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Not Getting Lost in Translation: Sen. Mike Woodard interprets the legislative labyrinth 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

When jargon runs amok, call Mike Woodard. He’s your translator.

How so? Check his resume. When you’ve had as many career paths as he, you’re considered a renaissance man. And when you’re a renaissance man, you speak a lot of languages.

At Duke University, Woodard works in the linguistic labyrinth of finance, healthcare and administration – in part because the school recognized his ability to clearly communicate complicated inner-workings to partners and stakeholders. When he helped the university implement a computer-based financial system, he knew it would be chockful of impervious, logistical shoptalk that not everyone on the project team understood. Not a problem. "I took what the CPAs and the computer geeks said and helped translate for the people who were implementing the system," said Woodard, who also has a background in healthcare policy, public information, professional writing and radio – in addition to a stint as a community college teacher – speaking to his power to convert complicated matter into digestible information.

All in all, it’s not a bad skillset when it comes to representing thousands of constituents in the N.C. General Assembly. Woodard, a former Durham City Council member, is today a state senator in his second term, and he speaks for a diverse district that includes not only his urban Durham locale but also rural Person and Caswell counties. That means he’s steadily in touch with his people, so he can communicate their varying needs to the legislature and report back on the legislature’s actions.

"I always said I was the translator," Woodard said during a recent interview in his legislative office.

Tell us more about how that led you to the General Assembly.

I’ve had other jobs with Duke, and I also worked in the community college system for six years, at Durham Tech. While I was there, I became the PIO (public information officer) for the community college. And then they needed someone to pick up a class teaching state and local government. I said, "Hey I can do that." So I think having been in higher education my whole career, and then in the last 20 years learning a lot more about healthcare when I went back and started working on the healthcare side of the house at Duke, clearly I got to know a lot of about education and healthcare policy. I think my financial background in helping develop Duke’s $4 billion-plus budget helps me understand a lot about our $22 billion (state) budget. And I think just working in a bureaucracy, like a major university and health system, helps me understand how state government functions, and doesn’t function sometimes – where it works well, where it doesn’t work well, how things have momentum, how things get stalled sometimes. So, yeah, I think it gives me a lot of insight into state government.

You have a municipal government background as well …

I ran for the Durham City Council in 2005 (and served until 2012). I had always been active in a lot of community groups from the time I chose to make my home in Durham and settle there. So I got active in my neighborhood association. The Jaycees is something that was always really important to me; I was state president of the Jaycees in 1999. My wife and I have always been active in our church. I have been president of the Durham Arts Council. And I’ve served the Dispute Settlement Center, Rotary, United Way, the Chamber of Commerce. I was just one of those guys who always seemed to get called to be on a committee or join this group. And I think through the neighborhood work in particular, I got really active. I was always active in Durham Partners Against Crime. The InterNeighborhood Council (INC) is the association of neighborhood associations. The year before I went to city council, I was president of INC, which exposed me to a whole range of issues all across the city. So it just seemed like a logical step. I looked at the city council … and the time was right for my career to make the move and offer myself and my skills to serve Durham.

Having a municipal government background in the legislature gives you a unique appreciation for municipal issues. How does that impact your legislative work?

Yeah, I think having local government experience is a great way to be a more effective legislator. You get to see how government works or doesn’t work. You get experience budgeting. You get experience working with employees. And then, just beginning to understand the range of issues that government deals with, and just the interconnectedness of how government works with various government entities, how it works with the private sector, how it works to serve residents of that community, is real important. So it gives you good insight, and then it helps to understand the regional nature of government working. … And then, obviously, you’re going to be working with the elected officials in the communities you represent … and understand their issues, helping them know which buttons to push, who to go ask. Having that experience and that hands-on knowledge and experience helps me understand the issue, and get to work on it quicker.

So you have a good, steady interaction with municipal officials in your district?

That’s critical. That’s a very important piece of the job, serving in the legislature. The first things I did when I decided to run for the Senate was to make contact with the elected officials in those other counties in the 22nd District. I hardly knew anybody in Caswell County when I filed, but my first contact was to sit down with (former and late) Mayor Curtis Davis of Yanceyville and (then) Chairman Nathanial Hall of the Caswell County Board of Commissioners, and I did that within two weeks of filing for office. I went up there and met with them and got them to take me around the community and see it from their perspective.

What’s a legislative day like for you? I commute over in the morning, check in here with a great legislative aid who’s been here for 25 years now. It’s a good time to catch up on mail and reading. I’m a voracious reader – newspapers, articles, scanning the Internet. I get my reading to prepare for the day. Obviously, committee meetings start in the morning. I really try to maintain an open-door policy, so any groups or constituents or advocates for a certain issue who want to come, I can fill up my day with meeting with folks and getting to learn more about the issues. Conferring with our legislative staff on legislation that I’m working on takes up a good part of the day…. It can be long … The day we did the budget, I got over here early to prepare for the budget conversation, and of course we stayed and did our second vote on the budget the next day at 12:05 a.m. That was a 20-hour day.

And what do you see in your municipal lens when you’re at the legislature?

What I hope we could accomplish as a legislature is supporting our local governments and letting them do what they do best. I’m a firm believer that the most effective form of government is at the local level. It’s the city councils and town commissioners and county commissioners who are in those communities every day. They’re providing the services. They’re making sure that city streets get paved or parks are provided or that the water runs and is clean. They’re making sure that the businesses in that community, that town, have what they need to survive…. A trend I’ve seen that’s concerned me since I’ve been here is the legislature’s intervention in a lot of local decisions. That’s a trend I hope we will reverse. And instead of meddling in local governments, what we would do is find ways to help to support them, to provide them the resources they need at the state level, that we give them the policies that they need to be successful, that we help them with the tools that they need in their toolbox to be successful. One example is the historic preservation tax credit. I’ve seen how that was critical in helping us restore parts of Durham. And other incentive packages as well. Durham used those very effectively, and we’ve gone through a renaissance over the past 15 to 20 years, and there were tools that the state provided that helped us do that. I look at other communities, like Roxboro, which I represent, which has a beautiful uptown area. Gorgeous buildings. Many of them are sitting empty. And with support from the business community, entrepreneurs, a small business person who just wants to take a risk – I would hope that we would be able to provide the Town of Roxboro the tools they need to spark their uptown and to do other things in their community.

So, as all of this flows through your mind throughout the long course of the legislative day, what tends to be the last thing on your mind before you go to bed?

I always think about, "Did I do enough today to help the people I serve in the 22nd District?" Some days I feel really good that I was able to get something accomplished. A local bill yesterday got passed and it’s in the House today. So I was very happy to get my local bill that will help Caswell County. I felt good about that. And last week, negotiating with some of your colleagues from the League, working closely with them to make legislation better. So it’s "Did I do as much as I could do for the people I represent?" And then, when I get up in the morning, it’s "What is today going to be like? And can I keep doing the good work for those folks?" It’s just in making the communities I represent good places for people to live and work and raise their families.