With the legislature back to work in Raleigh, we’re talking to some of those lawmakers out here in the west. Today, Senator Terry Van Duyn, Democrat of Buncombe County.
Van Duyn is known in Raleigh and Asheville for being an outspoken Democrat during a time when her party is in the minority. But how did she get her start?
“I grew up in Chicago, graduated from college and worked as a computer programmer. So we moved quite a bit, lived in New York and then California and then Texas and came to North Carolina when my son was in third grade.”
Van Duyn said she knew her son had challenges. He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder at an early age. But when she came to Asheville, the teachers here realized he should be tested for autism.
“Needless to say, that changed our lives. And I found out later that North Carolina at the time lead the nation in awareness of autism because of something called Division Teach, and Division Teach did outreach to teachers about how to identify and work with children on the autism spectrum.”
Van Duyn says she learned Division Teach was created by parents lobbying the General Assembly, and that’s what prompted her interest in public policy.
“And eventually ran for county commissioner. I came in last. But it put me in a position, unfortunately when Senator Nesbitt passed away, to run for his seat. And I was appointed and served in the General Assembly. This is my second elected term.”
Van Duyn was re-elected easily. Representing a safe Democratic district, she had a libertarian opponent who was never a real threat. Van Duyn says while she’s happy to win, the lack of competition isn’t good for the state. She said she hopes that soon the state will move towards independent redistricting, whether it happens legislatively or through the courts.
“North Carolina has been a purple state forever. And our politics don’t reflect that, and we need our politics to reflect who we are.”
Van Duyn’s two terms have had their ups and downs, but as a member of the minority party, the work can be particularly difficult.
“It’s frustrating occasionally, especially when I have bills that I think should be no-brainers and I can’t get them heard. I usually try to find a Republican to run those for me.”
And that division looks likely to continue. Already the GOP dominated legislature is engaged in a power struggle with new Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, voting in December to strip many of his powers, including subjecting his cabinet heads to Senate confirmation.
“And that’s truly unfortunate. Governor Cooper has put together a truly remarkable team. And for the General Assembly to be fighting that team, I think is just a waste of time.”
That power struggle has come up again during the efforts to repeal House Bill 2, especially between Cooper and legislative leaders. A new bill put forwards by Republican Representative Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville is perhaps the only bill with bipartisan support, but it appears stalled at the moment. Van Duyn says she’s very thankful for McGrady’s efforts, but she doesn’t agree with the part of the bill that would make referendum votes on local anti-discrimination measures a likelihood.
“When it comes to minority rights, we just can’t leave that to the majority. That’s just not consistent with our constitution.”
Van Duyn goes further in saying that the General Assembly’s approach to especially cities and towns is unfortunate.
“I think it’s important that we respect local governments’ right to pass ordinances that reflect their communities, because our communities are different.”
For this session, which will likely be dominated by budget negotiations, a process Van Duyn says Democrats are largely shut out of, she hopes priorities will be placed on investments in economic development and education.
“Where we have seen investments in education be the most efficient have been in early education, so early childhood, pre-K programs and even before pre-K, Smart Start, Nurse Family Partnership.”
But how much say Van Duyn will have on those issues may depend on whether she can find Republicans to put their names on her proposals, so they’ll get a hearing.