By Nathan Ham
Ray Russell served one term in the North Carolina House of Representatives, but it was certainly an experience that he will never forget.
“There’s so much history there. You see the pictures of the people who have come before you. They’re all hanging on the wall, each class of the legislature, and to know you’re a part of that grand history. That part is good. Not all of that history is great. Some of it is pretty devastating when you dig into it. But still, you’ve got people who have sacrificed for the state for over 200 years, so it’s great to be a part of that history,” Russell said about his first impression of walking into the N.C. House of Representatives.
Russell challenged Republican incumbent Jonathan Jordan in 2018 and won the District 93 seat with 52.2 percent of the vote to Jordan’s 47.8 percent of the vote.
During his two years in office, Russell served on the N.C. House Transportation Committee, Pensions and Retirement Committee, Environment Committee, Elections and Ethics Law Committee and Appropriations on Transportation Committee.
Russell faced a challenger in the 2020 Democratic Primary but easily defeated Turner Dolittle, securing 88.1 percent of the vote to 11.9 percent of the vote. In November, however, Blowing Rock Republican challenger Ray Pickett defeated Rep. Russell, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Looking back on his time in office, Russell saw a lot of the good and the bad that comes with being a politician, particularly during such a divisive time in politics across the nation.
“You have to know a ton of stuff about a multitude of issues and projects. You can never know everything, so that’s the reason you need so many people around you that you can trust to give you good advice on what’s going on. Some of that comes from your colleagues in the legislature. Some of that comes from lobbyists, and there are good lobbyists there. There are some that are not so good, but a lot that are outstanding and you can always count on them for giving you the straight story and telling you both sides of any story,” explained Russell. “The bills are complex. We need the brightest people that we can put in office in office and not people that just blindly follow along with whatever their leadership says. If it’s done right, it’s incredibly hard work. If it’s done right, you know that no matter how much work you do, there’s always more that could have been done.”
Russell said that often times he would fill up his schedule with so many appointments over different issues that his legislative assistant, Anna Meadows, would eventually tell people that called to schedule appointments that the only way to find him with any free time would be to catch him in the cafeteria during lunch.
“Just learning about the issues people have from healthcare to people with disabilities to economic issues, commerce issues, technology issues, unemployment. Just little details that you find out, it turns out there’s a good use for coal ash in North Carolina in concrete. That’s just one of a thousand issues that you think you know the answer to and then it turns out everything is more complicated than you thought,” said Russell. “Education is just impressively complex from early childhood all the way through the universities and trying to take a deep dive on education issues in North Carolina. I was on the transportation committee and it’s just incredibly diverse. Everything from ferries to aircraft. When everybody thinks of DOT, they think of automobiles or trucks, but also trains and just on, and on, and on it goes.”
After doing some math, Russell said during his two-year term as a representative, he cast his vote on issues 1,090 times, all while still continuing his job as a professor at Appalachian State, his Ray’s Weather forecasts and listening to voters’ needs. Ray also took the time to compile a weekly “Raleigh Report” to keep residents in Watauga and Ashe up to date on some of the legislative happenings going on during each session.
“Normally during the legislative week, we would be there on Monday evening. I normally would teach five classes at App State. I would get out of class at 2 or 3 p.m. and jump straight in my car from class and get to Raleigh around 6 p.m. and walk into a meeting. So, it would start on Monday evenings and we would normally be done on Thursdays in time to be home by supper time,” said Russell. “I did not miss any day, and I think grand total, I may have missed two or three votes at most. One was an adjournment resolution. I had to get home, and I left before the adjournment resolution was finished. One was a third reading on a bill that I had already voted on the second reading and it was clear what the outcome would be, and there was one vote I took a conflict of interest on out of an abundance of caution, not that I really thought there was but I decided not to go there. I’m glad to have been there, and I do think I have voted on plenty of bills that make a difference.”
With all the party bickering on even the smallest of bills, Russell pointed out that there are a large number of people in that assembly who specifically don’t want legislation to pass for one reason or another.
“There are a number of people who believe a broken government, a government that doesn’t really do much is the best way to go. I did have the feeling at times with the important issues that really face the state, the things that people really did need and needed taken care of, healthcare would be at the top of that list, education issues would be right there next, climate change or environmental issues. We introduced hundreds of environmental bills and none of those got a vote. I mean nothing passed on environmental issues. I think there was maybe one environmental initiative that passed that had an effect on how our state government does things, not people in general. To a large extent, specifically, we couldn’t get a budget passed, there were a number of bills to have votes and to have bills to vote on just to say we did something. The real needs of the state were left in the dust on a number of occasions. That doesn’t mean we did nothing that was important. I think it’s safe to say that the biggest issues the citizens of the state face are intentionally left undone by the house leadership,” Russell said.
One thing that many legislators, including Russell, were proud of were the bills passed in support of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders to help fight against COVID-19.
“When I look back on it, I think the most important thing that happened in the legislature in the last year, in contrast to previous years, was the bill of us backing up Governor Cooper and his executive orders on Covid. I have no doubt in my mind that we saved and will save thousands of lives in North Carolina. If the legislature had done what it wanted to do, we would be in the situation with Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona, and in those places, the number of deaths per capita is double what it is in North Carolina. Clearly, this pandemic is one where good policy saves lives and we were able to back Governor Cooper’s good policies and there are thousands of people alive today because of it I’m sure,” says Russell.
The COVID-19 battle will continue on after Ray Russell leaves office, but he’s hoping that the groundwork will remain in place for continued precautions to help limit the spread of the virus and improve vaccine distribution.
“We need to keep working hard and doing the right things until we get to the point where we got people vaccinated and can control it without our distancing and masks and avoiding large crowds until we have the vaccine in place, that’s what we’ve got to do to save lives. I think we’ve got a few months to go where we are still going to lose a lot of people. I just wish that everybody would keep making good decisions here and just hanging on. We made it nine to ten months. It may be six months more until we are in the clear through all of that,” Russell said.
Locally, AppHealthCare has done a great job working through the pandemic so far for Ashe, Watauga and Alleghany counties. Russell was the representative for Ashe and Watauga so he has had multiple conversations throughout this year with the staff here.
“Through this pandemic, which is arguably the greatest crisis we’ve had in North Carolina over an extended period of time, all of our public health officials and hospital administrators and doctors, we can feel really proud in Watauga County and in Ashe County with the quality of healthcare that was delivered here. Very few counties and towns of our size have the quality of healthcare there and particularly in the context of the pandemic. We need to thank those folks,” said Russell. “Jen Greene took so many questions from me over the last 10 months. It’s just amazing. She is truly a rockstar for this area. These three counties Alleghany, Watauga and Ashe that she is the public health director for, will always be in her debt for how hard she’s worked through this pandemic to keep people healthy and save lives.”
Ray said it has been an honor to serve this district and did say that he didn’t feel like his days of working in a “public life” were over. He did not hint at any specific political office that he might take a look at next.
“We’ll just see what adventures lie ahead,” he added.