“Once I decide to do something, I give it my all.”
Those words by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, are ones that she has been living by since 1992 when she became a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives.
As the longest-serving House member, she had the opportunity to preside over the body on Dec. 4 for the swearing in of its newly elected representatives gathered to organize for the 2019-20 session.
The self-described “poor little country girl” from Gifford, Florida, said she has laid a framework for her legislative career based on her dedication to helping her constituents and not caring about receiving credit for anything.
Cobb-Hunter, who will begin her 27th year in the House in January, said it means a lot to her to not only be the longest-serving House member, but to also be the longest-serving African-American ever in the history of the House, as well as its longest-serving female. She also serves as the first vice chairperson of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“But in all of this, I thank the higher power because it is with his grace that I am able to do the things that I do. It is his mercy that allows me to be Gilda Cobb-Hunter and all that that means. So I’m not confused about who gets the credit. To God be the glory,” Cobb-Hunter said.
“As the young people say, it just means I’ve been around for a minute. Quite honestly, the time has just snuck up on me. I had no idea that time was passing like it was because, quite frankly, I don’t pay attention to that. I just stay focused on whatever it is I am pushing,” she said.
Cobb-Hunter said she values the relationships she has been able to make over the years.
“I think my longevity has resulted in some really meaningful relationships with decision makers and people in power. As a result, I have been able to get some things done for Orangeburg County,” she said, including using her leadership in the development and securing of initial state funding of $150,000 for the Lake Marion Regional Water System.
“That’s something I’m proud of. One of the things I learned early on is that you’d be surprised at what you can get done when you don’t care who gets credit. And I point to Lake Marion as a prime example of that,” she said.
Cobb-Hunter also cited her leadership in the passage of legislation to combat domestic violence and sexual assault, in the establishment of South Carolina’s Children’s Health Insurance Program and in the passage of a $750 million bond bill to help schools across the state.
She said helping secure funding for Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, South Carolina State University and Claflin University has also benefited Orangeburg County.
“I point, for example, to the new health nursing building going up at OCtech. If we talk about tourism, I have been instrumental in funding for Santee Cooper Country and the tourism that they are engaged in,” she said.
The veteran legislator said she takes her role as a state representative very seriously.
“I look at the word ‘state’ and, as a result, my focus tends to be statewide. So I’m very proud of what I did to get the Children’s Health Insurance Program here, CHIP, which has helped hundreds of thousands of children in this state be covered. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in changing domestic violence laws and sexual assault laws.”
She also pointed to the work she did in helping develop the South Carolina Housing Trust Fund to create affordable housing opportunity for needy people, along with the work she did in having the Confederate flag removed from the Statehouse dome.
“That was tough. It was frustrating because I had all these things that I was juggling between a very reluctant Republican majority and a Democratic minority that seemed set on doing TV interviews about what was going to happen.”
She said serving her constituents, many of whom remember things she’s done to help them from years ago, gives her the greatest satisfaction.
“What gives me the greatest pleasure is being in a position that when somebody calls me, I can return the call and, as much as I can, help them with whatever the issue is that they’re calling about. ... To me, the greatest compliment that anybody can pay to me is that I will try to help you if I can, and I’ll call you back,” she said. “I think that’s why I have been so successful in fending off opposition, whether primary or general.”
She said service is not about getting absorbed in a title but rather becoming consumed with bettering the community.
“A title does not give you respect, a title does not make you a leader. Respect is earned, and I think leaders are born. You either got it or you don’t. Leadership can be taught, but it can’t be taught to people who don’t have the skill set. Don’t tell me because you got a title that I need to be looking up to you. That’s not how I roll,” Cobb-Hunter said.
“I’m there to make a difference. I’m not there to run a popularity contest. I’m not there to gain any kind of self-esteem or whatever. I’m there to use whatever power I have to help make a difference not just for people in Orangeburg House District 66 but across this state,” she said.
Her views on legislating have changed as part of that. She said lawmaking, for example, is not just about passing bills.
“Over the years, I have determined that a true measure of success is not so much in how many bills you get passed as how many bad bills, in your opinion, you’re able to stop, and how many ways I’m able to get things done through the legislative process that doesn’t involve passing a bill,” she said.
She added, “Years ago, I had a bill which would deal with price gouging when disaster hits. Now, I’m a Democrat, a black woman with a bill. Great idea, wrong messenger, wrong party. What did I do? I worked with a Republican to get language added.
“The language from my bill that said you can’t price gouge. I got that added to another bill with the same title and stuff. My point is it’s now law. It didn’t pass with my name on it, but it passed. I’m not one who needs my name on stuff to justify my service.”
She said, “I’m all about making a difference for people. I want a living legacy. I’m not interested in a brick-and-mortar legacy.”
Cobb-Hunter, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American history from Florida A&M University and a master’s degree in American history from Florida State University, said she actually began teaching after she and her husband, Dr. Terry K. Hunter, moved to Orangeburg from Columbus, Ohio, in 1977. But politics was not far behind.
“I taught at South Carolina State for one semester and that was enough to tell me that teaching was not for me. I worked at DSS for six years. At first, I didn’t have a job and so Terry was like, ‘Why don’t you get involved in something?’
“I’ve always been interested in politics. My degrees are in history. When I was at FAMU, I worked on the McGovern campaign. When I was in Ohio, I volunteered with some political campaigns. And so when we came to South Carolina, it was just a natural extension,” she said.
“So I started going to county council meetings and just paying attention. And through Mr. Fred Mack, I started doing voter registration work. ... I would go to these Democratic Party meetings, and the men were all in charge. The women were all doing the work and the men were the ones running for office. And back in maybe the mid-80s, I created something called the Women of Color Political Network,” said Cobb-Hunter, who had no intention of running for any political office, but rather wanted to encourage other women to run.
She decided to run for what was then the District 94 House seat after much prayer and talking with her husband.
“I never thought I’d win because I’m not from here, and I had two last names, which created real problems. The Concerned Citizens of District 94 ... has this little panel that interviewed candidates. There were three candidates they interviewed: me, Samuetta Marshall and Ed Fludd. ... And they took a vote and decided they would support me. And I was elected, and I have been re-elected most times with primary opposition until they ran out of finding people who would run against me,” Cobb-Hunter said.
"I think a part of why I am so successful is I deal with the least of these. I see myself as a voice for those who have no voice. The only thing special, in my opinion, about any elected official is that on Election Day, they got 50-(percent)-plus-one more than the person they were running against. Other than that, putting a title to us does not take away anything that we are, nor does it give us anything that we’re not. Character counts.”
Cobb-Hunter said she does not get confused between position and power.
“Just because you have a position does not mean you have the power to do anything. And so I am not one to get confused. I deal with people who have power, and if you have power to help me do what I need to do for the people I’m trying to do it for, then I’m dealing with you. Because, for me, this is business. It’s not personal,” she said.
She credits her husband for providing the strong support system she needs to continue her efforts.
“I am just so very grateful for the wind beneath my wings, Dr. Terry K. Hunter. I couldn’t do this without his love and support,” she said.