Q&A with Lisa Mathis

(NC House District 51)

Q. Why did you decide to run for office? 

The short answer is that I’m running because I was called to serve. Literally. I was asked at the 11th hour to run for this seat by a current representative who is a dear friend of mine. He needed help in the GA and wanted me to run. Let me back up and explain.

I’m a military kid. My dad grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania where everyone had to work hard and pitch in to help. His father was a coal miner and Dad’s only chance to escape that difficult life and get an education was to join the Air Force. Not that it was easy. Dad did four tours in Vietnam and we followed him all over the country and the world during his career. Growing up a military kid certainly helped shape me and my perspective. Living amongst different races, classes, regions and nationalities defined my sense of equality and dignity of all people. My parents instilled in me by example the value of hard work, education, service, sacrifice, leadership & compassion. We military kids also understand that making friends and working together are survival skills and that patriotism comes in many, sometimes unexpected, forms.

My district was one of the several that were redrawn early this year by the special master because our current General Assembly was unwilling to create districts that were fair to voters. This late change made my district suddenly competitive and there was a rush to find a candidate. I was in Texas on a trip to tour a college with my daughter when my phone blew up with messages. I had less than 24 hours to think about it to make the filing deadline. When I realized that we were living in a critical district in a critical state at a critical time in our country and I could have the opportunity to help millions of people across my state fighting for things I believed in, like education, health care, and our environment, I simply couldn’t walk away. I’m the child of a military family. When called to serve, we step up, pitch in and help. This is what patriotism looks like.

My family said they were willing to support me, no matter what I decided. I knew it would change our lives, our businesses, and our relationships but it is all for the greater good. I told my husband that even after all the volunteering I’d done over the years, this seemed to be the way that I could make a really big difference in our world and I needed to do it. It was clear that it was the right decision when I woke up the next morning incredibly energized and ready to go. That was six months ago.

Q. We read an article in the Sanford Herald about how you’re seeing things through very different eyes, not just as a business owner and a mother.  Can you talk about how running for office has transformed your perspective? 

Running for office is an incredibly transformative experience. Door-knocking, meeting voters in my community that I might never have crossed paths with under ordinary circumstances, asking questions about their lives, watching as they recover from the shock of being asked what they think, listening to their answers - it changes you, or at least it should. When I was trying to decide what issues to run on, I thought the best way was to ask the community what they needed. My district encompasses all of Lee and the western part of Harnett county. We have a few charming towns but much of the district is quite rural and poor. To give you perspective, approximately 66% of the kids in school here are on free or reduced lunch. I went door-knocking with my father last week in a trailer park in Harnett County. We spoke to Irene, a divorced woman with a 12-year old son who was concerned about education. She told us about losing her job at Burger King and how she couldn’t get another job. All she knew how to do was fast food, but she felt like she was being “discriminated against because she was slow.” It was all Dad and I could do to hold back tears as we walked away from this woman speaking about her disability so honestly and painfully describing the ramifications of it on her life. She just wants to be treated with dignity. She just wants to work hard. She just wants to take care of her son. How can that not transform you?

Shortly after I announced, a good friend asked me why in the world I was running. I told her it was to give thousands of people in our district a voice. Raleigh politicians care a lot more about the millions of dollars in their pockets than Irene. I’m certain they don’t even know she exists. I’m concerned how she and her neighbors are doing in the hurricane. The low-lying (and poor) areas of NC will suffer the worst of it. This is why I’m running.

Another issue that’s hitting us very hard here is opioids. While the unemployment numbers are low in our area, they belie the real story that we have lost a lot of good jobs (240 more at one of our largest employers just yesterday), many people are cobbling together a living. It leaves many younger people without jobs or futures. Add to it the privatization of mental health services (lack of help for addicts), the tremendous accessibility of roads into our area (great for moving product, legal and illegal), lack of resources for police to help addicts and the misaligned incentives for big pharmaceutical companies to self-regulate opioids on the market (too many prescriptions in our area). We were ripe for problems and didn’t even know it.

I know too many friends who have lost their children to overdoses, and too many families ripped apart by the ramifications of addiction.

Josh was given opioids at the age of 14 at a baseball team slumber party. His journey includes addiction, rehab stints, arrests, broken relationships, a son being raised by his grandparents, financial ruin, job loss, depression, and even a suicide attempt. He literally shot himself in the head but the bullet ricocheted at an odd angle and he survived. He’s currently living out of state, a state that has expanded Medicaid and has more rehab options and where his suppliers can’t find him. Josh is one of the lucky ones because he’s still alive. His family has ridden the rollercoaster of hope, trauma, despair, fear and hope again. We desperately need to work on this complicated issue and instead of working with the Governor and the AG, the current GA just pokes at it with over-simplified solutions, usually involving more incarceration. The desperation of these families motivates me.

Q. How has being a small business owner empowered you?  Is there a specific story where you saw a storefront transform into a bustling business by a strategic investment?  Did you know that person?  How did their life change with starting a business?  How did seeing that change impact you? 

When I first left college, I worked as a graphic designer for several years in Charlotte. It was a small company, so I had the opportunity to really see how an independent business operates. It took a lot of hard work and I often put in 36-hour days to get jobs completed on time. When we moved to Raleigh, I decided to open my own company, wanting to be able to work just as hard for myself and my own clients. When we moved to Sanford and I had children, I needed to change my hours so I decided to go back to my first love and open an art studio downtown. Artists are often the harbingers of revitalization of a community as they go into spaces others don’t want and with creativity and hard work, turn them into something special that everyone can see and enjoy. I’ve had the opportunity to watch our progressive city take the leap of faith and revitalize our charming historic town into a place where more and more small businesses are coming to set up shop. Hair dressers, coffee shops, a chocolatier, a brewery, new restaurants with live music have our little town bustling on a daily basis. This was not the case 20 years ago. The heartbeat of our downtown is the Temple Theater, located in a 1920’s renovated historic theater, their professional performances bring vital tourist dollars here. I watched as the GA played politics with this theater for years, keeping us from being the only county in the state without an occupancy tax, a vote they stalled because they didn’t want a Democratic representative to get a win. They literally starved our theatre and district for political gain and are now they are patting themselves on the back for its passage. This motivates me.

My business has taught me many things, including responsibility for employees, who I care for deeply. It has taught me responsibility for my community as well. One of the things I have done is offer art classes for kids and adults, including scholarships for those who cannot afford it. It is a safe place for people who “don’t fit in” in a rural southern town to feel safe to be who they are and explore their creativity. Teaching people to draw and paint improves not only their art and observational skills, but also their confidence. Expanding and training both sides of the brain enhances problem solving skills as well. For many years, I have had the opportunity to watch the design skills grow and transform not just my students, but also the community in which we live. Art enriches a community in ways that they may never realize, but it’s powerful none-the-less. Plus it’s fun and makes life worth living. 

Q. What are some of the reasons why you care about Gen-X and the issue of coal ash? 

We are in a district that faces the threats of Coal Ash, Fracking and Gen-X. Our area, largely  rural, with a bit of urban and suburban, but very convenient to larger cities, has been home to industries that have been suspected of dumping various chemicals here for a long time, it’s just that we are more aware of it now. There are areas near the coal ash sites in the county just over our northern border that still need bottled water. I spoke to a minister last week about his church members that are so scared about what living there could do to their children, but they can’t sell the property. There is a coal ash site in Lee county that has been prepared but yet to be used. We really do not need the spread of that potential damage to widen. Knowing the dangers the coal ash sites pose to our water supplies and rivers, it is an enormous concern. We should not be risking our citizens for another Duke Energy spill that we would then have to pay for and clean up. Their arguments for how safe it is are rather quiet during yet another hurricane.

Fracking should be an issue that remains at bay as long as gas prices remain reasonable. We have several people, including the chairman of the Lee County Republican party who are huge proponents of fracking here saying it will bring jobs. What it will bring is the money and political influence of Big energy to a very few at the price of ruining the land, lives and water supply of the many. I’m really struggling to find even one thing the Republicans stand for anymore that is on the right side of morality or common sense. This is surely not one of them.

Gen-X affects the area just to the south of our district. It is yet another story of how big businesses are turning a blind eye to the health and safety of our citizens in favor of profits. North Carolina is better than this. We have one of the most beautiful states in the union from the mountains to the sea, yet they can’t see that our big money-maker, tourism, is dependent on us keeping our environment clean and healthy. Attracting good businesses depends on it. Having healthy citizens depends on it. My opponent says I’m for “job-killing regulations.” No, I’m actually for regulating people-killing businesses.

How to help: Lisa is running to represent NC House District 51, in Harnett and Lee Counties. This purple district was made significantly more competitive after the state legislative maps were redrawn by the Special Master, and with a strong candidate like Lisa running to represent the public interest on issues like education, opioids, and the health threat of coal ash, Democrats have a real shot here – if we support her. Donate to Lisa’s campaign here.