Last February Deb Butler was appointed to fill Rep. Susi Hamilton’s seat in the N.C. House of Representatives when Hamilton was appointed to the governor’s cabinet. Butler is kicking off her campaign to keep her seat and continue working in the N.C. General Assembly. She sat down with encore to fill us in on her work thus far and plans to move forward.
encore (e): Please, tell us about how and why you decided to run for N.C. House District 18 seat?
Deb Butler (DB): I campaigned for a couple of races previously and did, what I think was, really good foundational work. I met a tremendous number of people, was informed on the issues, and made the grassroots efforts required so I was prepared and ready to serve when the opportunity presented itself. You know that old saying, “The harder you work, the luckier you get”? Serving House District 18 is a great privilege and I am honored to so serve.
e: What was the biggest surprise you encountered once you got to Raleigh?
DB: Well, there have been pleasant and not-so-pleasant surprises. On the more pleasant side, I have been very surprised at the number of citizens that come to the building to engage and discuss issues. The place can be really abuzz with people lobbying for or against a wide array of issues. I’m not sure if it has always been that way or if this engagement is new, but it is absolutely terrific. Further, my colleagues in the Democratic caucus have been extremely welcoming and supportive. As a freshman, I have been thrust to the fore on issues, such as the GenX crisis and the battle to repeal HB2, and my colleagues have been there whenever I needed them.
On the not-so-pleasant side, the partisan pettiness is suffocating, and Democrats are not allowed to participate in any meaningful way. It’s a shame there isn’t any collaboration because, perhaps, we could have avoided the mess of HB2 or the chaos caused by the class-size bill. The New York magazine referred to North Carolina as a place of “scorched-earth” politics and I’m sad to report it is an accurate description. It is shameful this has become our national reputation. I am hopeful the midterm election in November will help change the stranglehold the ultraconservatives have in Raleigh.
e: What is legislation you are most proud of?
DB: There is a lot of legislation I have cosponsored with my fellow Democrats, but with the current ultraconservative super-majority, very little of it has moved past the committee stage. I have cosponsored bills to phase in some increases to the minimum wage so working people can provide for their families. Just a week ago, I offered an amendment to the proposed GenX legislation that would have made it such for N.C. to impose stricter regulations against polluters.
At present, N.C. law hamstrings our legislators such they cannot impose any regulation stricter than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. With the present administration in Washington, that is unacceptable.
I also offered a bill that would have created a statewide nondiscrimination standard, which is the correct and moral thing to do, but would appeal to businesses looking to relocate. That, of course, did not pass; so, regrettably, although repealed, the legacy and stigma of HB2 still exists, I’m afraid. Other initiatives include increased teacher pay and the expansion of Medicaid.
e: What are you and N.C. legislature doing about GenX?
DB: Emerging contaminants have dominated the local news cycle since we discovered GenX back in June of . AI put an urgent memorandum on the desk of every House member, informing them of what I considered to be a threat to the safety of our water supply. Insofar, as the budgets for the Department of Environmental Quality, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services have been cut by about 40 percent over the last several budget cycles, Gov. Cooper and Secretaries Regan and Cohen, and many House members (including myself) have asked for additional funding and equipment so the backlog of permits can be addressed and meaningful monitoring can be done.
Republicans in leadership have expressed absolutely no appetite to get ahead of this problem. Fortunately, DEQ acted swiftly and revoked Chemours’ discharge permit when they were found to be in breach of a consent order they had signed, so the discharge is now stopped—but we are staring at the tip of a spear. There are 85,000 chemicals used in manufacturing and very few have actually ever been tested. In my opinion, we have an opportunity to turn a bad situation around by marshaling our resources to create a comprehensive, integrative approach to the identification, monitoring and permitting process surrounding these chemicals. It should be mandatory on the manufacturer to prove whatever goes into the water is safe before any discharge is permitted. We should seize the challenge before us and create a national model of water quality and safety. In my mind, there is no more important issue before us.
e: Discuss your thoughts on the recent court ruling regarding gerrymandering in N.C. and the soon-to-be redrawn districts? What will this mean for voters in New Hanover County? How are you and legislators working to protect our voting rights?
DB: There is no more sacred duty in a democracy than to vote. And we do it at an appallingly low rate in this country. The illegal racial gerrymandering that has taken place in North Carolina, and around the country is wrong as is the hyper-partisan gerrymandering that takes place.
Fortunately, the courts have seen both forms of gerrymandering as threats to our representational form of government. I agree completely and it must end. The courts are wading through legislative districts at present, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled against partisan gerrymandering.
I do not think we will see any immediate changes here in this region, since our districts were not identified in the litigation as gerrymanders. Although, it is possible the congressional districts may change—in particular because census may show it is warranted. Here is the bottom line. Politicians should not be choosing their voters. It is time for independent commissions to draw the districts.
e: What does the future of film look like in North Carolina?
DB: I am a big supporter of our film industry; it is a clean corporate partner that requires no investment in infrastructure. It generated millions of dollars of revenue for years in North Carolina. I am truly disappointed the N.C. General Assembly has seen to upend the legacy of film in our state. I feel like we fixed a program that wasn’t broken and was working well. However, I am grateful for the program we do have and I am amenable to any suggestions for improving it. I am aware there was money left over in the grant program, which leads me to believe in practice the program is burdensome or not adequate. I continue to advocate for the return of the rebate program because our film industry was far more robust with that program in place.
e: Tell us about HB102 (ERA), which you cosponsor. Where is the bill in the legislative process? Why is it important? What can supporters do to move the bill forward?
DB: House Bill 102, concerning the passage of an equal rights amendment, was summarily sent to the rules committee—which is where bills are typically sent to die. Unfortunately, there is no appetite for this legislation given the current composition of the N.C. General Assembly, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to propose good legislation nonetheless. Suffice to say, I believe in equality, equal pay for equal work, and any other legislation that reminds people it is never OK to discriminate. It is why I staunchly called for the repeal of HB2, and why we must pass a statewide nondiscrimination statute as soon as possible.
e: What do you wish the public understood about the legislative process?
DB: Unfortunately, I have been surprised to learn most people don’t understand the mechanics of legislation. They want a bill passed and they want it now! I understand impatience, as I share it often. But the wheels of legislation are designed to move slowly, so any legislation is properly vetted, stakeholders are consulted and public input is gathered. Unfortunately, the process is often subverted in the present legislature because the super-majority of Republicans have the numbers to pass legislation swiftly. That sort of rush to legislate creates bad law and anything done at midnight under the cover of darkness is inexcusable, in my opinion.
e: What advice would you impart to local activists?
DB: Activism is a vital part of the way a legislative body functions. If people care enough to spend their time and money reaching to members of the community and organizing around an issue, it is important for a representative to listen. Activists serve to inform us about the shifts and changes in public opinion on issues; they keep representatives on their toes and make them accountable. I don’t think I have advice except to say, “Keep up the good work and pace yourself.” Movements aren’t built overnight, and they can be a marathon rather than a sprint, but eventually they yield fruit.
e: What is going to happen at your campaign event on Feb. 8?
DB: I would like to invite the public to my kickoff event on Feb. 8, 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. It will be held at the Brooklyn Arts Center on North 4th St. and will feature the political musings of our own local writer and Southern darling Celia Rivenbark. There will be music and Southern fare, and I will be sharing my observations of a freshman legislator in North Carolina. Suffice to say, I have plenty to share and I look forward to “telling it like it is.”
Tickets may be purchased by going to www.ElectDebButler.com and click the “Events” tab.