Originally published in Carolina Shore. All words in italics are side notes from me to you the T&S reader, not part of the original article.
About 150 miles away from Emerald Isle, decisions and legislation is being made on its behalf, and for the surrounding area that makes up North Carolina’s District 13. The legislative building was completed in 1963, a fact reflected in its geometric patterns, brass trimmings and the lingering smell of cigarette smoke in the elevators. A more modest structure behind the official assembly building is where the bulk of the work actually happens, in buzzing committee rooms and legislative offices. District 13’s representative to the state house, Pat McElraft, works on the sixth floor of this modest building. Overlooking the north section of downtown Raleigh, the office is a mixture of capital city and beach, with an abundance of both elephant decor and ocean paintings - nods to McElraft’s native party and her home. Although McElraft was born and raised in Oklahoma, her husband - and high school sweetheart - Roger’s work as a marine brought them to Emerald Isle in 1989. Their move started a love affair with the island followed by a continued season of public service to McElraft.
Service is nothing new to the state representative - wherever Roger’s assignments took them, Pat was consistently involved in the community, be it work with the Red Cross, Navy Relief or just volunteering to bake for the next gathering. It was this very spirit and involvement that led her to her first election. As head of her homeowner's association in Emerald Isle, McElraft knew some of the men running for town commissioner slots. Needing a woman to soften their ticket, they invited McElraft to join, warning her that she had little to no chance of winning a seat. She was the only one on the slate to be elected. On the year of her first election, she was the lowest vote-getter; by the next time around she had earned the most votes. She credits this jump to being friendly, and letting people know what she was about. After being asked what a young person interested in politics could do to get their foot in the door, Pat preached what she practiced,
“Get involved in your community. Get to know people in your community, and be sincere about what you’re doing. Put your whole heart into what you’re doing, whatever that volunteer work is or whatever, and then people see your heart, and they see that you would be a good representative for them because you’re doing (you believe) what they would want you to do. It’s not about power. If you’re a good legislator, it’s not about power at all, it’s about helping the people that you represent.”
Watching her interact with individuals - from businessmen to security guards to a twenty-five person school group from Carteret County - is to see a practiced people person, drawing a person out and listening to what they have to say. She draws out those who seek her council and she listens to what they have to say. It is a skill that serves her on an hourly basis.
On an average day, the work begins at 8:15, when McElraft makes a quick stop in her office before a committee meeting that she chairs. Legislative assistant Nancy Fox and research assistant Jennifer Harroll - a cheerful mother-daughter team - are already in the office, ready to hand off the necessary information and bring her up to date on the schedule for the day. The rest of the day consists of back-to-back committee and caucus meetings, followed by a house session in the afternoon.
Nancy Fox and Jennifer Harroll - in true southern fashion, Nancy kept trying to feed me throughout the day. Chocolate, Coca-Cola, and potato chips were on a constant rotation. :)
House sessions generally start around 2 or 3pm; on a good day they are out by 5, other nights they do not let out until 9 or 10. The closer to a budget deadline, the longer the nights tend to stretch. The day we shadowed McElraft, the house was in a special session - so the bulk of the day was for meetings, committees, and - of course - research. The amount of research and learning is tremendous, but McElraft touts this as one of her favorite parts of the job.
“Some people asked me ‘What books do you read?’ and I went, ‘Are you kidding? Books? I read legislation or research about legislation...I can’t read for fun, I read for knowledge.” Just on the issue of offshore drilling, McElraft has been looking into research on the patterns of currents, oil company practices and processes, the electrical grid and potential effects on tourism (her opinion is that drilling should be considered, with a long list of caveats including getting royalties from the oil companies and ensuring that it can be done in such a way that the environment is not impacted on a large scale). The need to be well-informed across a broad range of subjects for thirteen committees and a multitude of votes fuels her late nights and early mornings. Caffeine is also key. Fox, who has been around the legislature for years, keeps their office well-stocked with Diet Coke, opinions, and Lysol (cold season didn’t stand a chance). The McElraft office is a friendly one, the warmth of the three women who work in it drawing visitors in and inviting them to stay a while, the way a wide porch on a summer’s evening might in Beaufort.
An open committee meeting stands in contrast with the comfortable McElraft office surroundings. The committee room hums under fluorescent lights, the constant in-and-out of people (legislative aids, members of the press, lobbyists) blends into the background of quiet conversations and tapping computer keys. The committee discussion is itself surprisingly lively, with a plenty of sparring and dry humor - but then, it’s an appropriations committee; anyone who expects money talk to stay tame has another thing coming to them.
Somehow I got sat in the lobbyist pool - which was incredibly interesting, but also increased the feeling of me being thrown into deep water with no life ring. Fortunately, I think I was able to swim okay.
The session that evening was carried out with more decorum and quiet: a few inquiries of the chair, a few points of personal privilege and then the evening’s main event: honoring the football team of A&T State University for an undefeated season. After commending the team for both academic and athletic prowess, the speaker adjourned the session, and released the house members.
Honestly, what's going on in the background is sometimes more intriguing than what is being said in the house.
A sergeant-at-arms watching over all the goings-on.
Despite spending so much time in the City of Oaks, McElraft has not forgotten her scrappy, tangled beach roots. While there are friendships to be had in the capital, the legislative building has too much polish and formality to form a lasting, comfortable abode. To McElraft, crossing over the Emerald Isle bridge is the sign of being home - as she descends, all the cares of the world lift off her shoulders as she prepares to be surrounded by the place and people she serves.