© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Q&A: Social studies teacher from 'the Neglected Northeast' to join NC House

Rodney Pierce, a middle school social studies teacher from Roanoke Rapids, speaks at a campaign event.
Campaign Photo
Submitted Image
Rodney Pierce, a middle school social studies teacher from Roanoke Rapids, won an upset victory in the Democratic primary over 10-term Rep. Michael Wray.

One of the biggest upsets — and closest races — in last month’s primary took place in northeastern North Carolina. In a state House race to serve Halifax, Warren and Northampton counties, longtime Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton, lost to challenger Rodney Pierce.

Pierce is a social studies teacher who criticized Wray for his record of voting with Republicans. That message resonated with voters in the Democratic primary, and Pierce won by just 34 votes. There’s no Republican running in November, so Pierce will join the House in January.

Pierce spoke about his campaign and his plans in the legislature with WUNC Capitol Bureau Chief Colin Campbell on the latest episode of the WUNC Politics Podcast.

NOTE: This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What do you think made your campaign successful this year?

“As an educator, what we set out to do was to educate and teach the public. What I mean is — we set out to educate and teach the public about my opponent's voting record. As I said numerous times on the campaign trail, I respected my opponent as a man. I respected him as a husband and as a father. What I did not respect was his voting record. And I don't think that those of us who are citizens of House District 27 can afford to have a representative in office who goes by the label of a Democrat but is voting like a Republican.”

All three counties that you serve are majority Black, and they also have a high rate of poverty. What does the state legislature, in your mind, need to do to help your counties prosper going forward?

"Invest. You know, one of the nicknames that I give my part of the state is Neglected Northeastern North Carolina, or the Neglected Northeast. And I seriously think that's because we've been neglected for so long. If you trace back the history of our area, we had the highest enslaved population during the antebellum era. We had some of the worst Jim Crow policies and incidents here. We had multitude of court cases and litigation where Black people were literally fighting for civil rights.

"So, you've had this continuous struggle for the residents of this area, namely the Black residents of this area, just to be recognized as human beings … and to be given a fair shot at securing our part of the American dream. And I think in order for that to happen, there has to be investment.

"So, it's going to take, not just investment, but intentional investment by the state legislature in our area over a period of years. And when I say that, I'm not talking about earmarks in a budget, but I'm talking about intentional investment — in a multitude of areas, in terms of the public sector, public institutions, your schools, your hospitals, your libraries, your community centers, your public safety departments — all of those things, to try to pull us about of the rut that we're in."

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

You mentioned education funding and particularly the Leandro lawsuit, which has been a big deal in your corner of the state. How do you see that issue play out with the conditions that you're experiencing on a daily basis on the ground, teaching in a rural classroom?

“First of all, some of your classrooms are overcrowded. You have one teacher in here, she may be trying to teach 20 to 30 students in a classroom. You don't have the support personnel to deal with some of the issues that you're going to be dealing with. I mentioned the mental health issues, so you don't have the counselors, you don't have the school psychologists, you don't have the nurses.

“You're not going to be able to offer as many classes as you could. Some of our kids here, they're very talented artistically, but they don't have an art teacher, and I'm talking about namely middle school. I know schools where all they can offer students are CTE (career and technical education) and health and PE and that's it. That's the only electives or enhancement classes that they can offer.”

Was the campaign something that you discussed with the students as a potential lesson on how you were dealing with the democratic process?

“I eventually started talking to my students about it, because they started noticing my signs in the neighborhood or canvassers were coming to their homes, asking them to vote for me, and it was great because it was a civics lesson.

“I was telling them, ‘You know, in a few years, you're going to be eligible to vote and people are going to be coming to you asking you, are you registered to vote?’ And you need to be registered to vote and you need to know the people who are running that are going to be asking for your support.

“Do your research on these people, see what they say publicly and then what they do privately in terms of what policies they support or how they vote.”

Outside of education, what other issues do you hope to address once you're serving in the House?

“Affordable housing — just under a third of the people in all of the counties that I'll be serving are cost-burdened when it comes to housing. That means they spend at least 30% of their income on housing.

“We also want to address the health care issues in the area … and making sure that we have equitable economic development, making sure that we can recruit good solid industry to our area — and when they come, that they're going to be about providing good-paying jobs with good benefits to local people.”

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.