The league’s quarterly legislator Q&A
In talking with Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Democrat representing the Durham area, it doesn’t take long to recognize her enthusiasm for legislative service. She describes herself as a policy wonk and is closely familiar with governmentese, local to federal. She’s worked in the areas of transportation, economic development, agriculture, childhood education, and more. Her appraisal of 2021, one of the longest legislative sessions in memory? “I’ve actually enjoyed all of it,” she told Southern City during a recent visit to her legislative office in Raleigh. At the time of this interview, the marathon session for the senator was just winding down.
Your 2021 legislative session was a long one. How would you evaluate it?
NM: It has been a long session, even though it was a difficult time to come in as a new senator. I actually came in at the height of COVID, so since I was appointed to finish out the term of my predecessor, Senator Floyd McKissick, I was aware of the basics of how session runs. We were actually appropriating all those COVID dollars at the time, and obviously for the local governments they were patiently waiting for all of that, and so I came into this year with a lot of the veterans letting me know “long session is long session and it could be very long.” We didn’t anticipate it would be quite this long, but as a self-proclaimed policy wonk and previous bureaucrat, I’ve actually enjoyed all of it. It’s just been a great way to jump in and learn more about topics during a long session, since so many different bills come before you around so many different topics and working with various groups and organizations, meeting with them to learn more. I filed a lot of bills, and so I had a lot of fun this session. It would be nice if more of our bills would move forward, but I have had a really good time filing and just getting that feedback from the public that they’re excited about the work I’m doing. I was able to get a few things into the state budget that are good for my district and the people of North Carolina. So, long, grueling, but I definitely have learned a lot during the long session. And I do want to add, I have it easier than some of my colleagues since I reside in the city of Durham. I actually live in the (Research Triangle Park area), so I am around 25 minutes away from this building. So, for me I have the ability to come here, do my work, my work office is on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh. For some members, the long session has been really, really hard on their families. For me, being based in Durham … I’m able to have some level of normalcy throughout the session. I’m lucky; all of my colleagues don’t have the same luxury.
You mentioned all the different topics that come into play during the session. I know you have a varied professional background. How has that helped you to acclimate to all of this?
NM: It has been really helpful. And that was a big reason why I ran, to file and to have the opportunity to talk with my now-constituents, back when they were my voters, about my background, which is why I felt I was uniquely prepared to serve. I tell folks—now I’m 37—but then a 35-year-old, with a resume of someone that was 55, I have been a regional transportation planner, I have worked in economic development. And to dig into transportation a little bit more, I’ve worked at the municipal level. I’ve worked for the Town of Chapel Hill, I’ve worked for Go Triangle regional transit agency, I was with the council of governments out of Asheville, Land of Sky Regional Council, I was working on their metropolitan planning organization as well as their rural. I was there when we rolled out the first prioritization process for transportation … STI, Strategic Transportation Investments. I’ve been through all of that. In economic development, grants for Black Mountain to become an entrepreneurial community. That sign is still on I-40 to this day: “Welcome to an entrepreneurial community.” I wrote that grant along with their town council. So, deep ties to local government. Done a lot of work with agriculture and with farmers … we had a grant to work with local farmers. I even have a reference point with housing, also at my time with the council of governments. We received one of the sustainable community grants that was a partnership with USDA, HUD, and EPA. In transportation, you learn a lot about air quality. So, really a lot of interaction with a lot of different topics. A little bit of everything is in my background, so that’s been helpful to come here. So, full circle, being on the Transportation Committee, as well as (the) Agriculture, Energy, and Environment (Committee). I have deep, deep backgrounds in those topics and now I get to serve on those committees. Also, to go all the way back, I worked in early childhood education… A lot, a lot of different things in my background.
That’s a lot there that overlaps with local government. How does that help, in terms of understanding that context and using it as a legislator?
NM: It is huge. And first with the relationships. I’ve worked a lot this year on the CROWN Act so that folks are not discriminated against because of their natural hair. And being fully aware of the composition of our General Assembly, I knew it would be difficult to get that legislation passed, but knew that we could do a lot through local ordinances and working through the governor’s office. So back to those local relationships, I was able to call (a number of local government leaders) and be able to talk to our local leaders. So, being that I worked in transportation before coming here, I worked for Durham specifically, our board of commissioners, our city council, I’ve worked with a lot of the Chapel Hill council members, as well as knowing how Orange County moves, as well as Wake County. At Wake County, at Go Triangle, at the end of my time there we were working on their transit plan, so I was able to work with their county commissioners. So, really having those relationships. Working with a lot of different local officials has been really, really helpful, because as state legislative members, that’s where the rubber meets the road. We have to know how our statutes and laws work; how will they have an impact on local government? And so having that awareness. I also try to be proactive, to talk with them first. “How will this impact you? If it it’s an issue, let me know and I will bring it up to my colleagues in those committee meetings.”
What kinds of issues do local officials tend to bring to you?
NM: As you know, preemption has really been a popular one. If a local government, i.e. Durham, wants to have more strict regulations around development and its impact on stormwater, I personally believe that is a right to do that. If we want to have an ordinance around tree planting, we should have the right to do that. And believe it or not, the tree planting issue, not only from local elected officials but also from everyday citizens and constituents, that is one of the top issues I receive letters and emails about.
Working with local government, the context is nonpartisan. One thing I’ve noticed is, outside of floor debates, there’s a lot of camaraderie between legislators no matter their party. How does that come into play in terms of legislative success?
NM: Of all the talks I have with organizations and community members, they’re always shocked to hear that. Especially in the Senate. We keep a certain level of decorum and professionalism on the floor … I’ve met colleagues for lunch and had coffee outside of the chamber. I have no issue saying I’ve enjoyed working with (Republican) Senator Kathy Harrington out of Gaston County. Working with her and (fellow Republican) Senator Deanna Ballard, one of the budget items I was able to get across the finish line was about how one in five young people that menstruate do not have access to menstrual products, and so doing a lot of research on the topic and found out that in Georgia, which is red—they can say that it’s blue but those state houses are red, they are in a superminority, Democrats in both chambers—they were able to get a million dollars in funding. And I said, “How in the world did they do that down there?” So, I did some research on that and shared with my colleagues this session … Since Senator Ballard was Education (Committee) chair, my strategy was to figure out a way to get those funds to DPI. Talked with DPI, they thought it was a phenomenal idea. Senator Harrington fought for it to the end. You learn about seniority very quickly here. You have got to have someone on that (budget) conference committee who cares about the issues you care about. And she fought for it, it remained, and it is in the state budget. I’ve definitely been able to work with my colleagues (across the aisle) on a number of issues.
There’s a way.
NM: And I think, unfortunately, we focus on this perceived rural-urban divide—I mean, I am a senator of an urban district; I’ll be gaining Chatham County (through redistricting), which I’m thrilled about. What I’ve found is there are still a lot of similarities. A lot of overlap. Particularly when it comes to socio-economic status. If you do not make a lot of money, your challenges are not that different from someone that lives in a rural community. When you look at broadband access, a lot of those dead zones that we have in our county, we still have those in Durham County, so we can relate to that in the northeast or the far west. Food insecurity. Those are issues we can relate with. There are still a lot of urban school districts where a lot of kids are on free and reduced lunch. So, what I’ve found is finding those commonalities with my colleagues serving in rural area to say, “Guess what, that’s an issue for Durham County as well.” I really come at it from a perspective of being very practical. And just finding what it is that we agree on. We were able to provide Medicaid coverage for women 12 months post-partum. And back to something we can all agree on. If we can agree on when someone decides that they want to have a baby, let’s work so that mother stays alive, and that child is born healthy. And I find that is something I can agree with my colleagues on. So, I’ll continue to do a lot of work around maternal health. And in that final budget we were able to provide Medicaid for women 12 months post-partum (versus the previous limit of 60 days). So that’s a huge, huge win. All of those were issues I’ve been working on with the majority party.
What else would you like local officials to know?
NM: Just for them to continue to reach out to their legislators and let us know the impact that legislation will have on them, locally. Sometimes we hear about those concerns and it’s too late. I would definitely encourage mayors, city council members, county commissioners to be really proactive, bring those issues to us early on. Every area is different. In Durham, we have weekly meetings with our mayor, our chair of the county commission, our school board members. Reach out to your legislators early and often. I would also say work with someone to get access to the legislative calendar and make sure that, before bill filing opens, when we really have the opportunity to file legislation (as requested by a locality) … we can’t do it if we don’t know about it. Lobby your legislators. We want to advocate for you. I will say the League of Municipalities and the NC Association of County commissioners do a great job keeping us informed.