From Derek Lacey at The Hendersonville Times-News:
McGrady balances politics, environmental stance
Rep. Chuck McGrady is something of an oddity in the North Carolina legislature, a Republican with a progressive environmental philosophy.
“I’ve always been an anomaly; I’m a conservative, I’m a Republican environmental leader,” McGrady, 62, said. “There’s not a lot of those out there.”
From working with Newt Gingrich in Atlanta to serving as national president of the Sierra Club, McGrady’s stout environmental record is rare among North Carolina politicians, let alone Republicans.
“I think Chuck has been a tremendous champion for the environment both locally and on the state level,” said Kieran Roe, executive director of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, a group McGrady helped lead in its early days.
The importance of clean air, clean water and open, wild spaces has been in McGrady’s thoughts since his time as a camper roaming the woods of Western North Carolina.
“It’s sort of the John Muir thing,” McGrady said. “John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, thought if you could take people out into the wilderness, out into the public lands, that they’d get an appreciation and love of the land.
“Well, that’s my experience.”
As a child, he spent a lot of time in the woods — camping, rock climbing, playing in streams and developing a sense of the value of wild places.
He spent chunks of his summers at camps like Camp Sequoyah in Buncombe County and Camp High Rocks for Boys and ultimately worked at Falling Creek Camp which 15 years later he’d come to own.
Getting pulled in
McGrady continued to enjoy the outdoors through college and law school, and when he made it to Atlanta to practice law, he worked with Newt Gingrich, who “was very good on environmental issues when he was first elected,” McGrady said.
“I think the best speech I’ve ever heard on why we need to protect endangered species came from Newt Gingrich, of all people,” he added.
McGrady practiced law for 15 years in Atlanta, and during that time he joined the Sierra Club, primarily “to get on their outings,” he said. “I wasn’t particularly interested in the public policy side.”
But eventually, he got pulled in, and in an unexpected way.
“I was at a meeting learning about some conservation issues and this group from Canada — a bunch of college students — was coming down and they were going to hold some sort of event at one of the parks,” McGrady explained. “I said, ‘You know, you’re going to need a parade permit to do that,’ and they go, ‘Really?’”
McGrady told them the permits weren’t hard to get, and that he could get them one.
“And so it just started with this almost accidental involvement. The next thing I knew I had a whole bunch of Canadians sleeping in my basement,” he said.
That was the start of a meteoric rise at the Sierra Club, where he would go on to chair the state chapters of Georgia and North Carolina before becoming national president in 1998.
The Sierra Club is just one on a long list of environmental organizations McGrady has been involved in, a list that includes the John Muir Foundation, the North Carolina Urban Forest Council, the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, and the Environmental and Conservation Organization of Henderson County, where he began work in North Carolina as executive director.
McGrady’s fingerprints are on nearly everything green in Henderson County, from helping to establish DuPont State Recreational Forest through an unconventional state acquisition by imminent domain to helping Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy get off the ground.
Starting a local legacy
McGrady moved to Henderson County after purchasing Falling Creek Camp in 1989 and while running the camp, he took the idea of Muir’s that impacted him so much and gave it to the next generation of campers, getting them out to see “gorgeous” places like waterfalls at DuPont that were just down the street, yet unknown to the kids.
He helped found Muddy Sneakers, a camp that strengthens students’ connections with the land.
In 2000, he ran for county commissioner the first time. He lost that election by less than 100 votes, but ran again four years later and won.
As a member of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, you never had to wonder where he was coming from, said Steve Wyatt, Henderson County manager.
McGrady was a member of the board that hired Wyatt in 2006.
“Chuck is the kind of guy you can sit down with and lay it on the line,” Wyatt said. “In the political realm, you often have people that, you know, you have to wonder about where they’re coming from. (I) never wondered that with Chuck.”
During McGrady’s tenure with the board, land use and zoning issues were on the forefront, and “Chuck was a real champion of the countywide land development code,” Wyatt said. The code set standards and established the concept of community planning, Wyatt said.
Developments at the time like asphalt plants and a racetrack helped to start the code process, said Charlie Messer, Henderson County commissioner, who was on the board when McGrady was first elected.
“We were slowly but surely … allowing inappropriate development,” McGrady said.
Messer said McGrady stood his ground, but was always willing to take a step back and look at the big picture.
McGrady was re-elected, but only seerved two years of his four-year term before heading to Raleigh, where he immediately began making an impact.
“He has risen on his merits,” Wyatt said of McGrady’s involvement in the House. “The leadership in the House saw qualities in Chuck that make him an outstanding legislator.”
Messer says McGrady is an open and accessible member of the House, quick to respond to emails and phone calls.
“I think it’s safe to say that he is very much a leader on environmental issues for the whole state in the General Assembly, and particularly since the Republican Party has taken control of the General Assembly,” Roe said.
He mentioned a bill McGrady sponsored a few years ago dealing with property tax deferral for land acquired by conservation land trusts like CMLC.
His progressive environmental stance has also allowed him to reach across the aisle and bring different partners to the negotiation table, like a recent bill he sponsored to bring stakeholders together on carbon dioxide emissions, which both Duke Energy and the Sierra Club support.
McGrady was the lone Republican vote against House Bill 760, which, among other things, stopped the progression of energy companies having to use renewables as a percentage of their portfolios at 6 percent.
In the most recent House budget, he restored some funding that had been cut from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, of which he is a past member.
But, he said, “I think that when I retire, the thing that probably people will point back to is the Coal Ash Management Act.” It’s a bill that “on occasion was criticized by all players, including my friends in the environmental community.” Now, he said, “you don’t hear any of that criticism.”
When the state needed to work on the coal ash legislation, “Speaker (Thom) Tillis, now Senator Tillis, who did he turn to to head the House team?” McGrady said. “He turned to me because I can get support — bipartisan support — on an issue like that.”
Fighting the RINO
For years, in both Henderson County and Raleigh, McGrady has fought the perception of being a RINO — a “Republican in Name Only.”
“When I ran for county commission here, everybody said there’s no way that a president of the Sierra Club can win a Republican primary in Henderson County,” he said.
At that time, most environmental work was viewed in a negative light amid fears that it would lead to fewer jobs and threaten the business community.
“Now I find just the opposite,” McGrady said.
McGrady, whose father was a Jackson County Christmas tree farmer, said he shares values with hunters and farmers, viewing environmental issues as conservative issues.
“It’s mostly about how you treat your neighbor,” he said. “Your upstream neighbor shouldn’t be putting things in the stream that impact you.”
New industry like Sierra Nevada in Mills River shows that stance is working, he says, explaining the company came here because of the quality of life.
“They want places where their employees can recreate. They need clean water, they want clean air,” he said.
“It’s been very gratifying, I mean, it’s just amazing what has occurred in the last 25 years,” he added, “I don’t think Henderson County’s values have changed, it’s really just sort of an understanding … Everybody has an interest in having clean water, clean air and protecting these places.”
The preceding article was published in the Hendersonville Times-News on Saturday, July 11, 2015.