by Scott Mooneyham, Director of Public Affairs for the North Carolina League of Municipalities
Rep. Chuck McGrady knows that he is an oddity. In fact, he takes it a step further. “I tell people, I have known what an endangered species was for a long time. I never thought I would be one,” the Hendersonville legislator said with a big laugh. But through a life journey that has taken him from being a top attorney at an Atlanta law firm to becoming national president for the Sierra Club to owning and operating youth camps in the mountains of western North Carolina, McGrady remains a staunch Republican and staunch environmentalist.
“I come to environmental issues from a conservative perspective. I think protecting water and air for future generations is really a conservative value. But for a range of reasons, that is not where the political dynamics are today,” McGrady said recently from his Raleigh legislative office. “I feel like we have been given a natural heritage that I’ve got a responsibility to pass on to my kids and their kids.” If McGrady recognizes that some see his party affiliation and his environmental activism as a strange combination, he doesn’t see the journey itself as odd.
“I grew up going to summer camp in western North Carolina, at Camp Sequoyah in Buncombe County, and then worked at camps, and always had in the back of my mind, if I had the opportunity, that I’d like to run a summer camp. My wife was most surprised. She thought she married a lawyer, and then suddenly we were buying a summer camp and moved up there a few years later,” he said. “It’s sort of all consistent with my values. I really like being in some way responsible for getting kids out of their houses and into the woods and on the rivers and lakes.”
Now in his third term in the state House, McGrady is as busy as ever. Another fast riser in the House leadership, he is now co-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the Environmental Review Commission. Despite that busy schedule, he took some time to talk about how a former lawyer and summer camp owner found himself in the middle of North Carolina electoral politics, and enmeshed in policy debates over land-use rules, child health and juvenile crime.So how did involvement in summer camps turn into involvement in politics?
For years, I had been pushing the summer camps to become more engaged in public policy. Actually, former Representative Bill Ives was a camp director, and he sort of latched onto me early on as the guy who could get the camps more engaged. I was utterly unsuccessful doing that when I owned a camp, and within months of my selling the camp, the camp directors were dealing with a series of different public policy issues. “You know we need to get organized, how do we do that?” I drove the paper work to form the trade association and I served as the first executive director (of N.C. Youth Camp Association).Why did you think the camps needed to be organized?
The best example of it relates to two bills I put forward here, relating to how you build summer camp cabins. We’ve got building codes now, and buildings codes started treating summer camp cabins like Holiday Inn rooms, and you just needed to have somebody down here watching, because people get it. They understand that when they’re sending their child to summer camp. They really don’t expect lighted entry and exit. But that actually is what was being required. You may remember that there was a big article on a camp outside of Boone that got shut down by the building code and health code people. And it was a camp, Turtle Island, it is called, owned by Eustace Conway, who happened to be a former camper of mine. He’s running a camp built like it was built in the 1840s. Well, you can imagine that didn’t meet code, and yet that is precisely what the camp was about. There is a big economic impact. We probably have the largest concentration of summer camps in the world in western North Carolina.So did your involvement in the camp association lead directly to your running for political office?
I’ve always been politically active, particularly around environmental issues. I never intended to run for public office. I chaired the county planning board and found out that at the same time the county commissioners were telling us to zone and protect parts of rural Henderson County, primarily the apple-growing areas, they were unzoning it themselves. So, I did one of these, wag my finger at a county commissioner, and shortly thereafter I was running for the commission. I lost that first race, and everyone was sure I was going to lose. I was the former Sierra Club president. But I only lost by 80-some votes, and four years later, I won. And six years later, Rep. Carolyn Justus came to me and asked me to run for her seat. I came back later and said I don’t think I want to do that. She is pretty persuasive.You have been publicly quoted saying that you see sound stewardship of the environment as good for business. What do you mean by that?
I talked about it a lot, and then Sierra Nevada proved it. Sierra Nevada, a big West Coast brewery, needed to locate somewhere in the East, went through a whole process of looking, and based on the economics, probably would have gone somewhere else, but just didn’t feel like it meshed with their culture. The son of the founder was going to come out here and be one of the managers of the new brewery, so they restarted the process, and they ended up in Henderson County. And they will tell you they came there because of the quality of life. As the founder Ken Grossman said, just walk in downtown Hendersonville. This is a place that has got its act together – good infrastructure, plenty of natural areas, state parks, state forests, lots of recreational opportunities for employees. We were in the ballpark about money, but it was primarily about quality of life. They sort of proved my point.Being someone who does have a different viewpoint and background, you bring a certain amount of credibility to issues and positions here. I can imagine this is valuable to House leadership at times, but also could put you in difficult positions.
Yes and no. The coal ash situation was probably the best example. (Former) Speaker (Thom) Tillis picked me out and said, Chuck is going to lead this effort. He said, “I got your back.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I found out because I staked out some pretty hard positions, and got into a pretty good tussle with Senator (Tom) Apodaca, my senator. It got rough there. We went home. When we got back, we got to a place that I felt like was my bottom-line, a place where I was willing to go. In the end, the House and Senate felt like we had passed a pretty good law, and when the feds came out with their regulations, lo and behold, it was. The expectation was that the feds were going to put in this whole new process. In many ways, the North Carolina law was better.That Senator Apodaca (chair of the powerful Senate Rules Committee) is your senator, does that also make life interesting?
That has made it easier, and harder. The autism (insurance coverage mandate) bill is an example of that. I got recruited to be on a bill primarily because Tom Apodaca is the gatekeeper in the Senate. My name had been in the pot to run for that seat in 2002. I didn’t run. I supported Tom Apodaca. So I got up here, and I am the freshman and he is the chair of the Senate Rules Committee. My first year, I passed a lot of bills, but if you go back and look, you will see they all passed in the last two or three days. I got into a fight over billboards with Senator Brown – his billboard bill, that the League and other folks opposed. And here I am, this freshman legislator who upset the whole apple cart. Of course, that is not completely true. I could not have done that by myself. Speaker Tillis had a hand in it, but I was the front guy, and the front guy ended up having all his bills sent to Senator Brown’s committee. I called Apodaca and said, “Tom, can you help me?” He said, “You’ve got yourself into this. I’ll help you if you can get yourself out.” I think Harry Brown realized over a matter of days that this freshman didn’t do this by himself. What do you think of as your most significant accomplishment?
Legislatively, certainly the Coal Ash Management Act is tops. A lot of my work has been on the environment, kids, local government issues. I am chair of the county caucus. I have taken that pretty seriously. (Former Rep.) Bill Owens for years was sort of the face of the counties down here. Anytime the (N.C. Association of County Commissioners) needed help, Bill provided it. I was one of those county commissioners. I have tried to position myself, to some degree, to work particularly with the local government entities, the League and the County Commissioners Association. When we first got down here, a lot of my colleagues had no local government experience, and when something went wrong, a bad decision got made somewhere, the impulse of some of my colleagues was, we got to pass a law. Well, no, just because a mistake got made, doesn’t mean it needs to be fixed here. Maybe some people would view it as contradictory, but I played a huge role in the Asheville water and Asheville airport situation, but that is one where I think there is a role for regional approaches.There has been a lot of turnover at the General Assembly in recent years. Does the length of session and crazy hours make it difficult to want to continue?
The time constraints, the financial constraints are real for a lot of people. I sold my summer camp and my kids had gone off to college, so I was in a position to be able to do this. This place drives you crazy, but every once in a while, you are the right person, in the right place, at the right time. And when that happens, it is the best job around. It just doesn’t happen enough.
The preceding article was written by Scott Mooneyham, Director of Public Affairs for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. For more information on Representative McGrady’s background and impressive career, click here.