Video: Carolyn Hugley discusses her role as Georgia House Minority Whip
Carolyn Hugley says she never aspired to be a politician, yet she has been a state representative in the Georgia Assembly for 23 years.
As Georgia House Minority Whip, she is the second ranking Democrat in the Georgia House of Representatives.
Hugley sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about her family, professional career and life as a state legislator.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
What was life like for you growing up in Forrest City, Ark.?
Forrest City, Ark., is a very small town. I'm number seven of eight children born to two Arkansas educators. ... My father was a principal and my mother was a teacher. They set very high expectations for us. They taught us the value of hard work and always treating others the way we wanted to be treated. ... That was the foundation upon which we got started. Education and faith were the primary principles.
My grandfather was a farmer and with eight kids that was free labor. In the summers we had to go out and do farm work. We chopped cotton, picked cotton, and getting a job washing dishes at a hamburger joint was a big deal when I became old enough to work. That's what life was like in my little hometown.
Your sister, Charity Fleming Smith, she's a prominent educator, right?
Right. She was the assistant commissioner for the Arkansas Department of Education before she retired. And now she's an associate with Fetterman and Associates. She does a lot of school improvement work, particularly in Arkansas. You know, I'm No. 7, and all of my sisters were much smarter than I, so my whole life I've been trying to keep up.
What were your aspirations as a child?
I really wanted to be an attorney. In my hometown, I remember having a career day. (My friends and I) went into the area where the attorney was and they were saying "Why are you all here?"... We wanted to be attorneys, and they said, "Well, we don't have a lot of girls that are attorneys. You all need to go over there with the nurses
and with the teachers." Of course, we were not deterred and we went to college. We majored in political science and I got married in graduate school. I guess if I hadn't gotten married, I would've gone to law school because after college I had a full fellowship to Mississippi State University and I had gotten accepted to Howard University Law School, but I didn't have the money.
May I ask how you met Mr. Hugley?
We were students in class together. In Mississippi State we were both working on a master's in public policy and administration.
And he brought you to Columbus, which is his hometown, right?
Yeah. Columbus is his hometown. When we graduated Mississippi State, we both started work in the state of Mississippi. I was with the Mississippi Legislature PEER Committee and he worked for the Department of Transportation in Mississippi. Then Columbus invited him back to take a job as assistant director of Metra (Transit System), so that's why we came back.
Tell us about the personal side of Mr. Hugley. He's always so professional. What is it like being married to him?
Well, most days it's great. ... Isaiah's a great guy. He is really a no-nonsense kind of person in a lot of ways but he is very focused on family and on faith. We get along very, very well. I guess after 34 years we'd have to. He really loves his family. He really loves his church. He really loves the service that he gives to Columbus and he's a very fun person to be around.
The two of you some people would consider to be a power couple. Not only do both of you hold political positions, but so does your sister-in-law (Pat Hugley-Green) who sits on the school board. Tell us a little bit about what that's like?
The phone is always ringing. ... But I guess we just consider ourselves people who have offered ourselves for public service and we try to do the best that we can in the roles that we play. We don't necessarily consider ourselves a power couple -- we just try to do the best that we can. At home, most of the calls are for Isaiah, because people are calling about local things that need attention immediately. We still have a home phone number published in the directory, so we're always available.
State government and local government don't always agree. Do you ever run into issues over those types of matters?
Sometimes that is true. My husband is a very effective lobbyist for the city of Columbus when it comes to local issues that he wants us to be aware of. It's very helpful because I can know how whatever is being proposed is going to affect our city. I think in that regard it helps me to do a better job in representing the city of Columbus.
How did you get involved in politics?
My degree is in political science and I thought my role was going to be to work for people in government as opposed to being an elected official. We moved to Columbus in 1984 and I started with State Farm in 1988. I was working in the community, and after reapportionment, the seat that I officially ran for became an open seat. People asked me to consider running for it and initially I said no. Then they went and asked my husband if it would be all right if his wife would run for office. You know, this is the '90's -- this is 1992. And he says, "Yeah, she'll do it." And then I said, "Why did you tell them that?" And so, we went back and forth, back and forth. He called my sisters and my brothers. On the last day of qualifying, that Friday, I made the decision to run for office and we went to Atlanta. That was my first time in the state capital. ... There was a primary and a general election in that campaign, and because I felt I had something to offer to the citizens after having worked in the Mississippi government... I thought I could be helpful to our community. The citizens agreed. That's how I got started.
And you've served 12 terms?
This is my 23rd year.
What have been some of your pet issues?
I have worked on a variety of issues, particularly issues affecting families and children. But I also had issues that I didn't seek out -- they were brought to me. I had to bring forth the compensation resolution for two individuals who had been wrongfully convicted, and we were successful in getting both of those resolutions passed. This was after (Democrats) were in the minority as opposed to when we were in the majority. It's always difficult for a compensation resolution when somebody has been wrongfully convicted; it's doubly difficult when you are in the minority. But we were able to do that on two occasions. It has helped make a difference in people's life.
... We've done other bills, like there was an issue with military veteran spouses. If the spouse moved from the house she shared with the veteran she would lose that special homestead exemption that we give to veterans' families. We were able to get that changed so that if the spouse needed to downsize or moved for some reason, she could keep that homestead exemption because we still wanted to honor the service of her husband. We were able to do that.
We've done some lighter things, like we named the state mammal because children at Reese Road (Leadership Academy) wanted to name the mammal because Georgia didn't have one. Of course, that was interesting because it gave us an opportunity to help children learn about their government, and we helped them see how an idea can move all the way through the process and become a law.
The state mammal, for the record, is now the white-tailed deer, right?
What's it like being the Georgia House Minority Whip?
Well, the whip is the assistant to the leader, and my role is to know where our members are to help us develop our positions, help us to sustain those positions by knowing how people are going to vote, where they are, if somebody is going to do something different than what we need them to do. So it's a lot of persuasion and getting to know members. We have to establish a position of trust. ... And so, we spend a lot of our time developing relationships.
What do you see as the top issues in the current session?
... This has been an election year and everybody is predicting that it's going to be a quick session. ... One of the things that our caucus wants to focus on -- and try and persuade our members on the other side of the aisle on -- is the issue of Medicaid expansion, because we have too many of our citizens who are not able to access health care and they are showing up in our emergency rooms. We have hospitals that are closing in rural areas and we have money that we are leaving on the table with the federal government because we refuse to expand Medicaid. That's one of the big things we are going to be talking about from our Democratic caucus standpoint.
Of course, I'm sure you've heard that the issue of casino gambling is coming up before us this year and we don't know how that's going to go. But my concern with that is what we do with funds. If we allow that, we need to make sure that we put into our HOPE Scholarship funds for students who can receive those moneys based on need, not just merit alone. Right now, it's just merit-based. When it was originally established it was a needs-based scholarship. We need to make sure that we have resources available based on the needs of students if we allow this entity to come into our state. So that's one of the things that's buzzing around the capital: what would that be like?
(Gov. Deal) has laid out his budget and we are really pleased to see that teachers and state employees are being promised a 3 percent raise. They have been very patient over the years with the downturn in the economy and that kind of thing. I'm happy that we are able to give them some relief in terms of that wage gap. The governor also had an education reform commission and he has decided to give us an opportunity to study the report from that commission and he's not going to move forward with any of those bills this year, but we should see them next year. Then, of course, people are going to be talking about the Opportunity School District piece that's going to be on the ballot this year. It was passed last year but it will be on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, so people will be talking about that as we move through this year.
What are your views on the Opportunity School District?
Personally, I was fortunate to go with the governor to Louisiana to see what they had done there because it's based on the Louisiana model. Georgia is not Louisiana -- Louisiana did this after the devastation of the hurricane. They were building from ground zero. With us, Georgia is such a diverse state that the things that they did are not necessarily transferable. We talked about having the governor appoint one person to decide if he's going to come into an area and take over a school or several schools and to run them the way that that person chooses without any oversight of the General Assembly or the local school board. That, in my opinion, is not in the best interest of our citizens of our state. We do have schools that need to improve and we want the best educational outcomes for our students but we have to be concerned about establishing such a structure.
I believe that Gov. Deal wants to do the best for the students here in our state but when you're talking about putting something in the constitution that applies not only to him, but to whoever is governor after him -- and there are no checks and balances in that system -- it does cause me to have great concerns for that. Therefore, I did not support it as it came to the floor. I would not encourage our citizens to support that, as well, because of the fact that the superintendent will be appointed by the governor. He will report only to the governor. They can come in and take over facilities and resources without any recourse or say of the locals.
When you first started, it wasn't a Republican dominated environment in the General Assembly, was it?
No, when I first came to the Legislature -- my first session was in 1993 -- the Democrats were the majority. And, course, the Republicans came into the majority after the first Republican governor was elected.
What has it been like having to adjust to that?
Well, the issues remain the same. Where we sit is a little bit different. But I think that we all have to go in office assuming that everybody wants to do the best they can for the people that they represent. I always start from that premise, then it might go downhill from there in terms of where you are on a particular issue. ... I've not agreed with the direction that the Republicans have taken in education, because there have been a lot of cuts to education over the course of these years. There have been changes to the HOPE scholarship over these years and it does not cover as much as it once did. Because it went to just a merit-base scholarship, children -- particularly children in the African-American community -- were left out to a large degree from getting the HOPE scholarships. And we know that the communities who play the lottery and the communities who are benefiting from the lottery, there's a difference there. So that's problematic, and that's something that I was not happy with when they made those changes to the HOPE scholarship. That's why people sent us there. We have to be there to take a look at those kinds of things and speak up when those things are happening.
I'm sure you've heard about the recent triple homicide in Columbus. Two young men have been charged. It just seems that we are seeing too much of this, especially with young black males. What's your reaction to that?
Of course, I was first horrified to know that a family, in their own home, can be brutally murdered the way that they were. Then, to find out that these were young people who have been accused of this crime, it's very, very troubling, and it's something that all of us have to take a look at ourselves. Why would young people hold such hate in their hearts to do something like this? What would have caused them to do something like this? ... Of course, we don't know the answer to that because the case has to be adjudicated and has to go through court. It's a failure for all of us in our community that young people would think that that would be the appropriate thing to do, or they would feel compelled to do that for whatever reason that we don't know at this juncture. ... My heart goes out to their families. My heart breaks for the family of the victims. I see victims on all sides. We need to look at ourselves as a community to see what we can do to restore some type of order and to make sure our children feel loved so they don't resort to things like this in the future.
What exactly can we do as a community to address the problem?
Well, I think that we need to double down on our mentoring programs, working with young people in the ways that we do, but we need to make sure we go beyond the children that we know and go a little bit further into communities where it is uncomfortable for us to go. We have nice mentoring programs, but in a lot of cases those programs are kids that go to our church, or kids we know in the community. But the children that are not at church, that we don't run into during the course of our working in the community, are the kids we really need to be working with. We have to find a way to get to those children, to make sure that they feel valued and loved and they have exposure to the opportunities that are available to them. And we have to make sure that we make learning in vogue again.
We recently wrote a story about the increasing number of children in foster care. Here in Muscogee County, there were about 525 foster children and only 67 of beds in the county. A lot of the foster care children are now being scattered all over the state. What is being done about that?
The (Division of Family and Children's Services) is looking for more foster parents. That's something that they continue to tell us that they need. And, of course, we definitely do not want to see our kids all over the state, and sometimes they are several hours away from home. That was one of the reasons why my husband and I took responsibility for his little cousins, because we didn't want them to go into foster care. It is a big responsibility.
... There is a study committee that was done this year by our leader (House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams) and it's about kinship care. ... And I believe if we are able to improve that scenario, to improve the situation of grandparents raising grandkids and other types of kinship care arrangements, then we will be able to keep some of these children out of foster care.
What are your thoughts about the governor's prison reform initiative and is that something that you've been active in as well?
Georgia has been recognized for that prison reform initiative and that was one of the things that we were happy to support because it's the right thing to do. We might have been doing it because we couldn't afford to continue the way we were going, but regardless, it was the right thing to do. I'm very happy that we are going down the road of having accountability courts for drug offenders and for veterans and that kind of thing, so that we can keep people responsible for what they've done, but not necessarily lock everybody up. ... I think Georgia's going to benefit from that for years to come.
What is your take on Sen. Josh McKoon's religious freedom bill?
It was introduced last year and it's still alive because this is the second year of a two-year term. Of course, I'm not in favor of Sen. McKoon's bill. I would assume that his intentions are noble but our business community, our convention and hotel community tell us it's going to have devastating effects on them. There is really, in my mind, not a need for that particular bill. And I hope that he rethinks that whole scenario, but unfortunately there have been other religious freedom bills introduced this year. I do not feel that we should allow any discrimination in any form. And so, there's no way I could help him with that.
What are your views about Mayor Teresa Tomlinson's "thaw the freeze" initiative?
We've been asked to do legislation to allow that to be on the ballot for the citizens to decide. I believe that we should put it forth on the ballot and let the citizens of Columbus decide what they want to do about that. ... I don't want to say I'm for it or against it because I believe it's a decision that should be collectively made by the citizens.
Will you be running for re-election this year?
We qualify in March and, yes, I plan to run for reelection.
Just curious. What do you do for fun?
For fun? When do I have time for fun? Actually, Isaiah and I are so boring. It's fun when we don't have any place to go and we can just stay home all day and lounge and watch the Westerns, that's what we do. We like to travel and go places when we have time. Fun for us in Columbus is being at home, the phone is not ringing, we don't have to be anywhere -- that's fun.
Name: Carolyn Hugley
Hometown: Forrest City, Ark.
Current Home: Columbus
Job: State legislator, representing district 136 situated in Columbus/Muscogee County; also State Farm insurance agent.
Previous Jobs: Senior analyst for the Mississippi State Legislature's Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review; planner for the Lower Chattahoochee Area Planning and Development Commission; and director of planning and economic development for Lee County Council of Governments.
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and a master's degree in public policy and administration from Mississippi State University.
Family: Husband, Isaiah Hugley, Columbus city manager; two children, Kimberly and Isaiah Jr.; and two grandchildren, Kandyce and Adam.