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Teacher, mom, lawyer, legislator 

by Scott Mooneyham, League Advocacy Communications Strategist

Tamara Barringer has a certain appreciation for the term citizen legislator. Listening to the second-term state senator from Cary talk about the citizen side of her life – as a mother of two children and a faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill – it becomes clear that the one side makes the other possible.

Barringer, who has more than 25 years of experience practicing business law, spends most of professional life these days teaching legal courses in the Masters of Accounting program at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business. And despite the busy schedule that being a North Carolina legislator entails, Barringer manages to not only still teach, but thrive doing it.

"I get to be Professor Barringer, which, next to mom, is the thing that I answer to best. I love it. It is the air I breathe. It lets me keep one foot in the real world," she said from her Senate office on a recent cold, rainy afternoon. "It helps discipline me to not let [being a State Senator] completely dominate. For me, it works well."

As the legislative session began cranking up full throttle, Barringer took some time to talk about that love of teaching, her motivations to do that and serve in the Legislature, and how she sees her role as a legislator.

So, does being in the Legislature actually help you in the classroom?I don’t dare go in there unprepared. My students challenge me. I learn something almost everyday. And because I have been involved in legislation involving the limited liability company provisions, working on securities provisions, I can bring some practical examples of some things that are happening on the front lines into the classroom.

With such a busy life, and enjoying those other aspects of it, what caused you to want to jump into politics?

Jumping in is a good word for it. My husband, Brent, and I were foster parents, therapeutic foster parents, for 10 years, and that profoundly changed both of us. I saw some really horrible things. Our children need protection, and our children need to be nourished, need to be loved, need to have permanent homes. We decided that when an opportunity came, where I would have the opportunity to make some positive changes, in foster care, that I would take that opportunity. Over the next 10 years, I casually talked to friends who were representatives, and judges, and senators. When Senator (Richard) Stevens decided he was not going to run for, what I guess would have been, his sixth term, I decided that was the opportunity where I could make those changes.

You represent one of the fastest growing areas of the state, with a district that includes portions of the Raleigh suburbs of Cary, Apex and Holly Springs. What kind of particular challenges does that present as a legislator?Oh, there are plenty. Brent and I came to Wake County in 1985, and moved to Cary, Brent started his law practice in 1986, and I joined him in ’88, so we have embraced that excitement and change and growth that happened in Cary, and then it spread throughout southern Wake County. It is challenging because so many people are coming in, so many new voters, so many different constituents with all different kinds of issues. We’re not homogenous. We’re diverse, and that is very exciting. It also means there are an awful lot of competing needs.

In terms of shaping the policy debate, how has that been compared to your expectations?They put me to work immediately. I’ve had a seat at the table. My disagreements, my vetting of things, my finding problems with things are welcome. I’m encouraged to think independently.

In recent years, there have been several pieces of legislation affecting the lines of municipal authority, and there continues to be discussion at the Legislature, in city halls and in the media about where those lines should be. How do you see that debate going forward?

I can’t predict the debate, but I can tell you about my position, and I think if you look back and see what I’ve done, and how I have behaved, I have shown that I believe that government is best that is closest to the people. It is that simple. I do understand though that municipalities are chartered by the state, and they have to behave in a reasonable manner, but who better to determine whether they are being reasonable than their voters that see them in the grocery store everyday, or at the pharmacy, or at the farmers market, that hold them accountable every day. The best government is that which is closest to the people, and I continue to work with that in mind.

You have recently been mentioned as potentially mulling a run for higher office. What would drive that decision for you?I have had discussions with my family. My husband and I, my whole family, we’re dedicated to public service. But I am also very much dedicated to my family. The other thing is, what opportunities come along? I will continue to want to be in a position to reform and shape foster care, help people with disabilities, learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities, mental illness. I had, before I got involved in [politics], a wonderful life. I want to continue to be involved in those same things.