Democrat Rachel Hunt was elected to represent southern Charlotte in the state Senate in November. She is a lawyer who previously served two terms in the state House. In our interview with her, Hunt spoke about the urgency of investing in the state’s public schools.
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.
Democrat Rachel Hunt was elected to North Carolina’s 42nd state Senate district (located in southern Charlotte) in November. She is a lawyer, entrepreneur, and previously served two terms in the state House. She is also an advocate for public education, the environment and economic development across the state.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
If someone were visiting Mecklenburg County for the first time, what’s a place or activity you would recommend that they try out?
There’s so many things to do in Mecklenburg County. I love going to parks. Colonel Beatty Park is near my house, I walk my dogs there. They are 15 years old and they still love going there. There’s a large lake, as well as the Carolina Thread Trail, which is another greenway trail that goes through the county. We have great places to eat. I love Lang Van, which is a Vietnamese restaurant that’s been there forever and it is consistently voted one of the best restaurants in the state and it’s fabulous. Uptown also has some fabulous museums. There’s just a huge variety of things to do and it’s a great place to live.
What do you love about North Carolina?
I love so many things. The people here are the best anywhere in the world. We have such beautiful geographical diversity. Being able to go from the beach—and we have the most beautiful beaches with wide swaths of white sand—to the mountains and walk on the Blue Ridge Parkway, It doesn’t get any better. I also grew up in eastern North Carolina on a farm. Just being able to go outside, ride horses, look at the cows, pick things from the garden—it was just an incredible and ideal childhood and I couldn’t wish for anything better.
How did your love of North Carolina translate into running for office?
I feel compelled to serve the people of North Carolina as a public servant and that is what I am doing. It takes time away from my family and my home, and we get paid $13,000 a year. We pay to work here basically. I do it for the love of the people in North Carolina and the desire to make their lives better.
What is something in North Carolina’s culture that you think would shock people outside of our state?
I think North Carolinians are people that are full of integrity, and I don’t think you can say that about everyone everywhere in the world. They’re also just very fierce and loyal and strong. We used to be mostly a Scotch-Irish state and Scotch-Irish people are known for being very strong and very strong-willed. I was always known as that as a child. I think that combination of characteristics is what makes everyone here so great.
You’ve served two terms in the State House. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
Sitting through sessions where we were trying to uphold the governor’s veto day after day, after week, after month, from January until November of 2019 was unforgettable. We thought it would never end. It was incredibly tense because at any time, the veto [override vote] could be called and we would have to vote on it. No one could be absent, we brought people in who were ill, who had just had surgery. No one could go on any family vacation, go to any birthday, wedding, nothing. That was very impactful and I will never forget that time.
Introducing my first bill and committee [was also memorable]. I only had one bill get through and it went through two committees. It was the Student Borrowers’ Bill of Rights, and that was thrilling just to be able to stand up and introduce my bill and talk through it with the committees. I’m going to be reintroducing it.
What pushed you to move from the House into the Senate?
Jeff Jackson, my former senator, ran for Congress and is now in Congress. That opened up a seat and then I just decided that I could help more people because the Senate districts are three times the size of a House district. Those are the two reasons: to help more people and because the timing worked out.
Can you tell us some of your most memorable experiences throughout your life?
Growing up on a farm in Wilton County. My grandparents lived there too, my dad’s parents. Also working in tobacco fields every summer, where I worked with people who had been sixth grade dropouts. I got to see what happens if you don’t continue your education in your life, and [learn] the value of hard work. Doing physical labor 12 hours a day, there’s nothing like that. It made me understand I can either continue my education and get a job that doesn’t require this, or I could be doing this for the rest of my life. Now, it was very healthy, I slept great, but we want to be able to have options. That was an incredibly important thing.
My father was governor for 16 years. Living and growing up in the governor’s mansion was incredible. I can’t say how much I loved that because it was just the greatest. I’m an extrovert, so it was perfect for me living in a house with people 24/7, doing tours five days a week downstairs, getting to meet people all over the country and the world. It was just incredible. Every time I see the mansion, I think about all the memories I had there and they all come flooding back. Also, seeing how hard my father and mother worked. It’s one of the reasons I waited until my children were out of the house to get into politics and public service because it is an all-consuming job. It is seven days a week, and I knew I would not be able to do it to the best of my ability if my children were still at home.
What do you think are some of the most pressing issues regarding public education in North Carolina?
We have a huge teacher shortage and staffing shortage in all of our public schools in all areas. It’s a national problem that’s gotten worse since the pandemic. We have done some [harmful] things in North Carolina; getting rid of master’s pay, retiree benefits, most of the teacher assistants in classrooms, and not having calendar flexibility. All of these things have really hurt our ability to retain teachers and get new ones, so we could immediately fix those things. And teacher pay, of course. We have the money in the budget, we could definitely do that right now.
[Editor’s note: “Master’s pay” granted automatic pay raises to NC teachers that had completed a Master’s degree. In 2013, North Carolina became the first state to eliminate these salary increases.]
I am writing a bill to address calendar flexibility and teacher pay and some other things. But we also need to do some new things. We’ve looked at issues like having a teacher residency program. That seems to work very well, especially to get teachers from diverse backgrounds, which we definitely need in the state. The teaching force reflects our population, and teacher residency programs have a much higher rate of retention than our traditional teaching programs, so we definitely need to do that.
[Editor’s note: Teacher residency programs allow future teachers at the undergrad and graduate level to have hands-on experience in the classroom with an experienced mentor, for an extended amount of time.]
The [teacher] licensure program is up for some changes. We are going to see what happens with that, it’s very controversial right now. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that. Then there are places like apprenticeship programs where we could bring in kids that are in high school and start training them to be teachers, paying them and having a greater workforce that way. We definitely need to do that too. We need to do everything we can to have more people go into teaching. But first of all, we need to make teaching better in North Carolina and give teachers back their autonomy and their professionalism that they used to have.
What are some of the challenges that businesses in North Carolina are facing right now and what kind of policies can we expect to see that will support them?
Businesses are losing workers, we know that. That started during the pandemic. They are having huge staffing shortages. One of the biggest [industries] that has lost workers is the childcare industry. Eighty-two percent of childcare places in North Carolina have staffing shortages. That’s almost every single one. We heard from the owner of one of the best five star ones, Nana’s Place, in Charlotte at the Holshouser Legislative Retreat. She’s had to close the infant room and the next youngest room, which is for 18-month-olds.
She’s not been able to get teachers for either of those rooms and had to close them completely. This is a five star licensed place.
We also know how much childcare costs in North Carolina, it’s ridiculously expensive. We’ve got to figure out a way to fix this. We cannot continue to have successful businesses if people don’t have a good place to put their children before they’re able to go to school. We’re going to be looking at that, whether we need to change the funding model or supply more grant money to places. We’ve got to fix that situation.
We live in a very politically divided climate, but many things that we’ve talked about—education, business, quality of life—impact all of us. How is the General Assembly overcoming that divide?
We are sort of an insulated society here. It’s kind of a world within a world, so it’s really important to make social connections with people on the other side of the aisle. Remember, most of the bills that are passed here have bipartisan agreement. It’s the 20% that we don’t agree on that people concentrate on, but we do agree on most things. I’ve got several ideas in mind that I’m going to be talking to my Republican colleagues about to get them on board, and they’re things that will help people regardless of party in North Carolina. We know we have people that are hurting and we know we have solutions legislatively that can help them.
In what ways are you hoping to continue preserving North Carolina’s natural environment?
Our natural environment here in North Carolina is the most beautiful of any state in the country, so we have got to do everything we can to preserve it. I think continuing the clean energy ideas, whether it be wind, solar—all of these things can really help make sure that we keep our state beautiful and avoid things like spills that have happened in many other states and really polluted the environment. We also have to do things like make sure our waterways are strengthened so we don’t have flooding. We’ve got to take seriously the climate change that is happening and we have to have resilient communities.
We need to look at whatever people are doing in other states, in other countries, and replicate them if we need to. For example, in Texas there are tax savings when farmers retire. Usually when farmers retire, they sell their livestock and then lose their tax credit. These are retirees like my parents who depended on that tax credit to be able to live economically. In Texas, they have something called a wildlife tax credit, and if the farmer does certain things to promote wildlife on their farm, they can get a tax credit. I’m going to be talking to some people and probably introduce that bill this session.
This is a new environment now, and we’re not going back climate wise. I’m ready to look at whatever we need to. I’m on the Agriculture Environment Energy Committee of the Senate, and I’m ready to look at anything people come up with that could help their community, I would like to hear about. So any of your readers, please send me ideas.
Reproductive healthcare is a huge topic in the General Assembly right now, especially the talk of introducing abortion bans. What is the environment around that right now?
We introduced a bill to codify Roe and Casey, and it was actually sponsored or co-sponsored by every single Democrat in the House and the Senate. That rarely happens and it shows that we are very serious about making sure we take a stand to protect our reproductive healthcare rights here in North Carolina. We know we are one of the only southern states to have not already gone down the path of banning [abortion], which puts people’s lives in danger and takes away freedoms. That is what we have to stop. We cannot have a state where our daughters have fewer freedoms than we had when we were their age. I just can’t stand that.
What are you most passionate about fighting for in the General Assembly this year?
Making sure our public education system gets back on track. It needs to be funded. We know we were recently rated last in the country in the percentage of wealth that a state has that the state is giving to public education. We were last. That is unacceptable, and it can’t be explained away because we can’t afford it, that’s not the answer. If I could just wave a wand, that’s what I would do.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?
My father always used to say, ‘remember who you are.’ I think that’s not just talking about what my last name is, that’s talking about who you are inside. It’s very easy when you’re in a place like this, where things might happen that are very upsetting to you, you may hear some language that you know is not true—you just have to remain true to yourself, and that is exactly what I think everybody should try to do.
If you had a day where you only did exactly what you wanted, what would that day look like for you?
It would start with a delicious latte. Then I would drive up to the Art Loeb Trail, which is one I climbed very often with my dogs. They would be younger than 15, which is how old they are now. We would climb that trail, and the view on the top is stunning. I’d also be with my children and they’d be younger as well. That would just be my perfect day.
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