Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, we're joined by Amanda Cook, candidate for High Point City Council. We talk about her stellar 2022 race for Guilford County School Board and the lessons she learned in that race she's using now in her 2023 race for High Point City Council. Plus, a quick recap of the latest shenanigans from Raleigh.
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Amanda Cook: You have to physically go and see and talk to people. You cannot assume you know what they care about. I call 'em vibe drives, and so I'll just drive to an area that I haven't been to before and just see what's there and see who I bump into. And something magical always happens when you're doing that because you're just open and I love that.
JD Wooten: Happy Memorial Day everyone, and welcome back to Carolina Democracy. I’m JD Wooten, and today we’ve got a great interview with Amanda Cook, an educator and former public-school teacher, who’s running for an at large seat on the High Point City Council. Amanda also happened to run for Guilford County Board of Education in 2022, in a district that was draw to be basically impossible for a Democrat to win, and she ran a great race anyways. We talk about some of the experiences she had in that race, lessons learned, and how she’s using that in the campaign for city council. I had a suspicion when setting up the interview that it would make for a positive, uplifting, back to basics kind of interview that we could all use right about now, and Amanda did not disappoint at all!
Before we get to that interview, let me put a few things on your radar. First, I can’t image you haven’t already heard, but just in case, the day after our last episode dropped, the General Assembly overrode Governor Cooper’s veto to enact the so-called 12-week abortion. I say so-called because it’s actually a 10 week ban on medication abortion, and even during that first 12 weeks, the facility limitations and other impediments they have put in place will dramatically limit the availability of healthcare in North Carolina, even if abortion is nominally allowed on paper. The substance of the bill infuriates me and so does the brazenly undemocratic process by which it became law. As Governor Cooper said shortly after the override vote, “Strong majorities of North Carolinians don’t want right-wing politicians in the exam room with women and their doctors, which is even more understandable today after several Republican lawmakers broke their promises to protect women’s reproductive freedom.” These are dark times for freedom and liberty in North Carolina.
And just as a reminder, Carolina Forward and Change Research quickly put out a poll in the field to confirm that this ban is wildly unpopular. 54% of North Carolinians oppose this exact law, not some hypothetical abortion ban, and only 40% support it. In a generally 50 / 50 state with pretty extreme polarization lately, a 14-point gap against a law speaks volumes to its unpopularity. In fact, even one out of five Republicans oppose this law. By contrast, only 6% of Democrats support this law. The difference is even more stark when you break it down by strongly support, somewhat support, unsure, somewhat oppose, and strongly oppose. Republicans only have 50% as strongly support, while Democrats are at 81% strongly oppose. This massive difference in support, and especially strength of support, is important to highlight because generally speaking, the Republican electorate, as opposed to their elected politicians, is not as anti-choice as the Democratic electorate is pro-choice. It also shows just how wildly unpopular and out-of-step this law is with what North Carolinians really want. Depending on how candidates run with this in 2024, this could be a massive overreach by Republican politicians that backfires when voters go to the polls in 2024.
In other news, the state senate released their proposed budget, and they basically took a baseball bat to public education. The plan is to cap pay raises for our most veteran teachers to just $250 over a two-year period and siphon off about $3 billion to private school vouchers. Don’t forget, the General Assembly has still been found to be woefully short on meeting its constitutional duty of funding public education under the Leandro Court cases for years now, but rather than fully fund our public schools as required by our constitution, the General Assembly now wants to send $3 billion of your tax money to private schools. For a state that used to be so well-regarded for our public education system, we sure are moving backwards in a hurry.
Finally, no updates yet on the gerrymandering case at the U.S. Supreme Court or other voting rights cases around the country, at least as they pertain to North Carolina. The Supreme Court seems poised to take up cases that may give it a way to further weaken the Voting Rights Act, but we’ll have to wait a while longer to see how that unfolds. And of course, sometime later this summer, or perhaps early fall, the General Assembly will redraw the legislative maps for Congressional seats, as well as the state house and state senate. Some think they may just revert to the maps they originally tried to use before the courts got involved this last time around, and that would certainly be unfortunate but not entirely surprising. As soon as we have more, we’ll definitely let you know. Now, without further ado, here’s my interview with Amanda Cook.
JD Wooten: With me today is Amanda Cook, at large candidate for the High Point City Council. Welcome, Amanda.
Amanda Cook: Thank you. Thank you for having me, JD.
JD Wooten: Absolutely, very exciting. So as a first time guest, we'll go with my usual first time question. What's your earliest memory of politics or getting involved in politics?
Amanda Cook: So I honestly don't know if this counts, so you can tell me if it doesn't count, and I don't know if your listeners will get this reference immediately, but I have to share this story because it's one of my favorites. When I was in elementary school, my best friend's older sister thought that I was just a very interesting person and she would always say that I was going to be the President of the United States one day. And so one of her favorite things, now we were in elementary school, she was in high school, I don't know how old exactly, but when she would drive us around, she would interview me like I was running for president. And so one day she asked me, what do you think about illegal immigration? And I didn't know what that was at the time. And so she had to explain it to me and my answer was, let 'em work, let 'em live, which is the sign campaign on the highways in South Carolina. And I guess I always remember thinking that was like a really good message because it stood out as, you know, something that you would pay attention to, but, for whatever reason, that was the first thing that came to my mind, and she would tell that story into our high school and early adult days as just kind of one of those keystone moments for her where she was like, I was half joking about this nine year old, but she was taking it really seriously.
JD Wooten: I love that the sign on the highway for presumably the DOT workers, I love that applicability there. So why don't you tell listeners a little about yourself, your background, how you ended up in High Point, that sort of thing.
Amanda Cook: Well, like everyone have a long story, so I'll try to shorten it down a lot. I did grow up in South Carolina. I came to North Carolina in 2005 to attend UNC-G to become a teacher, and I taught in Forsyth County for nine years. And then I came to Guilford County in 2017 and taught for four years in Guilford County, and I left in 2021 to start a nonprofit that helps teachers called The Teacher's Edge and to run for Guilford County School Board in 2022. So now I live in High Point, so I've lived in a complete circle around the Triad, but I've only lived in Greensboro for a couple of months. It's the only place I haven't lived. And now I've been in High Point since 2019.
JD Wooten: So you've been in both Guilford County and Forsyth County Public Schools, and now you're running a nonprofit to help teachers, so still very much so on the pulse of what's going on in the classrooms. I love it. So this isn't your first run for office, in 2022, and you just mentioned this, you ran for the Guilford County Board of Education. How was that experience?
Amanda Cook: It was the best and the worst and heartbreaking and heart building. It was every emotion it that you can experience in a short amount of time. Because I really do care about education and I came directly out of the classroom into running for office, it was very real and raw for me what a decision by a board means. And at the same time I was running in the most gerrymandered district in Guilford County. And so District 2 is drawn so that it was going to be very, very, very farfetched for me to win. And I think like most people, I started off with a strategy of, oh, I'm going to appeal to everyone and I'll, you know, trick them into voting for me and they'll just see how positive and great I am. And I think I did continue to campaign that way. I tried to have a positive outlook on everyone's experience, but what I did realize was there was still some power that was untapped in running in a hard to win seat, because I got to play defense when we were in forums up against the Take Back Our School's candidates. I had nothing to lose really. And so when things were said that were false or that were derogatory towards teachers or students or communities, I spoke up and it felt great to say those things. It was heartbreaking that nobody was hardly there to hear it a lot of the times. You know, the audiences were filled with our family and a few community members, but people were not turning out in droves to hear these conversations. They were not there to ask questions or to hold people accountable. And so when you see that from the inside, it, it does make you question, what does all of this mean? What is the point in doing all of this? And so, you know, you go through times where you're definitely down on it. But then at the same time, I had never had the agency to just go knock on people's doors and ask them what they really cared about and listen for unlimited amounts of time. And so I actually got to meet a lot of great people in all parts of District 2, which my opponent did not visit, and I'm very grateful that I spent a 12 hour day during early voting in Pleasant Garden. I was the only candidate that went to Pleasant Garden during early voting, and I spent 12 hours just greeting people, talking to people. I made a lot of friends and people brought me hot chocolate cause it was cold that day. People who were not going to vote for me and I think those were the times where you just think, okay, there is hope. There are people who can see beyond the headlines and the party lines and see your humanity, but you have to actually show up in person. You can't just exist behind a social media platform or these candidate forums where everything is so prescribed.
JD Wooten: Well, hat's off to you for running, and recently, I was looking back at those districts and those races, and I did notice District 2, on paper in a perfect cycle with a popular Democratic president candidate at the top of the ticket, somebody down ballot in district two might be able to carry as much as 44%. Realistically, breaking 40% would be a huge boon. And you did that by several points, so congrats. I don't know if it's going to make you feel any better or worse, but when I first ran for state senate, I remember being in some of those candidate forums for the legislature and looking out, and it was family and friends. I'm like, there are five people in this room. There are two races for the State House and a race for the State Senate up on this stage right now. There are five people in this entire theater who might be swayed one way or the other. I get it. So any particular lessons learned during that Board of Ed race that you plan to use or maybe you're already using in this High Point City Council race?
Amanda Cook: Well, one of them definitely is to go to the places where people don't vote. And, you know sometimes I just go to the grocery store that's down Westchester. It's the only grocery spot in basically three or four precincts depending on how much you count certain other smaller markets. But you know, this is where people go to shop and this is also the only choices they have. They don't have a lot of choices to get even down to the other end of Westchester at Maine, to go to Harris Teeter and Publix and some of the other places. And you know, sometimes just driving up and having a magnet on your car, people will tell you stuff and they don't really care that you're not elected and you can't do it yet. And so one thing I learned during the last cycle was people don't generally want to talk to you about the big questions and the big issues that maybe we're more privileged to sit around and think about. They want to talk to you about their power bill. They want to talk to you about the lack of sidewalks in their community and they really don't want to hear all the reasons why they can't have them. Their perception in some of these less served or more peripheral areas is that the people closest to power have what they need and they have options and they have choices and that nobody bothers to come out of the center to see what's going on with other people. As an at large candidate, and I think that's what I learned from running in such a large district before, was that you have to physically go and see and talk to people. You cannot assume you know what they care about. And even after you talk to 10 people, you need to talk to 10 more. Because those 10 people have their own life and their own interest. And so I just try to, I call 'em vibe drives, and so I'll just drive to an area that I haven't been to before and just see what's there and see who I bump into. And something magical always happens when you're doing that because you're just open and I love that.
JD Wooten: Well then I think that's a great transition to the million dollar question. What led you to running for the High Point City Council?
Amanda Cook: Well, so I have to give a little bit of a preface to my reason for running to say that I serve as a Secretary for the High Point NAACP so in this capacity, I'm not speaking for the High Point NAACP, which is nonpartisan group. I'm speaking for myself, but as a member, before even coming to a leadership position, the Highpoint NAACP initiated reparations in High Point. And one of our concerns in that group is that with the changing of leadership on the City Council, the work that the reparations committee and the commissioners have started, will be halted or lost. And this is something that I feel very passionately about and I don't feel is advertised within Guilford County as much. And so I do want to bring light on the good work that's happening in High Point. There are other people you should talk to more that know more and can answer more questions about that, but I would say that's my number one reason. My number two reason is, when I was running for a school board, you know, I've talked a lot about how High Point advertises the most millionaires per capita, and we talk about the billions and billions and billions of dollars that come in for Furniture Market each year. And yet, 21 out of our 24 schools in the High Point city range are Title One schools, which means that the majority of our children live in poverty. So, somebody is not bringing economic opportunity to the majority of High Point. And I think that's kind of why I feel the need to go out into the areas that aren't closest to the baseball stadium and the Market buildings and to remember that people in those areas need opportunities too. And we have to be investigating other ways to get more people. And yes, Toyota will be great for a lot of people, but we don't have the infrastructure to provide transportation for many people to get to those jobs. So I really want to make sure that there's opportunity for everyone, and I think that refocusing towards that economic development is going to have a bigger picture effect than I was thinking even before coming out of the classroom and thinking, oh, I just want to help these teachers. And it's like, no, you have to help at a little bit bigger level in order to make life actually better and sustainable.
JD Wooten: You've kind of touched on this a couple times, trying to basically meet people where they are and be out there and hear people. But correlated to that, as I'm sure you experienced in 2022 , year elections are notoriously difficult for turning out people. Off, off year elections are even more notoriously difficult. You're on the ballot this year, 2023. I know that you're working with some great people and have a solid support structure around you with people that really know how to turn out voters. But I'm curious, what's the game plan? What are y'all doing? What are you looking at in terms of how you're going to engage with and hopefully turn out those voters once the voting starts later this year?
Amanda Cook: This is a million dollar question I think everyone wishes that they could answer, because it is hard to imagine why people don't take advantage of such a low-hanging fruit as voting. It's free, it's close by. People can even vote by mail now, and so why someone doesn't feel that it's important either has to be one of two reasons. Either they think things are fine enough the way they are and they don't feel that they need to go make their voice heard, or things are so bad that people have given up hope or are creating their own economies within their community and dealing with things themselves. And that's a dangerous place to be. And I think that's the perception that High Point has of itself a lot of times and outside groups have of us, is that there are some negative activities happening here. So one thing is, I do love that High Point's comprehensive plan is starting to awaken people to the fact that people of varying backgrounds and interests are listening right now, and controversial or not, it might get people to go make their voice heard now that there's a chance to have different people serving on City Council with new people running for mayor this year, that means new people filling their spots in different wards. It feels like a shakeup, and I feel like that's something that needed to happen to wake up High Point voters. But I think the other part that I hope to tap into is that pride of High Point. You know, I chose to move here. I loved Winston. I thought I would stay in Winston for a long time, but there was something about High Point and the opportunity and the energy that was moving here that made me think this was a better place to start something new and to create a new pride in our education system and in our teachers to come here and start a nonprofit. So, I hope that I can tap into that feeling that there is something moving and shaking, and while it's moving and shaking, we should throw some new people into this City Council that are going to be brave and we're not going to just vote for the last names that we've heard, you know, for years and years. And we're going to see what could happen if we put some more outspoken creative thinkers on that City Council, because otherwise, you know, we're going to have four more years, or eight more years, or 12 more years of the same thing. And I think people are starting to feel that sense. So from a practical standpoint, I plan to partner with the great people that you were talking about before that have already been doing this work here and know where to go and what to do. And I just hope that I have something new to offer the conversation to make people think, oh, it would be worthwhile to go vote for this person versus stay home. So, if you have any suggestions, you can email them to email@example.com.
JD Wooten: Well, Amanda, you are making my job so easy right now because you just set up yet again, the next wonderful transition, talking about things to motivate people and improving your city. So what are your top campaign priorities?
Amanda Cook: Well, you know, I say this tongue in cheek, but sidewalks are actually something that have been proven time and time again to awaken and to integrate communities and to bring people out. And I think after a pandemic, it is a topic that keeps coming up wherever I go here. And so I would like to see us focus on making sure that everyone has safe walkways to move on. Now, the issue that comes up in a municipal area, and you know, forgive me, this is in the weeds and kind of nerdy, but a lot of people don't realize whether they live on a state road or county road or city road. And so I think that that kind of education people would be interested in. And it is the type of thing that engages people to say, okay, now it's time to go to, you know, the county commissioners and see if we can get a sidewalk on East Eastchester or you know, go to our state legislators. So I think sidewalks is kind of one of those like silly sounding ideas, but it actually could be the thing that helps save us and helps engage and awaken our community. So sidewalks is one of my number one. Obviously the reparations are high on my priority list. And that is a separate commission, so the city does not run the reparations work, but the city will have to approve anything that comes through with that. And so I would like to make sure that we're supporting and uplifting that. And then mainly I want to find the thing that's going to make High Point what people want to come here for. And of course I think my nonprofit could make us the destination for teachers. High Point's a beautiful city with a lot of space and empty buildings and I'd love to fill it up with people coming to think about how we're going to deal with education in the 22nd century and to be the leading edge of that. And so I really want to uplift the education scene. And my friend Erin Velardi that runs Vote Run Lead, she always says, I want to make the legislature sexy again. And I say, I want to make teaching sexy again. I want people to look up to teachers and want to be a teacher when they grow up. So I'd love to see High Point take the reins with that.
JD Wooten: I think that's all brilliant. And I don't think focusing on sidewalks when you're running for municipal election is at all a questionable priority. So what's your favorite thing about High Point?
Amanda Cook: You know, I think this sounds silly too sometimes, but honestly, I live less than a mile from the ballpark, but we have deer in my neighborhood. We have foxes and raccoons like it feels like it's wild, you know, it's like things are thriving here despite whatever other forces have tried to tamp it down. And so I like to use this phrase, wild hope. It's kind of like things that grow where they shouldn't grow or thrive where they shouldn't thrive. And I feel like High Point has survived a lot of things and it's still here. And there's some really great spots. We love to go to Sumela Turkish Restaurant, so I love Salt and Pepper and Sumela there's really great food here in High Point. You just have to see past the places where you think to go and look a little bit deeper. There are great people here.
JD Wooten: So is there anything else you want listeners to know about High Point or your race for City Council?
Amanda Cook: I think if I could just wave a magic wand, I wouldn't wish for everyone to vote for me. I would wish for everyone to be informed and vote. And I think when I listen to your podcast episodes and listen to your guests, a lot of them I met personally last year and now are great friends. It's what a lot of us as Democrats and Progressives really truly do want. We don't want full reign, you know, non questioned leadership. What we want is participation and for people to care enough to look at the actual people, go to a forum, ask questions, send me a message, invite me to your cookout. That's really what I think most of us want. And so I hope that High Point will be a leader in that respect and will step up and, and show everyone that they do care and that they are paying attention. And, and that's all you can really do is just hope that the people will do the right thing. And I think there's a lot of sleepers when it comes to politics and people who just don't know that other people care about the same things they do, so that's why I talk about sidewalks and wildlife. You know, those are things that people see and experience and we can all agree they do exist and they're issues that we can address. They're tangible, and that's what I, I hope to achieve serving on City Council in Highpoint.
JD Wooten: So, Amanda, where can people go to learn more about you and your campaign for Highpoint City Council?
Amanda Cook: So I have a website, voteamandacook.com. And please don't spell check it because I'm still building my own website. I don't have a staff or anything like that. And from there you can connect with all of my social medias, and I would love to hear from people. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And yeah, I just am looking forward to learning more throughout this whole year and looking forward to seeing how everything shakes out in October and November.
JD Wooten: Well, we'll leave links for all of that stuff in the show notes to make it easy for our listeners. Amanda, thank you so much for joining us today, it's been a real pleasure.
Amanda Cook: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun. I know we just met, but I do feel like I know you cause I've listened to the previous episodes at this point, so it was a lot of fun to be on the other side of the conversation with you.
JD Wooten: Well, that's great. I appreciate that feedback. All right, best of luck.
Amanda Cook: Thank you.
JD Wooten: Thank you again to Amanda for joining us today, and thanks so much to everyone for listening. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, send me an email at email@example.com. And as always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and share this episode with a friend. Together, we can achieve a better North Carolina for everyone!