NBCSL President Gilda Cobb-Hunter featured in the July 2019 Issue of Public Utilities Forthnightly Magazine

July 17, 2019

Smart Communities Summit: South Carolina

Gilda Cobb-Hunter

Fortnightly Magazine – July 2019

PUF caught up with state legislators from Florida, South Carolina, Utah and Washington State at the State Legislators’ Smart Communities Summit.

Cobb Hunter Gilda 2015

PUF: Representative, what is your job and how long have you been doing this?

Representative Cobb-Hunter: I’m a state legislator in South Carolina. I have been in the State Legislature for twenty-seven years. I also have the honor of serving as President of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. I started on January 1.

PUF: Where’s your district in South Carolina and how is it doing?

Representative Cobb-Hunter: I represent District 66, which is the Eastern part of Orangeburg County. Orangeburg is between Charleston and Columbia, our state capital. It’s doing well. Of course, when any politician says his or her district is not doing well, there’s a problem.

There are still some challenges. We are a rural district. We are here talking about issues that are interesting to me, access to broadband, transportation. All of those are problems that are common to rural communities regardless of whether those districts are in South Carolina or South Dakota.

PUF: You worked in the Legislature for a while, but what made you decide to run for office?

Representative Cobb-Hunter: I never intended to do that. I always saw myself as a person behind the scenes. I always wanted access, but the seat became open, and there were a lot of folk who told me, look, it’s time for you to put your money where your mouth is.

I had been encouraging women, particularly women of color, to run for office, and I never thought I’d win. I’m not a native South Carolinian, and I had two last names, but I won and here I am twenty-seven years later still there.

PUF: You’re here at the National Conference of State Legislators, Energy Task Force. What made you come to Columbus?

Representative Cobb-Hunter: I am here at the invitation of NCSL, and as a part of the Smart Communities Committee, I am interested in this issue as President of NBCSL.

NBCSL has been engaged in the issue of energy across the board, so a part of it is me feeling like, as a leader of the organization, I need to know what it’s all about. That’s important because at NBCSL, we want to share information with our members. There is valuable information that is being transferred here at this event, and I’m grateful to be here.

PUF: Talk a little bit about NBCSL and you becoming the President.

Representative Cobb-Hunter: You’d be interested in knowing that my first foray into the energy bill was in D.C. at a workshop sponsored by EEI and Network Communications out of Florida. AABE was a sponsor, along with EEI, so I’ve been on the edges of this for a few years now.

PUF: What do you hope to take from this conference?

Representative Cobb-Hunter: It just started this morning, and I’ve already taken some ideas from a legislative standpoint. There is a charging station in Santee, which is on I-95, which is in my district.

I heard conversations this morning about what’s happening in other states from the standpoint of charging. Do you charge by the time the vehicle plugs in, or the usage amount? That has been interesting, hearing the people from DriveOhio talk about the partnerships they’ve managed.

I think about Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, or CU-ICAR. In South Carolina, we don’t rival Ohio in the number of automotive dealers, or automotive manufacturers yet. Volvo just opened a huge facility, so the automotive sector is important to our state.

What has been interesting in listening to the conversation this morning is checking to make sure our economic development people need to partner with our research institutions and looking ahead ten or twenty years because the focus will shift.

When you talk about these autonomous vehicles, you are talking about a real change in the landscape, an idea whose time has come, whether we want it or not.

Quite frankly, I’m thinking, oh, my! We’re recruiting all these automotive plants, but the landscape is changing. You won’t need people making parts for engines and fenders and all of that.

It’s created in me an interest in going back to South Carolina, and talking to our commerce secretary, and universities, about where is the ingenuity? Where are the innovative thinkers that will put us at least on pace to meet these changing landscapes?

The difference with us and say Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio is that we are retaining those industries. They are not leaving South Carolina, and it’s not just that we have a workforce that works for lower wages than in some of the other states.

We’ve got something going, and what this has triggered in me is, we need to have a serious conversation with the governor, with the commerce secretary, and with our higher education leadership to say, where’s the planning here? How are we R&D-wise?

The other side of that is we need to increase our focus on R&D, and recruiting R&D. We’re doing some of that, but we need to step it up a little bit.

PUF: With the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, how are you involved, and is there something here for you to take to them?

Representative Cobb-Hunter: Without question. I’m here representing the State of South Carolina, and I thanked Speaker Jay Lucas for appointing me to this committee, but it’s a twofer for me.

I’m learning about South Carolina, but I’m also learning how to look at what NBCSL has done and I’m refining that. Let me back up to say that the National Black Caucus of State Legislators is an organization of over seven hundred black legislators from across the country, as well as the territories.

Last year, we passed a resolution which allows city council members in D.C. to be members of our organization. They don’t have representation in the U.S. Congress, so we’ve given them representation at NBCSL. NBCSL has a relationship with this issue based on our work with AABE and some of the other partners through the last five to ten years.

What I am thinking about here is how to build on that relationship and expand it. When I think about our historically black colleges and universities, I think, for example, about my alma mater, Florida A&M University and our School of Engineering.

With NBCSL, we have two ways to impact policy. We have the committee structure, which based on what I’ve heard, there are at least two or three committees that this whole thing fits under.

The other part of our options is through what we call the resolutions process. The resolutions process allows through our corporate roundtable, opportunities for businesses to come in and talk to us about issues that are important to them.

What we provide, much like NCSL, is an opportunity for a resolution to be created, developed, debated, and talked about. That process happens at our annual meeting. We meet in a different state every year. We were in New York last year, the first of December. We’re in Fort Lauderdale in December of this year.

PUF: What do you want to say to our readers?

Representative Cobb-Hunter: Here’s what I’d like to say to the Public Service Commissioners across the country, the governors’ offices, utility regulators, consumers, and all of that whole arena of services that provide utilities, whether it’s cable, power, generators, water, sewer, whatever.

Reach out to us. The National Black Caucus of State Legislators has been working on these issues. Our constituents are affected by these issues. Our constituents care about rate increases. Our constituents care about sustainable energy, renewables, and the whole portfolio. Our constituents are mainly affected by transportation or the lack thereof, and by broadband or the lack of access to broadband.

You name it, our constituencies are affected by it, so we, meaning NBCSL, stand ready to work with you, talk with you, and provide access to you. It’s important for these regulators to look to legislators of color, whether they are African American, or the Hispanic caucus, the Native American caucus, or the Asian Pacific American caucus.

There are four different constituency caucuses. I can say as a member of the Quad Caucus, which is what we call ourselves, each of us is interested in working with the utility sector to help create better access to services for our constituency.

You can visit our website to get information. NBCSL.org is the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. The National Hispanic Caucus is NHCSL. The Native American is NNACSL, and then the Asian Pacific American Caucus is NAPACSL.

There are people of color across any service area. It is in their best interest as a corporate entity to reach out to the various constituencies of their caucus, but if they’ll just reach out to NBCSL.org if they are interested in all of these other three, we can help them make that connection.