Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford's footnotes in N.C. political history

The late President Gerald Ford, who died at age 93 Tuesday, has several footnotes in North Carolina political history. His 1976 campaign for the presidency reflected the sharp divisions that had emerged in the state Republican Party. N.C. Gov. Jim Holshouser, a Republican moderate, backed Ford’s re-election and chaired his Southern states campaign. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, then still in his first term as a staunchly conservative Republican, liked Ford personally but was backing former California Gov. Ronald Reagan for the White House.
In time, the Helms faction won, but not right away. Going into the N.C. Republican primary in the late winter of 1976, Reagan had fared poorly in other state primaries and a number of influential Republicans were urging him to quit the race. Ford invited 39 North Carolina reporters and editors to the White House in late March to talk about his campaign, and Ford insisted no one in his campaign had been authorized to urge Reagan to quit.
Ford met with the N.C. reporters and editors in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on March 18, 1976. Just before his arrival, his daughter Susan was walking the Fords’ two dogs though the White House hall and one of them – Liberty, I think – spotted Fayetteville Times editor Roy Parker and bounded into his lap.
In the interview, Ford said he believed Democrats would nominate another Midwesterner for president – Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. But he was wrong about that: Democrats nominated Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who would defeat Ford that fall for the presidency.
A few weeks after that interview, Ford lost the N.C. primary to Ronald Reagan in a stunning defeat. Reagan won in large measure because Helms’ key aides at the Congressional Club put together a persuasive television piece featuring Reagan and ran it extensively throughout the state before the primary. It showed the power of well-done television ads, anointed Helms and his political advisers as media-savvy, influential forces in American politics and polished Reagan’s reputation for a successful run for the presidency in 1980 and the defeat of President Carter after one term.
A footnote: Two days after that White House interview, Ford earned another, though minor, footnote in N.C. political history. He made a speech to the Future Homemakers of America in the Charlotte Civic Center that, I do believe, may have been one of the most unremarkable presidential utterances ever delivered. Among his observations: “I say – and say it with emphasis and conviction – that homemaking is good for America.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Orr for governor in '08?

Most of the speculation about Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in 2008 for most of this year focused on Sen. Fred Smith of Johnston County and lawyer Bill Graham of Salisbury for the GOP and Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and Treasurer Richard Moore for the Democrats.
But one candidate whose name keeps popping up lately is former Supreme Court Associate Justice Bob Orr, a Republican who won four out of five statewide races when he served on the N.C. Court of Appeals and then moved to the Supreme Court.
Orr toyed briefly with running as an independent or third-party candidate after last fall’s elections, when folks were looking for an alternative to the candidates the two largest parties would put up. But Orr said he realized the best way for him to run, if he chooses to do so, would be in the 2008 Republican primary for governor.
Orr retired from the N.C. Supreme Court in 2004 after gaining a reputation there as one of its brightest lights. He wrote the court’s landmark decision in the long-running Leandro schools case, outlining the state’s failure to provide a sound basic education to too many of its school students and questioning how many more classes would pass through the state’s schools without learning what they need to know. If you want to know his thinking on education and the state’s responsibility, that decision will tell you a lot.
For the past couple of years, Orr has been executive director and senior counsel for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, set up in large measure by businessman Art Pope “to conduct research, educate and advise the general public, policy makers, and the Bar on the rights of citizens under the constitutions” of the United States and North Carolina. They’re the folks who challenged the constitutionality of tax incentives to recruit industry.
Orr says he’s “extremely encouraged” by the response to his potential candidacy and believes the race is still wide open at this point. It is – but money favors candidates who have it, and Orr isn’t personally wealthy and will need to raise a bundle to be competitive.
He would run, he says, with an emphasis on his ties to Western North Carolina. Folks in the Western counties believe political power has “shifted dramatically to the East, at the expense of the Western part of the state.” He grew up in Hendersonville, practiced law in Asheville and owns property and votes in Yancey County, though he has lived in Raleigh for years while serving on the courts and has stayed there since. He would be the first Western governor since Jim Holshouser, a Watauga County Republican who served from 1973-77, and before that Dan Moore, a Haywood County Democrat who served 1965-69.
Orr was appointed to the Court of Appeals the first time by Gov. Jim Martin in September 1986. Orr says Martin told him, “No Republican has won a statewide judicial race since 1896 so don’t sell your house yet.” It was good advice. Orr lost that first appellate court election to Judge Eddie Greene, with whom he remains good friends. Orr was reappointed to the bench and beat John Friday, brother of former UNC President Bill Friday,in the first of his four straight statewide election victories in the judicial branch.
Orr said he hadn’t asked Gov. Martin for the court appointment or any other job. “The only thing I ever asked him for was two tickets on opening night of the Smith Center (at his alma mater UNC Chapel Hill), and the governor delivered,” laughs Orr.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Term limits for legislative leaders?

In Raleigh, House members are preparing to elect their first new leader since 1999, when Speaker Jim Black won the first of his four terms in the speaker’s chair. (Of course, Republican Richard Morgan shared the speakership with Black in the 2003 session, but Black clearly was first among equals.)
House Democrats will have 68 seats in 2007 to the Reublicans’ 52 and, presumably, will put together a majority of votes to elect a new speaker. Already there’s talk that the speakership should be limited to two terms before making way for a new leader.
But the Senate, with 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans, is on its way to electing Democrat Marc Basnight of Dare County to a record eighth term as Senate president pro tempore. That would give him an unbroken stream of 16 years as the top dog in the Senate.
Is there any chance the House would voluntarily limit itself to two terms for the speaker while the Senate sees no benefit in limiting its leadership? Well, sure – about the same chance that UNC Asheville had against UNC Chapel Hill in men’s basketball the other day. They still had to play it out to see if Carolina really would win by 30 or so.
It’s worth remembering that for most of the General Assembly’s history, it changed leaders fairly regularly. The House picked a new speaker every two years until Gov. Jim Hunt persuaded the legislature, and voters, to approve a constitutional amendment in 1977 allowing governors and lieutenant governors to run for and serve a second, successive term in office. Lawmakers feared the concentration of power – and then decided to join in the fun.
The House immediately responded by giving Speaker Carl Stewart a second term in 1979 and Rep. Liston Ramsey for successive terms as speaker from 1981-89. Rep. Joe Mavretic, D-Edgecombe, had it one session, then Dan Blue, D-Wake, had it two terms. Republican Harold Brubaker held the speakership two terms, 1995-1999, when Black took the post.
The Senate made Sen. Craig Lawing, a Mecklenburg Democrat, its president pro tem in 1979 and kept him for three terms. He was followed by Sen. Monk Harrington, D-Bertie, for two terms and Sen. Henson Barnes, D-Wayne, for another two before Basnight got the job in 1993 and kept it ever since.
Should the House adopt term limits on how long a speaker can serve?
Should the Senate adopt limits on how long a president pro tem can hold the job?
Let me know what you think.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Gov. Easley's hot old time in Asheville

Gov. Mike Easley held a group interview with print reporters the other day in the Executive Mansion, followed by a separate group interview with broadcast reporters. It’s a way for the governor to save time because he doesn’t have to meet separately with every newspaper, radio station and TV station – and as he freely admits, “I don’t like meetings.”
Most of the talk was about state policy – taxes, the legislature, schools and the like. But one reporter got the governor telling stories, and it turns out he’s not only a bad race car driver – having wrecked one at the speedway and endured an excessive burnout in another in front of the mansion. He’s also dangerous around fire.
Reporter Kerra Bolton of the Asheville Citizen had asked him how often he used the Western Governor’s Residence in Asheville and tried to get him to tell some funny stories about the place. Easley wouldn’t tell a story about an old patrol car the staff keeps nearby to discourage mischief, but "It does run, I'll tell you that." Or at least did. There must be more to this story.
But Easley told one story about the time he lit an old gas grill that was just under the residence's garage roof. This may be an exaggeration, but it sounds as though he nearly set the place afire when the flames came rushing out of the top of the tank. He managed to finally turn it off after getting a wet towel to smother the flames, which must have been impressive.
“I had flames coming sky high,” the governor said to the enjoyment of the assembled scribes. “Singed all the hair off my right arm.”
Someone asked what were his security guards doing.
“My security people ran, I’ll admit that....They were ready to push the thing off the side of the mountain.” And they shouted some good advice as they ran, Easley said: “Be careful governor.... Get away from there.”
Perhaps they had seen him drive before.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Easley stays out of speaker's race

Gov. Mike Easley said Tuesday morning he’s staying out of the House speaker’s race in 2007 and wouldn’t say whether he believed Jim Black should be selected for a fifth term as speaker or replaced by another candidate. (Black resolved that issue Tuesday night when he announced he would not run for another term.)
Easley said, “I think it’s important for me to stay out of the speaker’s race and let them come to their own choice and their own conclusions as it relates to the current speaker.” His remarks came in a group interview with a dozen reporters Tuesday morning at the governor’s mansion.
This wasn't surprising. Easley has very little to gain from butting into the House’s choice of a speaker and potentially a lot to lose if he intervened and annoyed members of either party as the last biennial legislature of his two terms in office approaches.
Easley evidently is not about to do what one of his predecessors did in 1989. Then-Gov. Jim Martin helped bring about a Democrat-Republican coalition that toppled four-term Speaker Liston Ramsey – a mentor to Jim Black – and replace him with Rep. Joe Mavretic, a Democrat who included Republicans in House leadership posts for one term. Democrats took control back in 1991 for two terms with Dan Blue as speaker, then Republicans got the job in the 1995-97 sessions with Harold Brubaker. Black has held the post since 1999, but his assorted troubles over campaign contributions, his appointment of a lottery commissioner tied to a lottery vendor and various state and federal investigations likely mean he can’t be re-elected speaker again.
When former N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps was in trouble over a campaign contributions scandal, Easley called on her to resign. But Phipps was in the executive branch, and Easley evidently believes it’s not his call to say the same about a member of the legislative branch of government. He has refrained from criticizing Black so far and doesn’t seem likely to change that, or to comment on the investigations.
Black has been Easley’s most reliable ally in the House, helping him win passage of the governor’s proposals on education, economic development and particularly squeezing the state lottery through the House on a close vote in 2005. Easley certainly owes Black for getting the lottery through the legislature. It is, after all, the bill for which Easley will be most remembered, and perhaps Black, too.
While Easley was not interested in saying what he thinks the House should do, he did have one observation. "There’s an awful lot of talent" in the House, he said. He added, “I think I can work with all of them.”
Perhaps that’s the message he meant to send all along.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What if Kissell had gotten adult money?

National Democrats have probably been kicking themselves mentally ever since the Nov. 7 election, when Larry Kissell came within a few hundred votes of unseating Republican Robin Hayes in the 8th Congressional District race. Kissell, a former textile worker and teacher, lost by 327 votes, and a lot of Democrats think he might have unseated the four-term congressman if the national Democratic Party had given Kissell some adult money to run.
The state Democratic Party put out a news release the other day pointing out that Hayes spent about $2 million in the 2006 campaign and Kissell about $450,000. That works out to about $32.83 per vote for Hayes, compared to $7.43 for Kissell. The implication is that if Kissell had more serious money, he’d have overtaken Hayes. It was that close.
Well, maybe. After all, Democrat Mike Taylor ran well against Hayes in 1998 in a campaign that should have alerted Democrats to possibilities. These kinds of comparisons are always interesting “what-if” exercises, but two elections are rarely alike. Democrats also once pondered the “what-if” after the 1978 race for U.S. Senate.
That was the first re-election campaign for Sen. Jesse Helms, and probably was the best opportunity for Democrats to unseat him. Helms raised and spent about $8 million that year while the eventual Democratic nominee – then-Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, chosen after a tough primary runoff against banker Luther Hodges Jr. – spent about $264,000, according to one newspaper story. Helms got 619,151 votes and Ingram got 516,663. That worked out to about $12.92 per vote for Helms and about $1.96 per vote for Ingram – though Ingram got no closer than 45 percent of the vote. Still, because Ingram got so many votes with so little money, it set many to thinking that a well-financed candidate might be able to unseat Helms in 1984. Democrat Jim Hunt tried but didn’t.
No doubt Kissell, who has already announced he’ll run again in the 8th District, will draw a lot more campaign contributions in 2009. But he’ll have a hard time sneaking up on Hayes. And with Democrats in power in the House and Senate for two years at that point, he may not have the same voter unrest boosting his campaign.
In politics, money counts for a lot. The winner usually is the candidate who spends the most. But timing also counts. Ask John Ingram.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

George Tindall, Southern historian

North Carolina has been blessed by fine historians, particularly in the 20th century: John Hope Franklin of Duke, my old friend Harry Watson at UNC-CH, David Goldfield at UNC Charlotte and the incomparable William Powell, also of Chapel Hill. And there was the unforgettable Hugh T. Lefler, in whose N.C. History 101 I sat so long ago.
One of the state’s finest historians and most extraordinary persons was George Tindall, a bow-tied South Carolina native who came to Chapel Hill in 1958 and taught there until his retirement in 1990. He died at age 85 Saturday in Chapel Hill. His colleagues remember him as a great teacher, scholar and human being, a man who punctured revered myths about the Old South and wrote engagingly about the disfranchisement of black citizens after Reconstruction. UNC’s News services quoted Bill Ferris, with whom Tindall collaborated on the hefty Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, as saying, “His scholarship was extraordinary, but his personal warmth and generosity also were beyond measure.”
Here’s a link to the obituary UNC Chapel Hill put on its website.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

They miss WBT up in Maryland

The other week my old college roomie called from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he puts crooks in jail and maintains law and order when he’s not busy rooting for the Tar Heels and trying to find some decent barbecue.
He was hot under the collar because he couldn’t find the season’s first game on the radio station where he’d been tuning in for three decades.
“What,” he demanded to know, “have they done with WBT? And what are you going to do about it?”
He was just finding out what many other UNC fans up and down the Eastern seaboard have found out this year: Charlotte radio station WBT, which carried the Tar Heel Sports Network since the crust of the earth cooled (ok, since Dean Smith wanted his games on WBT in the 1970s), no longer carried the ‘Heels.
As the Observer’s Mark Washburn reported early last summer, the Tar Heel broadcasts shifted to station WFNZ AM 610 after WBT found the UNC broadcasts too often interrupted more lucrative talk radio programming such as John Hancock in the evening and Rush Limbaugh during daytime ACC tournament games.
Tar Heels fans up and down the east coast enjoyed WBT’s evening broadcasts of basketball games in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and halfway through the first decade of the 21st century. You could be a long way from Charlotte, but after dark WBT would come through strong and clear. Still, does, in fact, but not with the Tar Heels. Evidently the WFNZ signal doesn’t reach all the way up to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, especially with a local station on a similar frequency, and thus the Tar Heel Radio Network has at least one less happy listener as the season gets seriously underway.
Times change, of course, as they always do, usually for the better. But don’t tell that to the State’s Attorney in Talbot County, Md. He might just run you in on false pretenses, or something.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rummaging online in North Carolina's attic

If I were still a student at Chapel Hill and a little more interested in history than I was 40 years ago, I know where I’d spend most of my time: in the North Carolina Collection and the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. That library really is North Carolina's and the South's attic, full of things that someone saved, thankfully.
In fact, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there over the years, researching such matters as N.C. native Kenneth C. Royall, the last secretary of war and the first secretary of the army, and his role in the secret military trial of Nazi saboteurs who sneaked ashore during World War II.
Earlier this month I spent time at the library researching former Charlotte Observer writer H.E.C. “Red Buck” Bryant’s role in the 1898 white supremacy campaign.
The library is a wonderful place to learn things you never knew, but until fairly recently you pretty much had to drive to Chapel Hill to take advantage. You still do, I guess, but more and more things are available online that make the library – and North Carolina history – accessible from anywhere in the world.
My colleague Lew Powell clued me in the other day to a new offering, the North Carolina Collection’s online history of the evolution debate in this state. It’s a quick, digestible, look at the controversy the state went through after Gov. Cameron Morrison objected to textbooks promoting the theory of evolution.
So is the collection’s online exhibit on the racist 1898 election campaign.
And if you just want to scroll from some fascinating things about N.C. History, click on to the collection’s blog called North Carolina Miscellany.
Here’s the main website for the North Carolina Collection . At the top of that page are links to other UNC library collections, including this one for the Southern Historical Collection .

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sheriff of the N.C. House steps aside

For months, political prognosticators have figured that House Speaker Jim Black’s four-term tenure in the leadership was coming to an end. The various state and federal investigations of his allies and the guilty please of several have eroded what support remained for a fifth term as speaker if he was reelected.
Now comes word from the Observer’s David Ingram that veteran Republican Joe Kiser, the House GOP leader in recent years, is also planning on stepping down. “Four years is enough,” Kiser told the Observer.
You may not know much about Kiser, who many members still call Sheriff Kiser from his days as Lincoln County sheriff. But he might have been elected speaker himself in 2003 when Republicans won the House back in the 2002 election and held a slim advantage with 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats. That was before Republican Mike Decker switched parties to help Black stay in power, creating a 60-60 tie and forcing the political stalemate that resulted in a co-speakership with Black and Republican Richard Morgan of Moore County.
If Decker hadn’t switched, it’s not clear who would have won. Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Johnston Republican, was a leading but controversial candidate; the GOP caucus finally got behind Rep. George Holmes of Yadkin County.
For a time, though, some observers thought Kiser would be a logical choice. He’s smart – he majored in physics at Lenoir Rhyne, for crying out loud – and experienced, having been sheriff for five years, vice chair of the Lincoln County board of commissioners for three years and in the legislature since 1995. He might have been able to keep the peace.
It probably wasn’t all that much fun for Kiser to try to work with warring factions of his own party in recent years. There was a sharp split between newcomer Republicans who wanted to get things done and cooperated with the Morgan-Black alliance, and other Republicans who disliked Morgan’s and his followers’ willingness to work with Democrats and wanted them out.
Kiser is stepping aside for new leadership in minority ranks. It appears that Republicans will have 68 Democrats and 52 Republicans – five more Democrats, five fewer Republicans than this past session. Rep. Paul Stam of Wake is likely the leading candidate to replace Kiser. But Sheriff Kiser won reelection to his House seat and will still be there to offer his steady advice and, from time to time, keep the peace.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Hijacking Andy Griffith's good name

If this doesn’t beat all
You may have seen the story in Saturday’s Observer: A Wisconsin fellow named William Harold Fenrick legally changed his name to Andrew Jackson Griffith so he could run for sheriff as Andy Griffith.
Doesn’t that beat everything you ever saw?
It must have worked on the real Andy Griffith. He’s suing the former Mr. Fenrick for trademark violation, according to this story from the Associated Press.
Who’d ever have thought Sheriff Andy Griffith, uh, we mean Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andrew Jackson Taylor, to be sure) would have to go to court to protect his good name? In the town of Mayberry, he was usually the wise, level-headed fellow everyone respected – not that he didn’t get in a little trouble every now and then over some misunderstanding or other with Ellie Walker or Helen Crump.
Of course, you can’t be too careful around politicians. Not long ago Rachel Lea Hunter, a candidate for N.C. Supreme Court, asked the State Board of Elections to put her name on the ballot as Madame Justice. Fortunately, there is some justice, and she wasn’t.
There was justice in Wisconsin, too.
Fenrick lost.
Here’s the story:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

George Esser: Helping the strong grow greatest

George Esser: Helping the strong grow greatest
Those who knew the late George Esser -- he died this week at 85 -- recall what an important contribution he made in North Carolina in the early years of the state’s campaign against poverty. A Virginia native, VMI graduate and Harvard Law grad, Esser was working at what is now the School of Government at UNC Chapel Hill when Terry Sanford asked him in 1963 to direct the North Carolina Fund.
As Sanford put it in a speech at Harvard 43 years ago next week, the fund was set up with $10 million in grants from the Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations to support efforts to turn around the cycle of poverty. “We expect to say to the superintendent of schools, to the directors of welfare, officials of public health, city and county government, social agencies, that we need to work together; let’s pick out a few neighborhoods to see what we can do to stop the cycle of poverty which blights the lives of so many of these young people.”
At another speech in the fall of 1963, the official “Papers of Terry Sanford” relates, Sanford said the point was to train children “so that they would not become parents of poverty. The state’s official toast called North Carolina a land ‘where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great’; Gov. Sanford concluded by saying ‘that the strong grow greatest by helping to lift up the weak.’”
Here’s a link to the Associated Press obituary on Esser.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Should political robo-calls be banned?

When the N.C. legislature adopted a no-call law in 2003 and the Federal Trade Commission set up a national Do-Not-Call Registry, they pretty much prohibited organizations from making telephone calls to customers who didn't want to be bothered by solicitations for this and that.
But the registry exempted certain kinds of calls -- those from businesses or organizations that already had a working relationship, for example. Charities. And political calls.
If your home telephone is like mine, you've gotten bombarded by such calls lately -- sometimes from a live person, and more often from an automated machine delivering a message in behalf of one party or another.
In recent days I've heard from former Gov. Jim Martin, former Gov. Jim Hunt, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, enough appellate judges and candidates to fill out three or four tables of bridge and I don't-know how many others. These calls get the delete button about as fast as I can punch it.
This morning I read about how one party in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania had used these robo-calls to irritate potential voters from the other party, apparently in hopes of holding down the opposition turnout. It's a sad commentary on politics when the best idea is to discourage folks from taking party in this basic act of democracy.
Here's what the FTC says in part in its online FAQ about the no-call registry:

Will All Telemarketing Calls Stop If I Register?

29. If I register my number on the National Do Not Call Registry, will it stop all telemarketing calls?

No. Placing your number on the National Do Not Call Registry will stop most telemarketing calls, but not all. Because of limitations in the jurisdiction of the FTC and FCC, calls from or on behalf of political organizations, charities, and telephone surveyors would still be permitted, as would calls from companies with which you have an existing business relationship, or those to whom you’ve provided express agreement in writing to receive their calls.

30. Are calls from political organizations or calls soliciting for charities covered?

Political solicitations are not covered by the TSR at all, since they are not included in its definition of “telemarketing.” Charities are not covered by the requirements of the national registry. However, if a third-party telemarketer is calling on behalf of a charity, a consumer may ask not to receive any more calls from, or on behalf of, that specific charity. If a third-party telemarketer calls again on behalf of that charity, the telemarketer may be subject to a fine of up to $11,000.

31. What about telephone surveys?

If the call is really for the sole purpose of conducting a survey, it is not covered. Only telemarketing calls are covered — that is, calls that solicit sales of goods or services. Callers purporting to take a survey, but also offering to sell goods or services, must comply with the National Do Not Call Registry.

So here's the question: Should political robo-calls be prohibited? Or would you prefer to keep getting them?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ruth Easterling's Better-Than-Sex Cake

Charlotte's Ruth Easterling, who died at age 95 this week, was an unforgettable legislator who brought an undersized frame and an indomitable spirit with her when she came to Raleigh nearly 30 years ago.
She and I arrived at the General Assembly the same year – she as a first-term Democratic representative in 1977 when there just 19 women in the House, and I as a Raleigh correspondent for the Greensboro Daily News. Carl Stewart of Gastonia was speaker that year, the first of two terms he would serve, and he named her to the powerful Appropriations Committee – a panel she would chair years later under Speaker Jim Black.
Ruth Easterling made an impression right away, supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, opposing reimposition of the death penalty and voting for the right of the governor and lieutenant governor to run for and serve a second successive term.
Former Rep. Jack Hunt of Lattimore in Cleveland County was one of many admirers of Rep. Easterling. Folks marveled that this small, white-haired woman – she stood just a little over 5 feet tall – could make such a significant impression on people. In the 1980s when she was in her 70s, she served on the House Rules Committee, which Hunt chaired. On the last day of the session, Hunt’s wife, Ruby Hunt, had made one of her delectable Italian Cream Cakes to be served at the final rules committee meeting.
Hunt loves to tell the story how his secretary brought Ruby Hunt’s cake into the meeting room, and everyone oohed and ahhed over how good it was.
Then Ruth Easterling piped up: “Well, I make a pretty good cake too, Rep. Hunt.”
Jack Hunt said “I’ll bet you do.”
Easterling said, “You know what the name of it is? It’s called “Better-Than-Sex” cake.”
Hunt said, “Well, if it’s got that name, it’s got to be good.”
“Oh,” Easterling shot right back, “It’s not THAT good.”

(By the way, here’s a recipe for Better Than Sex Cake the Observer printed in 1988, sent in by several readers:
Barbara Crouch of Statesville, Helen Brown, Carol Tate, Meredith Moore and Judy Warren of Charlotte, Gwen Brown and Gaye Edwards of Mint Hill, Mary Jane Reel (no address) and Sarah Horne of Spindale, sent Better-Than-Sex Cake recipes in answer to a recent request.
Better-Than-Sex Cake
1 box yellow cake mix without pudding
1 can (20 ounces) crushed pineapple
1 cup sugar
1 package (6 ounces) vanilla pudding mix (not instant)
1 carton (9 ounces) frozen whipped topping, thawed
3/4 cup flaked coconut
Prepare cake by package directions. Spoon batter into a 9-by-3-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees until cake tests done, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, combine undrained pineapple and sugar; heat and stir until sugar dissolves.
Remove cake from oven and, using a toothpick, punch holes all over surface of cake. Ladle pineapple mixture over cake. Make pudding by package directions. When it is thick, spoon it over cake. Chill cake well.
To serve, top slices with whipped topping and a generous sprinkle of coconut. Keep cake refrigerated.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A pre-Halloween walk through the graveyard

Not everyone wants to go tiptoeing through an old cemetery just before Halloween. But for the past 10 years in Chapel Hill, Bland Simpson has led an increasingly popular public tour of one of the most remarkable burying grounds in the state.
Simpson – associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill, head of the creative writing program, author, songwriter and flat-out ace pianist and vocalist with the Red Clay Ramblers -- created the tour of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery a decade ago as part of an American studies class on the university’s history. It’s always a few days before Halloween, perhaps heightening the tenuous link between this world and The Other Side as All Hallow’s Eve approaches.
The cemetery – its first burial was in 1798 – contains the earthly remains of some prominent figures in North Carolina history, including university presidents Edward Kidder Graham and Frank Porter Graham, newsman Charles Kuralt, Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who legend says rang the bell atop South Building when the university reopened during Reconstruction; big band leader Kay Kyser and Pulitzer Prize author Paul Green.
It also includes the gravesites of some less-well-known but equally important folks: Harriet Morehead Berry, a key figure in the development of North Carolina’s large state-maintained road system; Isaac Hall Manning, dean of medicine and founder of what eventually became Blue Cross/Blue Shield (and grandfather of Leandro school-funding case Judge Howard Manning Jr.), and Frederick and Adeline McCall, two founders of the N.C. Symphony.
One part of the cemetery is walled off by a low rock wall – a line demarking the old segregated part of the cemetery, Simpson said. An obelisk that once marked the on-campus grave of university president Dr. Joseph Caldwell now marks the grave of ex-slave Wilson Swain Caldwell, who started the first school for blacks in Chapel Hill.
The grave of Edward Kidder Graham, Simpson noted, was unusual for its simplicity and modesty. Graham, who died in the worldwide influenza epidemic in 1918, occupies “a modest spot but his thoughts were very grand indeed,” Simpson said. It was Graham who once suggested that the boundaries of the university and of the state itself be regarded as the same.
There’s the grave of William Meade Prince, an illustrator and writer who popularized the description of Chapel Hill as “the Southern Part of Heaven.”
And there was the grave of Nell Pickard, Simpson went on, a woman who was a good friend of his mother. Nell Pickard died and was buried in her family plot just a few weeks before the death of Charles Kuralt in 1997, Simpson said. UNC President Emeritus Bill Friday arranged with the Pickard family for Kuralt to be buried in its plot. Nell Pickard “would have been most amused if she had known she would spend the rest of eternity lying next to Charles Kuralt,” Simpson said.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Will Dan Blue stir up a House fight?

One surprising non-development in the state House of Representatives is the lack of an organized challenge to embattled House Speaker Jim Black. A former Black aide has been found guilty of failing to register as a lobbyist, one of his appointees to the N.C. Lottery Commission has been found guilty on federal charges of wire fraud, a fellow optometrist and fundraiser has been charged with perjury and a former lottery company official has been convicted in state district court for his role in passage of the lottery law. Meanwhile, a former Black ally, ex-Rep. Mike Decker, has pleaded guilty in federal court of accepting $50,000 from an unknown Democrat to switch parties and keep Black in power.
You’d think House Democrats running for reelection might turn on their leader and find a new speaker – or an alternative candidate for speaker in 2007, assuming (1) that Democrats retain control of the House this fall and (2) that Black wins reelection and still intends to run for speaker again, as he has said he will.
But only a few House members have dared call for him to step down. Democratic Reps. Alice Graham Underhill of New Bern, Lorene Coates of Salisbury and Pricey Harrison of Greensboro are the only ones to have gone on record earlier this year suggesting a change. And while others such as Reps. Jim Crawford of Oxford, Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill and Hugh Holliman of Lexington would be interested in the job, so far a public campaign to replace Black hasn’t developed.
Why is obvious. Black has helped most of the Democrats either win office or stay in it. And the Democratic caucus is pretty happy about a successful legislative session this past summer. So no real challenge to Black has emerged.
Until now. As the Observer’s Mark Johnson reported in today’s paper, former Rep. Dan Blue of Raleigh – the state’s first African American speaker of the House – appears to have an inside track on a House vacancy caused by the death of the late Rep. Bernard Allen of Raleigh. He was recommended by the local Democratic executive committee Wednesday, and Gov. Mike Easley by law has to appoint him. And former Rep. Bob Hensley of Raleigh is doing what he can to push Blue as a candidate to replace Black as speaker.
Black and Blue have tangled before, Black prevailing both times. Blue was a candidate when Black first won the post in 1999, and for a time was promoted as an alternative in 2001. Blue has found ways to work with Republicans in the past. He galvanized Democratic support to win the speakership in 1991 after an unusual bipartisan coalition in 1989 threw out the late Speaker Liston Ramsey and elected Joe Mavretic speaker.
Who knows what chances Blue has now. He’s been out of office for a while now. But he has demonstrated one absolutely key test of leadership: he has recognized a leadership vacuum in the House and evidently has given his blessing to his allies to begin contending for it. Will that wake up the House Democratic caucus and produce other candidates as well?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Swift justice on military commissions

Several career military officers say it’s unlikely Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, a Navy war crimes lawyer, was passed over for promotion – and thus forced out of the service – just because he took on a tough war crimes case in 2003 and opposed the Bush administration’s plans for prosecuting Salim Hamdan, once a driver for Osama Bin Laden.
I wrote about Swift – a North Carolina native – because it reminded me of the World War II case when another Tar Heel officer essentially bucked his president. Then-Col. Kenneth Royall, a Goldsboro native, represented eight Nazi saboteurs who came ashore on Long Island and were bent on mayhem. They were quickly caught, and President Roosevelt wanted them tried quickly and put to death. He ordered Royall and several other lawyers to stay away from civilian courts.
But Royall thought the president didn’t have the authority to convene secret courts and appealed to the U.S. District Court, and eventually the Supreme Court. That court ruled Roosevelt did have the authority to order a secret tribunal, though the court did recognize that constitutional safeguards for those charged “are not to be disregarded.” (Royall later became Secretary of War and then Secretary of the Army.)
Swift, who grew up in Franklin, bucked his president, in effect, by challenging the military tribunals to try Guantanamo detainees. The Supreme Court ruled against Bush and in Swift’s favor on a 5-3 vote this summer – but two weeks later the Navy advised Swift that he was being passed over for promotion for the second time. Being passed over twice means you leave the service. It also sent a distinct message, many analysts believe.
The news media took it to mean the Navy was punishing Swift by halting his career. The New York Times, The Miami Herald and many others saw a direct connection between the two events, as did I. The Herald quoted Eugene Fidell, president of the national institute of Military Justice, as calling Swift “a no-brainer for promotion” to full commander. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, noted that Swift had been named one of American’s top 100 lawyers by the National Law Journal and observed, “It is a bit peculiar for the Navy not to retain and promote Swift.”
Not so, wrote retired Army Lt. Col. Stephen Honaker and Air Force Col. Morris Davis, chief prosecutor in the Office of Military Commissions at the Department of Defense, in separate e-mails.
Both noted that the promotion of officers to the level of commander in the Navy turn on a number of factors, including whether officers have had experience in combat situations and whether they have had other levels of experience required for the job.
It’s a highly competitive process, and excellent officers often get passed over for higher rank. And Honaker noted that Swift himself doesn’t believe retribution was involved. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Swift said, “In taking the Hamdan case, I took myself out of the normal progression path.” That meant he didn’t get all the experience an officer would need for the next step up. The NPR interview with Nina Totenberg is on the web.
Swift will go on to a job in a prestigious law firm where, no doubt, he will earn more than he ever could in the Navy. He understands that much of this conflict is about the rule of law. On “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, this is what Swift said about taking what appears to be an unpopular stance involving the nation’s enemies: “It’s not whether they deserve it or not. It’s how we conduct ourselves. It has to do where if we say that our opponent can cause us not to follow the rules anymore, then we’ve lost who we are.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was in Raleigh the other day to talk about the new law governing military interrogations and trials, and said much the same about taking an unpopular stance: “Because it’s about us, not about them... We’re about to show the world in a couple of months how we’re different.... You will be part of a country that has chosen to give rights and privileges to a group of people who would give you none. That makes us stronger, not weaker.”

Friday, October 20, 2006

Sen. Graham: What makes us different

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was in Raleigh the other day to speak at N.C. State University’s Millennium Seminars series. He gave a fascinating account of how the Senate campaign to insist on a new interrogation bill that Graham, a Republican who succeeded the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, believed necessary to safeguard certain rights even of those we believe are out to kill us all. Graham is no limp-wristed appeaser – he’s a conservative politician who served in the Air Force and S.C. Air National Guard, was called up for the Gulf War and is now a Reserve Judge for the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.
But, he said, he opposed the Bush administration’s military tribunal and interrogation plan “Because it’s about us, not about them... It’s to show the rest of the world the difference between us and the rest of the world... The high ground here is the moral high ground.”
The interrogation bill means the Bush administration can’t use secret evidence unavailable to defendants to convict them. And the excesses of interrogation at Abu Ghraib was “a huge setback in the war on terror” because it put America on the same plane as our enemies. “If we change who America is in trying to win this war,” he said, “we will lose. But we are not going to lose becasue the stakes are too high.... “
“We’re about to show the world in a couple of months how we’re different.... You will be part of a country that has chosen to give rights and privileges to a group of people who would give you none. That makes us stronger, not weaker.”
He also had one pithy comment about the tenor of the current election campaign: “By the end of the election, you vote for the person who sucks the least.”
Audio files of the senator’s remarks should be available soon at the Mellennium Seminar website, N.C. State says. Here’s an audio link to the start of his speech.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Deep in the heart of Texas

At a kickoff breakfast for the 2007 Emerging Issues Forum on creativity in higher education one day last week in Raleigh, the discussion briefly turned to the pressure on major universities to hire a winning football coach.
Former University of Texas Board of Regents Chairman Charles Miller was introduced as a man who once told a wealthy and powerful University of Texas fan that if he wanted to complain about the coach, he should call the coach, not Miller.
So when Miller got up to speak, he casually mentioned that Texas had come to North Carolina to hire a successful coach – an obvious reference to former UNC Chapel Hill Coach Mack Brown, now the Longhorns’ head coach.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, chairman of the Emerging Issues Forum at N.C. State and a rabid Wolfpack fan (decked out in a bright red N.C. State tie), immediately sang out, “And we’re glad you got him.”
At the other end of the table from Hunt, UNC System President Erskine Bowles, an avid Tar Heels fan, sang right back, “Send him back!”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Carolinas and 'Hurricane Alley'

No wonder they call us ‘Hurricane Alley’
The worst-kept secret of anyone who lives in this part of the South is that we’re a target for hurricanes – coastline as well as inland. That’s one reason folks began calling this area “Hurricane Alley” half a century ago after a devastating series of storms hit the Carolinas coast.
This season hasn’t been so bad. But in the longrun, we know we’ll get hit again and again. Now the New York Times’ Tuesday section on science – Science Times – reports on a study that ranks two North Carolina sites among the top 10 at greatest risk from hurricanes.
New Orleans and Lake Okeechobee, Fla. are ranked 1 and 2, but North Carolina's Cape Hatteras ranks 7th and Wilmington ranks 9th on the list of 20 areas at greatest risk. And Charleston, S.C. ranks 13th on the list of 20 places at greatest risk.
The study was done by the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. Follow this link to see a summary of the study.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Nation's "10 dirtiest political races"

Wouldn’t you know it? North Carolina figures in two of “The 10 Dirtiest Political Races in U.S. History,” according to the magazine reason: Free Minds and Free Markets in its November issue. The upcoming issue doesn’t appear to be online yet, but readers can find it eventually at this site.
The magazine, in an article by David Mark, assesses the worst ads in more than two centuries of U.S. politics, beginning with the 1800 campaign for president in which opponents of Thomas Jefferson called him “a fraud, a coward, a thief and ‘a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.’” Whew.
The two N.C. races cited were the 1984 campaign between Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican, and Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat. Helms taunted Hunt “as a liberal flip-flopper” and asked, “Where do you stand, Jim?” Hunt proved capable of nastiness, too, showing an ad with “right-wing death squads in El Salvador.”
The magazine also cited the 1990 Senate race of Helms versus challenger Harvey Gantt. The Helms campaign showed the notorious “hands ad” of a white person tearing up a job application as the announcer describes how the job went to a minority.
One N.C. race the magazine missed – or perhaps didn’t think was so bad: the 1950 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate between Frank Porter Graham and Willis Smith. One anti-Graham campaign flyer that year blared, “White People Wake Up.”

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Prosecutors ask Black 'The Question'

House Speaker Jim Black has said for a long time he thinks his political adversaries are out to destroy him and his political organization, but he has also said federal investigators have not targeted him in their probe of corruption about the creation and startup of the N.C. Education Lottery in 2005.
Maybe not, but the tenor of federal prosecutors’ questions in the trial of former Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings, on trial on eight counts of mail and wire fraud, seem aimed right at Jim Black. Geddings has even joked about the direction of the trial, at one point telling reporters, "I hope you enjoyed the first day of the Jim Black trial."
Jim Black has not been charged with any violation by federal authorities. But in Wednesday’s testimony, it seemed clear they think Black did something wrong in his choice of Geddings for the Lottery Commission. Geddings’ defense lawyers called Black to testify that his choice of Geddings was pretty much a last-minute decision and not part of a scheme concocted with former Black aide Meredith Norris, an unregistered lobbyist for a lottery company Geddings had done work for, and others. That gave prosecutors the opportunity to ask Black a question many in the Capital City had long anticipated. Here’s how Observer reporters David Ingram and Mark Johnson reported that exchange, starting with a question from Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bruce:
“Is it true that during that time you also had a close, personal relationship with Meredith Norris?” Bruce asked.
Black quickly shot back: “What do you mean ‘close, personal relationship’? I like to think I’ve had a close, personal relationship with every employee I’ve had over the years.”
When pressed, Black added, “It does vary with all the employees. Some of them I hardly ever see and some of them, their duties require that I see them more.”

Black has told reporters he did not have an inappropriate relationship with Norris. But evidently federal prosecutors continue to look at that question. In a hearing in the courtroom Wednesday without jurors present, they argued they should be allowed to pursue the question because, Bruce said, it bore on the speaker’s motive and bias and “impacted governmental decisions, including this one.”
Yet after Black answered that he had a close, personal relationship with all his employees, prosecutors soon dropped the line of questioning, leaving spectators to wonder why they had brought up the question if they didn’t plan to press Black for a more definitive answer – or a flat denial.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Easley on the stand in Courtroom 1

More history in Courtroom 1
Another episode in state history played out Tuesday afternoon in Courtroom 1 of the Terry Sanford Federal Building in Raleigh, when Gov. Mike Easley testified in the criminal trial of former N.C. Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings.
Defense lawyers for Geddings called Easley as their first witness after federal prosecutors rested their case against Geddings. The governor testified about 15 minutes, and reporters were scrambling to determine if a sitting N.C. governor had ever testified in a criminal trial.
In fact, for a few moments it also appeared that House Speaker Jim Black, who appointed Geddings to the Lottery Commission last year, might follow Easley to the witness stand. Lawyers might ask him to explain why he chose Geddings for the post and whether he knew that Geddings had done work for Scientific Games, a major national lottery vendor, before joining the commission. Geddings did not disclose that work and resigned after 40 days on the commission. He quit hours after Scientific Games disclosed it paid Geddings $24,500 for work earlier in 2005. But defense attorneys did not call Black to the stand Tuesday and the judge sent the jury home for the day. The speaker could be called to testify Wednesday or later.
Easley testified about his discussions with Black about appointing Charlotte attorney Robert Cordle to the Lottery Commission. Cordle was willing to serve, but if he took the lottery appointment he would have had to leave his appointment to the State Board of Elections. So Black considered other appointees – including, Cordle said when he was called to the stand, Charlotteans Larry Dagenhart and Jim Babb.
Earlier in the day, N.C. Lottery Commission Chairman Charles Sanders testified – which added another footnote in N.C. history. Both Sanders and Easley ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate – Easley in 1990 and Sanders in 1996 – and both lost to the party’s eventual nominee, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. In the general election both years, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms won, as usual.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Hugh Morton, North Carolina Photographer

When Hugh Morton died way too young at age 85 in June, many North Carolinians mourned not only the loss of this irrepressible photographer, developer, environmentalist and Tar Heel promoter, but also the wonderful photographs that Morton might have taken for years more.
Morton’s legacy is an important one. He left us hundreds of thousands of photographs, but also the Battleship North Carolina, the stunning Linn Cove Aqueduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway and an important environmental preserve on Grandfather Mountain. He was responsible in considerable measure for the strong environmental ethic that grew in this state in the last half of the 20th century.
Now he is leaving us another tangible legacy: a new book of photographs published by UNC Press called “Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer.” It’s an expansion, UNC Press says, of his earlier book “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina” published in 2003. The official publication date is Oct. 12 – which just happens to be University Day at Morton’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the day UNC celebrates the laying of the cornerstone of Old East, the nation's first building at a state university, on Oct. 12, 1793. The book will go for $30.
Describing pictures won’t do the book justice, but I’ll tell you his photos of fall foliage are eye-poppers. I especially liked the one of Johnny Cash wrapping himself in an American flag that flew over Grandfather, but maybe my favorite was the photo of the utter delight on a little boy’s face when the ram mascot at a UNC basketball game stooped and reached out to chat with him.
With Hugh Morton, as with his photos, a deft touch and perfect timing were everything.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Memories of Myrtle in the 1950s

Everything changes, often for the better. But if you had told me 50 years ago that Myrtle Beach would be a better place if they tore down the old Ocean Forest Hotel, knocked down the Pavilion and carted off the roller coaster, here’s what I would have said: You’ll ruin the place.
I came of age in the late 1950s, and the high point of my year was the week we’d spend at Myrtle Beach. I never got my fill of trying to ride the waves on the blue canvas rafts you could rent for 50 cents or the golden fried shrimp that everyone seemed to know how to do right.
My family stayed at modest places like the old frame Tally Ho, part dormitory and part guest house and held together by tacks and wire screens. My dad liked a pre-breakfast swim in the ocean before anyone else was up; we’d tiptoe out of our rooms, dash across the street and across the world’s widest, flattest beach for the day’s first dip.
It was no wonder to me they called it the Grand Strand. It was a wide, flat beach good for walking and a great one for looking for a certain brown-eyed girl. And off in the misty distance to the north reposed the out-of-reach Ocean Forest Hotel. I imagined it an elegant place, but never got a look inside; it was imploded in 1974 – “reduced to a pile of rubble in six seconds,” I read somewhere on the Web.
When we got old enough our parents would let me and my sister walk all the way down to the Pavilion, past the same cottages and inns and dives we saw every year: the Wee Blue Inn, the Salt Water Taffy store, and a couple of joints called The Bowery and The Green Door. I was still too young to be much interested in that kind of entertainment for several years more. I wanted to look in the funny mirrors at the Pavilion, listen to the old band organ in the amusement park and spend every cent I had on the Dodgem Cars, where the steering was haphazard and the bumps and bangs were just the things to end a perfect day on the beach.
Somewhere along the way we fell out of the habit of going to Myrtle. The little individual beaches to the north – Ocean Drive and Cherry Grove and so on – got new names, though I have friends who still talk about driving down to O.D. for the weekend.
Maybe it’s just as well that everything changes, that old landmarks fall and new ones rise. There are new attractions in Myrtle Beach now, fancy high-rise hotels and condos and packed shows and fancy restaurants with fancy prices.
But I can’t imagine they fried shrimp any better now than they did it in those little screened-porch-and-linoleum-floored cafes that once dotted the main line in and out of town. I'll have the large platter with extra slaw, thanks, and more sweet tea, please.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The trial in Courtroom 1

The federal courthouse in Raleigh on New Bern Avenue is a utilitarian pile of concrete and glass that has housed some high-profile trials over the years – including the tedious jury selection that marked the beginning of the U.S. Justice Department’s case against former N.C. Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings Wednesday.
Opened in 1970 and later named for former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford, the courthouse is every bit as attractive and inspiring a public building as, say, the average late-20th century industrial plant.
If you’re looking for an interesting federal courthouse in Raleigh, you’d have to go to the old Century Station on Fayetteville Street, which began life in 1874 as the U.S. Post Office and housed the federal courts beginning in 1879. When the new federal building opened its doors on New Bern Avenue three blocks east of the Capitol, the focus of the U.S. Eastern District of North Carolina shifted too.
There’s not much to admire about the structure itself, but up on the seventh floor in Courtrooms 1 and 2, a lot of important N.C. history has played out. Over the years I watched former Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald be convicted (1979) for murdering his family, the late N.C. AFL-CIO head Wilbur Hobby be convicted (1981) for mismanaging federal job training funds and Judge Terry Boyle staring down (2005) the U.S. Navy over its cockeyed plans for a practice jet landing field next to one of the East Coast’s most important winter feeding grounds for migratory waterfowl. Courtroom 1 is also the place where Judge Boyle has consistently ruled against the purported owners of North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights and ordered it given back to the state archives.
On the east wall of Courtroom 1 hang portraits of two legendary judges in the Eastern District – Algernon Butler of Clinton and Franklin Dupree of Raleigh. I never covered Butler’s courtroom but I sat in Dupree’s court several times, and was glad I didn’t have to face the stern-looking Dupree, who had a reputation for running a no-nonsense court.
How the trial of Kevin Geddings on charges of wire fraud and failing to provide honest service will go, no one knows – or what place it will take in N.C. history. But it may produce some interesting footnotes: The list of potential witnesses include Gov. Mike Easley as well as House Speaker Jim Black and Sen. Tony Rand, Democratic leader in the state Senate. It also includes former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges as well as a couple of state senators and some advisers to Easley. Before it’s over, a lot of otherwise powerful folks may find themselves parading in and out of the walnut-paneled courtroom, facing questions of what they knew and when they knew it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Where's Raleigh's Sir Wally?

The Capital City has been at odds and ends in recent weeks over, as usual, public art. Jim Goodmon, the Raleigh businessman and CEO of Capital Broadcasting, withdrew his offer of $2.5 million to pay for most of a visionary overhead LED lighting grid and waterfall proposal by internationally known designer Jaume Plensa after Mayor Charles Meeker and the City Council expressed doubts. Its members worried the design would interfere with the vista between the old Capitol (1840) and Raleigh’s Memorial auditorium (1932), two copper-top gems anchoring opposite ends of Fayetteville Street.
In 1995, a much less costly public arts project – the $51,000 Light + Time Tower on Capital Boulevard, was subject of much ridicule by then-Mayor Tom Fetzer, who had concerns about its cost. I pass it every day and still enjoy seeing the colors it reflects as the day wears on.
These periodic epidemics of public doubt about public art are not only nothing new in Raleigh, they’re also practically required by long tradition. My colleague Rob Christensen, political columnist and reporter at Raleigh’s The News & Observer, recalled the other day the flap
that blew up over the 1821 statue of George Washington, all decked out in a Roman toga, that sat in the Capitol. That statue cost more than $11,000 at a time where a buck would buy a lot of marble, and folks wondered why it should cost so much to make a man look so foolish.
More recently there was the public unrest over the art scribed into the side of the education building on the State Government Mall just north of the Legislative Building in 1992. It featured a portion of a last speech by turn-of-the-century Gov. Charles B. Aycock: ``YOU ARE A CHILD YOU ARE SUITABLE TO BE AWED” – words evidently delivered moments before he keeled over and died.
But some folks now are worrying over the absence of the city’s namesake statuary – a 1970s-era sculpture in bronze of Sir Walter Raleigh by Bruno Lucchesi. Sir Walter never visited these shores – he lost his head in the Tower of London before he could get over this way – but his statue graced several points in downtown Raleigh before it was moved when the old Fayetteville Street Mall was reopened last year.
My neighbor a few blocks over, Charlie Gregory, a self-described “Republican precinct grunt’ who helped elect the state’s first governor (Jim Holshouser) in the 20th century and later served on a panel that commissioned the statue, is trying to drum up interest in getting the statue back from a Cincinnati foundry. It was sent there a while back to be tidied up and buffed out. Charlie thinks the state paid maybe 35 grand for the monument. It’s a good statue that features Sir Walter in an open collar, according to a description from the city.
Now the city of Raleigh is looking for a good spot to bring Sir Walter back. I don’t know where the best place would be, but I’m thinking he ought to be given appropriate company with other famous figures from the state’s storied past – say, Dean Smith, Roy Williams and Michael Jordan.
But hold the togas, please.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The notorious 'hands' ad is back

Like the 17-year locust, a version of North Carolina’s notorious “hands” ad is back on television. It was last seen here in the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign between Republican incumbent Jesse Helms and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who was bidding to become the first black U.S. senator from this state.
Shortly before the election, the Helms campaign aired the “hands” ad, showing a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter while the announcer intoned, “You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”
That ad (click here for a look and more analysis)played to the worst racial fears of white voters and was one of a number of reasons why Helms won his fourth term that election. Helms’ staff later said it ran only a few times, but it was heavily reported in the news media and no doubt was a factor.
Since the 1990 election, versions of the hands ad have appeared in other states, including Oklahoma’s 2004 Senate race when an ad showed Hispanic workers and a set of black hands counting money while an announcer criticized a Democratic congressman’s immigration record.
Now the ad is back in this state. Republican congressional nominee Vernon Robinson of Winston-Salem is using a version of the ad to attack the immigration record of incumbent Democrat Brad Miller of Raleigh in the 13th District. Mr. Robinson, an African American running on his conservative credentials, ran for the Republican nomination for Congress in the 5th District in 2004, boasting that “Jesse Helms is back – and this time he is black.”
In the newest reincarnation of the ad, the hands crumpling the rejection letter are black – suggesting that illegal immigrants take jobs away from black citizens.
“You needed that job,” the ad says. “And you were the best qualified. But they gave it to an illegal alien so they could pay him under the table.”
Mr. Robinson says he’s only trying to campaign on the hot button issue of immigration. But those who remember the notorious race-baiting campaigns in North Carolina history know exactly was he’s doing. He’s making the same sort of racial appeal that has tainted N.C. politics since Reconstruction days.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The fight for the N.C. House

Twelve years ago, Republican legislators adopted a contract with voters that helped them win the state House in the 1994 elections and allowed them to elect the first Republican House speaker – Harold Brubaker of Randolph County – in modern times in the 1995 and ’97 sessions.
Now, with House Democrats on the defensive over allegations of corruption related to passage of the lottery last year and campaign contributions from video poker and optometric interests, Republicans once again hope to win the House with a contract of sorts. It’s not as extensive as the plan the GOP adopted in 1994, but it tells voters what Republican candidates aim to do. House Republican leader Joe Kiser of Lincoln County released the policy statement the other day – with the help of former Speaker Brubaker. Here’s what it says:
North Carolina House Republican Caucus 2006 Position Statements
Policy statement

It is the policy of the North Carolina House Republican Caucus to work as a collective, unified body to implement these position statements and by providing jobs with the overall effect of bettering the lives of all North Carolinians.
The House Republican Caucus supports and is committed to making real, meaningful changes to the ethical code that must be adhered to by all members of the General Assembly as well as the Executive Branch of State Government.
Illegal Immigration
The Republican House Caucus supports and is committed to attacking the issue of Illegal Immigration in the name of public safety, especially in regards to the issuance of North Carolina driver’s licenses and the impact on our State budget with increasing costs to public education, healthcare, law enforcement, and the judiciary.
Eminent Domain
The House Republican Caucus supports and is committed to passing a constitutional amendment to protect individual property rights to prohibit the government from seizing private property for commercial use.
The House Republican Caucus supports and is committed to defend marriage by a constitutional amendment recognizing only marriages between one woman and one man.
Budget Reform
The House Republican Caucus supports and is committed to utilizing zero-based budgeting to effectively estimate, justify, and prioritize North Carolina’s spending plan.
The House Republican Caucus supports and is committed to reducing the personal income tax burden on working families through responsible budgeting and government efficiencies.
North Carolina is the ONLY state that forces counties to help fund Medicaid benefits. The House Republican Caucus supports and is committed to relief in the country funding of Medicaid, which will in turn provide property owners tax relief and more local revenue to be used for school construction, police, fire, emergency, medical services and waste/sewer infrastructure.

Republicans trail Democrats 63-57 in the House and hope their position statements draw clear comparisons between them and Democratic candidates. But as House Democratic leader Joe Hackney of Orange County has pointed out, the House Democratic caucus announced its own policy agenda at the start of the legislative session and addressed each issue before the House adjourned.
Republicans may be a bit tardy releasing their own position statement, but at least they’re doing it now. As former state Sen. Patrick Ballantine emphasized in the 2004 governor’s race, Republicans must demonstrate what they’re for, not just what they oppose, and Kiser and his colleagues clearly understand that.
But there are some unknowns that will also affect this race. One of them is the Republican disarray in Congress and President Bush’s low numbers in the polls. Another is a current campaign within the state Republican Party to drum out some lawmakers who cooperated with House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat, and Republican Richard Morgan in the 2003 and ’05 sessions. That came about after then-Republican Rep. Mike Decker switched parties, helped keep Black in power and produced a deadlock that led to the first co-speakership in state history with Black and Morgan in the 2003-05 session.
Democrats have their own problems to contend with, of course, and the rumor mill in Raleigh has run wild the past six months over who was about to be charged with this or that. Some of these shoes may fall before the election, and they, too, would have an effect on voters.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Do you remember Hurricane Hazel?

Ten years ago today Hurricane Fran came ashore at Cape Fear and ripped a wide swath of destruction up through Raleigh and across the Virginia border in a rampage that left distinctive marks on Raleigh. This city, once called the City of Oaks, could have been known for a while as the City of Blue Tarp Roofs; some of our neighbors in north Raleigh still had blue tarps showing as late as a couple of years ago. The morning after Fran came through, I spent more than an hour trying to find passable routes to work – and wound up getting guidance via cell phone from John Drescher, then an Observer editor in Charlotte who had recently moved from his west Raleigh home and had some suggestions for streets to try.
The Capital City’s trees were ruined in many places, just as Charlotte’s had been on Sept. 21-22, 1989 when Hugo came up through South Carolina and tore up much of the city.
We’re all a product of our experiences, I guess, and we probably rank hurricanes according to what we remember about the storms we lived through. Lots of folks will remember Fran or Hugo or Floyd (1999) as the worst; I expect folks on the upper Cape Fear River, dealing with flooding today from Ernesto, will remember this storm as the worst.
Count me among those who think Hazel in 1954 was the worst. It was a Category Four storm that took roughly the same path Fran would 42 years later. The Oct. 15, 1954 storm was hardly mentioned in local news reports here before it hit; I was in third grade at Irving Park Elementary School in Greensboro when the storm passed by well to the east and the weather was so awful they wouldn’t let students leave – even for my two-block walk home. We were spared the worst in Guilford, but the next summer my parents drove us to the coast and pointed out the houses awash in the sounds and waterways. Long Beach was just about scraped clean of cottages.
There were nine big storms that hit North Carolina in the 1950s, including seven in two years that gave our coastline the nickname “Hurricane Alley,” writes Jay Barnes in his book “North Carolina Hurricane History.”
What was the worst hurricane you endured? Were you on the coast when Hazel hit?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Night out at the Bulls

Somewhere along in the middle innings, when the Durham Bulls were well on their way to a 16-hit, 11-run hammering of the Charlotte Knights in their final game of the regular season Sunday, I wondered once again why there wasn’t more interest in a downtown baseball park in the Queen City.
True: I like baseball and love going to minor league parks all over the state. I grew up watching games in Greensboro’s old War Memorial Stadium, Winston-Salem’s Earnie Shore Field and Burlington’s Fairchild Park. I never saw a game in Raleigh’s old Devereaux Meadow, now the site of a city maintenance yard, but remember its dark green bleachers and the tall hemlocks beyond the outfield wall.
When we moved to Raleigh in the late 1970s and Miles Wolfe revived the old Durham Bulls franchise at the lovely old Durham Athletic Park, we became regulars. When Raleigh businessman Jim Goodmon bought the Bulls and moved them into a new brick stadium a few blocks away, we continued to go to a few games each year.
Here’s why: It’s a deal. The Bulls, like the Knights, play in the International League. It’s AAA ball, which means you see players who may be in the majors next week, and big leaguers who have been sent down from some rehabilitation after a slump. So it’s good baseball with fast pitching and decent hitters.
And ordinary folks can afford to go, take the kids and have a big time. Parking is $3 a couple of hundred feet away, free if you walk a few blocks. You can get good seats for $8 and a foot-long hotdog for $4. A family of four can have a night out without blowing the monthly rent. It cannot do that at a Panthers game in Charlotte or a Hurricanes game in Raleigh. Those are big league teams with big league prices. They charge what the market allows.
Minor league baseball, even at the AAA level, is still about getting good value for the money. There’s a different promotion every night. The kids love the Bulls mascot, Wool E. Bull, and the team dog, Lucky the Wonder Dog, who stands 2-foot-four and runs the bases to celebrate Bulls victories.
Saturday night the Bulls-Knights game drew more than 10,000 fans. Sunday night – a school night here, mind you – the final game in their series drew more than 8,600 in an 11-6 Bulls victory.
But the Knights don’t draw so well at their stadium in Fort Mill. According to stats on the International League website, Charlotte leads the International League’s South Division in the standings with a 13 1/2 game lead over the second-place Bulls.
But Charlotte has the league’s third-worst attendance, drawing an average of 4,755 fans per home game, while Durham has the league’s seventh best attendance with 7,389. No doubt the Knights are hampered by a stadium that is, after all, a bit of a trek from Charlotte. And consumers in both Durham and Charlotte have a lot of entertainment choices competing for their dollar.
But the Knights surely would be drawing more fans in a Charlotte stadium as the Knights compete for another International League Governor’s Cup Championship. The Knights won it in 1999, and clinched their division and a spot in the playoffs Monday night even as they lost to Columbus 8-4 – and drew just 2,178 fans. That is pretty sad for a team that is, after all, one of the best in AAA ball.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Repubican moderates – threatened species?

Former state Rep. Maggie Keesee-Forrester of Greensboro died the other day, and a lot of folks remember her gentle, graceful style – and the iron backbone she must have had to deal with the criticism she took for taking a stand against paddling children in public schools.
In those days she was Margaret Keesee, at 27 the first woman elected to the N.C. House from Guilford County. She was a Republican, and when she went into office, there were just nine women in the entire General Assembly. She was elected the same year Richard Nixon won his second term, the year Jim Holshouser became the first Republican governor since the turn of the century and Jesse Helms the first Republican U.S. Senator.
It was a watershed moment for Republicans, who in the 1973 legislature had 50 members – nearly 30 percent. But Republicans were also divided.
Some of them were loyal to Jesse Helms and shared his strong, socially conservative stances.
Others, such as Rep. Kessee, then-state Rep. Howard Coble of Greensboro, Don Beason of Mt. Airy and George Little of Southern Pines, were more moderate. They aligned with Holshouser, a mountain Republican who was fiscally conservative but less motivated by strong social conservatism. It was Holshouser, remember, who helped win passage of the landmark Coastal Area Management Act, a key environmental protection law that has helped save our coastline from the kinds of development more familiar to Florida andNew Jersey.
Keesee, a former Head Start teacher who also taught 12 years in Greensboro schools, wanted to prohibit the paddling of children for classroom misbehavior. My colleague Mark Binker of the Greensboro News & Record dug up a quote from that session: “What this bill will say is that we can no long whip out the paddle just because the child says no – and this happens a lot,” she said.
Her bill didn’t pass, but it stirred a lot of controversy from folks who thought teachers ought not spare the rod when a student acted up. Other agreed with Keesee that parents should be the only ones to make that decision.
Keesee lost her first re-election bid, but it wasn’t just the paddling bill. In 1974, the Watergate scandal cost Republicans everywhere, and reduced the Republican caucus in the legislature to a scant 10 seats. The GOP would be a decade in recovering its 50 seats.
But Keesee, who in 1982 married Democrat Chuck Forrester, a Guilford County commissioner, was already back in the legislature, retaking her old seat in 1979. And she sponsored a bill that has transformed primary elections in North Carolina. The 1987 legislature approved her bill allowing the executive committees of either party to permit unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in their primary.
Republicans were much smarter about this than Democrats. They realized that the number of unaffiliated voters was growing rapidly. Getting them to vote in Republican primaries might become part of a habit that included voting for Republicans routinely and maybe even registering Republican. Democrats later caught on, and began allowing unaffiliated votes to vote in the Democratic primary, too.
Keesee-Forrester served six terms in the legislature, where her reputation as a moderate Republican grew in stature even as political divisions festered. She would have been uncomfortable with the current effort in the Republican Party to punish members such as Reps. Richard Morgan and Stephen LaRoque, who so willingly cooperated with Democrats in recent years. But I don’t think she would have gotten out her paddle to punish anyone.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Two-party politics in North Carolina?

My friend Burke Davis, the former Charlotte News editor and writer of scores of terrific books about the American Revolution and the Civil War, once provoked an indignant response from North Carolina Gov. R. Gregg Cherry of Gastonia when he asked whether this state would ever get a two-party system.
The story about Davis, who died Friday in Greensboro, is recorded in V.O. Key’s important 1949 book “Southern Politics In State and Nation” – which at one time was required reading for anyone who aspired to understand Southern politics.
The book was written at a time when Democrats still controlled the South. In many cases Democrats were the conservative party and Republicans were the reformers. Only a few Southern states had Republican strongholds, usually in mountain areas that had resisted the urge to secede at the outset of the Civil War nearly a century earlier.
“The principal concentrations of mountain Republicans are in southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee,” Key wrote. “...The strongest Republican state organization in the South is that of North Carolina.”
Key described Davis as a “whimsical reporter” for asking Cherry about a two-party system and reporting on Oct. 11, 1946 that the governor was “stunned by the subversive suggestion that North Carolina should have a two-party system.”
“What do you mean?” Cherry asked Davis. “We’ve got one. Why, there are 300,000 Republicans in North Carolina.... There are some counties where we have ding-dong fights every year, and the Republicans are really tough in presidential election years. Why, you know how strong they are west of Asheville. I’ll have to go up there a couple of times before November 5.”
The notion that a politician would have to go to western North Carolina only a couple of times to talk to voters is a quaint one, given the near-parity and honest-to-gosh two-party system now at work in this state.
But as Gov. Mike Easley has proved twice, you can be pretty choosy about where you campaign, if you’ve got a good television appeal and enough money to air ads where you want them.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The big bird round-up at Pea Island

It’s hard to believe now, but at one time, conservation officials hoped to boost the resident population of Canada geese and somehow get them to stay in North Carolina year round. Now they’re trying to reverse that success.
Some Canada geese are migratory waterfowl – making annual pilgrimages from their summer homes to their winter feeding grounds. One of the remarkable attractions to Eastern North Carolina from around late fall to late winter is the huge visitation of tundra swans and snow geese that winter in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
These big birds are an astonishing sight for city dwellers who normally don’t see a bird any larger than the one that adorns the Thanksgiving table. Their presence is one reason folks are fighting the Navy’s plan to put a practice jet landing field near the Pocosin refuge.
In an era whengovernment agencies, academicians and conservationists work pretty hard and spend a lot of money to maintain wildlife habitat and promote a healthy population of animal and plant life, it’s hard to imagine too much success.
But that’s the case with the Branta canadensis – Canada geese. They’re wild geese with black heads bearing a white patch. Some are migratory but a great many are not – they’re here and intend to stay. Not only are there too many, they apparently make a mess and gobble up food that migratory waterfowl need to feed on when they arrive here.
For years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has struggled to figure out what to do about them nationally. Most particularly they are “a serious problem” at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the N.C. Outer Banks.
A report issued by the service in June noted that a sharp increase in geese means that as many as 250 birds may be feeding in one place on a given day. “On occasion as many as 400 resident geese have been counted feeding in the impoundments during a time when the refuge is trying to produce food (submerged aquatic vegetation) for migratory birds,” the service says.
The Fish & Wildlife Service recently announced it plans to reduce the resident goosepopulation. It will allow a range of options, including Canada geese hunting seasons. It hopes to reduce the resident bird population by more than a million birds over the next decade to a population of 2.1 million nationally.
As a sign of how serious the service is about reducing the flock, it plans to allow the use of electronic calls and unplugged shotguns to for sport shooting of the birds.
But not at Pea Island. That’s an “inviolate refuge” for migratory waterfowl so the only time that hunters could distinguish between migratory waterfowl and resident waterfowl is during the summer and into September before the migrant waterfowl fly in. “Hunters don’t seem to be interested – they say it’s just too hot,” the service said in a news release in June.
That left the Fish & Wildlife Service with one effective alternative: gassing the birds to death. “Trapping and euthanizing the resident geese has been chosen as the most reasonable and prudent way to deal with the problem,” the service said Aug. 11. It will herd the geese into pens, load them into a trailer and take them to a remote site to be “euthanized in a carbon dioxide chamber – which is a humane process.” Their bodies will be buried or frozen as food for the red wolf, which federal officials are also trying to restore to a sizable population.
Unless the Fish & Wildlife Service succeeds in reducing the number of resident birds, it won’t be long before they consume all the food migratory waterfowl need, the agency says. So the euthanization process puts the service in the position of killing birds it once encouraged to live here in a refuge considered “inviolate sanctuary” – at least for migratory waterfowl.
One more example, no doubt, of the law of unintended consequences at work.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Take the politics out of judicial races? Never!

When Gov. Dan Moore (1965-69) asked then-state Rep. Jim Exum of Greensboro in 1967 if he’d like to become a Superior Court Judge, Exum had his doubts.
After all, he liked being a politician. He was a promising young legislator who was thinking of a career in politics – “I thought I wanted to be in the Senate, maybe run for governor,” Exum told a forum on judicial selection Wednesday night in Greensboro, sponsored by the N.C. Center for Voter Education. The forum was about alternative methods of selecting judges – appointment versus election, for example.
Leaving the legislature to become a judge, Exum thought, would mean “getting out of the political world altogether – that’s what I thought I was doing.” Exum took the appointment as Superior Court judge and later ran for and won the first of several terms as an associate justice and then chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.
But in 1986, political competition got tougher “in an unpleasant way,” he said. Challengers wanted to turn him out of office because of his opposition to the death penalty, even though as a justice he had routinely voted to uphold death sentences because that was the penalty state law prescribed for the worst murders.
That campaign and ensuing ones taught him a lesson, he said. There may be ways to change methods of selecting judges, but none of them is likely to take politics out of the process.
“We are never going to remove politics from judicial selection,” said Exum, who retired from the Supreme Court in 1995. “It’s like matter in the universe – it can’t be destroyed, it can only be molded.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Turtle sex

Thing I love about this business is that you never know what you’re going to learn next – but there’s always something.
So it was at the N.C. Coastal Federation’s forum in Beaufort Monday on the Navy’s proposed sonar range off the coast of North Carolina. Scientists from Duke University's marine labs at Beaufort, as well as other authorities, described the state of knowledge about the effects of sonar on marine mammals, reptiles and fish – and most agree there’s not enough known to draw hard conclusions about the proposed sonar range.
But they do know a lot.
Among other things, I learned that Atlantic Loggerhead sea turtles that nest on the N.C. beaches produce more males than females. I imagine most amateur biology students already knew this, but I missed it long ago. Dr. Larry Crowder, professor of marine biology at the Duke facility, told the group that turtles do not have x and y chromosomes to determine the sex of turtle hatchlings; instead, it’s determined by the temperature of the nest. In the warmer nesting areas down south, more females are hatched; in northern nesting areas between hear and norther Florida, males are more likely to be born, he said.
There’s an easy way to remember how to keep track of it, Dr. Crowder added: “Hot chicks and cool dudes.”
Ain’t higher education wonderful?

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Poetical Geography of North Carolina

Needham Bryan Cobb (1836-1905) was a minister, Confederate chaplain, editor, teacher and writer who edited the North Carolina Almanac for nearly 30 years after the Civil War. Among other things, he wrote a short geography book unlike any I've seen before.
Cobb was president of the Wayne Institute and Normal College, according to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, and principal of Lilesvile High School. He authored a lively little book recently reissued by the North Caroliniana Society – the Poetical Geography of North Carolina.
This little volume has been out of print for nearly a century, notes former N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Willis Whichard, president of the society, but in its day it was used as a textbook in North Carolina schools, “whose pupils learned form verse not only the names of scores of towns and 96 counties (there are 100 now), but also the bays, sounds, rives and all 394 principal creeks of the state. Each stream, even in rhyme, was identified by its source and destination,” notes Whichard.
Here’s part of what Cobb wrote about the state’s waterways:
“Now we’ll learn the lengthy rivers
Flowing through the Old North State;
Take them down for future study,
Write them all upon your slate.”
Under Tributaries of the Catawba, Cobb wrote:
“Linville, johns and upper little,
Come from mountains tall and blue,
Join Catawba flowing eastward,
Then flow southward with it too.
South Catawba then approaches,
With its branches, large and wee;
Green and Broad, from Blue Ridge tumbling,
Join it, and they form Santee.”
Makes me wonder: Does anyone learn by rhyme anymore?
The Society, which celebrates all things related to North Carolina, has some copies of the book available to the public for $25, half of which is tax deductible, according to Prof. H.G. Jones, longtime secretary of the society. Write the North Caroliniana Society, Campus Box 3930, Chapel Hill N.C. 27514-8890.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Remembering Ed O'Herron

Ed O’Herron, the Charlotte businessman and drug store chain executive who died the other day, might have changed things dramatically if he had been elected governor 30 years ago.
I didn’t know O’Herron well but spent some time covering his campaign for the Greensboro Daily News in 1976, when there was a rare August primary. I found a dusty, yellowed clipping of a story I wrote for the Daily News that summer, when O’Herron was giving Jim Hunt hell on a regular basis.
Hunt was lieutenant governor at the time and the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination in the August primary. (Hunt won it outright without a runoff.) There were three other candidates in the race besides Hunt and O’Herron: Jetter Barker, the mayor of Love Valley, a cowboy town he built; former state Sen. Tom Strickland of Goldsboro and Sen. George Wood of Camden. Skipper Bowles was in that race for awhile but dropped out for health reasons.
O’Herron, the wealthy chairman of Eckerd Drug Co, was a conservative Democrat who wanted to bring business efficiencies to state government. He liked to say, “North Carolina is a $3.4 billion business. We need a businessman to run it.” Now the state biennial budget is about 10 times that.
O’Herron had in minds all kinds of changes. He spotted a uniformed officer who supervised a state visitors’ parking lot and declared, “You better believe when I’m governor I’ll change that. Everybody else in the world has automatic gates. That guy probably costs the state $15,000 a year.”
He had little use for the state Department of Commerce: “One of the things I’d do is get rid of the Department of Commerce,” he said. “It’s just a hierarchy and nobody would miss them except the political employees that got appointed there.”
O’Herron didn’t even think state officials needed private secretaries. “I ran a business for 30 years and never had a private secretary. We’ve always shared secretaries.”
One thing he wouldn’t do is run for anything else, he said. “I’m not going to be running for the U.S. Senate. I’m not going to be running for a cabinet office. I’m not pledged to any political machine. Ed O’Herron is going to be his own man.”
And if he won, there was something he’d like to be remembered for: “I guess if anything I’d like to restore some confidence in our government.”
Three governors and 30 years later, that remains a worthy but unmet goal.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Shaking the money tree in Raleigh

The legislature had barely adjourned early Friday – about 1:09 a.m., according to the Associated Press – when legislators and would-be legislators started sending invitations hitting up lobbyists for campaign contributions. State law prohibits fundraising during legislative sessions, so the fun couldn't start until adjournment.
The new omnibus ethics law bans direct contributions from lobbyists to politicians, but the section of the law banning contributions from lobbyists won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2007. So there’s a gap, and lawmakers and candidates running for office this year are taking advantage of it.
Here’s what one veteran lobbyist, a Democrat, told me via e-mail:
“My opinion only----Banning lobbyist contributions has no practical value. It only requires more paper work to form your own PAC. The pressure is from the membership.. We received 5 [five] request from members or potential members today, with closing Friday AM. How do I avoid the request?????-- Or expectations ???? I am sure I am not the only one who received requests today MONDAY.”
Another veteran lobbyist, a Republican, sent this e-mail: “I received three letters today from legislators asking for money. Will they never get it?”
The answer, evidently, is obvious.
It’s important to realize that there’s a serious co-dependency going on in Raleigh. Lobbyists need legislators and must gauge whether their clients will be at a disadvantage if they don’t donate to politicians. And politicians know this, and send out tons of invitations giving lobbyists the opportunity to contribute or to help round up contributions from their clients to lawmakers.
The direct ban on contributions next year won’t change this symbiotic relationship because the law still allows lobbyists to help raise funds for politicians.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Reopening the cap city concourse

It’s just a coincidence that the 2006 General Assembly adjourned early Friday morning and that the city of Raleigh on Saturday reopens what once was a grand concourse running down the hill from the Capitol on Union Square to the handsome Memorial Auditorium six blocks or so to the South. Out with the old, in with the new.
For nearly 30 years, Fayetteville Street Mall was not a street at all – it was a brick-and-concrete park, shaded by Japanese maples, colored by azaleas and frequented, alas, by hardly anyone once the courthouse shut its doors and state workers drove back home.
It was both a pretty place and a sad sight. When I moved to Raleigh in the late winter of 1977 to cover politics for the Greensboro Daily News, the city was well on its way to tearing out the old Fayetteville Street and putting in the pedestrian mall. But it was doomed from the start, in part because retail businesses were still moving to the suburbs, in part because few lived near downtown and in part because the city refused to allow sidewalk cafes or hot dog carts in the first years of the mall. There was little to bring people downtown – other than the lawyers who had cases at the courthouse and state employees who worked nearby.
In time, some of the city’s oldest businesses left – including Hudson Belk Department Store, which had fed the state Supreme Court for decades in its Capitol Room Cafeteria, and Briggs Hardware, a century-old business that sold everything imaginable.
But developers slowly brought life back to an area ringing downtown in an entertainment district that became popular. They built condos and folks bought them, and a couple of years ago, sparked by Mayor Charles Meeker, a lawyer who has walked to work from his home just west of downtown for years, the city council approved another makeover. This one restored the city’s main street, allowing auto traffic, demolishing an ugly civic center that marred the vista between the Capitol and Memorial Auditorium and launching what many expect to be a renaissance. The Fayetteville Street project opens Saturday, and Friday’s News & Observer has a special section about the event and the new street.
It’s been an ordeal to work downtown during the reconstruction, but judging by the work that’s been done this week – park benches bolted down, planters packed with all manner of green things and crews cutting and fitting the last of many hundreds of thousands of pavers – the place is looking spiffy. The Wake County Courthouse has a welcoming new entrance for the first time and new restaurants and bars are opening.
This time, it looks like they got it right.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The final-days fidgets

Members of the N.C. General Assembly are going through an annual ordeal – the closing days of the legislative session. The 120-member House and 50-member Senate have been in session since May and weeks ago passed a supplemental budget bill – the real reason for convening the so-called “short session” every other year to make budget adjustments. But the frenzied pace of the closing days of any legislative session is a grind. There's a lot of standing around, a lot of brow-knitting and hand-wringing and a whole other world of fidgeting about this and that.
Last-minute legislation that someone just discovered a critical need for, lest the Earth shift on its axis, plus important bills that trudged along in 2005 and much of the short session, all come together to clog the calendar. So it was this year, as lawmakers left to the last few days their final decisions on a proposed Innocence Inquiry Commission, tough new laws on DWI offenses, new sex offender registry rules, long-delayed stormwater runoff rules required by federal law, a controversial moratorium on big landfills in Eastern North Carolina and the biggie – how to revamp ethical standards governing legislators, executive brach officials and legislative lobbyists.
In some harmonious sessions, legislators have tried to wrap up all their business early and leave the final days for long, flowery speeches about the miracle of democracy or the splendor of the Tar Heel state. When former Chief Justice Henry Frye was a legislator two decades ago, he entertained his colleagues with long poems he had written for the occasion.
Some years, when the final hour for adjournment comes, the honorables in the House and Senate open the big brass doors to their chambers so members of the House and Senate can gaze across a central fountain and see one another. They can also see a clerk who will drop a white handkerchief – a visual signal so the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor, who presides in the Senate, can bang the gavel and end the legislative session simultaneously.
Some intramural squabbling in the 1970s and early 1980s disrupted that tradition. And every now and then one chamber or the other gets bent out of shape over something and leaves town before the other chamber is ready. But legislators who have spent a session in Raleigh knocking heads and bargaining with one another and keeping long hours still like to go out of session on that pleasant and non-discordant note. The 2006 short session has been unusually productive, and perhaps the honorables will be in a mood to play drop the hankie again this year.