Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cap City rising

When I was growing up in Greensboro in the ’50s and early ’60s, the state’s biggest cities were Charlotte and Winston-Salem. Greensboro would soon pass Winston as No. 2, and Raleigh was still down the list – an Eastern Piedmont town that wasn’t even connected to the rest of the world by an interstate highway yet.

But after the Research Triangle Park started rolling and IBM moved its research facilities there and other tech companies followed, everything changed. Steady growth began bringing new families, transforming the sleepy little town of Cary into one of the most prosperous in the state, driving Raleigh into second place among the state’s cities and threatening to push the total population of Wake County past Mecklenburg.

This rapid growth still amazes me. We moved to Raleigh in 1977 when I became Raleigh correspondent for the Greensboro Daily News. We thought we might stay a couple of years. We found a nice place in North Raleigh just outside a partially completed beltline, not quite out to the edge of town but up that way. It took me barely 20 minutes to get downtown to work.

Nearly 30 years later, we’re in the same house, but it’s between two beltlines, the old I-440 and the new and still under construction I-540. Every municipality in the county is growing rapidly – four of the once-little towns lead the state in growth – and Raleigh is bursting at the seams.
A report this week from the U.S. Census said the state capital grew by 14,000 residents 2004-2005, more than any other city on the Eastern seaboard. The growth rate of 4.3 percent ranked Raleigh 13th in the nation, trailed by Cary’s 3.3 percent growth at 22nd. Charlotte had growth of 2.1 percent, 40th in the nation.

Now we’ve been moved. We’re still in the same house in the same neighborhood, but the developers and real estate sales folks have changed our part of town from North Raleigh to Midtown. As the city has grown to an estimated 341,500 population and spread in almost every direction, our neighborhood on the north side appears to be closer to the city center than to the outskirts.
Funny thing, though. My 20-minute commute to work, in the same building where I began capital corresponding 29 years ago, has stayed about the same. Can’t complain about that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

What does "no gifts" mean to legislators?

One day last December, House Speaker Jim Black told reporters he no longer would accept any gifts from lobbyists. Here’s what the Observer’s story Dec. 15 quoted Black saying: “That means fruitcake, ham, meals, golf,” Black said. The story also noted, “Giving gifts to N.C. politicians is legal, but lobbyists will have to start filing public reports in 2007 when they give lawmakers anything of value.”
Clear enough. Black didn’t impose his rule on anyone else, but lawmakers have discussed adopted a no-gifts rule in pending ethics reform legislation.
A no-gifts rule sounds good – but does it mean anything? You be the judge. Not long ago the House created a voluntary no-gifts list where representatives could indicate they wouldn’t accept gifts.
Last week, state Rep. Jim Harrell, D-Surry, was criticized in the Winston-Salem Journal for having accepted tickets to a Carolina Hurricanes hockey game after putting his name on the no-gifts list. But that no-gifts list doesn’t mean what you might think.
House Principal Clerk Denise Watkins sent the following clarification to legislators:
To: @House/Members Subject: “No Gifts List” clarification
Importance: High
For clarification on the “No Gifts List”… if you would like to have your name added to the “No Gifts List”, it simply means you do not want any items delivered to your office … no coffee mugs, no bags of peanuts, no Tee shirts, no pens, etc. If you want your name on the list, we enter that information into the database we maintain for House Members. Your web page will have a field that will show that you are on the “No Gifts List” and a document will also be generated with a complete list of all the names on the list and will be posted on the website.
This list is not a result of legislation. It is an attempt to inform interest groups and lobbyists that you do not want any items delivered to you. Of course, I cannot guarantee that these groups or lobbyists will refer to such a list, but it will be made available.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

North Carolina's third senator

Former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms holds the record for service as a senator representing North Carolina – 30 years over five terms from 1972 to 2002.
But there’s another senator from North Carolina who has spent more time in the Senate than any other person. He’s Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., who moved past the late Sen. Strom Thurmond this week in Senate service. Byrd was elected to the Senate in 1958, when President Eisenhower was in office, and has served nearly 48 years in office. The Observer ran a piece about Byrd’s career Sunday but didn’t mention his N.C. origin.
Byrd was born in North Wilkesboro, N.C., on Nov. 20, 1917 – but not as Robert Byrd. His birth name was Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died in the worldwide flu epidemic that killed millions in 1918 and his father sent him to relatives in West Virginia. They adopted him and renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd. In 1946 he was elected to the West Virginia legislature, then won a seat in the U.S. House in 1952.
Byrd has had a remarkable career, serving as president pro tempore of the Senate when Democrats controlled that chamber.
But how he got his start in politics is quite a story, too. According to an account last year in the Washington Post, he came to notice as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s when the Grand Dragon urged him to get into politics. Byrd later regretted his KKK experience. “It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation," he told the Post.
Byrd’s speeches in opposition to civil rights legislation in the 1960s and against the notion that a black person should ever serve on the Supreme Court came back to haunt him as well, no doubt. His racial sensibilities in the 1940s, 50s and 60s may not have been much different from many Southern politicians. In time Byrd’s views changed, and even the most conservative Southerners such as Thurmond and Helms eventually had black staff members.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Bill Friday: A hard act to follow

Bill Friday: Still a hard act to follow
Here’s a good piece of advice: If anyone asks you to give a talk right after Bill Friday, politely, but firmly, decline. He’s a hard act to follow – maybe the hardest in North Carolina public affairs.
The thought came to me as I sat listening to him in Greensboro’s First Presbyterian Church at a memorial service for the incomparable Hugh Morton. Hugh’s contributions to North Carolina in the second half of the 20th century are just spell-binding when you add them up – from the coast to the mountains.
Among the things Hugh worked on during his richly productive life were the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Battleship North Carolina, the Azalea Festival in Wilmington and Grandfather Mountain. His superb photographs have enriched our lives and our understanding of North Carolina people and the environment.
The list of attendees was impressive – three governors (Jim Holshouser, Jim Martin and Mike Easley, four UNC system presidents (Friday, C.D. Spangler, Molly Broad and Erskine Bowles), at least two Tar Heel coaches (Dean Smith and John Bunting), ACC players (N.C. State’s Tommy Burleson and UNC’s Phil Ford), Panther owner (Jerry Richardson) and a long list of other dignitaries including chancellors, former legislators, cabinet officials and mayors, not to mention hundreds of friends and admirers.
Bill Friday’s remarks about Hugh Morton were delivered in the same way Friday does everything: warm, measured, reflective, hitting the right notes at just the right length, with a touch of poetry about Hugh slipping away on a lovely afternoon as the sun faded down the western slopes. “We shall remember, Old Friend, we shall always remember,” Friday said.
I felt for my friend Mack Pearsall, who had to follow Friday’s just-right tribute. Pearsall had a good line about the devil needing to triple his marketing budget because of Morton’s extraordinary promotional skills. But once Bill Friday has spoken in your memory, there’s really not much left to be said, and no way to improve on it.
Of course, memorial services are for the living, not for the departed. Hugh Morton’s lovely service was a reminder of the importance of telling folks what they have meant to you, while they are still on this earth. That’s hard to do, whether you’re Bill Friday or someone else.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Should lobbyists contribute to politicians?

Should lobbyists contribute to pols?
The N.C. General Assembly is hustling to adopt a number of new bills dealing with ethical problems that have developed in the last couple of years – including new restrictions on legislative lobbyists who try to influence the legislature.
Last year, lawmakers approved a new lobbyist regulation bill that takes effect in 2007, but this summer the House is working on a bill that would strengthen that law. The N.C. Professional Lobbyists Association not only recommended a complete ban on giving legislators anything of monetary value, but also called for a ban on financial contributions from lobbyists to campaigns of legislators or executive branch officials. That would avoid giving the impression that lobbyists are buying the votes of those they seek to influence.
But it’s not clear the House will go for that ban. The News & Observer reports that Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, is concerned about free speech issues and would allow lobbyists to give up to $4,000 per election to legislators -- in total, not per candidate, as an earlier version of this blog post stated. He points to court decisions that equate making political contributions with the 1st Amendment right to free speech.
On the other hand, campaign contribution bans on lobbyists in at least three Southern states – Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee – have not been thrown out by the courts, the paper said.
How do you feel about this? Is it a 1st Amendment issue that should enable lobbyists to give the same amount of contributions as any other citizen? Or does the public interest in strong ethics rules justify a ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists who seek to influence legislators?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

We missed the boat on bottle deposit law

I was walking across Union Square the other day, hot-footing it from the legislature back to the Observer’s office when I saw a fellow waving and shouting from the other side of George Washington’s statue.
The voice sounded familiar – but the last time I heard it was on the floor of the state House of Representatives a decade ago. It belonged to Coach David Diamont, a teacher and football coach at East Surry High School and one of the best legislators during the period when the General Assembly was transformed from an institution with new leadership every few years to a chamber marked by long-term leadership. He had a gaggle of students in tow and was showing them the capital city. If we’d listened to him 30 years ago, we’d be a lot better off.
Diamont served in the House for 20 years, from 1975-1995, rising to chair the House Education Committee and later chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Now he was back doing what he really did best – teaching high school kids about their government.
I walked over to chat with them a while about what government does, and had a flashback of a young Rep. Diamont, fighting an uphill battle in the House in 1977 to pass a statewide bottle deposit law. It would have required a returnable deposit on soft drink containers – and it would have kept our roadsides clear of much of the awful load of roadside trash that stacks up every day.
Diamont tried to get his bottle bill passed for years but the soft drink and beer industry kept it from going anywhere. They didn’t want the pain in the neck that would come from having to accept the bottles and cans back and recycle them. Retailers didn’t want to have to pay back the deposits to those who brought the empties in, let alone store the bottles and cans.
And in those days, there weren’t many environmental lobbyists. Bill Holman, now the director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, was just about the sole spokesman for the environment in those days, and trying to get something done about roadside trash was no more popular among legislators then than it is now.
The container deposit law went nowhere, and as a result, our roadsides often look like a junkyard. It’s not just bottles and cans, but they’re a lot of it. But it’s not David Diamont’s fault. He had the right idea 30 years ago.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Gene Tomlinson, watchdog of North Carolina's coast

The N.C. Coastal Federation, a remarkable conservation organization that has had much to do with keeping our coast as clean as it is and in boosting public understanding of some difficult issues regarding coastal development and the health of the entire ecosystem, has honored a steadfast public servant for a life’s work in trying to preserve what we hold dear on the coast.
He’s Gene Tomlinson, the former mayor of Southport and for many years the chairman of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. It honored Gene and a number of other citizens the other day down at Harkers Island with the federation’s annual Pelican Awards. In a news release, federation founder and executive director Todd Miller said the award goes to people “who have demonstrated exemplary commitment to protecting our coast.”
Here’s what the group had to say about Tomlinison:
“Gene Tomlinson, who for 28 years was the heart and soul of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission before retiring last year, will receive the Federation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Born in Fayetteville, Tomlinson is an engineer who spent most of his life in the seaside town of Southport. He was appointed to the commission in 1977 and was at the helm when the commission, which sets development policies along the coast, approved most of the major controls on development. He played a key role in the turbulent passage of the ban on seawalls on the oceanfront and inlets.
“Tomlinson could bring people together on controversial issues, and passionately, yet calmly, articulate the need for action. ‘And we see [nursery areas and productive fishing grounds] being gobbled up by people who would bulldoze in the marshes, who would put in bulkheads and fill behind them, who would bulkhead the oceanfront so that we become like New Jersey or Miami Beach,’ he said in a 1995 interview.”
I first met Gene in 1993 when I was trying to buy more sailboat than I could afford and Gene was trying to get rid of one. He was a small man in a plaid bathing suit and a striped shirt and a raspy voice who was an engineer by trade and a waterman at heart. I wound up buying a 37-foot cutter from him that was a joy to sail and live aboard whenever we could break away to the coast. He had put a lot of effort into putting amenities about that vessel, including a lovely mahogany galley cabinet and built-in shelving in every conceivable compartment.
Reflecting his work on the Coastal Resources Commission, Gene used his orderly mind and his sense of what is right and wrong to guide the commission through the shoals that come with regulating coastal growth, banning seawalls and discouraging the kind of development that has overwhelmed other coastal states. Gene’s no longer on the commission and is, I hope, enjoying life. No one deserves it more.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in enjoying the good work of the N.C. Coastal Federation, click here. And the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission can be accessed here.