OK when we say we get excited every time we get to sit down and have a Substantial conversation with this long-time friend and supporter of Substantial magazine we mean it. We’re almost certain there isn’t a person in Eastern NC that doesn’t know Senator Don Davis or possibly a person in Eastern NC that Senator Don Davis doesn’t know. Senator Donald G. Davis serves in the North Carolina Senate, representing the 5th senate district since 2013. Davis was first elected to the post in 2008, representing Pitt, Wayne, and Greene counties. Substantial was able to grab a moment of his time to talk about his long history of service and why good leadership is so important during times of crisis.
As a young child growing up in eastern North Carolina, Davis worked to help his family make ends meet. For those that may know Senator Don Davis, but not Don let us properly introduce him.
Davis’s grandmother raised him on three key values—church, school, and hard work. He went from working in tobacco fields in eastern North Carolina to serving our country in the United States Air Force. During his military career, he was an admissions advisor for the United States Air Force Academy, business administrator, and flight line protocol officer supporting Air Force One and other flight operations. Having been all over the world, at Davis’s earliest, he put in paperwork to come back home and by the grace of God, the military transferred him back to eastern North Carolina to serve as an assistant professor of aerospace studies at East Carolina University’s Detachment 600. There Davis taught courses in military history, national security affairs, and leadership.
After eight years in the United States Air Force, he got out and ran for mayor of his hometown—Snow Hill. “It was an honor to serve as the mayor of a place where so many poured into me,” said Davis. As mayor, working with the Town Council, he brought new jobs, community development, and much-needed infrastructure to the rural town in Eastern NC. It wasn’t long until he was encouraged to run for state office, so he filed and was elected in 2008 to serve in the North Carolina Senate. Davis is currently serving in his fifth term as the sixth ranking member. While serving in the Senate, he has championed legislation to help at-risk children, veterans, and those seeking better health care. Now that you know the heart and passion of the man we’ve got serving and advocating for Eastern NC let’s get to the conversation.
Senate Davis, you have served county and community for some time now. Some would say it’s ingrained in your DNA—but when did you know you wanted to serve?
At the time I was born, my mother was a senior in high school. My grandmother, who only had a high school diploma, made my mother go to college. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and great-grandmother. They were very active in the community. I often went around with them to different places across eastern North Carolina. Watching how they lived and interacted with others has always been a real inspiration for me. Having been raised somewhat with an old soul, my thought about the community has always been that your neighbors are your family. My grandparents always told me I was not better than anyone else and that I too was somebody. I grew up with a passionate heart for serving others. While working at Andrews Air Force Base, I was talking with legendary civil rights activist, Congressman Walter Fauntroy, I mentioned running for elected office, and I will never forget his words to me. He said, “elected office is about serving your community.” Too often, many want to hold office without serving the community. My desire to serve politically always has been driven by an even stronger desire to make my community and eastern North Carolina better. Serving eastern North Carolina is the joy of my life.
We’ve got to acknowledge that COVID-19 has drastically changed our world. You are hearing, seeing, and reporting on the impacts this pandemic is having on our state and local communities through every means accessible to you. Honestly, how bad do you believe it is?
The novel coronavirus pandemic has shaken our community, nation, and world. I have had family members and friends who have tested positive—who have recovered—unfortunately, I have known those who have lost their lives to this deadly virus as well. Because of massive gathering restrictions, the pandemic has altered our ability to hang out, interact, and even worship. With over 156,000 deaths in 185 countries around the world to include over 37,000 in the United States, over 180 in North Carolina, and at least 22 in eastern North Carolina, we must take added precautions to save lives. On top of this, COVID-19 is hitting our economy hard. It was extremely challenging for me to get a call from a resident in tears who had worked all his life and is now struggling with so much uncertainty. Over 600,000 residents from across the state have filed for unemployment. I have never witnessed such a rapid rise in massive unemployment in such a short time. Putting this into perspective, the North Carolina Division of Employment Security for the first weeks of the state of emergency received nearly 1,000 applications for unemployment an hour, 24 hours a day, for seven days a week.
WOW thank you for those statics, Senator Davis. In times like this leadership and information is so important. How are you helping Eastern NC and the state right now?
Currently, I am meeting with various state agencies and colleagues on both sides of the aisle to attempt to roll out bipartisan legislation in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. More specifically, the minority leader asked to do some focused work around education, local government, and those issues unique to eastern North Carolina. We are in the process of putting together COVID-19 relief legislation, including about $460m for our public schools and institutions of higher education. There are about 40 special provisions with decisions around our schools that we must address to include testing, accountability, Read to Achieve, teacher licensure, evaluations and observations, nonpublic school reporting, and various internship programs. I am also responding to numerous constituent concerns ranging from unemployment claims to small business assistance. I have been keeping my constituents informed via email, social media, conference calls, and video teleconferencing. At the same time, I have stayed on conference calls and in communication with federal, state, and local elected officials ranging from the President, members of our congressional delegations, the Governor, to chairs of county boards of commissioners and mayors as well as sheriffs.
Testing, tracing, and trends—this has been the theme of how we can begin to understand and try to get a handle on this pandemic, but there are still huge gaps to be addressed. Tell us how we begin to address some of these gaps you believe exist?
Due to North Carolina’s stay-at-order, we have successfully been able to flatten the curve and slow the rate of acceleration of the virus. On the other hand, we have continued to see a rise in COVID-19 confirmed cases in eastern North Carolina. The most significant public health gaps include testing, contact tracing, and our supply of personal protective equipment.
We must increase testing from about 3,000 per day to about 7,000 per day. Regarding contact tracing, we must increase the size of those conducting contact tracing across our state from 250 to 500 tracers and deploy digital tracing technology. Maintaining adequate supplies of personal protective equipment is imperative for fighting this virus. I support $25m in a COVID-19 relief package for rapid testing and to expand contact tracing as well as $50m for personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies. Meanwhile, we must not ignore those socioeconomic gaps. With over 600,000 claims for unemployment in our state that is steadily rising, we must help residents to live during this crisis and protect their livelihoods. Federal funds to assist small and micro-businesses have gone quickly, and we need more. I fully support appropriating $75m of state funds for small business assistance. As the COVID-19 persists, there is an increasing need for mental health and crisis services. Lastly, we must make sure our rural hospitals and underserved communities have the necessary resources to get through the pandemic.
Serving in Eastern NC (Pitt, Wayne Greene Counties) you see and know first hand what the greatest needs are. We’ve spoken in the past about health care and rural health disparities. What do you believe Eastern NC needs most right now?
There is no greater need in eastern North Carolina than better health care. For some eastern North Carolina counties, the average life expectancy is 5-8 years less than in other parts of our state. We tend to see enormous health care challenges and disparities from birth to death. In eastern North Carolina, we tend to see higher rates of infant mortality, especially among African American females. We also tend to see higher rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, and diabetes. At the same time, eastern North Carolinians are more prone to having difficulties with transportation. High priorities for our region are closing the Medicaid coverage gap and supporting a new medical school at East Carolina University. Both are essential to increasing access to quality health care and saving lives. We cannot afford to pit either of these against each other. Eastern North Carolina needs both. Some rural hospitals are struggling and facing closure. Within our health care network, expanding Medicaid to close the coverage gap will create over 3,200 new jobs, generate over $619 million for eastern North Carolina’s economy, and provide access the health care for more than an additional 95,500 residents. At the same time, a new medical school at East Carolina University would allow us to place roughly an additional 40 physicians annually in practices across the state with a primary focus on serving in rural areas. These are imperative along with supplemental initiatives such as expanding telemedicine, which can only be done by increasing broadband access in rural communities.
How are some of the small businesses fairing right now? What advice or resources do you have for them?
COVID-19 is devastating many small businesses—those that employ less than 500. Plus, micro-businesses, a subset of small businesses, which employ less than six employees, often face added challenges. First and foremost, it is vital for the self-employed and independent contractors impacted by COVID-19 to know they can file for unemployment benefits—Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is available. Second, I would also encourage small businesses to consider applying for a loan through the United States Small Business Administration. It is essential to realize there are ongoing efforts to make these funds available and never disqualify yourself. If you are unclear about anything in the application, speak with an agency representative, someone in your network, or call me. Plus, there is the possibility of loan forgiveness with specific programs. Lastly, I would encourage business owners to consider seeking a bridge loan through the Golden LEAF Foundation. These loans are often quicker and will help businesses until they can obtain a loan from the United States Small Business Administration. These programs were put in place to help business owners get through these tough times. It is crucial to help our small and micro-businesses to bounce back and especially, those who were struggling to keep the doors open before the pandemic.
I would also encourage business owners to start mapping out a plan for reopening. These plans should take into consideration the necessary protective equipment for yourself, employees, and customers. It should consider screening, physical distancing, and sanitation–disinfecting commonly shared surfaces is major. Businesses may consider taking appointments, e-Commerce, and other alternatives to reduce cash exchange. Those closed should not look at this as merely unlocking the door and turning on the light switch but a gradual transition. Until there is a vaccine, I believe COVID-19 will continue to alter how we do business, and customers will look to see what steps businesses are taking to protect them.
We keep hearing folks talk about (post) COVID, what does post-COVID look like in your mind? Honestly, is there a (post) COVID or is it life with COVID moving forward?
As we are staying at home more these days, our new reality is the virus will continue to alter our lives until there is a vaccine. After the initial shock, we have begun to adjust, and as time passes, we will continue to adjust. I believe life post-COVID-19 will be about reducing our physical engagement yet increasing our social interactions. As we try putting this virus in a box through testing, contact tracing, and isolation, we will learn more about it and make informed decisions. I believe, in many ways, technology will drive post-COVID-19. We will likely see efforts to broaden our broadband infrastructure, which will allow more remote working, distance learning, and telemedicine. With the need to stay home, we will see more individuals embracing technology—families will connect via ZOOM in between reunions, and churches will keep many technological platforms in place to accommodate parishioners. Businesses will look for ways to keep loyal employees working from home while getting rid of costly overhead. There will be an increase in demand for e-Commerce. There may be a reluctance to participate in large crowds and travel. I believe there will be more advocacy for health care policies impacting families the most. As we work to flatten the curve, there will be interests in flattening a health care system that does not always best serve many families. Above all, I believe there will be a much greater appreciation for our education community and first-line workers. Tackling challenges and overcoming a crisis is nothing new for eastern North Carolinians. We are resilient, and we will come back stronger post-COVID-19.
You’re also a Pastor correct? Talk for a moment about how this pandemic has impacted our churches, especially our rural churches?
Growing up, going to church was never an option for me, like for so many others. With the need to avoid mass gatherings, this is the longest I have gone without being in a church building on Sunday. You just knew this quickly became real—not to be in a church building on Resurrection Day, to see so many live streaming funeral services, and one couple standing outside the chapel as their family and friends stayed inside of their cars driving by in a wedding parade. As a 17-year Presbyterian minister, it has allowed me to have a unique perspective not only as a state senator while having conversations with other clergy about how to alter worship experiences. What the pandemic has made clear to us is that it cannot stop God’s work, and the people are indeed the actual body of Christ.
Oddly, the global pandemic has created a unique challenge for us—stay away from each other physically and simultaneously get closer than we have ever been before to each other. We should call family, use social media to check on friends, and allow video conferencing to help us stay in touch with neighbors. Likewise, praying enables us to come even closer to God. Indeed, we have the opportunity here to come closer to each other, and above all, closer to God. Although we must alter the way we practice our faith, this is the time now more than ever that we must stand firm in our faith. As people of faith, Christ must be seen during this trying moment in our history. Through faith, God will see us through this pandemic.
What’s the message to our minority community right now? From those struggling to make ends meet, deemed essential and having to leave their families, to the small business owner and parent(s) that have to educate from home. Can you offer any words of encouragement?
COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting minority communities. We see this trend across the nation and in North Carolina, with 39% of African Americans contracting the virus and 38% dying from it. We must take it seriously. The virus has taken the life of Eugene Thompson, a Mississippi barber just days after his 46th birthday, because he decided to keep his shop open. It took the life of Bishop Gerald Glenn of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Virginia the day before Easter and Jason Hargrove, a Detroit bus driver. There are so many more. Although in different parts of our nation, it is so crucial for us to put a face on this virus. It is real.
There is an emergency within this state of emergency. When you live in more crowded multifamily housing, social distancing is more challenging. When you do not have a car and have to get a ride, then limiting contact is more challenging. When you cannot work remotely from home, and social distancing does not pay the bills, you are more likely to be exposed to this virus.
We must defy the myth that African Americans are immune to the novel coronavirus. I encourage essential workers to protect yourself—wear a mask, disinfect your work environment, frequently wash your hands, avoid touching your nose and mouth, and practice physical distancing. Essential workers must self-advocate. For those who are nonessential workers, we must stay home and only travel for essential purposes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified North Carolina as a state of community transmission, and everyone who travels out in public is encouraged to wear a mask. If you are feeling sick, we must isolate ourselves from other family members. Because of historic health care disparities, we must work extra to avoid contracting the virus. The bottom line here is we must protect ourselves. We must stop the spread of the virus, which will save lives.
Senator Davis thank you so much for your time, words and leadership throughout this crisis. I want to make sure I ask this question. What does it really mean to serve your community as a Senator right now?
A favorite and inspiring “shero” of mine is the fierce Shirley Chisholm, who served in the New York State Assembly, the United States Congress, and ran for President in 1972. She was the daughter of a factory worker and seamstress, who, too, was raised by her granny so her parents could keep working. Congresswoman Chisholm said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” It is not enough for us to live in a community, but it is up to us to make our community ultimately what we want it to be or not. With my mother being a senior in high school and raised by my grandparents, without a doubt, I beat the odds. Shirley Chisholm beat the odds, and it is up to each of us to help our communities and, in particular, those across eastern North Carolina to beat the odds.
Lastly, and you know, we have to ask. With all that is going on in the world and our nation right now. Looking big picture, how important is this upcoming presidential/primary election? Do you believe it will be heavily impacted by COVID-19? How important is it that the minority community stay informed and be ready to vote?
Voting is a precious right that must be protected literally and in a nontraditional way in 2020. Recently, Wisconsin health officials linked at least seven COVID-19 infections to voting during their April 7 primary election. The COVID-19 pandemic will make this year’s election even more challenging especially, for in-person voting. We must be concerned about voters standing in close lines waiting to vote, handling ballots, and the need to disinfect voting equipment properly. We must take measures to protect both voters and poll workers.
Historically there are higher levels of voter turnout in presidential election years, and residents need to vote. Currently, political parties are scrambling to figure out how to deal with national conventions. With so many concerns about the coronavirus, I believe it is essential to seek ways to make voting even easier and safer this time around. Special efforts should be made in advance to address the sanitation of our voting booths, encourage voting by mail, and expand curbside operations. I would love to see online voter registration and the aggressive promotion of mail-in ballots with free postage. We must have not only a fair election but also a safe one. Everyone must stay informed and ready to vote.
How can folks reading this reach out to you and your office during this time?
Residents can reach me by calling (919) 715-8363 or (800) 520-8521.
My mailing address is P.O. Box 973; Greenville, North Carolina 27834, and email address: email@example.com.