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.