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 Mary Wills Bode was elected to North Carolina’s 18th state Senate district, which covers part of Wake and Granville County, in November. She was previously the executive director of a bipartisan coalition for redistricting reform, has been an attorney since 2015, and is a strong advocate for reproductive rights and rural areas of North Carolina.
If someone were to visit Wake or Granville County for the first time, what’s a place or activity you would recommend they try out?
Downtown Oxford is a really amazing, quaint, place. We have a wonderful bakery, Strong Arm Bakery. Everything there is amazing– so you’ve been warned. There’s also Tobacco Wood Brewery, a great brewery down there and some really good shops. If you want a little drive outside of Wake County, you will find a really awesome spot in downtown Oxford that will not disappoint.
What do you love about North Carolina?
I love so much about North Carolina. I’m a native North Carolinian and what I love about North Carolina is that we are such a warm, welcoming place. We’ve got that Southern hospitality and charm.
I also don’t think North Carolina is afraid to innovate. We have a long, rich history of that, whether that be the Research Triangle Park, our university system, or being first in flight.
We are unafraid to be forward-thinking. I really, really believe that North Carolina’s best chapter is up ahead.
How did your love for North Carolina push you to run for public office?
I tell people all the time that I decided to run for office because I wanted to earn a seat at the table where decisions were being made about a community that I cared deeply about. I am a Wake County native, as I mentioned, and I live in Granville County. My mom’s family has been in Granville County for many, many generations, and I just looked around and I was eager to serve. I think there are a lot of amazing opportunities, not just in Senate District 18, but across North Carolina.
One of the really interesting things about Senate District 18 is that it’s the only urban, suburban, and rural senate seat in North Carolina. It is a third Republican, a third Democrat, and a third unaffiliated.
I really wanted to step forward and have that opportunity to be a voice for such an amazing district that represents so many different people.
What do you think is a common thread that ties people together in North Carolina?
I think the people, whether they have lived in Senate District 18 their whole lives, or they’re new to the area, I think a lot of us want all the same things. We want safe communities. We want our children to be well-educated and we want tomorrow to be better than today. I don’t really think that that’s a Republican or Democrat issue. I think that those are really the ties that bind us all together.
What is something in North Carolina’s culture that you think would shock people outside of our state?
I think our motto, “To be, rather than to seem.” North Carolinians are just really well-grounded, hardworking. I think North Carolina, one of the reasons we have so many industries coming here is because North Carolinians have a phenomenal work ethic. We’re resourceful, and I think North Carolinians are very open-minded at the end of the day.
I want to believe that most North Carolinians really want to do work in good faith and want to be open-minded.
And also that we love eastern North Carolina barbecue better than western – no, I’m just kidding.
Can you tell us about some of your most memorable experiences in your career so far?
I was formerly the executive director of a bipartisan non-profit that was focused on redistricting reform in our state, and I have been an attorney since 2015 when I graduated law school. Go Heels.
I think working in redistricting reform, it can be a very partisan issue. I learned that at the end of the day, change can only happen as quickly as trust is built.
If you show someone that you are willing to work in good faith and be an honest broker, that is how incremental progress can happen.
I think the same, being an attorney, it’s all about building trust and making sure that you’re being an honest broker, and that lesson carries forward in spades in the General Assembly.
We are 170 people who are elected to solve problems on behalf of the people of our state, and despite our differences, our different philosophies, we have an obligation to sit down and figure out how to solve problems based on the will of the people. That can only happen if we’re willing to talk with one another and sit down and really build that trust that we all have been sent here to do.
You’ve mentioned your time on the Bipartisan Redistricting Coalition, and we know that in North Carolina, gerrymandering and voting rights are often an issue. How do you see that playing out this year?
I know that there has been a lot of litigation, not just this year or the last couple years, but over the course of the last couple decades.
I think that we can solve a lot of these problems, and in fact, that is our obligation – to solve these problems. I remain very hopeful that we are going to be able to find solutions.
I talked about incremental progress. Some of this stuff is not going to get solved in one piece of legislation or three pieces of legislation. It’s going to take a continual stewardship of these issues to really meet the needs and get where we need to go.
You have talked about leveling the playing field in rural North Carolina. Can you expand a little bit on what that means? What does that look like in the General Assembly?
Leveling the playing field, I think I talk about a lot where I live in Stoneville, North Carolina, where I don’t have access to high-speed internet. That is a game-changer.
In 2023 when you do not have access to telehealth, remote work options, or you are in school and you can’t get your homework assignments because you don’t have access to the internet, that is an issue that prevents a level playing field.
The General Assembly has made decisions in the past that prevented municipal broadband, which like in places like Wilson, North Carolina, allowed the municipality to really take charge of their broadband internet destiny.
I had a conversation with a librarian in Oxford, and they have eight wireless MiFis for people in Oxford who either can’t get access to the internet or can’t afford it. He was telling me how those are constantly checked out for people who need to get on the internet. I feel strongly that that is unacceptable, and I want to work really hard with my colleagues to make sure that places like where I live have the benefit of having access to broadband and high-speed internet.
What do you think are some of the most pressing issues in public education?
Look, I think we all know coming out of COVID-19, that affected all of us, but it especially affected our school children. Kids that were doing school remotely and were coming back into the classroom, and affected teachers and administrators. We have a teacher retention issue in our state. We have a funding issue in our state. We have children who needed to be set up on a remedial learning plan from their COVID learning loss.
We have so many significant needs in our education system.
I am super hopeful that we are going to be able to fully fund our school system this biennium. That we will provide the resources not just for our teachers and our school administrators, but also making sure that our schools have a nurse or a counselor or a social worker that can help with that mental health piece.
For too long has not had a seat at the table on how important it is for education and making sure our kids are ready to learn and have the support they need to learn.
What was your reaction last year when Roe v Wade was overturned?
I think about that day a lot. I think about the day that the opinion was leaked, and then the weeks in between the leak and when it actually happened.
I’m an attorney, as I mentioned. I also interned at the United States Supreme Court, so I have a lot of respect for the institution. I was concerned, like many women and men in North Carolina. I remain concerned about the coercive power of the state to make healthcare decisions on my behalf and women across North Carolina’s behalf.
I think inviting Big Brother into the exam room is not a good idea, and I think it sets us up for a lot of other problems going down if we’re talking about case law and precedent. We all know the privacy case law lineage started with access to contraception and then it went to reproductive healthcare, and then it has gone on to ensure the freedom to marry.
It’s something that I remain very concerned about, and I’m really hopeful that we can make sure that North Carolina stays a state where women’s healthcare and well-being is protected.
What are some of the ways that the General Assembly and you will be championing reproductive freedom?
I think it’s education. I talked about how this work is relational and we’re building trust. I am one of a handful of people who serve in the North Carolina State Senate of reproductive age.
The reality of the situation is that when and if power is taken away from women to make these decisions, that will affect me and many, many women across our state in significant ways.
I think part of it is being willing to tell those stories about how healthcare emergencies and the need to be able to make decisions with a healthcare provider doesn’t fit neatly into a week by week timeline. Our healthcare professionals are being tasked with really tough decisions across the country and places where effective bans have gone into place. I have been part of conversations with those healthcare providers of what that looks like, and it’s really, really scary.
North Carolina is also a world leader in healthcare, so if we are going to be able to maintain that status, we have got to ensure that women’s health and well-being is protected and respected in our state.
What are you most passionate about bringing to the General Assembly this year?
Being a voice on women’s reproductive healthcare. There are not a lot of young women who serve in the North Carolina legislature. I feel [it’s] particularly incumbent upon me to be a strong voice for women who are navigating these issues.
I have so many friends, so many people I know who are facing a lot of these issues. That is something that I look forward to being a voice for in the North Carolina Senate and a resource for my colleagues.
My dad is also a veteran, so I’m also really excited about making sure that we can support our veterans, and looking forward to working across the aisle with some of my colleagues about some legislation on how to make sure our veterans have support, particularly around housing.
I am also really looking forward to being part of a group of people who really do want to work together. Whether that’s on transportation or whether that’s healthcare, I want to make sure that I’m being a bridge builder and a person who folks can come to.
When people look at the news on North Carolina, it seems very, very divided. What are some of the issues you think that have a lot of support from both sides?
There’s a lot more that we have in common that maybe the current political climate and temperature would lead a lot of people to believe.
The North Carolina State Senate is very collegial. I can’t speak to the House because I’ve never served over there, and while the current political environment is very charged, it’s very heated, it’s my experience in the North Carolina State Senate that so many folks across the aisle have been so willing and interested in helping, whether it’s on a constituent issue or on a bill that I want to champion. There is a lot of common ground and I think it’s really important that we highlight that.
Of course, we are going to have our differences. I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who agrees with me on 100% of everything. It’s important to keep that in perspective.
I am very optimistic that we will get Medicaid expanded in North Carolina, this biennium. I think for our rural parts of the state, it will be great. I think for the urban parts of our state, it will be great. We have lots of healthcare needs in this state, and a really strong step to meeting a lot of those needs is to expand Medicaid. It’s been an issue on the agenda here for a couple years, but I do think that we have gotten to a point where there is a lot of broad consensus about how much good it will do for the people of North Carolina.
What is the best piece of advice you think you’ve ever been given?
Oh, man. My grandmother used to say, “Sling a little mud, lose a little ground.” I think about that a lot in the political space –if you want to build common ground, you can’t be a mud slinger. If you really want to engage with people and find that common ground, you can’t pick up that mud and throw it at someone. I think about that a lot and it’s a piece of advice that I think has served me well and I’m sure will continue to serve me well.
If you had an ‘only what you want’ day where every activity that you did for the day was only exactly what you wanted it to be, what would that day look like?
Oh my gosh. There would be a lot of coffee, I’m sure, on that day. I’m a big runner, so I’d love to go for a long run. Definitely would spend time with my family. I also love to kayak, so I would probably try and fit that in somewhere, and do a little bit of reading. I haven’t been able to do that as much recently, so the stack of books to be read is kind of piling up. That’s probably what I would do.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?
My door is always open at the General Assembly. Even if you don’t live in Senate District 18, if you have issues or concerns or thoughts, our door is always open. Please feel free to stop by and would love to hear from you.
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