Q&A with Julie von Haefen

(NC House District 36)

Q. Is this your first time running for office? Why did you decide to run? It takes so much energy, work, effort. It’s life-changing. Why are you doing this? What is so important to you that you felt compelled to do this? 

Yes, this is the first time I’ve run for public office. I decided to run because of what I’ve seen happen to public education in North Carolina over the past eight years that I’ve been heavily involved in PTA and public school advocacy. I’ve been so frustrated by all the actions (or inaction) of the GOP-led General Assembly. In my work with PTA, I’ve seen teachers struggling with less and less resources for their classrooms, and I’ve seen the lack of respect shown teachers- they aren’t paid as professionals and aren’t treated as professionals.  I’m worried about the future of education for ALL kids in North Carolina, not just my own three kids who are all still in public school. 

I was actually asked to run for this seat by the House Democratic Caucus and Governor Cooper.  I hadn’t planned on running for office, but once I was asked and thought about it, I realized that this campaign and potentially serving in the House was such an amazing opportunity to make huge changes for our schools, students and teachers. I’ve been an advocate for a long time, but to make real, substantial change, we must change those in power. I decided that I was a great person to do this - with my education, my experience and my passion for child advocacy, I was a great candidate. I knew I had the desire and the motivation to run, which is so important during a long campaign.   

Q. You have such great experience in education as a parent and PTA leader. We remember the story President Obama told about how his mother would tutor him outside of school hours because his public school was so terrible.  He complained and said, “I don’t want to do this with you,” and she shot right back, “You think I wanna be doing this with you?  But we have to.” How has your own experience shown you how important a solid education is, how have you seen public education under attack, and how has it inspired you to do something about it?

One of the most frustrating, but personally empowering, things that has happened to our schools recently is a class size mandate that was passed in 2016.  The General Assembly passed a 2017-2018 budget which included a mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3, which sounds like a great idea, but they provided absolutely no funding or time to implement this reduction.  They also eliminated the funding flexibility that school districts have used to fund “enhancement teachers” (art, music, PE and world languages).  The only funding for those positions was the districts’ flexibility to use classroom teacher funds.  With the passage of this budget, districts were thrown into chaos, trying to find new classroom space and teachers and districts of all sizes would have been required to reduce their enhancement staffing. Legislative analysts warned lawmakers that these complications would arise if class sizes and allotment usage were restricted in this manner.

As a PTA leader and public school advocate, I fought for many months against this mandate.  When I became the Wake County President in July of 2017, I also began my term on the Board of Directors for the North Carolina PTA, and became the Advocacy Chair for the state. In both of those roles, I created a webinar and workshop about the class size law, and presented it in person at statewide meetings, online and at schools across Wake County. We also developed a flier and information so PTA units could distribute it to their members, informing parents about the destructive effects of the mandate. We passed county and state Resolutions and Position Statements, and distributed those to the media. We also took statewide surveys of PTA members so we had information to pass on to legislators during meetings about the effects of the mandate on schools across North Carolina. I appeared on television, in interviews and on a statewide program called “Education Matters.” I wrote op-eds for the newspaper and a television station in Raleigh.  We met with legislators and encouraged other parents to do the same.  Parents held rallies in Raleigh, and invited their legislators to their schools to show them how this mandate would adversely affect their children.

After many months of advocacy, the General Assembly passed a “fix” to the class size mandate in February 2018.  They allowed a phase in plan for smaller class sizes in grades K-3 until 2021-22 instead of the rigid mandate for the 2018-19 school year. In addition, legislators included in the bill a new allotment for enhancement teachers.  School districts welcomed this additional funding while noting that many districts currently have a lower ratio with more teachers than this allotment pays for currently employed, meaning the legislature is still not fully funding enhancement teachers. While the bill was an improvement over previous bills, significant capital costs and strengthening our teacher pipeline remain unaddressed. Many school districts are still struggling with how to find and pay for additional classroom space.

My experience on this advocacy project really inspired me to run for this office. It was a transformative and empowering experience that made me realize how deeply the flaws go in the General Assembly and how much we need to make a change in leadership. I felt the legislators didn’t understand how school funding works, and didn’t understand how this mandate would affect our teachers and students so profoundly. We need leaders who are more in touch with our school systems and who will listen to teachers and school administrators when they tell them how legislation will affect daily operation of a school.

Q. Do you have a personal healthcare story?  Who is your favorite Meals on Wheels client you take food to?  Why?  How is s/he amazing?  How has Meals on Wheels changed their life? 

I’ve been a Meals on Wheels volunteer for about five years. It has been a great experience that I’ve continued to make a priority, even in this busy season of life as a candidate.  My favorite clients that I’ve had are two women that both seem to face adverse life experiences.  They are both elderly women who live by themselves.  One of the women lives in a very decrepit, run down, very old home.  She is probably a hoarder, as I see her home when she opens the door to receive her meal, and her car is full of junk, piled up to the windows.  Her front porch is piled with bags of garbage and dog feces. The other woman is about 90 years old and still lives alone.  She obviously has health issues and doesn’t get out of the house very much.  But, both of the women always greet me with a huge smile and a kind word. They always compliment me on what I’m wearing or how I look that day. We have a conversation and I check in with them to make sure they are ok.  I always leave with a smile on my face and a memory of those women that I carry with me throughout the day. Their behavior reaffirms to me that no matter your circumstances, you have the ability to be kind and pleasant to others, have a good attitude and be thankful. That’s why I keep volunteering and why it’s so important to watch out for our neighbors. I know Meals on Wheels enables them to keep living at home and be independent. It’s a great organization that truly makes a difference in the lives of our homebound and elderly.

Q. Why are you fighting for clean air and water?  Obviously that’s a no-brainer on a certain level, but what is your personal connection to the problem? 

My personal connection to environmental advocacy is my husband Roger, who is an environmental economist and an associate professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at NC State University. Conversations about the environment are a daily part of our family’s life.  He actually studies water quality issues and has published research on rivers and the economic benefits of clean water in North Carolina, including Falls Lake and Jordan Lake. Jordan Lake provides the drinking water for my district. He was also a consultant for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill litigation against BP Oil.  I know the value of clean air and water for our economy and for future generations.   

I would also add that my husband has asthma and is sensitive to air pollution.  I’ve seen him struggle to breathe when we visit places with high levels of air pollution.  He recently visited Beijing and Shanghai, China, and came home with stories of having to stay inside for most of the trip because of the incredible amounts of smog and air pollution in China.  I don’t want our country’s environmental quality to be like China’s. It is important for the health of my family and every family.

Q. We love how you talk about the economy on your website. How do you talk to unaffiliated voters who might have a more skeptical view of taxes? 

For my district, taxes and government spending take on an extra meaning because my opponent literately writes the budget for North Carolina. 

Right now, his tax cuts have primarily benefited the wealthy and big business. Under this plan, most working families in North Carolina have actually seen their tax burden increase, through additional fees on goods and services. I believe we need a tax-system that works for everyone and not just those at the top. 

Taxes are a way to pool important resources from the private sector to the public one. The ability of the government to provide basic safety and community systems with tax revenue is important to maintaining the basic living standards that we expect in our state. 

How to help: Julie is running in NC House District 36 (Wake County), rated one of the state’s most flippable legislative districts. She needs our help to make change a reality in her district: donate to Julie’s campaign today!