Mary “Kitty” Etheridge is one of the two at-large members of the Currituck County Board of Commissioners (BOC). The at-large designation means that she isn’t connected to one specific district and represents the entire county.
A northeastern North Carolina native, Etheridge spent decades working behind the scenes as an elections official. In 2014, she retired and traded counting ballots for putting her name on one. Two years later, the three-time grandmother and first-time candidate defeated former commissioner Owen Etheridge and kicked off her second career in public service.
In addition to her position on the BOC, Etheridge serves as a member of the Social Services Board, the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council (JCPC) and the Senior Center Advisory Board.
As part of our "Meet Your Commissioners" series, we spoke with Kitty Etheridge about elections, community feedback and balancing future growth in Currituck County.
Where did you come from and how did you end up in Currituck?
I was born in Elizabeth City and raised in Perquimans County. I married someone from Currituck County and we moved here in 1979… and when I say I married somebody who came from here, he was literally born in the house next door to where we lived!
When did you start working on local elections?
When we first got married I worked as a dental assistant. After I had my children, I stayed home to raise my two girls.
After we moved to Currituck, I was asked to be a precinct official for the election board. I agreed. Then in 1986, I was asked to serve on the election board as an election board member. I agreed to that. And then in 1999, the director retired and I was appointed Currituck County Director of Elections by the North Carolina State Board of Elections. So I've been around local politics for something like 34 years.
What attracted you to working on elections?
My daddy always said, "If you don't do anything, vote." It was public service. I felt that working in the election process was a way that I could give back to the community. And once you get bitten by the election bug, you're bit good. I loved it to death.
What did you learn about politics during that time?
Well, in that position, you cannot be political. It's a non-partisan office and there's nothing political about it. It's very hard not to be opinionated when you see things that you're not happy with, but we kept everything non-partisan.
In the 15 years that I ran the election board, there were never any complaints. They never had to call for a second election because of something that went wrong. We had a good board to work with and a good office… and it's still in good hands today.
Did you get a better sense of how the political system worked?
Oh definitely. And I saw how it works differently in different counties. For example, the way we do business in Currituck might not be the way that they do business in Mecklenburg.
What was your favorite part about working an election?
The excitement of election day. I can remember at 6:30 am, when all the precincts would turn on their machines, there was always a great feeling of excitement. It was exciting when the returns came in, but it wasn’t about who won. We never worried about who was winning or losing, we just wanted to get the numbers right.
I'm sure the world of elections has changed since you started.
When I started, we had paper ballots. I remember that the individual precincts would count their own ballots. They would call us with the results or bring them in. We stayed up all night long taking returns. Then we’d go home and take a bath, and turn right back around and go to work.
We used to put the returns on a chalkboard outside the office. Now all the ballots are counted electronically by tabulators on election night. Technology has changed things an awful lot.
Can you tell me about the decision to get into politics yourself?
The reason I got in… I guess, the best way to say it is that I was tired of seeing people being treated differently. I think all citizens deserve to be treated equally and impartially under the law. It shouldn't matter who you are. We should all get the same treatment. That was probably one of the main reasons why I ran.
What did your family think about it?
My husband's not political at all. He always votes, but he's certainly not political. He said he would support me, but he wasn't going to go out and do a whole lot campaigning. But on election day I did get him out to work at a precinct for me (laughs).
Both of my girls are grown and they were all excited. I've got three grandchildren. Two of them are older and I think they were excited to have their grandmother doing something like that.
What are some of the issues and topics that you're most passionate about?
One of the main reasons anybody should serve is to serve the people. They shouldn’t think that the county or the state or the federal government should serve them. It should be all about service. To me, that is one of the most important things for anybody who is considering work as a public servant.
But even if they come in with good intentions, sometimes people change once they get into office. I certainly hope people feel like I'm the same person today that I was a year and half ago.
How do you work with the other commissioners?
I think we all work really well together. If we need them, we have work sessions to get more information so we’re better able to make a decision.
I serve at-large, so I cover the whole county. I listen to people from all over Currituck, but whatever the issue is, I always start by considering the opinion of the commissioner who serves that district. I feel like I'm a backup for them.
When there's an issue in a specific district, citizens are likely going to call their dedicated commissioner to address it. But I believe that all seven of the commissioners work hard to serve everybody in each of the districts. I think Bob White is just as concerned about what goes on in Moyock as he is about what happens in the four-wheel-drive area of Corolla. I think that's the way all of the commissioners feel.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities for Currituck County?
There is just so much growth in our county and that brings an increase in opportunities for new developments and new businesses. But we need to make sure that there is a vision.
I'm really excited about Imagine Currituck. It's important that the citizens have input into what they want to see in the county. I think it's great. We're elected to serve the people who put us here and I'm just so thankful that the county has reached out to the citizens.
When I think of Currituck, I think of tourism, I think of small businesses… I think of farming.
You don't hear farming discussed a whole lot, but agriculture is an important part of Currituck County. We need to do things to encourage our farmers and the next generations of farmers, because the profession is aging out. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension shared a study with us recently and it showed that the average farmer in Currituck County is 56 years old.
We also have to keep doing things to encourage our small businesses. I think it's great if we can get a big company in here that would employ thousands of people, but that's not what I think the majority of the people want to see in Currituck County. We need to make sure that we do all we can for our small businesses who are already here and also to try to get more small businesses to come into Currituck.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges that Currituck is dealing with right now?
We need to make sure we have quality developments. We ALSO have to make sure we preserve our environment, our farmland and our waterways. Keeping that balance is hard to do sometimes, especially when it’s happening so fast.
Our county is just growing by leaps and bounds. Everybody wants to come here and they want to come here because they like what we have. It's rural, it's a laid back lifestyle… but then sometimes when they get here, they want more services and more convenience. It’s a hard thing to balance.
What's surprised you most about joining the Board of Commissioners?
You know I really wasn't surprised by anything. I'd been around the courthouse for years. I knew everybody. I knew all the department heads. I think the only thing that surprised me was when we went to our first training session for newbies and they reminded us that one person can't get everything done. You’ve got to work together. You’ve got to have the majority.
What do you want people in Currituck to know about the board?
Well, I hope they understand that some decisions are not easy. There are rules and regulations that we have to abide by. A big part of the reason that I ran was because I didn't feel like those rules and regulations were being followed.
Sometimes people look at the decisions we make and wonder why we made them. The simple truth is that sometimes we just don't have any other choice.
What do you want people in Currituck to know about you?
I hope when people hear my name they believe that I'm trying to be a good steward of all county tax dollars. I hope they’re certain that I will never treat one person any differently than another. In public service, I think if you just have integrity and honesty, you'll be fine.
I want them to know that I don't know everything. I'm still learning. I might know about the ins and outs of how the county works, but I don't know every detail when it comes to things like land use and the UDO and all that. But we have great staff. If I ever have a question, I can pick up the phone and they'll help me understand what's going on.
That’s another thing… Currituck County is blessed with an incredible workforce. Those people, ‘down in the trenches’ are doing the work that makes Currituck the great place it is. There are so many wonderful employees in our county, and I don't think we thank them enough.
So how do you spend your free time?
My husband and I love to travel, so we do that when we can.
Most of all, I love family and I love spending time with my grandkids. We have twin grandchildren that will turn 20 soon. When they went off to college, it was the first time they were ever separated. He's at UNC Wilmington and she's at Campbell University. We also have a 6-year-old granddaughter in Clayton and we love to spend time with her.
My husband loves to garden. So he’ll enjoy his time growing tomatoes, and corn and pumpkins… he's a big pumpkin grower.
What’s your favorite part about living in Currituck?
I love to look out my back door when the corn is starting to come up in the field. We live in Shawboro, which is a rural community. The family farm is behind our house.
I love the rural life, but if I want to relax on the beach, I can get in the car and go to Corolla. If I want the excitement of a bigger city and I want to go to the theater or malls or museums, Norfolk and Virginia Beach are close.
Currituck County is rural, but we're close enough to anything I'd ever want to do. I feel like we live in the ideal place.