The Pragmatic Progressive: A Profile of Graig Meyer

Graig Meyer is a Democrat representing District 50 in the NC House of Representatives, which encompasses parts of Orange and Durham Counties.

The Path to Office

Meyer speaking on a UNCTV program, Front Row w/ Marc Rotterman

Meyer speaking on a UNCTV program, Front Row w/ Marc Rotterman

“I wanted to help kids like those in my neighborhood go to college.”

That aim informed a lifetime commitment to education, as Graig Meyer began courses in college without many of his neighbors from home. Meyer grew up in the inner city of Cleveland, Ohio, the son of two politically engaged social workers. He recounts that, upon going off to college, he noticed teens from a similar geographic background, but with a less privileged upbringing, were not obtaining college degrees.

From both that experience and a childhood of activist parents, a young Graig Meyer resolved to work toward providing opportunity and equity in education. “How come I’m here and a bunch of my friends are not?” he thought. Meyer would go on to acquire a master’s degree from The University of Chicago in social work, moving to North Carolina to achieve those goals.

Early on in his career as a social worker in the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program, Meyer sat down with former Governor Jim Hunt to discuss education in North Carolina. “What you’re doing in schools is great,” he recalls Hunt telling him, “but we need you to make sure that’s happening in every school in North Carolina.”

Just a few years into his career, Meyer had not yet considered politics for himself. He worked to effect political change through policy advocacy, but upon Governor Hunt’s insistence he began to seriously consider what steps he might take toward office. “When the master speaks, you listen,” Meyer said, and he still remembers the advice Hunt gave him.

“You need to think about giving politics a shot,” Hunt told him. The first rule the Governor recounted was to do something that provides leadership for the community. If you are going to run for office, the people should have some reason to vote for you. With leadership roles in a community, you can both demonstrate your commitment to that area and show how you will be valuable to them in higher office.

The second suggestion he gave Meyer was to volunteer on enough campaigns “so that you know a good one from a bad one, so that you don’t run a bad one.” Meyer took that advice to heart as well, going on to volunteer on elections from the county level up to presidential over the years following their discussion. In typical Hunt fashion, Meyer recalls, what was meant to be an interview of the statesman turned into an exchange where the roles reversed, and Meyer began to answer questions posed by the governor.

After that encounter with Hunt, Meyer continued to do work in local schools as a social worker. At the time, Valerie Foushee served as the Chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education. As Meyer puts it, she and Liz Carter took him under their wing and ensured he understood how best to serve the community.

Years later, in 2012, Foushee secured a seat representing District 30 in the NC House. Soon thereafter, Foushee was tapped to fill an open seat in Senate District 23, leaving her House seat open. Meyer served alongside others in the district to try and find a replacement for her.

“There was no one who was stepping up who I thought had the chops that I thought Valerie had on education policy,” Meyer remembers. Unable to find a suitable fit, Meyer had an epiphany on a drive home from the gym one day. From his time as a social worker in the local schools, and with guidance from Foushee, whose seat would be filled, he had attained the proper skills to take the job. “I called Valerie and she said, ‘Yes, I’ve been waiting for this call!’”

“I basically ran on a one note platform of education,” Meyer says, “and that’s how I got the appointment.” Between building connections in the community and learning how to run a good campaign, Hunt’s advice paid off. By the time he ran for reelection in 2014, Meyer carried the district by over 14 points.

A Lifelong Focus

Meyer at an elementary school, from his campaign website.

Meyer at an elementary school, from his campaign website.

Now a legislator, Meyer continues to focus on education. For him, the biggest issues surrounding education in North Carolina are access and opportunity. “We have huge achievement disparities in the state,” he noted. “We’re not really fulfilling the mission of providing a public education.”

Education is not a new issue, though. North Carolina has historically promoted the idea; indeed, from the developed 1868 Constitution it states that “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” But for education policy to be successful in North Carolina, the state needs leadership, which Meyer suggests is absent.

“I don’t think we’ve had strong educational leadership, honestly, since Jim Hunt was governor. We haven’t had the type of ambition we should have for a truly equitable 21st century education system, from early childhood all the way through post-secondary and into ongoing workforce education.”

The solution to that, he thinks, is creative thinking and a sense of urgency. Meyer says that we need to transform the way we think about this continuum of lifelong learning. Part of that effort, of course, is through spending, but the General Assembly should not necessarily impose its will on teachers.

“At the legislature we shouldn’t be telling people how to improve their classroom instruction; we need to be setting up a structure of education that makes sure everybody has the chance to be a great teacher so that kids can be great learners.”

That goal will require targeted spending, especially in areas that took a fiscal hit during the recession. Most school funding comes from local property taxes, Meyer indicated. In some instances, it is incumbent on the Assembly to pick up some of the slack in financing school districts. Specific programs, like teacher professional development funds, were emaciated after losing money during cuts ten years ago. Those dollars went toward giving valuable time to teachers so that they developed into better educators.

“You don’t have to hire a lot more teachers,” Meyer says. With resources in the right place, he thinks that developing the talented educators we have in place would benefit schools more. “We have to spend money on time,” he says. “There’s just some things that won’t change if we don’t up the spending on them.”

The Pragmatic Progressive

Meyer has a wide social media presence, attracting thousands of followers and views on his periodic updates about current goings-on in the state. Recently, he offered a guide entitled the “Pragmatic Progressive’s Toolkit.” That term embodies a lot of what Meyer stands for, politically and otherwise.

“I really do believe that government has a role in moving society forward,” Meyer says, defining the latter half of the term. A progressive should strive toward four goals for society: making things safer, healthier, more prosperous and more fair. “Those are the four signs of progress.”

As for the pragmatism, he suggests that it indicates a healthy realism. “I am not an idealist. I love big ideas, but I like to solve for practical solutions and figure out real answers, to implement things even when they’re challenging. That’s what I find exciting about leadership.”

Though he may shy away from the idealist label, his goals for education and the state party are certainly lofty. In the days after stunning electoral losses for Democrats in 2016, Meyer devised a term for what he saw as a nascent strain of pent-up energy in progressives: Our Shot NC. In using the phrase, he sought to coalesce this newfound political energy in a meaningful way.

Our Shot began as a sort of rallying cry, to emphasize the cooperative approach he thought would be necessary moving the state forward into 2017 and beyond for those asking, “What can I do?” Beyond simply instilling a sense of hope, Meyer wanted to create a collective responsibility for the movement.

Meyer speaking on WRAL about public schools.

Meyer speaking on WRAL about public schools.

Though it began just as a hashtag under his videos, the idea grew legs when a few women approached him about turning the concept into a political action committee, or a PAC.

“Three mothers came to me and said, 'We want to support what you’re talking about. Can we raise money from other families that we know who care about these things and are just waking up to find that they might need to be involved in politics?'”

Meyer mirrors that goal with his caucus role in the House. As recruitment chair for the Democratic House Caucus, he reaches out to potential candidates who might run for office. Often, the prospects have heard about Our Shot.

“When I call people and they have seen the Our Shot videos, they’re responding to that collective call for engagement.” The movement seems to have caught on, too, as candidates whom the PAC will fund come November continue to materialize.

Looking Forward

The engagement that those particular mothers brought in beginning the PAC is not a one-off. Across the country, women have signed up to run in elections at unprecedented rates. Meyer attributes it both to Clinton’s historic run and Trump’s upset victory.

“If the impact of 2016 is that thousands of women begin to run, how will that change leadership moving forward?”

In the last decade or so, Democrats have suffered losses up and down the ballot, but Meyer sees the shock of 2016 as a potential inflection point. The next move, politically, will not be one of women alone, but of the younger generations.

“We’re in a stage of generational leadership change,” Meyer suggests. “It happened to come under Obama.”

He posits that Generation X, smaller than the Baby Boomers, did not command as much of a role in politics. Over the past few years and still now, that generation is retiring from government, allowing new faces to run. Republicans excited their aspirants under Obama, and now Trump may do the same for Democrats.

Meyer does not think that older generations in office should abdicate their roles, though. “I hope Mickey Michaux serves in the legislature forever!” he added, referring to his 87-year old colleague from Durham. “But young people need to be running for seats as they open up.”

When asked about his aspirations, Meyer provides his mantra: “I have a personal mission to do the greatest amount of good that I can in my life, and that’s been my mission for a long time.”

As new elections approach, Meyer will continue to reach out to people in the hopes that they step up to fill new roles. In the next few years, if history is any indicator, he may look around and decide that he is the one who needs to be the generational leadership change.