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In what could be his last battle, McGrady tackles redistricting, liquor laws

RALEIGH — Glancing over a House calendar, Chuck McGrady pronounced the taking of the annual members’ photo — “it’s always like herding cats” —the most challenging part of the afternoon floor session.

“There’s nothing wildly controversial but that doesn’t mean people won’t talk forever,” he says. “You saw that in that committee meeting. Everybody’s got to talk.”
Earlier that morning, the House Judiciary Committee had indeed taken up noncontroversial bills and managed to fill the available window of time, whether talking was needed or not. It’s not in McGrady’s nature to fill the air with platitudes or otherwise talk for the sake of talking. And that may be one reason why he admits to getting close a decision to retire from the job he’s held since 2011. Although he’s served in elective or appointive office for almost 20 years — not counting his stint as president of the national Sierra Club — he never considered himself a lifer.
He won easy election to the state House in 2010 after Rep. Carolyn Justus retired and he’s not been seriously challenged since.
“I said I’d probably be here three or four terms. I’m now on my fifth term,” he says after we get seated at Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar a few blocks from the Legislative Building. Conceding that it’s next to impossible to eat healthy in his line of work, McGrady endorses the fare at the trendy fast-casual spot. He orders Nick’s Patty Melt on rye toast with tater tots and sweet tea and continues to recount how he ended up in Raleigh for one more term.
“In the middle of the last session I came back to Henderson County pretty sure I was not going to run again,” he says. “But I had a series of meetings with a wide range of people — not just supporters but the business community particularly, and tried to recruit people. Couldn’t find somebody to recruit and basically was told, ‘Chuck, you need to suck it up and stay there.’
“Unfortunately, you’ve got to make these decisions way in advance. This was 2017 when I was worried about 2018. So now, in a year from now, there will be a primary, and so I’ve got to make a decision relatively quickly.”
Even more quickly than usual.
When the Legislature moved the spring primary to March 2020 it moved the filing period to December of this year.

'Pragmatic, fiscally conservative centrist'

Whatever his political future, McGrady has plenty on his plate, not all of it as tasty as a burger and fries.
“The redistricting issue is hugely important to work on and I’ve got the lead on that,” he says. “I’ll move ABC deregulation forward in some capacity. Again, I’ve got a point (position) on that. Funding issues — I’m the senior guy from the mountains. I’ve got things to do, that’s why I ran again. But I’m tired, tired of that drive.”
ChuckMcGradyLaugh copyState Rep. Linda Johnson and Rep. Chuck McGrady share a laugh when she surprised him with lemon-filled donuts on his birthday.He told me I had picked a good day to visit, given that the House would be in session and, after members had their picture made, would take up a broad school safety package and a bill that would require floor sessions to be televised. Plus, it was his 66th birthday, which meant he was feted with everything lemon— his favorite. His aide, Kimberly Neptune, baked him a lemon cheesecake. A good friend and colleague, Rep. Linda Johnson, brought him lemon-filled Krispy Kreme donuts. He tossed aside a gag gift — zesty nacho kale chips.
The legislation he’s pushing, to reform redistricting and liquor laws, isn’t that appetizing to his own party, including some of the leadership.
McGrady leads the uphill charge of good-government types, (out-of-power) Democrats and some Republicans to eliminate the habitual gerrymandering that has sustained power for the party in power in North Carolina for decades. Democrats drew creative and bizarre lines cycle after cycle. When Republicans gained control, in 2010, they showed that they, too, could master the art of picking their voters instead of the other way around.
“With respect to redistricting, I’m a pragmatic, fiscally conservative centrist,” he says. “In a political perspective, because of the way we do redistricting, both parties continue to set up this dynamic where you don’t really worry about the general election, you have to worry about the primaries. Republicans need to worry about somebody running from their right and Democrats need to worry about somebody running from their left, and you’ve seen this over a decade now.
“If we’re going to get back to a place where there’s some middle, and you can compromise and move incrementally on issues, that’s the way to get there.”
It’s easy to see why the redistricting fight suits McGrady well. He’s always been independent, willing to compromise and reach across the aisle, even buck leaders — political traits in short supply in Raleigh and Washington.
“To me redistricting is right down the middle,” he says. “I don’t need to do it to win my district but who better to do it?”
But why does he insist on violating the Larry Justus rule, coined by the late Republican House member from Dana: “If it doesn’t involve you, don’t get involved.”
McGrady says redistricting does involve him and besides, he doesn’t mind pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill. Art Pope, the Republican fundraiser/kingmaker, is one of McGrady’s allies in the effort to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot establishing rules for nonpartisan redistricting standards.
In a late night phone call recently, Pope said: “Chuck, I just don’t understand. Do you work on anything easy?”
ChuckMcGrady1 copyRep. Chuck McGrady confers with a colleague before a House Judiciary Committee opens.Although redistricting may not be easy, McGrady says it’s never been more ripe for reform. Neither party knows for sure which one will take control in 2020, though the odds favor the GOP. A greater threat for the Republican Party is the courts. Democrats have turned to the state courts, instead of the federal judiciary, to challenge the state legislative lines as unconstitutional on the grounds they’re hyperpartisan. The strategy worked for Pennsylvania Democrats. And North Carolina Democrats are doubly emboldened now that the state Supreme Court has tilted 6-1 in their favor. Add partisan gerrymander challenges from North Carolina and other states that are headed for the U.S. Supreme Court and McGrady says independent redistricting is actually the safer bet for either party.
“Why would we take it up now when we haven’t taken it up before? One, we’re one session away from a census,” he says. “We’re at a point in time where no one knows who’s going to be in charge, and so would the Republican leadership now want to roll the dice and put the Democrats in charge of the process? … Given the change in the composition of the North Carolina Supreme Court I’m suspecting, in fact I know, my leadership is trying to figure out — how do we deal with this?”
McGrady says 68 or 69 legislators support House Bill 140, which calls for the constitutional amendment, and “somewhere between 70 and 80” support either that or a separate bill to create an independent redistricting commission, without a constitutional amendment.
“That sends a pretty clear signal to the leadership that the votes are there to take up redistricting,” he says.
When asked about the Senate, which tends to march in lockstep with the Republican leadership, McGrady says leaders of both chambers “will be hearing from the same set of lawyers” on whether the GOP’s defense is going south. “I’m not working the Senate yet,” he adds. “I’m just focusing on the House.”

Who would run for House?

If McGrady retires, two names have surfaced as possible candidates. Tim Moffitt, the former Buncombe County legislator, has moved to Henderson County. A 1982 graduate of West Henderson High School, Moffitt declines to comment on the question. County Manager Steve Wyatt was mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate when Tom Apodaca retired in 2016 and he’s been talked about as a potential candidate for McGrady’s seat. Wyatt dismisses the idea with a crack.
“No. I’m afraid I’d get elected,” he says. “I don’t like those people down there generally. It would not be good fit. If they would be willing to leave. …”
“I fully support Rep. McGrady,” Wyatt adds. “I think he’s done a fantastic job. I’d like to see him stay there indefinitely. He’s been really good for Henderson County and of course he received his training as a county commissioner right here.”
Moffitt also praises McGrady.
“He’s the most honest person I ever met and served with in the Legislature,” he says.
Sen. Chuck Edwards says he’s had nothing but positive interactions with McGrady.
“He and I make a great team,” Edwards says. “We think a lot alike, we talk often. There are times that we spend the entire 4½-hour ride to and from Raleigh on the phone. Henderson County is adequately represented with both of us there and it’s actually been very enjoyable working with Chuck.”

The great outdoors

Friends tell McGrady he’d be bored out of his skull if he left public policy work entirely. He has been involved in environmental protection and conservation in his days in the Sierra Club; in his life as a summer camp owner, which brought him to Henderson County; in his service on the Henderson County Planning Board and Board of Commissioners, where he pushed for strong countywide zoning, in his five terms in the state House, where he has taken the lead on politically loaded topics like coal ash cleanup and regulatory reform; and in his philanthropy, which has helped to conserve thousands of acres of land in the North Carolina mountains.
What would Chuck McGrady do in retirement?
“Go camping and hiking,” he says. “The thing about running a summer camp is I never had summer vacations. So here I am, former president of the Sierra Club. Have I ever taken any of my kids or family to a national park? No. I’ve got this long list of things that I’ve worked on and Jean and I have worked on, a lot of places I’d like to see.”