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The daughter of North Carolina’s “education governor,” Rep.-elect Rachel Hunt says strengthening the state’s public schools is at the top of her legislative agenda when she takes office in January.
Hunt, a Democrat who defeated influential House Finance Chairman Bill Brawley by 68 votes in a Republican-leaning suburban Charlotte district, will attend orientation sessions for incoming legislators this week while current General Assembly members convene to set voter identification rules and divvy up hurricane relief funds.
“We have a long way to go in restoring our state to the great public school state it once was under Dad,” she said, “and I am very, very committed to making that happen.”
“Dad” is former Gov. Jim Hunt, who remains a prodigious fundraiser and a linchpin in Democratic politics nearly two decades after leaving office. He and wife Carolyn have been fixtures with Rachel Hunt on the campaign trail.
In 2001-02 — as Jim Hunt wrapped up his fourth and final term — North Carolina ranked 19th in teacher pay among the 50 states. It’s now ranked 37th and lags behind the neighboring states of South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. Principal pay is 50th in the nation, according to National Education Association figures.
“The No. 1 thing I would like to see is raising teacher pay back up to the national average,” Hunt said.
While Democrats gained enough ground in the Nov. 6 midterm to break veto-proof GOP supermajorities in both General Assembly chambers, Republicans remain in control. Reform will require reaching across the aisle, and Hunt is optimistic that lawmakers can come together to support public schools.
“The environment is different now with the supermajority having ended and the threat of the governor’s veto now looming,” she said. “I think there will be the opportunity to have consensus with folks. My district was mostly Republican. I knocked on over 1,500 doors myself, and when I talked to people, I had to talk about things everyone believes in. Republicans and unaffiliated voters, they believe in education.”
Hunt said expanding the state’s Medicaid system to cover more patients in a federal-state partnership under the Affordable Care Act is another area where Democrats and Republicans should be able to find common ground. GOP legislative leaders have been resistant to Medicaid expansion thus far.
“We are sending our tax dollars to other states currently,” Hunt said, noting that states receive a larger share of federal funds to cover the bulk of increased Medicaid costs. “Republicans and Democrats, they’re very upset about that. This is something we have the ability to choose.”
When it comes to how the state would pay its share of the Medicaid tab and how to enhance education, Hunt said she’s open to working with Republican colleagues to identify revenue sources.
“Everything is up for studying, in my opinion,” she said. “I’m definitely going to be looking for common ground with folks. I’m going to be working with Republicans and Democrats to move North Carolina forward.”
WILSON COUNTY ROOTS
Hunt, 53, is married to Olav Nilender, and the couple has two children in college. While her career as a lawyer and owner of two educational consulting companies took her to the Charlotte area, her Rock Ridge roots run deep.
“I have a very deep affinity for folks from here,” she said. “It’s kind of my original home, but it’s also my second home.”
Hunt attended Rock Ridge Elementary and Springfield Middle. Since her parents lived in the Executive Mansion while she was in high school, she graduated from Broughton High in Raleigh.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said of attending high school as the governor’s daughter. “There were so many different experiences and opportunities to meet people from everywhere.”
Hunt earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and completed law school at the University of South Carolina. A career as a lawyer and education consultant kept her busy, and she put her political aspirations on hold until her children went off to college.
“I watched my father work incredibly hard,” she said. “It takes up a large part of your life.”
Her election to the state House was a favorite topic of conversation during Thanksgiving dinner in Rock Ridge, where 17 people gathered around the family table.
“We’re very, very proud of her, and she got a great start in rural Wilson County,” Jim Hunt said. “It served her well throughout her career.”
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
The former governor and first lady made numerous treks to Charlotte to stump for Rachel Hunt, appearing at rallies and at polling sites during early voting. Her husband, children, nephew and both sisters assisted with the campaign as well.
Her political pedigree also helped with fundraising — a first-time candidate, she outraised her opponent by a 3-1 margin, amassing a $1.2 million war chest.
“I would like to see campaign finance reform,” Rachel Hunt said. “It took an extreme amount of effort. I would really like to see the amount of money it takes to do something like this reduced. No one should have to raise that much money to run a state House campaign.”
Hunt said her father’s renown as the state’s longest-serving governor helped her connect with voters, who then took the time to get to know her positions on the issues.
“It was very much an asset,” she said. “Everyone, whether they’re Republican or Democrat or unaffiliated, has very fond memories of what our state was like when he was governor and what a great job he did.”
For his part, Jim Hunt downplayed his role in the campaign and deferred to his daughter’s hard work.
“She’s done it on her own, but we’re behind her 100 percent,” he said.
Rachel Hunt’s freshman term as the state representative for House District 103 begins on New Year’s Day. For this reform candidate and first-time public servant, 2019 can’t get here soon enough.
“I’m very excited to get to work and make this the progressive state that it used to be — and hopefully make it even better,” she said. “I’m ready to serve North Carolina. I can’t wait to start.”