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Finding a Way: Rep. Becky Carney Draws Energy from Every Challenge – Even Brushes with Death 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

It’s common to hear state legislators cite fewer hours of sleep as the annual sessions grind away on Jones Street. It’s true: lawmaking is not a well-rested job. The 2016 agenda, for one, blared a particularly loud horn that, for both sides of the aisle, kept eyes open and feet shuffling around the clock. By the end of the year, the journals counted six legislative sessions, an unusually high tally that included the regularly scheduled, months-long session, along with five special sessions. Cleary not a sleepy time for North Carolina politics.

Awake on the front row of the House floor through it all was longtime Rep. Becky Carney, who isn’t outdone by marathon workdays. The eight-term Charlotte legislator has run and won much tougher battles – including two amazing returns from death’s door – and draws noticeable, new energy from each experience. In an interview with Southern City after 2016’s adjournment, Representative Carney reflected on the busy year, her perspective on service, why she emphasizes communication between local and state officials -- and walks us, in detail, through the gravest times of her life.  

What impression did 2016 leave on you as a legislator?I think that we were all met with challenges, especially around social issues and the economic impact from those issues. And I think, for me, the whole session was trying to find, with all of my colleagues, common ground for the good of the people of North Carolina, beyond just one particular bill. There were good things that happened that I think were just overpowered and overshadowed with what was going on with HB2…. We may not have all agreed, but it was one of those issues that, whether we end up at the end of the day getting what we as individual legislators want for a particular issue ... it’s an opportunity that we all have to have input. Maybe there are legislators that feel like they don’t have that opportunity. I have found that, having been there for 14 years, I have learned that the most important thing that you can do to be effective is to network with all the members and build those relationships…. For me, each year that I am able to continue serving, I try to find purpose. I’m there, I’m in the middle of it. Being in the minority, I still push and try to have my voice heard, though it may have been challenging with issues. 2016 is one of those in my 14 years that stands out the most, in that all of the lights were on our state, from around the country. 

What do you see ahead for 2017?We’ve got challenges again ... We’re starting out with a lot of lawsuits again (such as Gov. Roy Cooper’s challenge over recent legislative changes to his power). I will say that within the last couple of years, there have been more lawsuits than I have seen over my years (in the legislature). If things are tied up in the courts – we’ve heard members say, "The courts will make that decision." And so things are just kind of left hanging, policies are left hanging, for the public. So I think our challenge is going to be gaining back the public’s confidence in the legislature. There’s a big change in the respect of the institution, from what I have known it to be, with the members and from the public. And that kind of saddens me. I consider it an absolute honor to serve. And the population of North Carolina is what, 10 million? (To think) that I am one of just 120 in the House of Representatives who gets to go there and serve. And I think that is an absolute honor and a privilege that the people of my district have bestowed on me with their vote of confidence. That’s breathtaking to me.

Speaking of your district, how does representing an area as large as Charlotte or Mecklenburg County affect your service or role in the General Assembly? It’s arguably the busiest part of the state, and a lot of legislators come out of that area.

Our delegation has always been known ... as a strong delegation that works together. Now, we haven’t always agreed on the issues … but we have always respected each other and worked together. So, collectively, we have always had that voice represented in Raleigh. What has happened more and more is the urban-rural divide. And we talk about it all the time. My local government experience (as a Mecklenburg County commissioner) was very helpful to me going in to the state level. I remember being elected as a county commissioner and going to my first training with the UNC School of Government for newly elected commissioners, and I was just astounded at issues that my rural colleagues faced as county commissioners. And it gave me a greater insight in knowing that all needs are relevant. For Charlotte, we have major needs. In Bertie County, they have major needs. They’re all just maybe looked at differently. I loved county government.  

I think that (NCACC) can play and the League of Municipalities can play major roles in bridging this urban-rural divide. So for me, from representing a busy city like Charlotte, which is one of the most diverse cities in the state, our needs to serve our particular population are quite different from some of our rural colleagues. Therefore, I think we have the clashing of differences there. So, moving forward into 2017, I have encouraged my council members and commissioners to work with their colleagues around each of those core urban areas to pull in the rural municipalities within their area, their region. You know, all government bubbles up from the local level, the issues. There’s an opportunity to educate each other.

How else is local government experience beneficial to a state legislator? Health and human services, for example. That’s one of the major things that a county government deals with. Also education. Knowing those needs at my local level, and serving in Raleigh, I feel like I came in ahead of the curve. We have a county caucus at the legislature. The municipalities have one, too. They’re comprised of (legislators who are) former members of local governments, and they come together and talk about certain bills and ask, "How is this going to impact local governments?" And I’ve been involved with that since my good friend Carolyn Justice (the former Pender County Republican House member) was there, and we both came to the table having both been county commissioners. And those were the days when we all worked together. I was in the majority; she was in the minority. And yet, she got things done. And it was urban and rural. So I think our local government experience has put us closer to the people in understanding what those needs are back home.

And the same applies to those with town council or mayoral experience.

Absolutely. School board (too). When you come up and you’ve been in the trenches at home serving as an elected official, first of all you know the responsibility you have to the citizens.... I will say that what I missed the most in moving from local government to state government is that connection with the people back home. When you’re on a local government, whether it’s the council or school board or whatever, you’re right there with your constituents every day. And they know you. They know you when you’re out in the public. I served three terms in local government, and people knew me, and knew the things that I had done, and they put their confidence in me to go to Raleigh.

So when you go to Raleigh, you have to work really hard to reach the constituents in your district, because you’re isolated from what’s going on day to day. We rely so much on people reaching out to us and (us) reaching out to them. I tell people all the time: Come to Raleigh if you can. If you cannot, I publish all my numbers, so contact my office.... Having that experience coming to Raleigh, I knew it was my responsibility to reach out to my constituents at home. But it’s also hard if you don’t know all that’s happening right down to the level of your district all the time... I think we’re at a point now where we’re seeing more local officials coming to Raleigh, and I think that’s a huge step forward for us to have better dialogue. Come up and talk to us. Don’t always come and say, "We need this, we need that." Say, "This is our need. What can we do together?’ We need to do more of that.

So it makes a big difference when local government leaders to reach out to you.Absolutely…. I will tell you the first time I ran for office was school board. I’d never run for anything. I told my campaign manager I wanted to go to Raleigh and meet with the state superintendent (of public instruction), Bob Etheridge, and talk to him about the bloodline between Raleigh and the school board in Mecklenburg County. I knew that it was a very important issue at the state level and that they controlled a lot of what happened at the local level.... We walked in and he went, "Wow, this is a nice treat, but I’m not sure why you’re here…. What is the purpose of your visit?" And when I told him ... he looked at me and said, "Gosh, I don’t think I’ve had anybody ever ask me for an explanation." When I heard that, I used that with just about everything that I tried to do with local government: reaching out to the state to get a better understanding.

Of course, to understand you best, we have to talk about how certain life events have shaped you. Major health incidents, including a ‘sudden cardiac death,’ twice at death’s door….

The summer of 2009. It was on a Thursday. Time to go home after session.... I went to my office, and was at my desk talking to my (legislative assistant). My phone rang. It was a colleague. She was saying something to me and – now, this is where I’m told what happened. Apparently, I sneezed and my LA said, "God bless you." And I always say thank you. When I didn’t speak, she looked up and my head was on my desk. She immediately called for help…. They started CPR ... and then (legislative police and medical experts) came in and brought the defibrillator with them. My freshman class had donated it. We did not have a defibrillator in the legislature, so we had all collected money and bought one. That one was used to save my life. EMS came and took me to WakeMed.... I woke up at WakeMed, and the rest was kind of a comeback. My body had totally shut down.... I equate to when you reboot a computer. You can lose things, or everything comes back. I was fortunate enough that everything came back. My cognitive ability was still strong. My physical ability was still strong. I did have a pacemaker defibrillator implanted. I went through about two months of rehabilitation, getting my strength back and courage back. But I knew that I was needed. And I had a responsibility. And I needed to push hard to get back over to the legislature. That happened on April 2nd, and on June I went back to the legislature. And of course, my colleagues were tremendous in support. My family was amazing. My constituents, they never judged me about the illness. In fact the support was overwhelming. And with all of that around me – of course, I also have a strong faith and believe in prayer and God – I had a miracle. That support fed my strength. And more than ever I was determined to be a part of the process. And I had a couple of good bills that year that we pushed ahead…. It was like, "I can’t walk away now."

And so I’m still here, for whatever reason, and I’m ticking right along, in great shape, felt great. And then in July, we were out in Nevada for my son’s wedding. Got to the airport to fly back home and started experiencing feelings of fainting. And then apparently I went out. The EMS took me to a hospital there. My defibrillator implant kicked in and started my heart back. So they put me in the hospital, pumped me up with some meds to fly me back, and I ended up at Chapel Hill at my son’s. And I just got worse. They took me over to UNC (hospital). My body was shutting down. Family was called in. My heart was too damaged. I didn’t have enough time to wait for a transplant. Two options: get meds and go home and wait to die, which would be in a couple of months; or, have the LVAD (left ventricular assist device) implanted. My family made that decision. It was an incredible decision. I have this wonderful device.

How does the LVAD work?I have a driveline going into my body that is hooked to a pump in my heart. And that driveline, during the day, I plug into batteries that I wear on my back in a backpack. At night I unhook from the batteries and plug into a wall unit. I get fired up at night, and then hook up the batteries and I’m wide open to go all day.

I feel stronger and better. Blood is flowing through my body stronger than ever.

And so you’re empowered to continue...People asked, through both events, "Are you going to run again? Is this going to be your last term?" And I’ve said both times, "No." I must still have something left. I have more energy now, more of a commitment now, to be in there and fight for what I think is right... and knowing that we all have limited days, limited hours. Make the most of it.... When you know you’re out of time on a test, you rush to get it all done if you didn’t study. You drag over the test and you linger over certain questions, and panic sets in and the bell’s going to ring. It’s over, and you rush through ... If you’d prepared and studied you would have done better and paced your time out. I know now that each day, I get up and I deal with that day. Of course I have a calendar, I know what’s coming up, but I don’t dwell on it.... It’s the quality of your stress, not the quantity of your stress, that’s going to make you stronger.... I don’t worry over any issues. I know that we’re struggling as a state right now. And I know that if we all work together and we band together and we take advantage of every day, we’re going to make this better. But it’s going to have to be a commitment from everybody. That’s what it’s been for me, what it’s like now to know that I’ve literally experienced death – I died, twice – in the legislature. And I’m still there. And each time, I have gotten stronger and more committed to making the most of the time that I have.