It would have been understandable if Mary Belk had called off her campaign to join the North Carolina House of Representatives when she was diagnosed with breast cancer less than two months from Election Day.
Instead, she balanced her battle with cancer and her political ambition, eking out a close victory over incumbent Republican Rob Bryan in District 88, which stretches from Dilworth south to I-485.
She's recently been fighting on both fronts. When we recently sat down on the patio of The Mayobird, a cafe in her district, she was excited to have finished chemo but was only two days from beginning radiation therapy, which she'll be undergoing for at least five weeks.
It's just a minor distraction for Belk, who somehow has still found time to file two bills during her first 100 days as a politician. We spoke about what causes she's fought for as a freshman in the House, and what she's taken from the experience of serving her consituents while battling cancer.
Creative Loafing: How have you been taking to the legislative life?
Mary Belk: It's a lot of work and there's a sharp learning curve. You might think, "OK, I got this," then something happens where you think, "Or do I?" Some days you're like, "Yeah, I'm getting this, I'm doing what I need to do" and then other days you're just like, "Man, I hope I'm doing this job right." (laughs) But I love it. It's probably a little crazy with me being sick, but I love it. I hope that I'm doing right by my district and North Carolina.
District 100 Rep. John Autry, formerly a Charlotte City Council member, came on at the same time as you. Have you two been learning the state legislature ropes together? And has there been help from others?
When we came in, there were 10 of us that were freshmen, we have a Democratic freshman class, and there's some more Republican freshmen, so we've gotten together with them a few times to get to know each other.
John Autry is actually my seatmate, I love John. We get together to discuss issues. [N.C. Sen.] Jeff Jackson — I've known Jeff since before he ran — so I went and talked to him about it. What I've been trying to do with the different committees I'm in and working on bills in particular, you just go and introduce yourself — I've been going and introducing myself and talking to people.
Any lessons learned already this early in your political career?
The first thing that we actually did, a constituent has a son that's in high school but does early college. The child is still under a provisional license. He has night classes at Central Piedmont, and he had to be driven, because he can't drive at night. The law gives exception for work; being a volunteer firefighter or volunteer EMT. So we said, "Here's an easy one. It seems like it's not controversial." But every time you say, "This is an easy one," every representative laughs, there's nothing easy.
[The bill including an exception for school was eventually pulled after facing opposition.]
That was a good lesson. It was a good lesson in that nothing is uncomplicated, nothing is going to fly though, you're going to have to work on everything that you do. But just doing the actual procedure — how do we send it to bill drafting, what is that like — it was a good learning experience. It's not easy, it's a process, but now I know the process.
Do you ever feel discouraged about accomplishing things as a minority Democrat?
Actually, on election night, when I got elected, I thought, "Well if I got elected, other people had to have as well." It was a bit of a disappointment, because I would have thought we'd get at least enough people to support a veto and break the supermajority, so then it was a little bit like, "Oh my Gosh. This just got a lot harder than I thought it was going to be."
But, I keep thinking when I look at the people, I listen to people, I'm not being naïve, but I think we're going to have to work hard and maybe we can change the numbers. I think there are people who would be willing to be more moderate who cannot because of the leadership and how it is now, it's not conducive to that.
The majority of the stuff we pass passes bipartisanly, but it's those tough issues, especially the social issues, that are so divisive. You're like "Why aren't we dealing with making sure that our economy is growing, that we've got jobs, that we're being attractive to businesses, that we are educating our kids so that they can be competitive in the global market?"
Those are the things I'm thinking about. It can be frustrating but we just have to keep working at it.
Is making an effort for more bipartisanship in the state legislature important to you?
It is, and that's one of the things that I said when I was running. I will cross the aisle. If I can work with other people that's what I want to do, because we've got to stop doing what we're doing.
Especially being in the minority party, you have to converse with the opposite aisle because nothing's going to get done that you want to get done otherwise. But more than that, people in North Carolina are tired of it.
That's one of the reasons that I ran. I can talk to people. I'm one of eight kids, I have four brothers, I've been dealing with the different personalities my whole life. I can go up there and get along and listen to people and know that I can see what you're saying. Even if I don't agree with it, I'm not going to insult you or not listen.
You're still in the midst of a battle with breast cancer. How has that affected your life, whether professionally or personally?
I'm more sensitive to certain things because the type of breast cancer that I have, I have no history of breast cancer in my family, I don't have any genetic markers. So I just don't know why I got cancer.
I keep thinking to myself, if it's not this, it's not that, was it something else in my life? Is it my lifestyle, is it the environment? I look back, and I'm 60 years old, I think back when I was little and they would spray for mosquitoes and we'd run through that. I wonder if it's that. Who knows? But you become more conscious of that stuff.
You recently filed a bill, HB 805, that would make fragrance companies be more transparent about what chemicals they use in their product. Is that an example of something you're more aware of now since your diagnosis?
Yes. I've been aware, you know, you read articles about fragrances and about the chemicals in things like that, but I think I look at those things more now.
What this bill is about is educating people. Because we know that under the term "fragrance," there can be many chemicals, and some of them are known carcinogens, some of them are endocrine disruptors.
All we're asking them to do is put on your website, tell us what those ingredients in your fragrance are. You don't have to relabel, you don't have to rebrand, just do that so people who say, "I have a sensitivity and I'm concerned about what it is I'm putting on my body", they can go to the website and look it up.
How did that issue come across your radar?
I had talked to some of the people involved with the NC Conservation Network. I was talking with them about their issues — environmental issues — and I said, "This is something that I would consider sponsoring." I think educating people – and I know we're resistant to it and I understand that, if there's a small business I don't want to hurt businesses — but at the same time I realize that the more knowledge we have, it helps us decide what we want to do and how we want to do it.
We're not asking them to put it on their labels, we're not asking for trade secrets, all we're asking is that you put on your website, let us know what the term fragrance means, so when people want to be educated, they can.
You've also filed a bill, HB 738, that would let folks in substance abuse recovery opt out of ever being treated with opioids, and have that declared in their permanent medical file. Is that an issue you feel strongly about?
That is one of the things in going up to Raleigh and when I was running that I've talked about a lot. I am actually in long-term recovery for 15 years. My daughter has been very involved in being a sober living coach and being part of a recovery program. In my Irish Catholic heritage, we come from a long line of people who have had alcohol issues and things like that.
That and mental health is something I'm really wanting to help with. Physical and mental health go hand in hand and we need to stop treating them differently. Part of that is long-term treatment. So this is something that I've always been interested in.