Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, has served in the S.C. House for 32 years and is the longest-serving member of the 124-member body as well as the longest-serving African American and female in the legislative body.

Over the past three decades, the 70-year-old has a list of accomplishments. But for Cobb-Hunter it has not been about making a name for herself, it’s been about public service.

“I appreciate the opportunity,” Cobb-Hunter said from her Orangeburg office at CASA Family Systems on John C. Calhoun Drive. “I see this truly as a blessing and I take it seriously.”

“Out of all of this, what gives me the greatest pleasure is helping somebody,” she said. “The small things: Having somebody call me about some issue and being able to just pick up the phone and call somebody and get it resolved gives me a great sense of accomplishment.”

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Paraphrasing the late Shirley Chisolm, who in 1968 became the first Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress, Cobb-Hunter said, “I am unbought and unbossed, one, and I believe she said, ‘Service is the rent you pay for being here.'”

Orangeburg state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter is the 2022 T&D Person of the Year.

Four years later, Chisolm became the first Black candidate to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States.

A politician unafraid to ruffle feathers locally and in Columbia, Cobb-Hunter is respected member of the Democratic opposition in a GOP-dominated state.

As she enters her 32nd year in the General Assembly as first vice chairperson of the House Ways and Means Committee and a former House minority leader, Cobb-Hunter is the 2022 Times and Democrat Person of the Year.

In the beginning — CASA

A native Floridian, Cobb-Hunter grew up in the small community of Gifford just north of near Vero Beach and the site of the former spring-training facility for the Brooklyn and later Los Angeles Dodgers.

Cobb-Hunter revealed that she grew up watching the Dodgers first in Brooklyn and then when they moved to LA. She remains a fan of the team today.

Cobb-Hunter graduated from Florida A&M University and was a member of the Marching 100 band.

She would go on to receive her master’s degree at Florida State. She then met the love of her life, Terry K. Hunter, got married and the couple moved to Columbus, Ohio.

It was the experience in Columbus, Ohio, and on the campus of Ohio State University, where she worked, that paved the way for her future work in South Carolina.

Just before she was ready to move to South Carolina, she met a young lady at Ohio State who told her that she had been raped.

“I remember feeling so hopeless and helpless not knowing what to say to her,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I remember not knowing what to do.”

Shortly after moving to Orangeburg in the late summer of 1977, Cobb-Hunter saw information about a group of people — The Tri-County Citizens Against Sexual Assault — getting together locally and training volunteers to work on call in rape crisis at the Regional Medical Center, then on Carolina Avenue.

The group consisted of medical and law enforcement personnel.

“I remembered my friend,” Cobb-Hunter said, and decided to take the training. “I started being on call.”

The year was 1979.

In addition to volunteering in rape crisis at night, Cobb-Hunter also worked full time during the day at the Department of Social Services.

Cobb-Hunter recalled how the rape crisis volunteer base began to dwindle to 10 members and then to two — her and another woman.

“It was two of us for a minute,” said Cobb-Hunter, noting this was around 1984.

Before long Cobb-Hunter found herself alone but she did not give up the rape crisis outreach.

She continued to utilize office space in the old hospital.

Hospital and community stakeholders address the issue of how to improve the Regional Medical Centers reputation at the public hearing regarding the partnership between RMC and the Medical University of South Carolina. 

“It was abandoned and the county gave me space in that building for an office,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I didn’t have sense enough to understand that probably wasn’t wise to go to a full-time job and then at 5 o’clock go to a deserted building and work in a deserted building for three or four hours.”

“When I look back on it, I know that God had me,” she said.

In December 1984, Cobb-Hunter made a life-changing decision: She made up her mind to go into rape crisis full-time.

With a $4,500 grant from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control in January 1985, Cobb-Hunter assumed CASA full-time. Today, the program is primarily funded through grants and the Department of Social Services and DHEC.

“I didn’t get full-time pay, but I did the work,” she said.

The success of Cobb-Hunter’s program caught the eye of DSS and the agency asked her to expand it to include a domestic violence program and a battered women’s shelter.

“I have never been one to take on things I didn’t think I could handle,” Cobb-Hunter said, noting she resisted expanding for a few years due to the existing group in the Orangeburg area that was also working to create a shelter for battered women.

When that group’s efforts did not materialize, Cobb-Hunter met with former Orangeburg County Councilman James McGee around 1990 and the two met with then-RMC CEO H. Filmore “Fil” Mabry to discuss the possibilities of opening a shelter on Carolina Avenue.

Mabry agreed to donate the old nursing dorm on Carolina Avenue to Orangeburg County with the stipulation that the county use it as a battered women’s shelter.

In October 1991 the shelter opened.

“We are now a full-fledged family violence agency,” Cobb-Hunter said. “We have the shelter services, we have domestic violence, we have all kinds of programs and community advocacy.”

Cobb-Hunter, who now serves as the CEO of CASA Family Systems, said she is most proud of her work at the non-profit agency.

“I really do see this as my legacy,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Her service at CASA will come to an end with a planned retirement from the agency at the end of June 2023. 

“The future is bright,” Cobb-Hunter said. “One of the reasons I am leaving is because it is time,” she said. “I am blocking upward mobility. Labrena Aiken Furtick (her current chief operating officer) needs an opportunity to put her stamp on this agency. It is time for me to go.”

“It is time for somebody to come just as I came in and built on what was there,” Cobb-Hunter said. “It is time for me to move aside and let someone else come and build on what I have done.”

Staying in politics

Cobb-Hunter made it clear that leaving CASA does not mean she will leave the General Assembly.

“I have no intention of retiring from the General Assembly,” she said. “The voters may have a different idea, but that is their choice. The seat belongs to them; it does not belong to me.”

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Cobb-Hunter says there are a number of projects she wants to see come to fruition, and it may take a few years to do so.

One example is construction of an $87.4 million nursing home for veterans. The state in the FY 2022-23 budget allocated $30 million toward the project. The home would serve veterans throughout the region.

It will be funded by the federal and state governments as part of the VA State Home Construction Grant Program.

“I don’t want to leave that to somebody else to complete,” she said. 

RMC/MUSC partnership

With over 30 decades of work in the General Assembly, Cobb-Hunter’s most recent high-profile local involvement as a lawmaker has been the spearheading of a partnership between the Regional Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina.

For Cobb-Hunter, RMC has generally been off her radar being that the hospital is county-owned and has a county-appointed board. It has not been a legislative delegation issue.

But Cobb-Hunter says for decades she heard about problems with RMC, specifically with the board of trustees and the reputation of the hospital.

“That has always bubbled beneath the surface,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I thought it was important to bring much-needed transparency and accountability to the process.”

She also heard this past spring via rumors that the board had put out feelers to see if anyone was interested in buying the hospital.

“When I heard that rumor, I got a bit concerned, mainly because of things that I had heard about what was happening and what was not happening,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I kind of started paying attention.

“My antenna went up because I live in this community, my husband and I chose to move here,” Cobb-Hunter said. “What we need is a viable hospital.”

Cobb-Hunter spearheaded the effort following a presentation by RMC before the S.C. House Ways and Means Health Care Subcommittee.

During the presentation, Cobb-Hunter heard the RMC ask for help from the state to the tune of $36 million, with the majority being in facility improvements.

The hospital had experienced about a $36.2 million loss in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

Seeing the need, Cobb-Hunter suggested a budget proviso be put in place. The proviso was eventually passed by the S.C. General Assembly, allowing MUSC, within its own budget, to enter into the partnership with RMC.

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MUSC is considering a 99-year agreement under which it will lease RMC from both Orangeburg and Calhoun counties. The counties own the hospital and have given their legal stamp of approval to the partnership.

MUSC officials said a final decision about the partnership may not be finalized until early 2023 following due diligence of the RMC. The new name of the hospital would become MUSC Health Orangeburg and Calhoun Counties.

Thus far, Cobb-Hunter said the process has “been a challenge mainly because I was amazed at the number of people who just don’t think it is a good idea and wanted it to remain, I guess, as it was. The good thing is that I am the kind of person who believes in Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, however many plans it takes to get the job done is what I believe in.”

Cobb-Hunter said she has “not been deterred by the constant opposition” from some about the partnership.

“We are at what I call the sausage-making stage now,” Cobb-Hunter said. “That is, we got to run some traps, we have to make sure everything is done.”

As part of this due diligence process, Cobb-Hunter said the current RMC board as well as the Orangeburg and Calhoun county councils have reached out to the South Carolina Hospital Association by letter and encouraged the SCHA to see if any of its member organizations would like to join the partnership.

A Jan. 6 deadline has been set for a response.

“What you can’t do is just have a plan and stick to a plan without tweaks,” Cobb-Hunter said. “As events change, as information comes forward, you have to be wiling to make changes.”

Cobb-Hunter said she does not know if anyone else will come forward but “we thought  it was important to dot our i’s and cross all our t’s and put this out there.”

“What we don’t want is to consummate the deal with MUSC and then have people say, ‘well we were interested, why didn’t you all ask us?’ she said. “That is crossing what I believe is the last hurdle to this happening.”

Get for $1 for 26 weeks

As to what the partnership may mean for RMC’s future, Cobb-Hunter said the ultimate direction and future of the hospital is up to the board and hospital administration with input from the 18-member community advisory board.

Cobb-Hunter says she sees RMC as a research and training center and hub for physicians who specialize in rural health care delivery through the utilization of South Carolina State University, Claflin University and the county’s agricultural base.

“What we do know is that food as medicine is an idea that has taken off in other parts of the country,” Cobb-Hunter said. “To me it makes perfect sense with the farmers we have here. … With South Carolina State, Claflin, Denmark Tech, OCtech, there ought to be interest, in my view, in figuring out how we can work together to plant better crops, more nutritious crops and to deal with the issue of food insecurity and food deserts.”

Cobb-Hunter said perhaps MUSC Orangeburg and Calhoun Counties could be a research hub for food as medicine.

“I have a very active imagination, so I see all kinds of possibilities,” Cobb-Hunter said.

In the immediate future, she envisons RMC partnering with MUSC in the treatment and research of sickle cell anemia. She noted MUSC has the Rena N. Grant Sickle Cell Center that could be tapped into by RMC for further research. 

School consolidation

Cobb-Hunter has supported school consolidation over the years and is happy the process was undertaken in Orangeburg County.

“I consider it a success, but the ending has not been written yet,” she said. “I think we are still not far out enough to see the long-term savings from consolidating services.”

Cobb-Hunter said the movement toward consolidating school districts is statewide and that Orangeburg County made sense to consolidate in 2019.

“I thought it (Orangeburg County) was too small to have three school districts,” she said. “The student population did not justify eight, it did not justify three, and I think it justifies one district.”

Cobb-Hunter said school funding and state laws related to school funding have been issues that have impacted education.

“I am still very grateful that I did not vote for Act 388 back in 2006 when it came through and everybody was like this was going to be the best thing since sliced bread,” she said. “I have asked then and I have continued to ask what about the shift in taxes to the business and renters. What about renters? What relief do they get?”

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Cobb-Hunter said the General Assembly has yet to reach a consensus on how to improve the school funding formula.

Act 388, a 2006 law passed by the South Carolina General Assembly that overhauled the state’s property tax laws, eliminated the school operating component from tax bills on owner-occupied homes. School district operations are paid for partly through vehicle taxes.

Cobb-Hunter said she supports the district’s plans to borrow and spend $190 million on a district-wide upgrade of existing schools, opening new schools and closing schools.

“When I look at the conditions of some of these schools like St. James down in the eastern part of the county, you are talking about schools built in the 1930s and the 1950s, and we think it is okay for kids to be learning in that kind of environment,” she said. “Schools where you got mold and mildew and all kind of things kids and staff and teachers are having to breathe in.”

Cobb-Hunter said she disagrees with those who say the referendum on school improvements approved in November was “just about the buildings.” It’s about education.

“Buildings matter in an internet age,” she said. “It matters whether or not your kids in a classroom have wiring where they can access the internet. It matters in this global kind of economy if your children are being exposed to things outside of their what we call lived experience.”

Cobb-Hunter said she has always supported increased teacher pay, especially for rural districts such as Orangeburg County, in an effort to attract quality teachers to the area.

A history of accomplishments

Cobb-Hunter said many of her proudest and memorable moments of her long political career came during her first year in the General Assembly — 1992.

Her first piece of legislation was to address affordable housing in the state.

Prior to her election, Cobb-Hunter had worked with the South Carolina Low Income Housing Coalition and was pushing for legislation that would take 10 cents out of the documentary deed stamps on housing closures and place that into a housing trust fund.

A deed stamp is a fee that is charged to enter into the public record the deed and documents relative to the transfer of title to a piece of property.

The fund would be used to address affordable housing issues.

Upon being elected, Cobb-Hunter said it was the first piece of legislation she had the opportunity to “work the floor” in support of.

“That will always be special to me because it was the first legislative victory that I had,” she said. 

Another highlight for Cobb-Hunter was her work on the Lake Marion Regional Water Agency.

The LMRWA was formed to help bring clean, quality water to parts of Berkeley, Calhoun, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties, and the Town of Santee. Santee Cooper runs the water plant near Santee.

In November 1992, Cobb-Hunter recalled meeting with newly elected Orangeburg County Councilman Johnnie Wright, then-Sen. John Matthews, then-Orangeburg County Administrator Donnie Hilliard and former Holly Hill Mayor David Whitehead about the concept of a regional water agency.

“We thought it was great,” she recalled. 

Cobb-Hunter said she brought the matter back to Columbia, meeting with the House speaker, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee and the South Carolina secretary of commerce about the idea.

The concept was well received and Cobb-Hunter, along with Matthews, found their way to Washington, D.C., with lawmakers to meet with state congressional leaders such as the late Rep. Floyd Spence, then-newly elected Congressman James Clyburn, and Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings about the concept.

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“I remember this so well,” she recalled. “Strom Thurmond shook my hand and said, ‘Little lady, we are going to help you with this. This is a good idea.'”

“What I am most proud of is that the first money that went to Lake Marion was state dollars — $150,000 that we put in to do a study making the case for the water system,” she said. 

Another achievement Cobb-Hunter cited is her work on voting rights legislation.

“The law was a merging of my voting rights legislation with a bill proposed by Rep. Brandon Newton of Lancaster,” she said. “After an impasse on each bill, he and I agreed to work on a compromise bill that we both could support and the result was a bill that allowed for 10 days of early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and other changes to the state’s election laws.”

Cobb-Hunter said other laws she takes pride in are those she has worked on that have made a difference in domestic violence and sexual assault.

Lessons learned

Over the years, Cobb-Hunter says she has learned a lot.

One of the biggest takeaways has been the importance of getting the job done and not worrying about accolades and credit.

“You would be surprised at what you can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit,” she said. “I have never been much about getting credit for stuff.”

“I see myself as a behind-the-scenes person,” Cobb-Hunter continued. “I am an organizer, detail.

“The one thing that I am most clear about is why I am there,” she said. “I know who I am and whose I am.

“I am not there because it is a stepping stone to something else,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I am not there for the title and the tags because I want people to bow and scrape and genuflect. I am am there because I believe very strongly in public service.”

Looking back, Cobb-Hunter said she has learned to trust her instincts when making decisions and taking votes even when “I had to stand by myself” and to “treat people like I want to be treated.”

“The times I have gone wrong is when I have not trusted my instinct and when I have done some things that did not quite feel right,” she said. “Those are rare occasions. Most of the votes I take are votes I feel comfortable with taking.”

Cobb-Hunter said her time in the General Assembly has been about building relationships, both within the legislature and with state agencies, which in turn has helped her better represent her constituents.

“People think, “Okay, you have been there a long time so you can get stuff done,” Cobb-Hunter said. “No, you could be there a long time and still not get stuff done.”

“Tenure in the General Assembly is not what makes you successful,” Cobb-Hunter said. “What makes you successful are the relationships you build and how you conduct yourself when you are there. Work happens through relationships. For 32 years I have treated people the way I wanted to be treated. I have been civil. I have used a sense of humor because that is critical.”

Not forgetting her local roots

While taking pride in being a state lawmaker, Cobb-Hunter said she always has her constituents in mind.

In her role on the House Ways and Means Committee and as the most senior member of the Joint Bond Review Committee, Cobb-Hunter has made sure all of rural South Carolina, and Orangeburg County in particular, has a seat at the table.

“There is value in being there, true, but there is also value in giving voice,” Cobb-Hunter said. “You can’t just be there without giving voice to rural South Carolina and the needs for rural South Carolina.”

As part of the 10-member bicameral body, the JBRC oversees all state leases, capital projects, bonds and has been in recent years focused on broadband expansion.

Cobb-Hunter says the committee commissioned a study looking at broadband accessibility across the state with the intention to fill in areas where broadband is lacking.

Cobb-Hunter said when all federal monies came down to the state, the JBRC and the state’s Office of Regulatory Services made expansion of broadband a priority.

She said language that she put in place as part of the broadband program has helped justify the importance of broadband expansion.

Another example of the JBRC is the committee’s part in the approval of programs aimed at improving highway construction and wastewater construction.

Cobb-Hunter said she has been an advocate of federal monies being allocated for Interstate 26 and the Interstate 95 and I-26 interchange.

Sher said as a result of her persistence, the widening of I-26 from Columbia and Charleston got on the list for DOT projects.

As part of her role on the Ways and Means, Cobb-Hunter says she has been able to bring resources to the region, especially in the areas of infrastructure and higher education funding.

In addition, Cobb-Hunter continues to be a voice to make sure South Carolina State University as well as other local colleges and universities receive their fair share of state dollars.

She has also consistently fought for pay raises for state employees. This year they got a 3% raise and a $1,500 bonus.

“I want the day to come when we are paying state employees what they deserve,” she said. “We are still not there.”

Cobb-Hunter said a study was done looking at state employee pay about three years ago but nothing has been done to act upon the study’s recommendations.

“Anytime you have state employees who qualify for food stamps, that is a problem,” Cobb-Hunter said, noting about 75% of state employees make less than $50,000 a year. “How do we think they can sustain?”

In addition to the home for veterans, Cobb-Hunter also has her sights set on an economic development opportunity for Orangeburg County.

About $7 million was allocated for the project in the state 2022-23 fiscal year budget.

The first phase of the project would include the construction of a cultural visitor’s center, as well as a business incubator and regional farmers market.

“This is a big economic development project that is in the first phase,” Cobb-Hunter said, noting Orangeburg County has met with Clemson University, a partner in the project. “I don’t want to give too much because there are still some acquisitions. I don’t want tip my hand. It is still moving forward.”

She said the cultural visitors center is just a piece of what is going to be a much larger project.

The plans for a cultural visitor’s center was first made public about nine years ago.

The request for state funding for the project has often been vetoed by the state’s sitting governors but has also been frequently reinstated by lawmakers as happened in the current year.

Words of wisdom and future plans

Cobb-Hunter said if there is a young man or woman wanting to run for public office, she would encourage them to know why they are running.

“I think now too much emphasis is placed on training young people to run for office,” she said. “They got that down. They know how to run, but we don’t spend enough time talking to them about the why. Why are you running? What do you want to do?”

Cobb-Hunter said upon retiring from CASA, she wants to work on a center for civic engagement and leadership that would encourage especially the young to get involved in their communities.

“Civic engagement to me is not running for office,” she said. “There are so many ways people can be involved other than running for office.”

‘Wind beneath my wings’

Cobb-Hunter praised the support of her husband of 47 years, Dr. Terry Keith Hunter.

“He has always been the wind beneath my wings,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I appreciate him.”

Cobb-Hunter said she also appreciates the upbringing of her late parents Nina and Selvin. 

“They were the simple lessons,” Cobb-Hunter said. “Treat people how you want to be treated. Make a difference wherever you wind up. Just do the best you can.”

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