The League’s quarterly legislator Q&A.
As a working mother of young children, Senator Sydney Batch of Apex isn’t the General Assembly’s usual demographic. Of course, it’s no secret that it’s been easier for the retired or independently wealthy to run for busy elected office—like state House or Senate—as “part time” lawmakers who, between legislative sessions and interim committee meetings, are serving almost year-round. As Senator Batch, a family law attorney, tells it, serving in public office was the last thing she imagined herself doing. But, in an interview with Southern City from her legislative office in Raleigh, she said she’s always been the kind to fight for the people who might not feel so linked with the typical power demography on either side of the aisle, and that she saw an opportunity to maximize the number of people she might help with her life experience and expertise in social work and family law. The following is the relevant portion of that interview.
How do you feel about the 2021 session at this point? (Editor’s note: This interview was in mid-August as lawmakers were still hammering out a state budget to send the governor.)
SB: So, I had the advantage, in 2018 when I was in the House, coming in at a time in which we’re told as new members that your session is going to be … until July. And then we didn’t get out until I think that year in late October, maybe early November. So I was baptized by the fire. And I expected, unlike some of my other freshmen colleagues that I’m serving with now in the Senate, to be here at this point. So I am not surprised. I think it’s frustrating because, honestly, it’s really hard if we’re a citizen legislature, which we are, and we get paid (less than) $15,000, it’s very difficult for someone with a job, right? And with young kids, like I have, (it’s a challenge) to actually be able to work their full-time job and be able to serve in the legislature.
And I’ve got the luxury and the good fortune of being in Wake County. My law firm is down the street and the judges (work with the legislative schedule, being local). But if I was in Pender County as a litigating attorney or a real estate agent, or a doctor—you don’t have that ability.
There’s long been a conversation about the public’s ability to serve outside of being retired or independently wealthy…
SB: We don’t have as many individuals from all walks of life. And I think that’s what makes up a good government, especially as citizen-led government means we have all different and diverse experiences, and decreasingly so we’ve seen that over the years just because it’s very difficult for people … with the (lawmaker) salary to then be in a situation where they still have to work for a living and earn their keep.
How would you characterize the work of the legislature this year?
SB: I don’t know how the House has been. I think that we’ve actually been for the most part more collaborative, and it’s been nice to see we’ve worked on legislation. There’s some things that have been hot topic and hot button issues—that’s the nature of politics. Ninety-five percent of the time we’re agreeing on it. The 5% is all that you hear in the media. So I think that we’ve been able to have an opportunity to go ahead and pass some good legislation and some reform that has been necessary, that we can find bipartisanship on. But I definitely would like to get to a point where we have a budget and I’m frustrated that this process has been as long as it has been.
And that there’s been stops and starts and stops. With redistricting happening as well. We’re probably not getting out of here until October or November again. So it’s exhausting.
With your working, being a mom, younger than many legislators—that must give you perspective about approaches to policy, views, what you bring from your world, maybe even outcomes.
SB: Perfect example is the first day of the 2019 session. We were getting sworn in. Representative (Ashton Wheeler) Clemmons and I were fortunate enough to be seatmates. And during the prayer, the person who was praying, was saying pray for all our grandchildren. But myself and Representative Clemmons… Out of 120 members in 2019, it was rare to actually have kids of small age. And I mentioned that because the other perspective that is lost is that if you have a lot of individuals who could not have done it financially.
With regards to the circumstances that we currently have being in session forever, they don’t know how much childcare is, actively, right? So some basic issues that happen every single day that each one of us experiences at a different time in life, you don’t necessarily know. There were a lot of people who understand as retirees COLA and how expensive it is in order to make sure that we’re going to keep up with inflation and dealing with the cost of living adjustments, but then they don’t have any perspective on how much it costs for childcare.
At one point in my life, I was paying $2,400 in childcare for my two kids to be in a top preschool. And, as a result, my husband and I weren’t putting nearly as much in retirement because we wanted to have our kids in a really great school where they could have the best chance at being successful.
So I think that is an aspect of things. I also think that we are fortunate to have different varying levels of education, right? People who have high school degrees, people who have PhDs, doctorate, et cetera. That’s really helpful. And so I think that we do have that diversity, but we don’t have it in the level of age.
We don’t necessarily have it in the expertise with regards to just gender. Less than 24% of the General Assembly is women. And that comes into play. Usually disproportionately, women are of course taking care of their kids. And so trying to work and navigate that. It would be easier if we had a set schedule, right? Or a fixed schedule, like other states. It would be much easier for other people to actually participate in the process. Teachers who would want to actually be part of an education policy. We could have them teach if they knew that they could take a semester off and then teach in a certain area, or they knew that we were going to have these breaks. But the inconsistency, frankly, in the schedule and just the uncertainty of how long it’s even going to last—it makes it really difficult for people who are not wealthy or retired. And I think that that’s what we miss out on. We really need the opportunity for people of all areas to be able to participate.
Why did you decide to run and what do you see your role as being in the legislature?
SB: I was asked to run years ago, when my kids were one and three, and my response to the person was, “My kids are one and three.” And so that conversation was over. (Laughter) But as a family law attorney and a social worker, because I deal with people oftentimes in the worst time in their lives and trying to navigate through the legal quagmires and emotional issues of child custody and divorce and child protective services that I have been able to see…
We have at the state level the power to affect so many individuals, right? On a personal level, whether it’s financially, whether it’s emotionally, whether it’s access to mental health care, whether it’s access to health insurance, the cost of health insurance—you know, I’m representing you. And if I represent a dependent spouse, who’s been married for 25 years, and has a high school diploma and stayed at home to raise her kids, and now all of a sudden she’s 48 and she’s got to figure out how to find a job, enter into the work field, pay for health insurance that she’s never had to pay for, and the cost of just legal expenses, et cetera. You start seeing some of the fractures or the safety nets that are lacking in certain people’s areas… I mean, it’s not as if most people who are working at a minimum wage job can go ahead and just say, I’m gonna quit and let’s go run for the legislature.
Because we know there’s politics, there’s money in politics. You’ve got to raise money, got to have access. You’ve got to have finances. But at least we should have individuals who have life experiences and also have experiences with other individuals in society that are feeling those challenges and to have that perspective.
And so, my initial thought about running for office—like, I can help one family at a time, and I know where the policies are, I know what services that I can help families get and resources. But that’s one family at a time. Millions of individuals, you can do that at the legislature.
So I took a macro approach. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. I can still be in the courtroom. I can still help my clients. I can still represent my kids. I’m in court and advocate for what’s best for them. But at the same time, use that skillset and put it on a macro level to go ahead and pass legislation that will change things fundamentally, right?
The lives of millions instead of just doing it one family at a time. And so the child welfare bill that I’m working on right now—that hopefully will get passed because it’s been a collection of the 15 years that I’ve practiced child welfare with all of the other specialists in the area, bringing all of them in as stakeholders and talking about all of the fissures in that, in the process, in the foster care system, and trying to make sure that we’re actually fixing it. Knowing what that system looks like and having experience with it is really important when you’re talking about applying policy and then passing legislation.
And that’s why my interests normally trend to child welfare issues, legal issues, mental health, physical health, medical, and health insurance aspects, because that’s what has most affected what I do in my practice and the families that I represent.
Is this work you pursued or is this work that found you?
SB: It sort of found me is what I’d say. I come from a family of doctors, so I thought I was going to be a doctor. And then chemistry and calculus told me something else. (Laughter) Not my strength. So, I ended up being an english major at UNC. When you run for office, usually there’s opposition research, that’s done. You do your own. And then the opposition does it on you.
And it was funny because apparently I’ve been who I have been all my life. (Laughter) And just didn’t remember it, because they found an article where I was quoted in high school about issues regarding advocacy and students being able to have a voice within a government. We need to make sure that things are equitable and fair.
I literally looked at the article and rolled my eyes. And I haven’t necessarily always thought, “Oh, politics is where I’m going to end up.” If you had asked me four years ago, I would have laughed at you and said there’s absolutely no way. (Laughter) No, it wasn’t an interest of mine.
I just knew that I wanted to grow up and help. And I always knew … that social work and law was by far the best marriage because it dealt with the issues that are systemic. Dealing with systemic issues and being solution-focused on trying to find out how we can help fix it. And so, because I did that for so long, it naturally transitioned into somebody coming and asking me and giving me a hard sell on why I should run for office. So yeah, it was definitely not on my bucket list. It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve, but it was definitely not something I thought about four years ago.
Were there certain things from the community that people were telling you they were hoping to see? And did you already have a speaking relationship with local elected officials?
SB: When you’re running for office, you’re in the same bubble with everybody. You’re going to similar events. You get to know everybody, et cetera. But when I won in the House in 2018, I decided very quickly, “I know what I know. And I don’t know what I don’t know. And because I had not served on the county commission, I had not been on a town council—I was new to politics—I reached out to the town managers and local officials and really started building relationships with them. And as quickly as possible said, “Hey, if this bill is coming through, can I have your cell phone number? So I can text you if we’re in committee, because you know that sometimes you find out what’s in the bill when you get to committee and you realize something’s been changed, or amendments running on the floor.”
I started very early on, working with the town managers and the councils to see what would be the most helpful and supportive with regards to legislation moving through and that would affect them. Because I believe that people should stay in their lane. I was elected to the state, so I deal with the state issues. I don’t believe that I should then go in and start messing around with what’s happening on the local level. I should support my towns, make sure that I’m hearing from them as to what they think is going to be most helpful for them. And for me and my district, almost all the towns are on the same page.
You’re not really close to your constituents with state (office). You’re closer than federal, but the people who are the closest to everything that happens and functions within a town or the council and the town managers and everybody else who actually has to work on balancing their budget, figuring out how to deal with roads and what frankly makes most of us the most frustrated, which is at the town level, right?
Oh, there’s traffic or this school is going to be coming into my district. So, working with school board members, working with the team has been really integral. And I think what is by far the most successful aspect of what we can do as legislators in the building is to communicate and cultivate those relationships, because we’re just a pass-through for most money that goes to the towns, and the towns have to go ahead and deal with all of the other things that we all enjoy within our towns, whether that’s parks and rec, whether that’s new housing developments, et cetera. We should be a support for them. And that’s how I view my relationship with the municipalities.