues that are intended to gin up outrage at our teachers and at our school systems in ways that are really unhealthy and unproductive. I think one of the challenges ahead really is to figure out how to make sure we’re pushing back hard on those issues, but not letting them swallow up the discussions about what our schools are supposed to be about.
We live in a very divided country right now and North Carolina is one of the more competitive states electorally. But a lot of these divisions didn’t occur naturally. They’re the result of a lot of policy choices, propaganda, and self-dealing politicians. It’s a big question, but how do we start to repair things if that’s even possible?
That is a big question. I think a lot of it really has to do with two things that are going to sound really contradictory. One is that I think we have to turn down the heat in some ways in terms of the rhetoric. And I’m not going to both sides this issue, it’s not a both sides issue. But I think we need to really steer away from engaging in outrage politics.
There’s going to be plenty of that over the next couple years, right? We have someone who’s going to be running for governor, who’s the lieutenant governor [Republican Mark Robinson], who attracts a lot of attention. I think that’s intentional and it’s politically maybe a wise thing to do if you want to get attention and get people to send you money and things like that.
I think one challenge for us is to not look at the train wreck constantly. Not constantly talk about the horrors that we see, right? Because again, as I was saying earlier with the issues around education, we have to push back on things that are wrong. But then I think when we become obsessed with them and forget to talk about the things that actually matter to people’s lives, that’s where I think we get lost in this tug of war or whatever metaphor you want to use for it, and people tune out.
People are not interested in watching a bunch of political talking heads yell at each other about things. It doesn’t enhance their lives in any way, so I think if we kind of make sure we’re being really clear about our moral stance in terms of some of the things that are said in the political context, but then really pivot and talk about things that people really want to hear about so we can show people that there’s a better way.
I think it’s going to take a long time and it’s going to take a lot of people really changing the way they go about their rhetoric. If we really want people to be engaged in their democracy and understand the connection between their democracy and the things that matter in their lives, then we’re going to have to talk about those things and make them meaningful to people.
Is there an experience or something that happened in life that shaped you in a foundational way in what you prioritize and fight for?
I think there is something about coming at life as an outsider—which is how I have felt most of my life—that really does shape who I am and how I think about the world and how I view the world. There are just things that are visible to you when you are not part of a mainstream culture that are not visible otherwise.
And I think it’s kind of given me the opportunity to see things now maybe in a bigger way and also to see and not be able to abide injustice and things like that. I don’t mean to make myself sound like a crusader or something like that, but I really chafe against things that are unfair and things that just make people’s lives harder unnecessarily. So I think that would be it.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I think probably the best piece of advice that I’ve ever heard was to take the work seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously. And that’s really what I try to do.
What are some of your hobbies? What do you do when you’re not working?
I run a few times a week. I spend a lot of time with my son. He’s 24. He lives here in Raleigh and we like to make up random errands to do on the weekends. I spend time with my girlfriend. I have a large dog who likes to be petted and attended to. When I have a chunk of time on my own, I like to read. I’m one of those people who keeps a list of the books they read last year because I really am kind of voracious.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a book called People Love Dead Jews, which is about anti-Semitism and some of the ways people think about who Jews are. It has to do with the Holocaust and has to do with victimization as opposed to seeing the kind of current anti-Semitism for what it is, even though ‘technically’ it’s not the Holocaust, but it’s still serious. It’s kind of a heavy book.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you want to share or you want people to know?
I come into this role as somebody who has no attachment to being an ‘elected official.’ I’m not attached to the role for its own sake.
There’s an expression: some people run for office to be something and some people run for office to do something. I’m not interested in being something with a title. I’m really interested in trying to make a difference. I think what I would like that to signify is that I was not groomed for this and we can all kind of do something in our lives, whatever it is to make a difference. I certainly never thought it would be this, but I think it’s important that we all think about what our role is and how do we make the world better.
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