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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hear that train a-comin'

Those of us who have to travel between Raleigh and Charlotte from time to time get weary of the traffic on the Interstates or the stoplights that dot the U.S. 64-49 route across the central part of the state. With gas prices staying high, many of us have yearned for a fast train trip linking the city centers.
The passenger trains called the Carolinian and the Piedmont aren’t quite there yet, but they're getting close. State transportation officials say the average time for the Raleigh-Charlotte run is now three hours and nine minutes – making it competitive with driving and faster than driving if a pit stop is necessary. As the online schedule shows, you can leave Raleigh at 7:05 a.m. and be in Charlotte at 10:14 a.m. – for one-way fares as low as $22.
Now the public appears to be responding to the quicker trip – which once took upwards of four hours – and to high gasoline prices. The DOT’s Rail Division reported in a news release last week that ridership in June was up more than 30 percent over a year ago. The Piedmont, which runs between Raleigh and Charlotte both ways daily, was up 38 percent to 4,442 riders; the Carolinian, which runs between those cities and goes on to the northeast, was up 31 percent to 20,628 riders. “Ridership was strongest on the weekends,” DOT said.
Nationally, the state DOT said, ridership on state-supported trains was up 7.4 percent – and up 4.1 percent for long-distance trains.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt wanted DOT to make enough track, train and signal improvements to cut the travel time between the states’ capitals of commerce and government to two hours before he left office in 2001. That was simply beyond reach, and reducing it to a couple of hours by 2010 might be tough, too. But as the state whittles the travel time below three hours and keeps lopping off the minutes with faster service, it will likely find that ridership will continue to grow.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Doug and Darcy Orr's legacy

When he was a vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and professor of geography, Doug Orr earned a reputation for serious scholarship, public engagement, lively teaching, appreciation for the arts, an affinity for what folks now call roots music, a deep-seated concern for the environment and a love of North Carolina history and culture.
In 1972 he and several colleagues produced the Metrolina Atlas, a groundbreaking work about the region around Charlotte. Then in 1975 he and his colleagues Alfred Stuart and Jim Clay produced the North Carolina Atlas: Portrait of a Changing Southern State. Those are among the reasons why he was asked to become president of Warren Wilson College in the Swannanoa Valley east of Asheville in 1991.
During his time at Warren Wilson, he and his spouse Darcy became the public face of that lovely little college. They boosted its traditional commitment to work, study and service (students who attend Warren Wilson must work at a campus job that defrays part of the cost, and must perform community services before they can graduate), raised an already heightened environmental consciousness to new levels and in the process rebuilt much of the campus. (Disclosure: I know about this because my daughter went to school there and I’ve been on the board of visitors there for several years.)
It’s a gorgeous place unlike any other college I’ve visited. Orr and Stuart also co-edited a new volume, North Carolina Atlas: Portrait of a Southern State this is invaluable to understanding North Carolina’s environment, its history and culture.
Doug Orr retired recently as president, and the college has done something pretty nice: it has named its new admissions and college relations building the Doug and Darcy Orr Cottage.
It’s not just that the cottage is lovely – built with native stone and lumber milled from trees grown on campus. It’s unique -- the first such college or university structure in North Carolina to attain the designation of a Gold Certified Building under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. That’s the pinnacle of planning and construction for the green building movement. For more on this and a picture of the cottage, click here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The unsinkable Floyd Lupton

Who was Floyd Lupton and why is a ferry named for him?
The news media have had a field day with the recent reports how the State Ports Authority and the Department of Transportation ran up bills exceeding $30,000 while giving a special July 4 weekend cruise to the tall ships festival to government bigwigs, muckety-mucks and honchos aboard the state ferry Floyd Lupton.
Gov. Mike Easley was especially steamed about misuse of the ferry. The Floyd Lupton is a river-class ferry that runs across the lower Neuse River from Minnesott Beach to Cherry Branch. It’s a free ferry and makes the run over and back all day long. When the ports authority and transportation department took the ferry out of its regular run for several days to paint up, fix up and drive the anointed around Beaufort and Morehead City July 1, they also took one of the bigger ferries out of service. The Floyd Lupton was replaced with a smaller ferry for a few days that could handle fewer cars on a busy holiday weekend. Reports say that dozens or cars had to wait because of delays due to the smaller vessel’s substitution.
It was a big mess, not the least because the honored guests got to sip wine and beer and eat scallops and shrimp, to the tune of a steel band, while a lot of ordinary folks had to stand in the heat and wait – some of them futilely – for an up-close inspection of the tall ships. As fiascoes go, the state may have wasted more money and caused bigger problems with other public relations disasters, but this one was a doozie.
If the state had handled this in a different way, it might have come up with a perfectly defensible cruise at little or no cost to taxpayers. But itwould have required the considerable talents of the man for whom the ferry was named – the late Floyd Lupton of Belhaven.
Lupton, who died a year ago, was one of the most effective politicians I’ve ever known. He was administrative assistant to the late U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Sr. for more than a quarter of a century. And as my colleague at the Observer, Associate Editor Mary Schulken, will tell you, Lupton pretty much ran the First Congressional District for more than two decades. Many folks thought Lupton was the congressman, she says; it was Lupton who always showed up at community meetings or church in that part of the state, where she worked for years for the Daily Reflector in Greenville.
I met Lupton in the early 1970s when I was a green-as-grass Washington correspondent for the Greensboro Daily News. Lupton had already been in Washington for years and knew where the levers of power were and which ones to pull. Some of my stories appeared in the Norfolk Virginian Pilot, which covered northeastern North Carolina and was owned by the same small group that owned the Daily News. And Lupton went out of his way to make sure the Pilot knew what Jones was doing.
Usually it was getting something done. Jones was chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and wielded some power. Behind the scenes, though, Lupton ran things.
Here’s what Lupton might have done if he’d been asked how to provide a free cruise: In an earlier day, he might have arranged for a Coast Guard cutter for the cruise, but by the late 1990s he would have spotted the public relations nightmare in using a government vessel at such a public event.
He’d have said a plain old steel ferry wasn’t right. He’d have picked up the phone and gotten the folks at Hatteras Yachts in New Bern to loan one of their biggest, gold-plated motor yachts and provide captain, crew and fuel. He’d have called his contacts in the hospitality industry to provide free catering and waiters and supply live entertainment. Shoot, he’d probably have called newspaper publishers and TV anchors to come along so they’d get a good view.
And dared them to complain about it.
When Jones died in 1992, Lupton toyed with running for the seat. So did Jones’ son, Walter Jr., who by then had switched parties and become a Republican. But Lupton was a lifelong Democrat and he told Jones Jr. he couldn’t support a Republican.
Jones Jr. later had the last laugh, winning the First District seat and holding it still. He and Lupton remained good friends, and Jones sponsored a bill signed by President Bush renaming the post office in Belhaven for Floyd Lupton. As someone from one of the Down East newspapers has written, not many folks get a post office and a ferry named for them.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The not-so-golden rule(s)

Henry M. Robert was an Army general who understood the value of simple rules, uniformly applied. “Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty,” Gen. Robert is quoted as saying.
A century ago he put the rules of Congress into a book many know as Robert’s Rules. Most legislative bodies use Robert’s Rules as well as other manuals of precedents, and revise their own rules to help run their parliamentary sessions.
North Carolina’s General Assembly is no different – but like many, adopting those rules and following them are two different things. Both the N.C. House and Senate seem to follow their own rules as they see the need – and depart from them when it’s convenient to do so.
So it was the other day when Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue was presiding in the Senate on a vote to require schools to give students an opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag. The House and Senate have engaged in some childish shenanigans over who should get credit for the bill – Sen. Neal Hunt, a Republican who first proposed the idea; Sen. Julia Boseman, a Democrat whose bill the Senate approved; or a different version spliced into an unrelated bill and approved by the House after ignoring Boseman’s bill – most likely because she has called for the resignation of Speaker Jim Black. Fast forward to this week when Perdue was presiding and the Senate deadlocked at 24-24 on the bill with Republicans for it and most Democrats against it, hoping to resurrect the Boseman bill. What’s supposed to happen on a deadlock, according to the rules, is that the lieutenant governor may cast the deciding vote, as Perdue eagerly did when the lottery bill was deadlocked last fall. If the lieutenant governor doesn’t vote to break the tie, the bill dies. Or, alternatively, a senator, usually from the lieutenant governor’s party, may jump up and ask to change his or her vote, sparing the lieutenant governor the discomfort of having to cast a sticky-wicket vote.
None of those things happened. After a most awkward moment, according to accounts of the session, a quick recess was called and Senate Democratic leaders huddled, perhaps finally realizing how silly they looked in opposing a bill to do much of what they had already voted for in an earlier bill. When the Senate reconvened, Democratic Leader Tony Rand moved to reconsider the vote and try again. The Senate did, and lo and behold, the Pledge of Allegiance bill passed unanimously.
That’s leadership, I guess. But Perdue, considered by many the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, sure missed an opportunity to make a statement about the House and Senate’s petty squabbling.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Lake in '08?

While he was still chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, I. Beverly Lake Jr. pushed the General Assembly for more resources for the state court system – more clerks, more prosecutors, more court reporters, and especially better electronic equipment. But Lake was never able to persuade the legislature to provide nearly as many resources as the court system needed.
One reason may have been the state’s lack of money. Another was wariness of the Democrat-dominated General Assembly to giving more resources to an appellate court system that had produced some adverse judicial opinions on redistricting and voting. At one point a few years ago, lawmakers were grumbling to the point of discussing impeachment – truly a crackpot idea. It went nowhere after former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell placed a few calls to his Democratic friends in the legislature. But Lake never persuaded lawmakers to beef up spending on the judicial branch in a major way.
Lake had pursued one other goal. He appointed a study commission in 2002 called the Actual Innocence Commission to develop ways for the courts to respond more effectively to credible claims of innocence by those behind bars. That commission recommended an Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate claims of factual innocence. If a majority of eight commissioners agreed there was substantive evidence of factual innocence, the case would go to a special panel of judges in Superior Court to hold a hearing. If they found unanimously that the inmate was innocent, the charges would be dropped.
Lake retired at age 72 as chief justice earlier this year, and a funny thing happened since then. Thanks partly to the fact that there was more than $2 billion available for lawmakers to play with, and partly to the fact that Gov. Mike Easley recommended a big boost in court spending, the legislature approved a significant increase for the courts for the first time in years.
And Monday night, the Senate voted 48-1 to approve a bill similar to a measure approved by the House 80-23 last year to create the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.
It must have been extremely gratifying to Lake, a former state senator and superior court judge, to watch from the gallery as the bill whose origins he launched was so overwhelmingly approved. In fact, senators gave Lake a standing ovation after the bill passed.
It was all the more remarkable because the legislature had not invited Lake to give State of the Judiciary addresses to joint legislative sessions, as it had with his predecessors. The warm ovation Monday night probably did a lot to soothe ruffled feelings between the legislative and judicial branches. But it’s also interesting to note that Lake has let it be known he may run for the Republican nomination for governor in 2008. After all, he’s got a couple of new legislative accomplishments to brag about. That might not be enough to build a campaign around, but it’s a start. Lake in ’08?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

No more smoke-filled rooms?

Tobacco hasn’t been king in North Carolina for a long time, but it was still worth noting the other day when the N.C. General Assembly banned smoking in its halls – or any other government building it occupies.
Time was when a legislator voting to ban smoking or even tax tobacco was regarded as suicidal. But now tobacco has hardly any defenders left. The Senate voted 45-1 to ban smoking anywhere in the Legislative Building and the Legislative Office Building across the street, and the House concurred on a 95-14 vote.
The bill to ban smoking passed on June 30 – one day before the N.C. cigarette tax went up another nickel, to 35 cents per pack. Last fall it went from a nickel a pack to 30 cents, a tax increase that once was unthinkable in a state where tobacco farming, warehousing, auctioneering and cigarette production constituted a political powerhouse.
It wasn’t until the governorship of Bob Scott (1969-73) that the state first passed a small cigarette tax, and the notion of restricting smoking in public buildings was simply a fantasy. In the early 1990s, a state senator from High Point proposed a bill increasing the cigarette tax; the Senate killed the bill on the spot instead of at least allowing it to be assigned to a committee for its ritual gutting.
Things change. The House and Senate banned smoking on the floor of those chambers some time ago, but still permitted it in halls and elsewhere – until passing the bill last week. Other state buildings have been smoke-free for years. Gov. Jim Hunt issued an executive order prohibiting smoking in most state buildings and in the Capitol during his governorship.
That ended a long tradition of tobacco use in the historic building. Historian Raymond Beck, site manager for the N.C. Capitol Historic Site, has funny stories about tobacco customs in an earlier time when lawmakers smoked pipes and cigars, dipped snuff and chewed tobacco. “Tobacco use seemed to be almost de rigueur,” he notes.
In the days before cuspidors, the Capitol had “spit boxes” here, there and yonder – practically under each desk. These were sand-filled boxes, similar to cat litter boxes, where lawmakers could expectorate their juicy goo. There are still some spit boxes in the Capitol.
Nice shiny brass spitoons came along later, he says. There are also records of a pottery cuspidor, including one in use as late as 1893 that had a “tobacco spit glaze.” This may be more than most of us really want to know about it, but it’s a reminder that tobacco use was once a routine part of public life in North Carolina.
No more.