Cheri Beasley would make history this November if she wins the election to become North Carolina’s first Black U.S. senator. Beasley and a fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida, are two Black women vying for a seat in the Senate, which currently has no Black women after former Sen. Kamala Harris of California became vice president of the United States.

It wouldn’t be Beasley’s first run as a pioneer. She made history in 2019, when she became the first Black woman to serve as North Carolina’s chief justice, after she was appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. And in 2008, she was first elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, making her the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office without first being appointed. 

In the summer of 2020, Beasley spoke out during the nationwide racial justice protests, calling them “a resounding, national chorus of voices whose lived experiences reinforce the notion that Black people are ostracized, cast out, and dehumanized.”

She added: “In our courts, African Americans are more harshly treated, more severely punished, and more likely to be presumed guilty.” 

Now, she’s running to fill the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr after losing reelection to the state Supreme Court by 401 votes.

Throughout her bid for the U.S. Senate, she has garnered praise for her campaign fundraising efforts, totaling more than $4.9 million. She is the presumptive Democratic nominee in a crowded race that also includes four Republicans: U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, former Gov. Pat McCrory, former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker and combat veteran Marjorie Eastman.

Recently, the state has been engaged in fights over redistricting and its voter ID law, efforts that some say discriminate against Black voters.

Beasley has made health care a primary focus of her campaign, along with women’s rights. Capital B spoke with her about quality health care for Black Americans and her stance on reproductive rights, as well as the landscape of campaigning in one of the most competitive states in the 2022 midterm elections. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cheri Beasley sits on the bench as district court judge in Cumberland County, a position she held for nearly a decade until she was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. (courtesy of the Cheri Beasley for North Carolina campaign)

While you were on the bench, the North Carolina Supreme Court tackled myriad racial justice issues, including systemic racism in death row sentences. Why take that fight outside of the courtroom and to the U.S. Congress?

As a former judge and chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, I have spent my life in service to the state, really working to keep communities safe, protect our rights and ensure that the law is applied equally to all people. I know how Washington has failed the people of our state, and so many people are struggling. I’m prepared to fight to solve the issues that North Carolinians care deeply about, from lowering costs to ensuring people have access to affordable health care and jobs that can support a family, particularly living in a state — the ninth-largest — where nearly 50 percent of the people earn less than $15 an hour. I’ll take the same standards around hard work and faith and fairness to fight for every person in the state.

We know racial disparities in health care exist and there’s evidence some, like maternal mortality, may be getting worse, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which also hit Black folks hard. What needs to be done to move from acknowledging the inequities to effectively reducing them?

We must take action. So many people, particularly Black and brown people, do not have access to good, quality health care. Black North Carolinians often face greater barriers to health care due to costs, access, and trust within the health care system. Just this week, I talked with a mom who bravely shared that she lost her baby after going to her doctor multiple times over the course of several weeks, and she was sure that something was wrong but could not get her doctor to listen to her until it was too late. She’s just one of many stories.

The Women’s Health Protection Act recently failed in the Senate. What’s your stance on access to abortion?

I certainly understand that access to abortion is a fundamental, constitutional right. Reproductive health care is health care. We must be mindful of how limited access is already and who can access the care they need and who can’t. Where in North Carolina, for example, there are only nine counties out of our 100 counties that have clinics that provide abortions. 

While we’re talking about abortion, this really is about who has access to the care they need. Access to abortion services is limited, but it’s not just this type of care — it’s really access to quality affordable health care that can be hard to come by in our state, and that really needs to change. At least one county has zero primary care providers, and in rural counties especially, access to even basic health care is hard to come by. There’s an average of about 2,000 people to every one primary care physician, and the results are staggering. We know that maternal mortality rates for Black mothers is four times that of our white counterparts. We need action. The states really must codify Roe v. Wade to protect our reproductive freedom once and for all.

President Joe Biden just tapped Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. What’s the significance of having a Black woman on the high court?

This is a powerful moment. I served as chief justice of our Supreme Court of North Carolina and I know the importance of representation. I can tell you from my own experiences: I was a lawyer the first time I saw an African American woman presiding in a courtroom. It was then-Judge and now-Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson. For me, it was life changing. Judge Brown Jackson is undoubtedly qualified and would be an important addition to the court as she should be given fair consideration in this nomination process. 

This isn’t your first time campaigning. You were elected to statewide office twice before. What got voters to the polls in those first campaigns? What do you think will get Black voters to the poll this year?

As I’m traveling across the state of North Carolina, I’m really talking with people about the importance of this election and helping them to see the correlation between whatever challenges they’re facing and why it’s important to care and be engaged in the U.S. Senate race. This will be a tough fight, but I’ve never backed down from a tough fight and I won’t now. There are elected officials who are working to make voting harder here in North Carolina, and it just means you have to fight harder. They’re working to silence us, and we must speak up louder. This election is really one where sitting it out is just not an option. There is too much at stake and too many people are struggling here in North Carolina, from rising costs, to lack of access to affordable health care, to good paying jobs and so much more. We have a lot of work to do.

Margo Snipe is a health reporter at Capital B. Twitter @margoasnipe