No Easy Decisions: An Interview with Thomas Stith III
Thomas Stith III is a current fellow at the University of North Carolina Institute of Politics.
Thomas Stith says that owning and operating a preschool is a lot like working in politics.
“Working with two and three years old prepared me for politics,” Stith said. “You see, in particular in the General Assembly, that same behavior. No one wants to share, ‘it’s mine,’ ‘no.’”
Stith first got involved in North Carolina politics in 1984, when he worked for Governor Martin’s campaign. In doing so, Stith followed a family tradition of political involvement, which eventually led him to become Governor McCrory’s chief of staff.
Prior to working for Governor McCrory, Stith was a member of the Durham City Council. His experience working for the city of Durham helped Stith realize the importance of local government.
“I really am a big advocate for serving at the local level,” he said. “You’re at the closest level of government to the people, and you hear everything from ‘they didn’t pick up my trash,’ to crime in their neighborhood.”
In addition to working with preschoolers, Stith says that working in Durham politics helped prepare him for state government.
“I always tell folks, regardless of where you are, whether it’s the New Yorks of the worlds or the Raleighs or the Charlottes, if you can survive in Durham politics you can survive anywhere,” Stith said.
Stith first met Governor McCrory in passing, when McCrory was then mayor of Charlotte, and Stith was serving on the city council. The two of them truly started working together in 2008, when Governor McCrory began preparing to run for governor.
When Stith and the rest of the McCrory administration came into office after winning the 2012 gubernatorial election, they felt that North Carolina was not in a good way. The state was over a billion dollars in debt, and unemployment was at 9 percent.
“We were not where we needed to be as a state,” Stith said. “North Carolina has been a leader not only in the southeast but in the country, and we were at a point where, candidly, that was not the case.”
Stith is proud to say that when he and Governor McCrory left office, North Carolina was no longer in debt, and in fact had a 2 billion dollar surplus. On top of that, unemployment had been cut down to only 5 percent.
However, during Stith’s working for McCrory, the state government was faced with a variety of crises, in addition to a high unemployment rate and large overhanging debt.
“I don’t know If people realize it, but if you look at the last 6 months of our administration, we had the unrest in Charlotte, we had natural disasters, and we had wildfires in western NC,” Stith said. “We used to joke in the governor’s office that three o’clock on Friday afternoon you could count on a crisis, and it would be different every Friday.”
The challenge here was not only handling these crises as they came, but also to continue to operate the state government. Stith says that the McCrory administration’s accomplishments were often overlooked, simply due to the wave of crises that kept hitting North Carolina.
That being said, not all of these crises were necessarily natural disasters. HB2 was not well received across the country, and North Carolina’s economy was put at risk when powerful companies threatened to take their business elsewhere. Looking back on it, Stith says that the decision made sense with the information they had at that time.
“Hindsight is always going to be 20/20,” he said. “But given the information that you have at the time, you have to make a decision, and you have to move forward.”
Of course, this applies to all political decisions, not just HB2.
“You always can monday morning quarterback, there are no easy decisions,” Stith said.
While HB2 was repealed by Governor Cooper, Stith feels that there are still policy issues that North Carolina will have to address. One is the increasing tensions between rural and urban parts of the state, also known as the rural-urban divide. While North Carolina has a strong agricultural past, Stith says that the state’s urban areas are greatly increasing in population. The problem here is balancing the very different needs of urban and rural areas, to facilitate growth in both.
“If you have the right policies and strategies our rural areas don’t have to be left behind. Their agriculture business like tobacco is gone, and it’s not coming back,” Stith said. “The key thing in the rural areas is to have proper infrastructure to attract the type of industry that can survive now in those less populated areas.”
The issues behind North Carolina’s urban-rural divide are not unique to North Carolina. However, North Carolinian politics, according to Stith, are unlike any other state’s in the country.
“We’ve become a state, you hear the term purple state, but it is indeed a state that, whether it’s at the local level or national level, can’t be taken for granted,” Stith said.
Because of North Carolina’s volatile nature, Stith argues that politicians here really have to work for and interact with their constituents to be elected.
“I think that’s good for the voter, because they’re not taken for granted,” he said. “You have candidates that have to engage in the electoral process. That makes the potential leaders more engaged with their communities.”
Stith, at the moment, has no plans to reenter politics any time soon. He’s taking the advice of his wife, at least for now.
“When I came off the city council my wife made it very clear that there are many ways to serve. You don’t have to be an elected official,” he said.
That being said, Stith is willing to offer advice to Governor Roy Cooper. While there are many different issues that need to be addressed while in office, Stith says that listening to everyone is crucial for a strong leader.
“Listen to all sides, be open to diverse thought, diverse opinions,” he said. “You shouldn’t be afraid to hear from all sides.”
“You’re the governor of all of North Carolina now, so hear from all sides and don’t shy away from that.”
Photos courtesy of the UNC Institute of Politics