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By Judy Cole

Mary Belk has been active in politics for as long as she can remember. She learned the power of grassroots canvassing at her mother’s knee.

While Belk and her mom stumped for Harvey Gantt from early days, the unlikely inspiration she credits for her eventual career as a professional politician is, of all people, Dean Martin. When she was still a little girl living in the Midwest, a local movie theater started to screen films her activist mom deemed “salacious.” A parental protest was quickly organized.

“It was some [cheesy] take-off on James Bond, with a woman suggestively dancing to bad music,” Belk said, laughing. “Totally tame by today’s standards.”

After some forceful civic campaigning by Belk’s mom and her suburban cohorts, the neighborhood’s G-rating was restored.

No matter the source, seeing the importance of standing up for your principles and working to bring about change was a lesson Belk took to heart.

A challenging heritage

Unfortunately, other family traditions were less beneficial.

Belk, originally from the Midwest, grew up as one of eight siblings in a large Irish Catholic family. She freely admits that drinking was part of the dynamic.

What began for her as socially expected and acceptable alcohol consumption became an addiction.

“I never got in trouble. I was very high functioning,” she said. “But I realized I was kind of in a fog.”

Belk was lucky. Her drinking resulted in no detrimental long-term health effects and never put her on the wrong side of the law.

She decided to return to college at UNC Charlotte to complete her degree. There was no ‘aha’ moment, but Belk said she just decided, “Enough is enough.”

Belk said another one of her main reasons for giving up drinking was credibility. There was no way she could tell her kids something was a poor choice if she was engaging in the behavior herself.

But that didn’t stop one of the Belk’s daughters, Hillary, who ended up using drugs.

Now in long-term recovery as well, Hillary (one of the “I Am Not Anonymous” campaign’s faces of recovery) was instrumental in launching the Collegiate Recovery Community at UNC Charlotte. She currently works as a sober living coach.

While she’s never hidden the fact that she had a problem, Belk  went public with her status as someone in recovery in Raleigh, at the recent NC Addiction Recovery Advocacy Day. The revelation prompted a standing ovation from the people gathered there.

“Recovery visibility means so much to this movement,” said Donald McDonald, director of advocacy for Recovery Communities of North Carolina. “Having someone like Rep. Belk be so public emboldens us and gives us hope.”

Taking the next step

Belk has been married to her husband Ralph for 40 years. While he built and ran the family printing business, Mary took on the mantle of active helpmate and mom.

But as she was raising her four kids and serving as a sounding board for her husband, Belk’s profile as one of Charlotte’s behind-the-scenes political forces to be reckoned with was growing as well.

She developed a reputation for enthusiastic community activism. After years working for the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, Belk became the Regional Director of Democratic Women.

When members of the local Democratic caucus and Lead NC recruited her to challenge Republican Rob Bryan in the 2016 election for the 88th District seat, she agreed.

Belk didn’t like the direction the legislature was taking North Carolina. “For a long time, [this] was a place that was known for being progressive for business, for education, and for families.”

“We were ‘The New South,’” Belk said. “I saw that being taken away.”

A more personal adversary

Soon after tossing her hat in the ring, however, it turned out that a political rival wasn’t Belk’s only opponent. After feeling something suspicious under her arm, Belk went in for a breast exam. “I think I knew something was wrong,” she admitted.

That September, with the race already in progress, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. An ultrasound and biopsy confirmed the diagnosis. A short while later, she went in for surgery.

Belk doubled-down on her political run. With clearance from her doctors, Belk opted to wait until after the election—two days after—to begin chemotherapy.

Her course of chemo complete, Belk recently began radiation. “You know, back in the day, you’d hear ‘radiation’ and think ‘Godzilla.’ I did have some pretty weird thoughts during the first treatment,” she said. “But it’s something you deal with.”

Fortunately, the prognosis is good.

Advocating for health

Belk has been public with her diagnosis and ongoing treatment, and they’ve shaped what she wants her legislative priorities to be.

“I am committed to work for the health and well-being of all my fellow North Carolinians—including women and their families who don’t have access to the medical care they deserve,” she told The Charlotte Observer.

Belk currently gets radiation treatments at UNC Rex Hospital—close enough to the State House that she can continue attending to legislative business. While she knew she’d have to stay in Raleigh, she says the hardest adjustment during this illness is not being home with her husband.

But she feels there’s too much at stake to be a no-show at the legislature, especially as a member of the minority party. “I don’t want to miss any of my votes, or any of my committees,” she said.

As an advocate for health care issues, she finds Raleigh frustrating.

“It makes no sense that Medicaid [expansion], which is funded by the federal government 100 percent … and then 90 percent after that, was not expanded in North Carolina,” she said. She took issue with Republican arguments that they could not trust Congress to continue funding the expanded program.

“So, you’re going to have thousands upon thousands of North Carolinians that don’t have health care?”

She argues Medicaid expansion would have brought jobs and helped people focus on work and school, not on scrambling to find treatment without insurance.

“Forget the moral aspect—you’re keeping children from having healthcare, and you’re keeping the adults that truly need it from having healthcare—it doesn’t make fiscal sense, either” Belk said, noting it’s hard for people to focus on work or school if they’re stressed about finding health care. “You have to have an educated workforce in order to attract business.”

Belk isn’t alone in believing she can have a positive impact in Raleigh, people in the recovery movement are excited to have her on Jones St.

“Folks expect us to get well, but they’re surprised when we get better than well,” McDonald said. “When people like legislators, CEOs physicians, attorneys and teachers come forward, the public perception of addition and recovery becomes more positive. And we believe that public policy will soon follow suit.”

Belk said she hopes the legislation she plans to introduce will prevail on both sides of the aisle.

“I want to advocate for mental health parity. I want to advocate for more treatment programs for long-term recovery,” she said. “We have to stop separating mental health from physical health. We’ve got to find a way to keep people out of the criminal justice system.”

To that end, she recently filed a bill allowing patients in long-term substance use recovery to sign a simple form to opt out of opioid treatment for pain management and seek alternatives.

Belk says it’s too soon to know if the bill will pass, but she’s optimistic.

Additional reporting by Rose Hoban.

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Judy Cole

Judy Cole is a Gastonia-based writer who's been writing for magazines and newspapers for almost three decades.