Skip to Main Content

Representative Susi Hamilton: Mapping out a plan 

by League Director of Public Affairs Scott Mooneyham

Rep. Susi Hamilton knows a bit about municipal government. For much of her adult life, she was immersed in it – as a city planner, working in historic preservation, and heading the downtown development organization in her native Wilmington.

That immersion in municipal planning, though, did not happen as the result of some thought-out life plan. As a history major at UNC-Chapel Hill in the early 1990s, she had no idea what she was going to do with a history degree until her boyfriend at the time introduced her to his older sister with a conversation about her job ensuing. That sister was Linda Edmisten, who was working for the State Historic Preservation Office writing national register nominations for historic sites in the state.

"From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do with my history degree," Hamilton said.

A break-up with the brother did not prevent Edmisten from giving Hamilton a job as national register assistant at the State Historic Preservation Office. She credits that job with lessons and learning that have benefitted her both professionally and politically throughout her life.

"There was a time when I could name all 100 counties and all their county seats, and could probably quote at least one historic site in every one of those counties. It was a great experience," she said.

Outside a Wilmington area coffee house, Hamilton recently took some time to talk about those lessons and how she arrived at her current destination as state House member.

So from there you ended up back in Wilmington?

Not directly. From there, I went to Little Washington … excuse me … the original Washington. I was their downtown planner and historic preservation planner. We did a lot of waterfront redevelopment while I was there, did a lot of great things for their downtown that I know are still there today. About a year or so later, I left and returned home to Wilmington. I did preservation planning for the City of Wilmington, long-range planning for the city and plan review. You name it, it was all land planning. Then in 2001, Bob Murphrey, who had been our director at Wilmington Downtown (then DARE – Downtown Area Revitalization Effort), he retired and took a new position at the state, and I took the position.

That kind of background must be invaluable regarding some issues that come before the legislature?

It is. I will take it a step further. That exposed me to a lot of state, federal, local regulations. That exposure was definitely invaluable for what I do today, both on the private side and the public side. I left Downtown Wilmington in 2008 and went to work for a site construction company. So I went from working to preserve historic buildings to building roads, water, sewer, and infrastructure. That really played into my interest in and aptitude for building infrastructure in the state and what that has done for economic development.

And what led to the decision to run for the General Assembly?

The bottom fell out of the market, obviously, and in January 2010, I got laid off. Sometime after that, they (her former employer) did have to file for bankruptcy. At that point, I thought it is time for me to get back into public service. I missed it terribly. I enjoyed the work I was doing. It was different. It was exciting. But it was not public service. I couldn’t serve on enough boards and commissions to satisfy my desire to serve, and so, I ran for office. I filed with 15 minutes left in the filing period. There were several folks very unhappy with me.

So you get there. The majority changes. Your party is no longer in power. How was that?

I was just happy to be there. I was all smiles. I remember walking down Fayetteville Street (in Raleigh) on the way to a breakfast meeting the day I was going to be sworn in, and I was texting friends and calling people and saying, "I just can’t wipe the smile off my face." And then I walked into my caucus.

It was a whole different set of circumstances. For the senior Democratic members, who had always been in the majority party, it was palpable, as it should have been. It was a very natural reaction. I’m sure, that as a freshman, there were some undercurrents that I didn’t even pick up on until later. There was a strong, thick emotion associated with the session of 2011 because of the seismic shift. Then in 2012, it was like drinking out of a fire hose.

You are seeking another term. But others are leaving and have cited the length of the legislative session. Does the open-ended legislative session cause you concern?

I am who I am. It is undeniable that I want to serve. I said today to my very, very dear friend Laura Padgett (longtime Wilmington City Council member and former League Board of Directors member, who recently retired) that I just want to commend you because I think it takes a lot more courage to quit than it does to run for office. People get caught up in it. They get caught up in the title, the deference they receive from the public or the staff or whatever that is, the expectation that they are intelligent and an expert, and all of those things that sort of blow up your ego. Because I never served in the majority, my impulse to continue to run is basically so that I can hopefully participate in stopping some things. You know I am a North Carolinian. I respect and understand the place from where we’ve come as an agricultural society, and pretty much missed the industrialization but for textiles and tobacco and agricultural commodities as they were put to market. I never met Governor Sanford, but his commitment to education is what brought us out of an agrarian mindset to the 20th century, but we are not finished. You don’t change things overnight, but what does change the culture is public education.

Wilmington is a very unique place in North Carolina, with its mix of a tourism economy, having an urban core, having significant industry, being the state’s film industry hub. How is it representing this area, and what kind of challenges does that present?

I will never live anywhere else permanently. I will be buried in Oakdale Cemetery next to my grandmother if I am lucky. This is home. Everybody loves Wilmington. You don’t meet anybody in the General Assembly who doesn’t have a keen interest about Wilmington. But when it comes down to the voting, they haven’t shown the love as much. The community is very supportive. I have support on both sides of the aisle financially with my campaign and in the vote. I think it is because people in this area, regardless of party and some things that might divide us, really want what is best for this area. They love their town, and they love their community.

How frustrating has the film production incentive debate been for you and for this area?

Incredibly. We extended it for two years in 2012, and in that period of time, we had record-breaking years (of film activity). The House and Senate Republican leadership hung in there this year and did the best they could do under the circumstances. What they returned to the community was about 50 percent of the business. We will see. The numbers won’t lie.

Last year, a legislative municipal caucus was formed that you co-chair. What direction do you see that taking going forward?

I think it is an opportunity for us to get together and talk about how our urban centers can lift all boats, lift all folks. That is my motivation. I think it is Mitch’s (fellow co-chair Rep. Mitch Setzer of Catawba) motivation as well. So fine, we are cities. He has been a mayor. I am clearly someone who has been very involved in my city. But I think Mitch and I understand that it is our job to connect that and translate that success toward the more rural areas. I think we can do it too.