Senator Michael Lee represents the Wilmington area and nearby beach towns, giving him a mix of mainland and coastal issues to discuss in the North Carolina Senate. To learn their common denominators, and to break out the factors uniquely affecting individual communities, Senator Lee relies on healthy communication with the local leaders in his district. Those distinctions register. While his New Hanover County district includes one of the more populous parts of the state—Wilmington—Senator Lee has direct appreciation for the qualities of communities of different sizes, having grown up in Dunn in the 1970s—a place his family moved to simply on a positive review his father heard about the community. Senator Lee today lives in Wilmington with his wife, Heidi; together they have four children: Miles, Sydney, Sam, and Sawyer. Southern City spent some time with the senator in late April, just ahead of the 2022 short session of the General Assembly.
With the short session starting in May, what do you think is important right now for the General Assembly?
ML: I’m always focused on education issues. Education, mental health, healthcare, and economic development. Jobs, essentially.
How do you prepare for a session?
ML: It depends if you’re talking about a long session or a short session. Typically, those things that come up during an existing session, you need more time to do the research and talk to folks about it. A lot of times in the interim, that’s when you’ll do that. Because, as you know, you have deadlines for filing and crossover, and sometimes the issues don’t really come up until later, so you end up using the interim to do more research and of course you’ve got your oversight committees that you’re on. And meeting folks from around the state, and honestly around the country, about what other states are doing. If it’s an issue that we’re looking at here, sometimes we will survey other states and then I will call legislators in some of those other states and talk to them about what they looked at, what were some of the issues they had, and if they could do it differently, what would they do. That kind of thing.
What are you seeing ahead for yourself?
ML: When I first got into this … everything revolved around education. While leadership did not have me involved in education in my very first session, I was able to work my way into it in my first term, and then in my second term I was a co-chair for the Senate Education Committee. And so, I was just getting my legs under me because, as you know, it’s a significant piece of policy and budget. So, I’ve picked that back up and really moving forward with what I think are some significant reforms on the education front. That’s where my passion is. They bring me into a lot of other areas, especially in the context of land-use and zoning, because I know a lot about it. So, I block and tackle and help on issues that I know about. There’s a lot of healthcare stuff that I work on, but my passion lies in education.
What got you into education as a focus?
ML: Being father to four kids.
Are you native to North Carolina?
ML: I grew up in Dunn. I was born in New York. My father ended up in the Air Force. My father’s from Taiwan, my mom’s from New York. So, we moved from New York to Florida, back to New York, then to Dunn…. You know, it was different. My dad was from Taiwan moved to the states with a heavy Asian accent. My mom’s from New York, she had an accent. We moved to Dunn. And because he’s a physician, it’s a small town, the family picture is on the front page of the newspaper, “New Doctor Comes to Town.” I don’t think I appreciated how different it was in the mid-1970s when we moved there.
What brought the family to Dunn specifically and what was different about it?
ML: My father was a physician and a surgeon. He immigrated from Taiwan and was doing his residency here in the United States, up in New York. He ended up meeting my mom and never went back to Taiwan to live. I was born in New York and my dad at some point … was in the Air Force, for just one tour. We were stationed in Rome, New York. And then down in Florida. And back up to New York. And when he was looking to leave the Air Force, he was at a conference, a physician talked to him about raising his four children in a small, southern town and how that was conducive to a good family environment. And so this physician was from Dunn, North Carolina. Funny thing is, when we moved from New York to Florida, when we went back and forth, we always stopped in Dunn, off I-95, because it was kind of a halfway point, at a Howard Johnson’s. It’s kind of funny. We had been there quite a bit, even though we hadn’t really been there, as we were going back and forth. And so, my dad ended up moving his four kids to Dunn.
That’s pretty amazing, that the family could move on a recommendation like that.
When did you decide you wanted to become a lawyer?
ML: I had always thought about it. I was interested in it before college, actually. And then started to look at all kinds of things in college and always thought I wanted to be in law school. And so, when I graduated, as an undergraduate, I came to Wilmington and worked for my family in a couple different small businesses, because I was really interested in business. And after being here for three years or so, I realized that if I didn’t go ahead and go, I might never go. So, I went to law school, at Wake Forest (University).
Did you know what kind of law you wanted to practice?
ML: I didn’t. I wanted to be a litigator in the courtroom. But my school loans were so high I could only go to a large firm type of practice. And so, I looked at going into the JAG (Judge Advocate General’s) Corps, but I couldn’t afford to pay my law school loans back. I looked at the prosecutor’s office, the public defender. I just had a couple hundred thousand dollars in law school loans. I couldn’t do any of that. So, I went to a large firm. You don’t get to go to the courtroom at a large firm as a young lawyer, so found myself doing some litigation in real estate and started doing real estate, and I‘ve been doing that now for a long time. The land-use stuff was something I got into early on. [My wife and I] were living in Dunn and we were trying to get back to Wilmington. And so, I got a call from an in-house counsel here and accepted the job.
And you still work as a lawyer. So where along the way does public office enter your mind?
ML: I’d always kind of been involved in my community, in the nonprofit community, when my wife and I were here and started having a family. And then that kind of gravitated toward working with folks on campaigns. I worked as a campaign manager for a county commissioner and helped him. And then when my son, my oldest, who’s now graduated from college, when he was going into kindergarten, my wife and I noticed that education hadn’t really changed since not only we were in school but since my parents were in school, in the way things operated. We were concerned about some things that were going on in our community. And so, I ran for the Board of Education. And that’s kind of how it all started. I lost that election, by the way.
How does that progress into your service in the Senate?
ML: Well, after I lost that election, I’d learned a lot. From filing to run for the school board to ultimately losing in a pretty close race. I learned that a lot of the decisions were made in Raleigh. So, I decided to run for North Carolina Senate, against (former New Hanover County senator) Julia Boseman. No one was going to run against her, and I felt pretty strong about what was going on in our state, and ran against her in 2008, and lost that election. And then Julia decided she was going to retire from the North Carolina Senate. It was actually a pretty close race in 2008 … and so I said, ‘Hey, open seat, I’m going to run again.’ And then I ran against—I had a primary—ran against Thom Goolsby (who served in the Senate from 2011–2014). And lost that election also. So, when Thom beat me in the primary, I ended up kind of coming around and then helping him in the general election…. And when he was getting ready to step down, retire, that’s when he and I talked, and I ran again.
In your discussions with local officials, what kinds of things do they bring you in terms of requests? And how do you figure through them so you can get things done together?
ML: It depends. We have a number of municipalities here. I usually just meet with the elected officials. Sometimes it’s a chair, sometimes it’s an individual member. Sometimes it’s a couple folks from one of the governing boards. Sometimes I’m meeting with a fire chief or a police chief… Usually, they’re through discussions with both elected and nonelected individuals in the different municipalities and counties. And then departments and organizations within those counties and municipalities.
Good point about different jurisdictions. Yours includes some beach towns. What’s unique about that in terms of your role as a senator?
ML: It adds a whole other scope to it. It’s related and not. It’s related because the tourism communities, our beaches, are a vital part of the whole county, the whole community, and state for that matter. But it’s unique in that the beach towns are generally responsible for maintaining those state resources. So, beach renourishment is obviously a big deal. Our marshes are a big deal. And those are typically only within the beach communities… So, the environmental component is significant, and the economic development component is significant. It’s very different in a beach community versus another part of New Hanover County.
Is there anything you’d like Southern City readers to know?
ML: I think the most important thing is good communication and conversations. Sometimes when you’re working with organizations, that doesn’t always happen, and sometimes there are individuals within a larger organization and there’s inconsistent conversations that are happening. Sometimes that’s challenging for legislators. Y’all have a team, and a good team, of government relations folks who communicate with me and other legislators. But sometimes there are individual needs of municipalities or concerns … and sometimes it’s better to have those personal communications rather than it having to percolate through a large association.
So, it’s a good practice for leaders in your area to reach out, call your cell phone…
ML: Yeah, they usually just call my office, email my office, or call my cell phone if they have it. And even if the (League) is advocating for a particular policy, I always like to hear from individual communities, to the extent that there’s one or two that have a significant kind of issue or impact. The League is pretty good about that, identifying that community and then tying them into that conversation. But if there’s something in my community, most of the folks here know they can reach out to me, give me a call. Sometimes the issues are time sensitive, so, rather than let the issue come and go, I would prefer a phone call. Sometimes I just can’t do anything. Sometimes we can impact a larger audience. Sometimes it ends up being something that multiple municipalities are dealing with.