COLUMBIA — For almost 27 years, state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter has considered herself a voice for the voiceless. But to many in the Statehouse, she's more like a bullhorn, always ready to argue her points passionately even when she knows the votes are against her.
While Republicans in South Carolina's GOP-dominated House rarely side with the Orangeburg Democrat in a debate, they do listen. Anyone not paying attention may get called out, as she's known to casually drop names from the podium as she's talking.
"She’s smart, and she’s tenacious," said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill. "Whether you agree with her viewpoint or not, she commands respect through her ability to get things done."
Her colleagues' respect showed when they voted the Democrat first vice-chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee during the chamber's post-election organizational session — a session she temporarily led. By House tradition, Cobb-Hunter presided as the longest-serving member, until Speaker Jay Lucas was re-elected to the post.
But her temporary role took on a historic nature.
Not only is Cobb-Hunter the longest currently serving, she's also the longest-serving black House member ever in South Carolina and, as the session's temporary chair, the first black legislator since Reconstruction to swear in new members. Another year and she'll also be the longest-serving female representative — surpassing the 28-year record of former Rep. Denny Neilson, D-Darlington.
She has a new role nationally, too. In January, she'll be president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. She's already been sworn in by South Carolina Chief Justice Don Beatty, a former House colleague.
"The only lesson you really need to learn is the one you learned in kindergarten. Be kind, be respectful, be civil," Cobb-Hunter told freshmen legislators Dec. 4. "All of us have a right to our opinions and we should commit to agree when and where we can, but also agree to disagree but not be disagreeable."
Cobb-Hunter's higher title on Ways and Means seemed only fitting for the committee's ranking member, said Simrill, who voluntarily moved down the rung to second vice chairman.
"We have different ideas, but the common thread is that we all want it to be a better place," he said.
'Lo and behold, I won'
Cobb-Hunter arrived in the House a year before Simrill, elected to replace one of 17 legislators forced out in Operation Lost Trust, the FBI's Statehouse corruption probe that resulted in 27 convictions altogether for extortion, bribery or drug use.
After years of encouraging other women to run for office through a political network she created, Cobb-Hunter was told she should step to the plate herself. So she decided to run. "I never thought I stood a chance," she said.
She had several strikes against her. She's a woman in a state that's long been at the bottom nationally in female representation. She has a hyphenated last name — plus the audacity to insist people refer to her by it.
"You think it’s a problem now? Back then, it was like I was some alien," she said.
And she's not from South Carolina. A native of Florida, Cobb-Hunter and her husband, Terry Hunter, moved to Orangeburg in 1977 after he graduated from Ohio State and accepted a job at South Carolina State University, where he worked for 22 years.
She recalls a Gullah saying that someone once told her.
"'Come-here can't do like been-here' — meaning you can't come here and do stuff. When that guy told me that, I said, 'OK. Can you tell me when 'been-here' is going to start doing something so 'come-here' don't have to?"
After getting involved with local Democratic Party politics, "I had my run-ins with the powers that be — mainly men who were not used to women who 'didn’t know their place,' and the rest, as they say, is history."
'I'm not here for the title and tags'
In a Legislature full of attorneys and businessmen, Cobb-Hunter is a social worker. Her work title is CEO of CASA/Family Systems, a nonprofit that operates an emergency shelter and helps victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.
Her social work background is evident in what she fights for in the Legislature.
In her first year in office, she helped create the state's Housing Trust Fund, which provides grants for affordable housing projects. She helped more children attain health care through the Children's Health Insurance Program — a federal-state program that covers children whose parents earn just enough to not qualify for Medicaid. And she's successfully pushed for tougher penalties for domestic violence convictions.
Her efforts can take a while. She pushed for tax breaks for poor, working families for more than a decade before an "earned income tax credit" became part of last year's law that increased the state's gas tax to fund roadwork.
She yearly loses battles to substantially increase public employees' salaries. But she keeps trying.
"My definition (of success) is making a difference for people who don’t know anyone and nobody knows them," she told The Post and Courier after the organizational session. "I’m glad I’m in here if, for no other reason than to give voice to a different perspective."
As if on cue, one of the chamber's most conservative members, Rep. Garry Smith, walked up to congratulate Cobb-Hunter.
"Does that mean you'll listen to me a little more now?" she asked, grinning.
"You know I always listen to you. I mean, I listen," said the Simpsonville Republican.