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Exclusive Interview: State Rep. Shelly Willingham

It didn’t take long for the Democratic eastern North Carolina lawmaker to show his independence.

State Rep. Shelly Willingham signed onto a bill last week from Republican House Speaker Tim Moore that would impose additional penalties on protesters who engage in looting or violence. Critics say the measure could stifle free speech by discouraging North Carolinians from participating in protests. On Wednesday, House Bill 40 will get its first committee vote.

A similar measure was vetoed in 2021 by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Assuming all Republicans are present, it now just takes two absent House Democrats or one Democratic member crossing party lines to override Cooper’s vetoes over the next two years.

Willingham’s backing stands to give Republicans the veto-proof support they’ve previously lacked.

It’s not the only time Willingham may cross party lines this session. He’s seen by Republicans as one of a handful of Democrats who could join them on any number of proposals.

“I guess I’m one of those cats. A cat, sometimes, he'll come and curl up with you and lay and all that. And, other times, you can come walk up and they'll look at you like you're crazy.”

-State Rep. Shelly Willingham compares himself to a cat

With Willingham as a key figure to watch this session, it’s worth taking a closer look at his thought process and legislative goals. Here’s an exclusive interview Q&A (abbreviated for brevity) with the representative highlighting his attitudes on a number of subjects from Jan. 11:

Q: Folks have talked about abortion as an issue that could be brought up this session. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I think that women have the right to make a decision about their own bodies. So I won't vote for anything that would inhibit them from making a decision.

Q: So it sounds like you support what's currently in place, but nothing additional?

A: I’ll support what we have, yeah. I can say right now I wouldn't support anything any more restrictive than what we have.

Q: What do you make of the razor-thin margin that Democrats have? Either two members absent or just one flip and things can change an override. Is that at all a calculus or a concern of yours?

A: It's really not a concern of mine in the sense of something happening that wouldn't have happened anyway. I'm not that concerned. I just think if it's something that most of us agree with, we could support it. And if it’s not, we won’t. I mean, I'm not going to do anything just to make a number. If I think it's beneficial and helpful, I'll support it. If I don't, I won't. That's just the bottom line. That won't have any bearing on just do this so I can kill something or make something go. It'll depend on how it affects my district and how it affects the state.

Q: What are the areas of agreement and disagreement going into this session with House Minority Leader Robert Reives?

A: I believe that we need to be together as a party and as a legislature. But people ask me, “You know, suppose we have 49 or 48 Democrats and you’ve got everybody, but you are agreeing, would that influence you not to do something if you were the only one?” No. I'm not looking at how other people vote. I can only vote for me. There's nobody in this legislature ever that can vote for me — nobody in the caucus or no one on the Republican side. There's nobody that can vote for me.”

Q: Reives has got to be the vote coraller.

A: That’s his job and he does it well, but I guess I’m one of those cats. A cat, sometimes, he'll come and curl up with you and lay and all that. And, other times, you can come walk up and they'll look at you like you're crazy. My thing is that what benefits my district and what benefits the state, that's what I'm going to do. My vote is not predicated on somebody else's vote. That's just the bottom line.

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