Carolina Democracy

A Seat Up For Grabs? Let's Take It!

July 08, 2024 JD Wooten Season 3 Episode 25
A Seat Up For Grabs? Let's Take It!
Carolina Democracy
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Carolina Democracy
A Seat Up For Grabs? Let's Take It!
Jul 08, 2024 Season 3 Episode 25
JD Wooten

Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, we're joined by Beth Helfrich, candidate for the North Carolina House District 98 in Mecklenburg County. We talk about her background, being a 3rd generation Davidson native running for office, and what she hopes to see change in Raleigh after she wins!

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Show Notes Transcript

Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, we're joined by Beth Helfrich, candidate for the North Carolina House District 98 in Mecklenburg County. We talk about her background, being a 3rd generation Davidson native running for office, and what she hopes to see change in Raleigh after she wins!

Learn More About Beth Helfrich:

Contact Us:

Follow Us:

Support the Show.

JD Wooten: Welcome to Carolina Democracy. I'm J. D. Wooten and with us today is Beth Helfrich, candidate for the North Carolina House District 98 in Mecklenburg County. Welcome to the show, Beth. 

Beth Helfrich: Thank you so much for having me, J. D. 

JD Wooten: Absolutely. So first question, what's your earliest memory of politics or getting involved in politics?

Beth Helfrich: I love that you ask your guests this question. I have the great fortune of being raised in A fairly politically minded, or at least civically engaged family, and in a community that felt that way, too. But my earliest memory I think was from 1986. I was all of 5 years old, but D. G. Martin, who was, you know, the pride and joy of Davidson, Davidson alum just stellar North Carolinian. He's still doing good work as a journalist. He ran for US House of Representatives in 1984 and lost to Alex McMillan and then ran again in 1986. And so the first year they had buttons that said, you know, DG Martin, and then his 2nd campaign, they said This Time DG and that I think is my earliest visual. I have a very clear visual memory of wearing a This Time DG pin all over town when I was 5 years old. He did not win that election either. And then he also later lost a run for Senate, I think, in the late 90s, but just. Just one of those classic, good, upstanding, hardworking, principled North Carolinians who made a go of it.

JD Wooten: Well, that's a great story. And I think you're the first interview guest despite all the interviews we've done who have just come out the gate and say, I love this first question. Glad we still do it. Thank you. 

Beth Helfrich: I have, yeah, I have many of, I mean, I was like stumping for Michael Dukakis in the 2nd grade and, you know, and, and grew up in the kids vote era where we were having mock elections in our schools and, and really learning about it, you know, now politics is pretty messy. And so, it's harder to bring that into the classroom and into the conversations, but I feel very happy to have come along when I did. 

JD Wooten: I remember those debates in elementary school. But anyway, back to this campaign and your background. You're a 3rd generation Davidson resident and a proud graduate of North Mecklenburg High School and Davidson College. What's your favorite thing about growing up and living in North Mecklenburg County? 

Beth Helfrich: This is home to me, like, in every sense of the word, and it has changed a ton since I was young. I mean it's rapidly growing and changing now. And so you know, I think, I think there's a misconception that when you've been somewhere for a long time, and you saw it in its quieter years that you resent all that growth, but there are so many incredible new neighbors and small businesses and fun things to do in our end of the county than there were when I was a kid. And so I, I celebrate all that and welcome that. We're never at a loss for things to do.

But I think what I love most is that the people who are coming here and the people who stay here have very intentionally for the most part chosen to be here. And when you are surrounded by people who have chosen to live in a certain place, because of the things that they value about that place, whether it's the weather or the proximity to Charlotte, or the fact that we can get, you know, out on the lake, or get to the beach, the mountains all this variety of reasons that people choose to plant their lives here. There's a warmth and a sense of community that is easily nurtured and fostered. And so, you know, for me, it's the fact that I can walk out my door, move through my day, run into people that have known me since I was born, and also meet six new people. And each of them is excited to see me.

Well, maybe that's a stretch that the new folks are excited to see me, but I will say when they find out that I am born and raised here, I, I grow a little unicorn horn very quickly. And they love talking about this place because They're excited to live here. They're excited to be here. So I think that's really it. There's a sense of community in this in this corner of the, of the world that I have yet to experience in other places. 

JD Wooten: So you've kind of answered this, but the unicorn comment raises another question I kind of want to ask. And that is, you know, most candidates don't have the privilege, quite frankly, of running in a place where, in a district that's Almost exactly where they grew up, let alone where their parents grew up, and even more unusual where their grandparents were from. And so that's just not as common in today's mobile society. So I'm just really curious your experience so far running to represent an area where again, not only did you grow up and your parents grew up or your grandparents were even from. 

Beth Helfrich: Well, it could have gone either way, right? 

JD Wooten: Yeah, it really could.

Beth Helfrich: There are again, I, I will say, you know, there, there are so many folks here who have known me for a very, very long time. And I think the piece of the campaign in some ways that makes me feel proudest is that those folks were immediately on board. Even though this is my 1st time running for office, they were so excited because they saw it not as a radical departure from the way that I've lived my life. But as logical extension of my trajectory, you know. I think to feel that affirmation from the people who built these communities and who have seen, you know, truly whose values have informed my values and my choices in my life to see how proud they are of this journey for me and they're, you know, they're phone banking and volunteering and canvassing and just really excited about it. So it, it both helps me feel really supported and confident and also ups the stakes, right? You know, I do not want to be disappointing the folks who have known my grandmother for 50 years. I can't mess up for them. 

JD Wooten: I did hesitate in deciding whether to ask that because I figured, you know, if it turns out she's third generation, but one of her grandparents was a notorious serial killer in Davidson, that could have really gone the other direction. But then I also assumed you might not be promoting it that much if that were the case, so. 

Beth Helfrich: That's right. No, I'm very proud of my extended family. 

JD Wooten: Now, you did follow in some family footsteps professionally. You were a teacher and a school administrator for nearly two decades, which I understand your parents were also educators. So what led you to the calling of education? 

Beth Helfrich: Yes, you know what they say about apples and trees? I will say, so my, my mom was a career public high school English teacher. My dad was a theater professor at Davidson college too. So my sense of the way that the year works and operates is still very much rooted in the school calendar. It took me a long time to understand that there were jobs in the world where you did actually report to work every day in July and you didn't load up the minivan and go camping up and down the East Coast, which is how we would spend our summers. The tradeoff was that we did nothing during the school year, except go to school and do our homework and prepare for the next day. You know, it was either school mode or summer mode.

But I was ready to be an actor myself. I studied acting college was ready to launch. Met a guy, he was a drummer. And also a Davidson alum and my senior year, when we were dating, he left the band and bought a very tiny brick and mortar coffee shop on Main Street Davidson called Summit Coffee. And I said, okay, I really like you. I can give Davidson five more years. So I spent one year in Charlotte working with Children's Theatre of Charlotte. I toured North Carolina public schools performing with a theater troop. And then the next year came back and worked at Davidson and then we got married in 2005 and I found a teaching job.

And as soon as I stepped back onto campus it just felt like putting on the most familiar, comfortable pair of shoes. I love the classroom. I love schools. There is a vibrancy and an excitement that comes from all of that growth and, you know, light bulbs going on and off all the time. And for kids that the concentrated social experiment of being in a classroom together. And so I loved that. 

JD Wooten: Fascinating background, and I will also note that when you win election you may find yourself in a new job if this current General Assembly and short session is anything to measure by of getting your summers back. Although I don't know that that's a good thing for the state of North Carolina, but 

Beth Helfrich: Yes, ideally they stick to the schedule and accomplish everything they need to accomplish in the session too.

JD Wooten: Oh, you're asking for two things. And I don't think you can have both, you might not be able to get either if this year's anything to measure. So shifting to this election and your campaign, you're running for House District 98, which is covering Northern Mecklenburg County. What led you to wanting to run for the state house and why this year? 

Beth Helfrich: Are you a native North Carolinian J.D.?

JD Wooten: I am. 

Beth Helfrich: You are, so you know and love in all likelihood the same North Carolina that I know and love which is really one of, to me, the most exciting places to be in terms of political engagement and feeling like there's a, the chance or the hope, or the promise of being able to influence what happens in your state. So, you know, North Carolina is always on the razor's edge in terms of who's going to wield the power and how much, you know, I grew up in a time of great progress in North Carolina, where we had incredible leaders like Harvey Gant and Jim Hunt. And at the same time as those folks were pushing for progress in North Carolina and making serious investments in our public education system and working towards you know, a very future oriented way of leading. The same time, you know, our county commissioner here in Mecklenburg County, our county commission decided to essentially strip arts funding because they were upset about the production of Angels in America.

And so I sort of grew up paying attention to the push pull of progress and the natural sort of pull back from what happens if there is progress that feels too fast or too scary for some, right? And so you know, to me, the interesting thing about, you know, you can look back and see how things align in terms of timing.

So my husband and I have five kids now. The oldest was born two weeks before President Obama was elected in 2008. And so for me, that felt like, it felt like I, you know, I, I leaned in, I'd worked hard. I, I tried to tug when there were places to tug in terms of having my voice or my vision or feel like my government was fighting for me.

And I felt like, you know, I'd entered a new phase of young parenthood and, and I was working full time and my life got a lot smaller in those years. And you know, like, I think a lot of Democrats or left leaning folks have thought, okay, we have made it, you know, we like, we got through those crazy years with hanging chads and electoral chaos and the scary years of weapons of mass destruction and you know, all, all of that.

And we, we made it and obviously that is not what happened. Because in 2010, the state legislatures, started turning because of investment on the other side to try to take those legislatures including North Carolina's. 

But in 2010, obviously, the state legislature flipped. You and so many others heeded the call and, you know, the late 20 aughts. There was a wave of enthusiasm in 2018 that came through. And again, it felt like, okay, now the balance is tipped. Now we can keep moving forward. But it's this sort of shift toward to me, this anti-democratic shift that's happening, this shift away from a people centered democracy.

It's coming from lots of different angles. It's not just in key executive races. It's not just at the top of the ticket. It's not even in the legislative branch alone. And so as the Supreme Court makeup shifted, I started looking and paying attention to how power was going to keep getting turned back to the states.

And here in my state, which again, is not a, it's not really a clear guarantee in terms of our population, which, which way we're going to go. The popular vote is, is always very, very tight. It's very tight. I love this about North Carolina. It's such a purple state. And our state legislature does not reflect that. There's an imbalance of power in the state legislature.

So, long story short, this is a long-winded way of saying last year when the majority became a super majority in our state house and when immediately after that happened, the General Assembly started passing legislation that to me, and from my perspective, it's not just different politically than I would want, it's harmful to North Carolinians. From my perspective, the abortion ban is harmful for North Carolinians. The continued underfunding of our public school system is harmful. There are decisions being made that directly impact lives in our state. And so I had to ask myself, what can I do about this?

And minimally breaking the super majority and reinstating the governor's veto is a really important way to restore balance in our state legislature. And so as it turns out, my life has been and my roots are in 1 of the most competitive districts. It's a true tossup. It is almost every year. And not only that, but it's an open seat. I know this community, I know our values. They transcend party line.

The people of North Mecklenburg show up for each other. They care about each other. We ultimately want mostly the same things. We want the freedom to thrive ourselves. We want our friends and our neighbors and their kids to be able to thrive too. And if I can really connect the voters of 98 to that intrinsic truth about themselves and point them in this direction and say, here's something that we can do together to bring those values to our state house. Here's something we can do together to restore democratic processes. Here's something we can do together to try to actually set us up for bipartisan progress. Again, a long-winded way of saying the Hamilton line of the Skylar seat was up for grabs so I took it. This is a seat that's up for grabs. I believe in us. Like we're going to do it together. We're going to flip it. 

JD Wooten: I think that's amazing. And I totally identify with so much of what you're saying. And my family has been in this state a very long time. And by the time my grandparents were coming of age, it was becoming known for what we think of at least in the pre 2010 era, a pro business, pro education state where the two complimented each other. They weren't in competition with each other, they were complimenting each other, and feeding each other. That's just not the North Carolina we live in anymore. And I don't want to see that trend continue for the next generation. So thank you for answering that call because somebody has got to do it. And, as I'm sure you're finding, it's not the easiest job in the world to run for a state legislative seat.

Beth Helfrich: It is not. It is a full time unpaid gig and it's, like I said, it's a noisy time in politics. It's a messy time in politics. And that's why, the work of our campaign is really just trying to have actual conversations with voters that are under the fray, right? Meeting folks where they are having conversations at the door, because again our shared values, there is so much that is shared in terms of of what we want and what we care about. And again, government is not reflecting that and it's strategic on the part of folks who have power to make us feel like that's not the case. And so, you know, it's it's hard to get beyond those vortexes of sound. 

JD Wooten: So shifting to a couple of specific issues, if I was a betting man, I'd guess that two issues likely to drive a lot of voters to the polls this fall are the economy and women's reproductive health, especially abortion access. So let's start with the first. What do you think the General Assembly could do better to help everyday North Carolinians as we look toward 2025 and beyond? 

Beth Helfrich: Yeah, I appreciate this question because that's fundamentally the role of government from my perspective is to leverage the incredible resource we have with tax dollars and to leverage the power that government has in terms of its ability to enact laws and regulate and to wield all of those and pull all of those levers in ways that solve actual problems that North Carolinians are facing. Or to create the right kind of conditions where people or businesses or schools can thrive.

And so you know, from my perspective, part of what's gone awry right now is that government, our state legislature in particular, has adopted some concerning changes in terms of how it actually operates. Growing up in North Carolina public schools learned about three branches of government and how they all work together and there's this balance. And the reality of what's happening right now in our state is that there is, again, there's an imbalance of power. And so the legislative body has pulled power from the executive branch. The judicial branch, now that there are partisan races, we have now a politicized judiciary.

And so I think the first thing for voters to know and something that I would really like to push for is to understand that our pocketbooks and wallets are directly impacted by the policy that's set in Raleigh. And it's not just about what our income tax level is. That's just one of the many levers, right?

When I talk to voters at the door and we start talking about day to day finances and the cost of things, they end up talking to me about the way that their rent has gone up. They end up talking to me about insurance rates. They end up talking to me about health care. They end up talking to me about the cost of rising cost of groceries and, and transportation and getting from one place to another. All of those pieces touch policy, like, policy can touch all of those.

And so there's this oversimplification where it's, you know, tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts is going to help your bottom line. But the reality is strategic investment in many of these avenues and arenas ultimately is going to allow people who are working hard to be able to hold on to more of their money at the end of the day, because using policy as a lever, using regulation as a lever, using tax incentives as a lever can ultimately pull down the cost, the out of pocket cost for things that government ultimately can and help do a better job of regulating or supplying.

And we have a surplus in our state budget, but we are failing to make the necessary investments that we could be making to make sure that we're taking care of ourselves in our future, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years down the road. 

But it's going to take cooperation. It's going to take cooperation between the executive branch and legislative branch. It's going to take cooperation between, making sure that federal investment is going into the right places. And it's really going to take more transparent decision making on the part of the legislature itself.

I think fundamentally as a former teacher, a critical piece of this puzzle is helping North Carolinians understand where their tax dollars are going and what investments ultimately are going to end up benefiting them in the short term and or in the long term that are also fiscally responsible and smart.

Because I agree, North Carolina should be able to be a state where we can be pro business and pro public schools. In fact, our public schools are the future of our workforce. So how can we neglect our public schools and expect to have a healthy, thriving workforce that's the engine behind our growing businesses. 

JD Wooten: So the other hot button issue that I think is definitely going to be driving at least some voters is the abortion access, women's reproductive health generally. Just my humble opinion, I think our state's been heading in the wrong direction lately. How much of a role do you think this is going to play in the election this year?

Beth Helfrich: Well, I am not a genie or a betting person either really, but here's what I'll say about this. This is an issue that's personal to me. This is an issue that really impacts all of us and every special election that has happened since the Dobbs decision came out, every time abortion is on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, reproductive freedoms win. Even in states like Alabama, even in states like Kentucky, where we have this idea that they are, you know, overwhelmingly conservative or vote read. Reproductive freedom wins at the ballot. And so you know, I think there's a lot at stake this fall, but I think voters are paying close attention to the ways that abortion specifically is emblematic of a bigger threat to our right to privacy. To our right to access the medical care that we and our providers come to an agreement that is necessary. The fact that IVF is a part of the, the broader public conversation right now, I think helps underscore the idea that this is about fundamental medical freedoms and fundamental rights. And I do think that that is something that most voters are unwilling to cede.

JD Wooten: When you started going into the other associated rights, all the privacy rights and the other things that are impacted, but the writings on the wall, you're dead on the writings on the wall. This is in some ways, canary in the coal mine for invasion of privacy rights and changes to those individual liberties. So last issue I want to ask about, because I can't pass up on this one as a career educator. I'm sure we could go on for hours talking about what we should be doing differently to adequately support our public schools. But if you had your way on day one, what would be your top two priorities or even just top priority to really do what we need to be doing to support public education and the children that are supposed to be receiving that education here in North Carolina. 

Beth Helfrich: Thank you. I appreciate that you're asking this question and I do wish I had a magic wand. It's going to take a long time, like, a, a long time to rebuild what we have lost in the last decade of not just under funding, but over politicizing our public schools. It's been incredibly harmful. You know, we're facing, a mass exodus of teachers from our schools. It is that beyond at a crisis point, I think, and I don't know that folks really understand that until they spend time in schools. Anytime I speak to a voter at the door who is a public school teacher, who has volunteered in the classroom, or who has served as a substitute teacher, they immediately want to talk about this and want to know what we can do before the situation gets any worse. 

So I would say number one you know, the raises that just were approved recently by our General Assembly are not substantial enough. We need a much more significant across the board raise for teachers and professional staff in our schools. That's just at a minimum. And the other thing that we need is an investment in early childhood. We need an investment in Pre K and kindergarten readiness and in early childhood intervention. You know, we narrowly avoided another child care crisis cliff in North Carolina. This is an economic issue, but it's also a public school issue, because 0 to 5 are the most critical years for brain development and for setting up kids to be successful when they enter the public school system. So I think my top 2 priorities are, let's pay our teachers more way more and then let's also set them up and set our students up for success by investing more in early childhood as well.

JD Wooten: Couldn't agree more with those two points. Those are wonderful points that would do so much to help our public education system. So I want to be sensitive to your time, cause I'm sure your campaign manager would like you to turn to other things. So, you know, the most important question of the day that I could possibly ask, where can people go to learn more about you and your campaign, sign up to volunteer, donate, so forth?

Beth Helfrich: Well, you can go to my website, which is and it is spelled like it sounds, but it's still a little tricky. So Beth and then H-E-L-F-R-I-C-H You'll find ways to sign up to volunteer. We are already, I mean, field is, we've already launched it. We have canvases going out every weekend. There's a phone bank. That's the next thing that's up on my calendar. And we are just going to keep building from now until election day, and you can absolutely donate. It's very clear. There are many buttons on the website where you can find my act blue links. And we just, this is like, I'm giving you insider information right now. Are you ready? Are your listeners ready? We have launched a merch store. Watch out. 

JD Wooten: Okay. 

Beth Helfrich: So you want the like hottest I don't have teenagers, so I have to be careful of what like lingo I use. Otherwise they make fun of me forever. I was going to say we have really dope merchandise. 

JD Wooten: That sounds hip to me. So it's got to be dated. 

Beth Helfrich: It, this merch is a W it is not an L what else do they say? It is Sigma. No, it's fun. We have some, we have some shirts. We have some, we have a little coffee mug shout out to the family business and a tote bag so you can put your books in it. Shout out to my other love, which is you know, bookstores and libraries, but get yourself some Sigma merch. 

JD Wooten: Very nice. BethHelfrichNC. com. We'll leave a link in the show notes so that no one can get confused on that.

Beth Helfrich: That's right. 

JD Wooten: Thank you so much for joining us today, Beth. It's been a real pleasure. 

Beth Helfrich: Thank you so much for having me. And as I say to anyone who has run for office, thank you for picking up the baton when you did and running as far and hard as you could when you did and thank you for hosting this podcast to give folks like me who are mounting our own grassroots campaigns, a platform to reach voters across the state.

JD Wooten: Well, thank you and ditto back at you for, for running.

Beth Helfrich: Thanks.