Democrat Maria Cervania was elected to the North Carolina state House in November and is one of the first two Asian-American women ever elected to the state legislature.
As the 2023 North Carolina General Assembly session gets underway, 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 Rep. Maria Cervania, who represents Cary in the state House and previously served on the Wake County Board of Commissioners. Cervania, who is of Filipino descent, is one of the first two Asian-American women ever elected to the state legislature.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Could you introduce yourself to the people of North Carolina?
My name is Maria Cervania. I serve in District 41, but obviously I serve all of North Carolina. My district is located in Cary and parts of Apex.
What do you love about North Carolina?
North Carolina has everything that you would want in order to have the highest quality of life. I could have chosen anywhere to live in the whole world and my family and I decided to choose Cary in Wake County, and North Carolina out of all the places in the world. And it is because of the growing diversity in people. It already has a diverse environment, and the potential in North Carolina when it comes to economic development, the quality of life, the commitment that people have in our communities, is so wonderful. That’s why North Carolina’s the best place to live in the world.
How did moving to North Carolina and loving North Carolina translate into running for public office?
I never expected to run for public office. I always worked in the community as an activist and an advocate. I often say ‘it took six years to get that light fixed in my neighborhood, and there has to be another, faster way to fix it.’ There had been an opportunity to run for Wake County Commissioner and I took the chance. Luckily with the trust of my community, I was elected through all of Wake County. All the voters in Wake County trusted in me to serve them, and that’s how it all got started.
What parts of your activism inform the key issues that you’re passionate about?
For background, my father was in the military for 24 years, and also served in the Veterans Administration for 20 years, and my mother was one of the early women in high tech. Being born and raised in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley gave me my foundation – and the fact that they’re immigrants. I was the first in my family to be born in America, and that lends a lot to what I’m passionate about.
I studied biology in undergrad and then I studied epidemiology and biostatistics, so the way I saw myself serving our community is through health. As I went through my career, I realized how every part of your life has an impact on your health and wellbeing. That came to its apex when I served as a commissioner dealing with access to healthcare, living wages, affordable housing, and economic development. During that time, when I was a commissioner, we were able to move the needle on a lot of these topics and make Wake County such an awesome place and contribute to the prosperity of North Carolina.
What is a community empowered to sustain its own health is, and what does that look like in North Carolina?
When it comes to North Carolina, I would love to see more people understand what their health systems are doing for them, and if it’s not sufficient, how they can advocate and tell people like me who are in decision-making positions to help expand that. I know there are a lot of people who are advocating for those who don’t have a voice or are unaware, but more and more people know that not being healthy is not acceptable. I hope that we’ll be able to pass laws that recognize that healthcare is not a business. It shouldn’t be looked upon as a business. It should be looked upon as the health and wellbeing of everyone in North Carolina. It determines so many other things in our life that’s beyond what we think when it comes to just purely healthcare.
What kind of policies are you looking forward to bringing to the General Assembly that will contribute to giving North Carolinians the highest quality of life?
The most obvious thing if we’re going to talk about health is access to healthcare, affordable quality healthcare and the expansion of Medicaid. We need to be able to serve our people and have them as healthy as possible. I just want a healthy, thriving state.
Our hospitals are willing to put in their contribution, which is so unlike any other state that I’ve worked in when I’ve worked in Medicaid. We need to be brave enough, all of us at the General Assembly, to pass Medicaid expansion, because the financing is there. We’re leaving money at the table economically, and the federal government is giving us an incentive of an extra 5% to even sign onto this. More importantly, there’s half a million or more people who could get healthcare and that could really close the gap when it comes to people having a healthier life.
I often try to understand why there’s such a [reluctance] when it comes to that and I want to speak that language. There’s also the ability, if we expand Medicaid and give more accessible quality of healthcare—this could increase our economic prosperity. This increases jobs. This could potentially bring more hospitals in our rural area and not have the risk of them being taken away. This can really bring communities who are struggling right now a ray of hope for economic prosperity.
What are some of the most pressing issues in public education right now? How are you hoping to address them?
I’ve been working in this space for a long time. Part of my undergraduate curriculum was in physical education, where we taught kids how —even though physical education tends to be very competitive—to build a more cooperative space. I was a public school product from kindergarten to grad school. So I see how it helps so many people. The challenges here in North Carolina are that foundationally, our kids are most affected by their teachers, their educators, and the field of education needs to be respected. It needs to be seen as a profession not only in its presence, but how it affects our future. Our children are our future. Investing in our teachers invests in our kids, and that exponentially helps our state.
We often talk about fully funding education and with Leandro coming through, there’s some guidelines to that from pre-K all the way to our community colleges and universities. We need to fulfill that. There’s great foundational solutions in that and we have the money to do it. We just have to have people believe in it. I really like to advocate for pre-K as well because we often talk about K through 12. When we have kids start early, it helps them in so many ways. I talk about it being exponential in terms of socialization and the ability to be educated. When you start young, we’ve seen in research that kids thrive even more.
There’s other things that threaten our educational system too, in terms of curriculum, how parents see their involvement, and books and materials. This is a team. We have to address this as a team because our students can’t be successful without every part. We need to know and trust that our educational system has professionals who’ve studied education for many years and developed a set curriculum for our kids. As for parents, we need to know their concerns when it comes to curriculum and their contribution, but there needs to be trust from both that we all prioritize the best for our kids in their education, and that includes our librarians and in our books. It’s been good to be able to see where everybody’s at and to make good policy towards it. I look forward to more work to come.
What other policies are you most passionate about bringing to the General Assembly this year?
I think at this point in time in North Carolina, we have less freedom than we did last year. That really hits me. I see in my community how that hits so many people. We saw Roe v. Wade get overturned, and when people talk about it, they only talk about one aspect of abortion, but it really is reproductive healthcare. Reproductive healthcare is about an individual person and how that person integrates the decisions that they have for themselves and their family with a healthcare professional who’s gone to school for eight plus years.
I’ve gone through two miscarriages and it didn’t register in my mind that in some states the reproductive healthcare after a miscarriage is seen as abortion. I’ve gone to rooms where women have said, “I’ve had a miscarriage too, and I didn’t realize that any healthcare after that would be seen as an abortion.” That’s on the table. I could have died if I didn’t receive [comprehensive] healthcare after those two miscarriages. I’ve been in support of my friends when they’ve had to make the choice about abortion or not. I’ve seen the gambit. It’s not an easy thing in your life. The General Assembly thinking it’s an easy decision. That is uninformed. It’s misinformation.
I’m also very concerned about voting rights. I would like everybody to participate. I really, in my heart of hearts, don’t care if you’re purple, blue, red, green. I want to be informed of what is important to you. If voting lends to certain issues or certain directions, I want to know that. When people email me, call me, come to my office, I don’t ask them their political affiliation. I don’t look them up. I hear their issues and I help serve them in the best way possible. We need to create an environment that supports that, where we don’t rig our voting or electoral system to where it favors anyone. It favors all of us when we have fair voting and fair everything really.
Thank you for sharing. Moving into the second part of our interview. As someone who has lived in various states in the US, what is something about North Carolina’s culture that you think would shock people outside of our state?
It goes back to being in the legislature. I went to a public university, I went to Berkeley. I was president of my alumni association here. The Cal at UNC game happened a little after HB2.
[Editor’s note: HB2 was the so-called “bathroom bill” which banned transgender people in North Carolina from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity in school and government buildings. When North Carolina passed HB2, California banned tax-payer funded transportation to the state]
There are still laws in place in California that the athletes couldn’t come here and we almost didn’t have that football game. Football games, even though they’re a sport, it’s a way to bond. Not only alumni with their North Carolina new neighbors and friends, but also us bonding with UNC. There’s so many implications to it and it’s a good fellowship, a good way to connect with one another.
What I think shocked the Cal fans is that the people in North Carolina didn’t believe in HB2. And the assumption all over the country was, “Oh my gosh, look at that North Carolina, they’re so not inclusive.” And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I find that North Carolina is very welcoming. I’m not going to be Pollyanna about it, but for the most part, people are welcoming and very, very nice.”
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve been given?
My best piece of advice came from my husband. Going into this space now of being an elected official, I had thought that, “Okay, well, being a politician or an elected official, you have to wear certain clothes and talk a certain way.” He could tell in me that I wasn’t as happy because I was really trying to be a facade. He said, “Be yourself and talk from your heart.”
I used to type up all my speeches and get really fixated on it, but now I speak from my heart and I’m true to myself and I have fun. These positions don’t have to be stressful, and people will make it stressful. But at the end of the day, we’re serving our communities and when you can save people from being evicted or save them from Covid-19, something that’s so devastating, or see kids in pre-K learning, and loving their teachers in their classroom. This is what’s great about it and we need to see what our work does to make all our lives better. That was the most important thing that was given to me.
If you had a day where you only did exactly what you wanted, what would that day look like?
Oh my gosh. I would eat everything that I love. I had one of those days, interestingly enough. I got to go to the beach and then go skiing all in the same day. It was so much fun. And then I got to eat what I wanted and it was peaceful. I find going on the slopes and then going to the ocean very, very peaceful. And you can do that here in North Carolina. I just haven’t had the time to do it. Life’s been so busy. But hat’s what I would do.
If you were to compete in the Olympics, what sport would it be?
Back in the day, I represented the United States on the Women’s United States Floorball Team. It’s similar to indoor soccer, and you use a graphite stick and a Wiffle ball, and you just run up and down. Now it’s very popular in Europe, but it’s become more popular here in the United States. In Rio [location of the 2016 Olympics] we were supposed to be a demonstration sport but it ended up not happening. If I could, I would love to be on the United States Women’s Floorball Team and compete in the Olympics. If not that, I would love to be on the women’s ice hockey team and compete. Yeah, that would be the one. I love it.
We’re coming to the end of our interview. Is there anything else that you would like people to know about you?
I’m here to serve everyone. I know I come from District 41, but I’ve always believed in serving everyone and have an open door policy. You can text me, email me anytime. Please know that I’m here to serve you in all capacities and even if I can’t, I’ll try to find resources to help. That’s why I do this. It’s not about being a politician, it’s about being a public servant. Everybody has a passion and their viewpoint, and I want to learn that. I want to figure out a way that we can work together. Hopefully people will know that and really take the opportunity.