Monday, December 28, 2009

'I thought helicopter was going down'

Readers who closely followed the fight in Washington and Beaufort counties a few years ago over the Navy's flawed plan to place an outlying landing field to train pilots for aircraft carrier landings near an important bird sanctuary will be happy to hear two pieces of good news.

First, Doris Morris, who with a number of other local residents organized the campaign to dissuade the Navy of its wisdom in choosing the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge as a landing field site, has been back up to speed after a terrible, life-threatening auto accident. She was a key player in the OLF debate, and among other things made sure that the news media were aware of developments about the site choice, the possibility of bird-aircraft strikes and how the facility would affect some of the richest farmland in the state.

The second piece of good news is that filmmakers Emily and Blake Scott of Washington, N.C. have won dozens of awards with their films about the Lake Mattamuskeet and the Pungo Lakes National Wildlife Refuges.

Doris sent me a copy of Jeff Hampton's Sunday story in the Norfolk Virginian Pilot about their work. Here's a link.

Emily Scott recognized firsthand the danger not only to large waterfowl that winter in the Pocosin Lakes refuge, but also to the aircraft and the pilots and crew if there were a bird strike.

Hampton wrote:
"Meanwhile, in the late fall of 2006, Emily Scott was filming flocks of snow geese when a Navy helicopter hovered just over Pungo Lake. Her film had nothing to do with the airfield battle, she said.
"Suddenly, thousands of geese took flight, nearly enveloping the helicopter.
"'I thought it was going down,'" she said.
"Scott sent that portion of her film to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge manager. She hasn't seen Navy aircraft there since.
"In early 2008, the Navy announced it would not build an airfield in Washington County, but it named five new potential sites - three in Virginia and two in North Carolina, including one each in Gates and Camden counties."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2009 not a good year for top incumbents

In yesterday's blog I posted comments by Tom Jensen, analyst at Public Policy Polling, about Democrat Bev Perdue's bad popularity numbers and the mid-year "fumbles" that helped make her among the eight least popular governors in the country.

Today Jensen has bad news for Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who faces reelection in 2010. Like Perdue, Burr has popularity numbers that distinguish him in a negative way, though earlier this year his numbers got better for a while. Now he is among the most vulnerable U.S. senators running next year, Jensen says. Here's his take on Burr:

Richard Burr's poll numbers this month are the worst they've been since June, and it's increasingly clear he's the most vulnerable Republican Senator in the country up for reelection next year.

A poll by the conservative Civitas Institute released yesterday showed Burr trailing a generic Democratic opponent. Our newest survey finds him with just a one point lead, 42-41, against a generic Dem and also finds his approval rating in negative territory at 35/37.

Burr's numbers had been improving through most of the second half of 2009 as the political climate worsened for Democrats nationally. After trailing by three points on the generic ballot in June his position gradually got better to the point where he led by 11 points on that measure in our October survey. Over the last two months though his standing has started to worsen again, as the advantage dropped to seven points in November and now down to just a single point.

Burr's fall is occurring with independents. Where he held generic ballot leads of 20 and 21 points with them on the last two surveys, he has just a 40-36 advantage with them on this month's poll. The conservative Civitas survey actually showed a generic Democrat leading Burr 30-23 with independents.

Burr continues to lead over all of his actual Democratic opponents. Elaine Marshall comes the closest at a 42-37 deficit, her best performance yet in polling against Burr. Kenneth Lewis and Cal Cunningham both match or exceed their strongest numbers so far as well, trailing Burr 43-37 and 45-36 respectively.

None of the Democratic candidates are particularly well known to the state's voters at this point. 81% don't know enough about Cunningham to have an opinion, 80% say the same of Lewis, and 69% do of Marshall. Looking toward the primary 28% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of Marshall to 12% for Cunningham and 10% for Lewis.

To put the current state of the race into perspective, Elizabeth Dole led Kay Hagan 51-39 in a poll we conducted at this same point in the election cycle two years ago.
One thing that continues to hurt is Burr is his relative anonymity across the state. Although the media and pundits have commented repeatedly on the fact that Burr has been more visible than Dole was, only 38% of actual voters share that sentiment to 34% who think that Dole was more visible.

Regardless of the present dip in Burr's poll numbers 2010 is still going to be a far better year for Republicans than 2008 was. But because there are a limited number of vulnerable Republican incumbents this seat is likely to be a top priority for national Democrats, and it looks like North Carolina once again will have one of the most competitive races in the country.

This analysis is also available on our blog:

Charlotte lawyer defends judge on inmate releases

Gov. Bev Perdue has been sharply critical of a series of court rulings that may result in the release of some murderers and other inmates sentenced to life in prison back in the 1970s, but a Charlotte attorney serving as president of the N.C. Bar Association says the judges in those cases were doing nothing other than performing their constitutional duty to interpret the law and rule accordingly.

Lawyer John R. Wester, a partner in the firm of Robinson, Bradshaw and Hinson, said the criticism this week of Wake Superior Court Judge Ripley Rand was "unfair and unfounded." Rand -- son of Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, whom Perdue has named to be chairman of the state Post Release Supervisory and Parole Commission after he steps down at the end of this year from the Senate -- ruled Monday that two life-sentence inmates should be released immediately. The state appealed that decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals, which stayed their release pending a review of Rand's decision. Perdue had called the pending release of prisoners "disgusting" and said she was angry that they were to be freed without supervision.

Wester took a different view. The N.C. Bar Association issued a statement including these comments:

“Criticism regarding Judge Rand in his ruling Monday is unfair and unfounded,” stated NCBA President John Wester in response to comments made by Gov. Bev Perdue. “In the midst of a highly charged situation, Judge Rand has performed his constitutional duty in ordering the release of these inmates.

“Regardless of how one feels personally about this matter, it is the duty of the judicial branch to interpret the statutes of this state as enacted by our legislators and signed into law by our governor. Contrary to the heartfelt opinion of Gov. Perdue, this is exactly how the government and the courts are supposed to work for our people under our constitution.”

To that end, the NCBA reiterates its position that due process continue now that Judge Rand’s ruling has been appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Rand ordered the release of the inmates because they were convicted under a law that at the time defined life in prison as 80 years. During that time, inmates would be eligible for parole if approved by the state parole commission. Subsequent changes in sentencing laws by the legislature essentially cut sentences for those already in prison by half, and authorized accumulation of good-time and gain-time credits for inmates that would further shorten their sentences. The Perdue administration argued that it never applied those time-off credits to the actual release date of life-sentence inmates convicted under the old law. Such credits applied only to the date inmates would be eligible to go before the parole commission. But Judge Rand ruled that the regulations in place did not make any such distinction, and said the plain language of the rules showed that the administration was in error in failing to apply them to life sentences being served by inmates convicted under the old law.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Perdue's 'fumbles' reflected in numbers mired in 20s

As anyone who pays attention to polling already knows, Public Policy Polling in Raleigh is regarded as a Democratic institution, doing a lot of work for Democrats. But they've also noticed that PPP doesn't pull punches for Democrats, either.

Case in point: Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat and first woman to be elected either lieutenant governor (serving from 2001-09) and first woman to be governor. Her approval numbers most of this year have been abysmal, falling into the 20s range and staying there. Recent polls have detected a bit of an upswing for Perdue, thought to reflect some public approval of her hard-line stance against the release of life-term inmates convicted in the 1970s or her efforts to jump-start completion of the I-485 Outer Loop in Charlotte.

But PPP analyst Tom Jensen does not find much good in the numbers for Perdue. She's one of the eight "least popular" governors in the country, he notes. He says, "Perdue's fumbles in the middle of the year turned North Carolina voters against her" and her advisers need to do something dramatic to change the way voters view her. Here's his latest analysis:

As Bev Perdue's first year in office comes to a close there's really nothing positive that can be gleaned from her poll numbers.

Her approval rating is mired in the 20s, as it has been for most of the second half of 2009, and voters in the state don't think she's been improving her performance or that it will get any better in 2010.

Perdue's approval comes in at 27% this month, with 53% of voters disapproving of her. After her numbers plummeted between February and May they've remained very consistent, with her approval coming in between 24 and 30% every month since June and her disapproval registering between 49 and 55% each of those months.

A PPP analysis of approval polls on Governors last week found that Perdue is one of the eight least popular in the country. Her two fellow newly elected Democratic Governors, Jay Nixon of Missouri and Jack Markell of Delaware, found far superior approval ratings of 42/25 and 40/31 in recent PPP surveys.

Perdue's approval woes were spawned from the legislative session and difficult business of balancing the budget and there had been some speculation that her numbers would approve once that was in the rear view mirror. But only 18% of voters in the state think that Perdue's performance has improved since the legislators went home.

There's likewise little optimism from the state's voters that Perdue will learn from the mistakes of year 1 and do a better job in the second year of her term. Just 32% of voters express the sentiment that Perdue will do a better job in 2010 than she has in 2009 with 44% saying they think she will not and 24% unsure.

Perdue's fumbles in the middle of the year turned North Carolina voters against her, and nothing she's done since has changed their minds. It's pretty clear at this point that piecemeal, incremental changes in the Governor's way of doing business are not going to win the voters back to her. Something needs to change dramatically if she's going to get public opinion about her turned around, and while the exact nature of that is beyond my pay grade her team should be looking for it.

And regardless of how much Perdue might shrug off her poll numbers they do matter. Out of her fellow seven Governors in the 'least popular' club four are not seeking reelection next year and three are currently favored to lose their party's primaries if they do vie for another term. Perdue will likely be facing a choice between those two scenarios a year and a half from now if things have not gotten back on the right track. More immediately a Governor with an approval rating in the 20s doesn't have much political capital to get legislators who have to run for reelection in 2010 to do much of anything she wants if it's risky/controversial during the short session. Vulnerable incumbents are going to jump off her ship before it sinks them too.

It will be interesting to see if anything changes or if Perdue keeps slogging along.

See it all at

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Analyst: Basnight era is over

Analyst: Basnight era is over

Political analyst John Davis, who for years has gauged the business-friendly tendencies of the N.C. General Assembly, says the upcoming retirement from the legislature of Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, is one more sign how much the legislature is changing -- and becoming less business oriented and more liberal.

In a post on his Web site, Davis says:

"On November 17, 2009, with the unanimous election of Sen. Martin Nesbitt (D-Buncombe) as Majority Leader of the North Carolina Senate following the suspicious resignation of long-time Majority Leader and Rules Chairman Sen. Tony Rand (D-Cumberland), the historic era of unparalleled power of Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight came to an end. A new era of Senate and House legislative leadership is beginning, an era led by seasoned urban lawyers with unquestionable liberal credentials.

"The latest signal of change came yesterday, when Sen. David Hoyle (D-Gaston), Vice Chair of Finance and the highest rated ally of business, announced that he would retire after this session. The Senate, for decades a safe harbor for North Carolina business, has gone the way of the House and is now in the hands of liberal lawyers. You can count the number of business owners among Senate Democrats on one hand."

The legislature will change with the rise of more influential liberals, he says:

"Who are these savvy urban liberal political insurgents? They include three very smart lawyers who were elected to the House for the first time nearly three decades ago: Senators Nesbitt and Dan Blue (D-Wake), and House Speaker Joe Hackney (D-Orange), along with fellow attorney and elder statesman Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham), and new rising stars with law degrees like Rep. Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake), Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake), and Sen. Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg). Thus, the new demographic profile of emerging leaders in the North Carolina legislature is liberal urban lawyers."

Davis has been thinking about this at least since Rand announced he would leave, but he said it has been coming for a long time.

"Marc Basnight, Tony Rand and David Hoyle are three of the most dynamic legislative magnets in state history. They wielded their power over the Senate with ruthless efficiency, consolidating power so effectively that they became the most influential political force in the state. However, the little known fact outside the Raleigh beltline is that they were slowly becoming a minority in their majority caucus.

"Basnight and his inner circle were business owners who fit the classic mold that distinguished North Carolina from the rest of the South; they were business progressives. Their fatal flaw was the failure to see the value in maintaining their base of business allies by recruiting and helping elect other business Democrats. And so, imperceptibly over time, a liberal coalition of Democrats grew in number and coalesced to create its own magnetic force, a force now greater than that of the leaders."

The upshot, he says, is that the Senate is no longer a friendly place for business:

"Bottom Line: The Senate is no longer a safe harbor for business. Business, like Basnight, is simply outnumbered. Business has also met its match in building relationships with legislators with campaign contributions. Labor unions dumped over $5 million into North Carolina campaigns in 2008. Now you know why Basnight is beginning to tell his friends, “I can’t control my caucus anymore.”

I think Davis has some good points, but I can't remember a time when the legislature hasn't been generally business-friendly -- and my coverage goes back 32 years to 1977 when I first started covering the General Assembly. My guess is that lawmakers will remain open to the entreaties of business and receptive to its proposals, but won't be so quick to give business what it wants as in some sessions in the past.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sen. David Hoyle retiring at end of term

State Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, has announced he will not run for reelection in 2010. In a statement from the office of Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight -- Hoyle's roommate in Raleigh -- the nine-term Democratic legislator and cochair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee said:

To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose! When I complete this term, I will have served 18 years in the North Carolina Senate. Having had the honor and privilege to serve my community and state in every way that has been asked of me, beginning 45 years ago as mayor of Dallas, it is now the time and the season to welcome the next phase of my life.

After much thought, I have made the difficult decision not to seek re-election to the Senate. While I will not seek re-election, please be assured that I will serve the rest of my term with the same diligence, dedication and integrity with which I have served from my first election. Public service has always been a central part of my life and my commitment to our community and our state remains strong.

I sincerely thank my loyal supporters, constituents and family for your faith in me during my Senate service. I am grateful and humbled by the confidence that you placed in me. It has been a high point in my life to be so honored by the voters of my district to serve as your Senator, and I thank you very much for that opportunity.

Second take: Hoyle has been part of the Senate leadership for years, but it now appears that the Senate is about to change in major ways. Longtime Senate Democratic Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, is resigning his office by the end of the year. Replacing him will be Buncombe County Democratic Sen. Martin Nesbitt as majority leader, meaning that power will shift in some ways to the West. Other members of the leadership's old guard may also be leaving. Basnight himself has said he will run for re-election, but longtime observers of the Senate would not be surprised if he, too stepped down.

GOP caucus proposes tax reform, spending principles

Sunday's column on tax reform mentioned the General Assembly's Republican Joint Caucus proposal for tax and spending reforms. The proposal, outlined in a news release under the names of House Republican Leader Skip Stam of Wake, Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger of Rockingham and Joint Caucus Leader Eddie Goodall of Union, follows:

Proposed Principles for Job Creation through Tax and Spending Reform

1. The concept of substantially reducing personal and corporate income tax rates and sales tax rates is good. If that reduction is accomplished by broadening the base in a revenue neutral way, that is the right way to go. But it raises four major issues.

2. Neither the public nor Republicans trust Democrats to keep the rates low. There must be a mechanism to ensure this. Two possibilities:
a) A Constitutional amendment limiting the state sales tax rate at 3% + and the county sales tax rate to an equivalent. The Constitution currently specifies a 10% limit on tax on net income.
b) A Statute that sets out as a Rule of Order, applicable to each House, that an increase in the rate must be separately passed by both Houses and signed by the Governor, and cannot be combined with any other matter unless by a 2/3 vote of each House.

3. The base widening must delete the exemptions and refunds which are in current law for political reasons/not because of true economic considerations.

4. Tax Reform must include spending reform that has passed the House in the past – zero based budgeting, and must include:
a) Procedural reforms must allow “off budget” sources of revenue to be considered as
part of the budget process.
b) The minority party is entitled to proportionate representation on the Budget
Conference Committee.
c) The Governor’s proposed budget must only include the amount of revenue
collected in the prior year (with a recession exception).

5. In determining what is “revenue neutral” the temporary taxes imposed in 2009 shall be treated as if they had expired.

6. We should also look at other reforms that take advantage on behalf of our citizens as federal taxpayers of federal deductibility issues. This could save our citizens $1 billion a year in federal income taxes.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Readers fire back on tax reform

Sunday's column about tax reform brought several responses, including one from a Charlotte businessman who moved here years ago because of its attractive tax atmosphere and who's about to move his information technology business elsewhere:

I enjoyed your opinion article in the Observer yesterday as this topic has recently touched me and my family in a very personal way.
Your comment: “Their insistence on defining revenue neutral as the amount of money available prior to the 2009 tax hike would do several things. It would indeed rein in spending and make it easier to cut tax rates. But it also would further starve essential services that already show excessive signs of wear, including public schools that have lost good teachers, community colleges where classrooms are overflowing and university campuses that face a rapidly increasing enrollment at a time when GOP leaders would cut state spending even more”.
Only get’s at part of the problem, in my opinion.
In my case, I’ve been living in NC for 26 years. I started and own a successful business that is located here. Because it is successful, I pay a huge amount of state income taxes. Recently, because of the change in the internet affiliate tax and the new income tax surcharge, I had PWC look our NC tax situation compared to other states.
I was astounded by the report they provided to me. That night I went home and said “honey we’re moving”. Now, five weeks later we are relocating to a new state (bought a house, found a business building, etc) and will be out before the end of this year.
In the process, we will no longer be paying any tax—$0.00—to NC. (Individually, by my calculation we were paying the equivalent of 5000 NC workers, maybe more when you add in fees, assessments, etc).
The tax problem isn’t the cost of state-provided services—it is the fact that NC’s tax structure is so extremely progressive that it is reliant on a relatively few tax payers. So the state needs money, they raise taxes and hit this narrow group. So people in the narrow group—who can leave—like me—leave.
I know many other business owners who are also in the process of relocating to new states because NC’s tax policies are so out of whack compared to other states. NC will never raise enough money if it’s policies force business owners to leave the state.
We like North Carolina, it’s a very nice place with good weather, pretty mountains and nice beaches. But from now on, we’ll enjoy the state as a visitor and let someone else pay for all those vital services (most of which we never used).
I don’t know why a state would incentivize a productive citizen like me to go, but that’s the effect of their policies.

And a reader from Wake Forest didn't care for the revenue shortfall reference. David Bednar wrote:
Jack: You could have stopped writing at the second paragraph when you made the stupid comment” a deep revenue shortfall”. The problem with all government entities is not a revenue shortfall but excessive spending.

Monday, December 07, 2009

First snow

I was up in the early hours stoking the woodstove with some twisted black locust we had cut and split last summer when I heard the rain rattling on the tin roof. The forecast had called for a rain-snow mix, and from the sound of it this was all rain. It heralded a wet cold Saturday, not a good day for outside work. I wouldn't be able to cut the brush away from the edge of the north side of the field where we park the rolls of hay in that kind of downpour. Maybe I'd finally get a chance to run that 12-2 cable for a couple 20 amp circuits in the barn. Or sort through a mountain of screws, nuts, washers, carriage bolts and lag screws that were littering every work surface in the shop after trying to fix a broken belly mower mount on a New Holland tractor. Inside work, sounded like, and I crawled back into bed.

Just before false dawn it got quiet and I thought the rain had quit. Maybe it won't be so wet after all, I thought as I rolled out of warm covers to put on the coffee, feed the dog, stoke the fire and and look outside the window. Instead of wet deck planks, I saw a frosting of white as tiny flakes settled out of a cloud. Sadie, our 8-year-old French Brittany Spaniel, came over to peer out the slider. I cracked the door so she could take her morning constitutional but she made a U-turn at five feet out and came right back inside. Not yet, her eyes said soundlessly.

By 7 the frosting had turned to a smooth thin layer; by 9 to a half-inch and by noon to a good old steady snowfall, four inches before it was over, that covered up all the imperfections in a 15-acre hayfield that was last cut in October. It was a wet snow with a falling thermometer, so what came stayed for a long visit, bending the bows of the laurel and rhododendron and covering the top of the mountain with a lovely coat of fresh paint. We walked out to the dirt road a couple of times just to stretch the legs and let Sadie work out the kinks. She was a black-and-white blur against a backdrop of snow, endlessly running her loops out and back and bounding along with the joy that any worthwhile dog shows when the day is still fresh and there's energy to burn.

The snow gave up its ghosts around dusk when it thinned, bucked, coughed and stopped. An hour later the clouds parted and a cold luminescence lit up the landscape, giving these old hills an eerie specter until the wind began to pick up, blowing snow devils around like little white upside-down tornadoes. We threw more locust on the fire and poured a wee dram, and wondered briefly and idly if we might be able to salvage a snowed-in call to the office out of this lovely gift of late fall in the Blue Ridge.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Lessons from an old newspaperman

Ed Hodges' death the other day caught me by surprise. He was only 90 and I thought he was off somewhere getting ready to cover a presidential trip to Copenhagen or something. He had been covering life in North Carolina -- and for a time flying with presidents -- for so long for the Durham Herald-Sun that even his retirement years ago just didn't sound right.

A native of Tarboro, Ed was an exemplar of the citizen soldier. His college career in Chapel Hill was interrupted by World War II, where he wound up flying all kinds of airplanes including those giant cargo craft "over the hump" of the Himalaya ferrying supplies and equipment to Army Air Corp bases in China and keeping Chiang Kai-Shek in the war.

After the war Ed worked for a while at the Stanly Press in Albemarle before winding up at the Durham Morning Herald, later the Herald-Sun, as an editor and columnist. I ran into him in 1968 as a greenhorn intern at the Herald, trying to get some course credit and some experience covering the news. There were great mentors at the Herald: Cornelia Olive, now the mayor of Sanford, who taught me how to work sources and advised me always to get a decent dinner when you're on the night shift; Chuck Barbour, who taught me to always stay on the in with the outs when you're covering politics; and city editor Jim Carr, who taught me you need a good sense of humor in this business because nobody goes into it for the money. And there was Ed Hodges, whose graceful writing about ordinary folks as well as the high and mighty was a big draw for readers.

Ed taught me a couple other lessons. One of them was to be careful what you say because somebody might put it in the paper. The other was never waste an anecdote. Keep it with you because one day you might need it for a column.

I learned a lot that semester of spring 1968, but on my last night not much was happening. About an hour before my shift end, I rolled a piece of copy paper into an old typewriter and amused myself by dashing off a yarn about my "retirement" from the Herald at the ripe old age of 21. Written in classic AP style, the second graf noted that Betts had "distinguished himself in a brief career with the Herald by garnering four bylines, 2,346 rewrites and a short article about a student demonstration on the state page….. While he was on the Herald staff, Betts was paid nothing and produced a corresponding quantity and quality of work."

The piece went on to note that after graduation in May, Betts was moving on to his hometown Greensboro Daily News "where he will be paid something, according to an unreliable source. In all probability they will make a copy boy out of him, or give him a small paper route, depending on how well he scores on personnel tests." And so on. I figured once everybody got a two-second chuckle out of it, the piece would hit the trash can where it belonged.

A few weeks later I showed up for my first day the Greensboro paper, where I was to start as a copy editor for $115 a week plus a $4 a week differential for working the night shift. When I walked in the door, my new boss looked up and drawled, "Nice retirement column" as he pointed toward the bulletin board. There hung my retirement column -- reprinted in Ed Hodges' "Folks Around Here" column a few days earlier in the Herald.

I expect I blushed beet red. Fortunately, there were no openings for a copy boy or a carrier that day, so I got to keep the new job on the copy desk. But Ed Hodges' lesson stuck with me. Never waste an anecdote. He used my "retirement" column for a column of his own 41 years ago, and now, so have I.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Charlotte lawyer's views on Loop financing plan

State Treasurer Janet Cowell's office relied in part on an opinion by Charlotte bond attorney Steve Cordell of the firm McGuire Woods that a statute allowing for design-build-finance projects such as Gov. Bev Perdue wants to use to complete the Outer Loop can't be done the way her administration plans. The state would have to contract for the program, which involves having contractors front $50 million of the $340 million cost of the project, though a public private partnership, Cordell said.

In a document released by the treasurer's office this afternoon, Cordell wrote Nov. 24 that:

"... we think that (39) authorizes the NC Department of Transportation (“DOT”) to enter into partnership agreements with the NC Turnpike Authority, private entities and authorized political subdivisions, pursuant to which the partners agree as to how they will collectively undertake to finance the various costs delineated in (39). The statutory language only expressly authorizes DOT to enter into and act through a partnership agreement with one or more of the referenced partners with regard to the financing of the referenced costs. We note that the statutory language of the related provision (12a) only expressly authorizes DOT’s Board to approve such partnership agreements. Accordingly, we do not think the statute authorizes DOT to unilaterally finance the referenced costs."

The Nov. 24 memo is dated weeks after Cordell briefed treasury department officials about problems he saw with the proposal, unveiled by Perdue in Charlotte on Nov. 9. The treasurer's office tried to reach DOT officials for about a week before her announcement, but did not e-mail DOT with its specific concerns, perhaps because the treasurer's office did not know until the morning of Nov. 9 that Perdue would announce her proposal that day.

Cordell also said in his memo that he did not believe the statute granted DOT the power to borrow money. DOT has said the program should not be interpreted as increasing the state's debt because there are no bonds involved and the arrangement does not pledge the state to repay the money. But the deal does contemplate that the state would repay the $50 million over 10 years.

Cordell wrote, "...if the repayment arrangement between DOT and a contractor entered into pursuant to DOT’s “Design/Build/Finance” program was ultimately determined to constitute a borrowing of money by DOT, we do not think that (39) can be relied on as the source of that borrowing authority. "

If the courts found an unauthorized exercise of borrowing power, he noted, they likely would find the arrangement void.

Perdue said earlier this week she wanted to move ahead on the design-build-finance plan and was confident that DOT has authority to proceed under the statutes. In proposing the financing plan, her administration told the treasurer's office it didn't have to have the treasurer's approval but would prefer to have it. But unless the governor and the treasurer and attorney general put their heads together to figure a way out of this disagreement, it appears the state would be proceeding without the support of an important constitutional officer.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

More trouble for Dems

N.C. Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Democrat who plans to step down from his post by the end of the year to become Gov. Bev Perdue's chairman of the N.C. Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission, has been accused of engaging in insider trading in a business where he is chairman of the board, N&O business writer Alan Wolf reports.

A lot of speculation around Raleigh has concerned why Rand would step down now. One theory was that he had had enough of the Senate and wanted out. The latest news story will spark more speculation, of course. It's all "hogwash," Rand told the N&O.

One ironic link: The company whose board he chairs was a spinoff of Sirchie Finger Print Laboratories, a business begun by former state Sen. John Carrington, a Republican who ran into trouble with the feds over some illegal exports of law enforcement equipment to China. He paid a fine and served a year on probation in that case.

Wolf writes on the N&O Web site:

In a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Paul Feldman, who claims he was illegally fired as president of Law Enforcement Associates in August, alleges that Rand had a scheme to profit from manipulating the value of LEA stock.

Rand, the Fayetteville Democrat who plans to step down from the state Senate this month, has been chairman of LEA's board since 2003. The company, which makes security and surveillance equipment, was spun off in 2001 from Sirchie Finger Print Laboratories, a Franklin County company started by former state Sen. John Carrington.

In his complaint, Feldman also alleges that Rand told another LEA executive that he previously had traded the stock of Raleigh-based First Citizens Bank based on inside information he had gotten from former president Frank Holding. Rand said that he "planned to do the same to LEA stock," Feldman wrote.
Rand called the charges "insane" and "hogwash."

"He's a disgruntled ex-employee," Rand said Wednesday in a phone interview. "I'm embarrassed that Frank Holding has even been mentioned in this mess. But I guess that is part of it, when you are in business and in politics. People think you are fair game and maybe you are."

Quick change at Wake ed board

For those who have kept an eye on how Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools have changed since a 1999 federal court decision altered CMS' race-based school assignment policy, the recent Wake County Board of Education election resonated with the same concerns. Many Wake County parents have been unhappy with school assignment policies and have been seeking more neighborhood schools. Opponents of the Wake County diversity policy, which sought to balance school assignments on socio-economic levels, won a 5-4 majority on the board in the fall election and wasted no time getting on with their change agenda in Tuesday's first meeting.

As N&O reporters Thomas Goldsmith and Keung Hui report here, the new majority replaced the board chairman and put a number of items on the immediate action agenda -- including an end to a controversial Wednesday afternoon early-release policy that many parents and caregivers found disruptive, and targeting the diversity policy for change in 2010. The state NAACP has threatened a lawsuit to limit how much change the new board can bring about. The group Tuesday charged in a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice that Wayne County had in effect changed its schools back to a racially segregated system.

It's a reminder, if anyone needed one, that elections are important and that local elections are critically important. They can change everything, for better or worse.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Outer Loop loopiness

The Perdue administration's plan for financing completion of the Interstate 485 Outer Loop may be the ticket to getting that project underway and finishing it years ahead of time, but two state agencies say their reaction is a little bit different from initial reports. I asked the Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Roy Cooper, for copies of any documents they had approving the design-build-finance plan that would have contractors fronting some $50 million of the $340 million that would be required to built the project. Julia White, Cooper's senior policy advisor, said it was inaccurate to say that the department had approved the financing plan. "We have not seen a specific proposal," she said. The department had discussed the concept of design-build-finance projects as contemplated under state law and how that would work. But she as to approval of a specific plan, she said, "We haven't said any such thing. There isn't any such thing." And she said, "We haven't been asked for an opinion."
Ted Vaden, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said the department was confident it has authority under the statute, G.S. 136-18(39) and that Beth McKay of the Justice Department had assured DOT of that. But I also spoke with Deputy Attorney General Grayson Kelly, who said, "We have been put in an awkward position" because it had not seen a detailed proposal that might allow the department to consider all facets of the plan and render an opinion. DOT, he noted, was still in the process of getting information from contractors and others in developing a proposal. But at this stage, he said, "There is no 'it'."

Meanwhile, State Treasurer Janet Cowell's office released a thick stack of e-mails reflecting her department's internal debate about the plan, which one department official called "wild" when he first heard of it. The department began considering the plan on Oct. 12 and apparently had questions from the outset. On Oct. 30, the Treasurer's Department asked Steve Cordell, a lawyer at the law firm of McGuire Woods, whether the statute allowed the department to use the design-build-finance statute to help pay for the Outer Loop. The department did not release a document directly from Cordell, but on Nov. 4, Deputy Treasurer Vance Holloman e-mailed the treasurer that "We spoke with Steve Cordell this morning. He does not believe that G.S. 136-18 (39) gives DOT the authority to enter into a financing contract with a contractor. He believes that Statute would give a partnership that is a legally separate entity from the state the authority to enter into a financing as permitted by law. So DOT's idea of paying interest and principal over 10 years is not permitted by GS."

But the department had trouble lining up a time to talk with DOT official Mark Foster about its Nov. 4 determination until the last minute. It had sought a phone call with the department on Nov. 5 but Foster was out of town until Nov. 6, and a meeting was scheduled for Monday Nov. 9. But the department learned ("Yikes," one official said in an e-mail) in a brief news item on Nov. 9 that Perdue was holding a press conference in Mecklenburg County that morning, and Holloman finally spoke with Foster that same morning.

In an e-mail late that morning, Holloman wrote that the Perdue administration could get the $50 million it needs from toll road projects that would be delayed over a two-year period. "If they will take that money during the 2 years and pay the contractor as the work is being done they could avoid the financing issue. However, they do not want to say this publically (sic) since that makes it appear that funds are being taken from toll road projects when these projects are just delays."

The e-mails show that Mecklenburg Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter was working on the Outer Loop solution. Anthony Solari, director of government affairs for the Treasurer's Office, wrote Holloman that same morning that Clodfelter, "based on the conversation he had with Janet (Treasurer Janet Cowell), went ahead and told the Gov. it could be worked out. We were careful to tell him that the best option was to use the turnpike money that was not going to be used during the next couple of years. We also mentioned, if I can recall correctly, that the idea that they could go ahead and contract with the private company outside of the debt study was unacceptable to us."

"My feeling is that if they can finance this within the guidelines you set out for them, o.k. But if they try to do it under questionable authority or outside of the manner you think best, we should jump on it right away."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

DOT chief 'surprised' by NC Treasurer's I-485 concerns

N.C. Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti said Wednesday he was puzzled by state Treasurer Janet Cowell's statement Tuesday expressing concern about a design-build-finance program to start work on the remaining portion of I-485 around Charlotte. As reporter Mark Johnson noted, Cowell's office said the lack of a contract specifying terms and conditions of the novel financing and construction plan left the Department of State Treasurer, as spokeswoman Melissa Waller put it, "unable to determine if there are issues or concern."

Conti said in a telephone conversation that it "came as a surprise that she[Cowell] decided to go public" with her reservations. The Perdue administration, he said, had held a number of discussions with the state Department of Justice and Attorney General Roy Cooper's office as well as with Cowell's staff. While the treasurer's staff had a number of questions during those talks, Conti said, Cowell's public stance had surprised him. "I still don't understand exactly" what she meant, he said. Conti said the Perdue administration was "fully committed" to moving forward on the project and also said, "We don't see any obstacles to doing it."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

GOP keeps primaries open to unaffiliated voters

State Republican leaders wisely came to their senses over the weekend and short-circuited a plan to bar unaffiliated voters from participating in Republican primaries. My colleague Rob Christensen noted in Dome that the GOP Executive Committee rejected the proposal to narrow the Republican primary only to registered Republicans. He reported that Republican legislative caucus leaders wrote the committee that "For a Republican candidate to win an election in North Carolina, the candidate must build a coalition with unaffiliated voters. Barring unaffiliated voters from participating in Republican primaries will make building that coalition more difficult."

Polls have shown, he added, that most unaffiliated voters regard themselves as either conservative (38 percent) or moderate (37 percent) meaning they identify with ideological trains of thought but don't register in either party.

The plan to bar unaffiliated voters was pursued by some who want to make sure the Republican Party represents only true conservatives and not the kinds of moderate Republicanism that strongly conservative leaders want to root out of the party. That kind of thought led to the party's recent loss of a seat in New York, when conservatives purified a congressional race by running off one Republican candidate, only to see Democrats win the seat.

This move was baffling to me. I always thought Republicans in this state were much smarter than the Democrats when they first agreed to allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in the Republican primary. Democrats didn't do that for a while. I realized the Republicans were getting unaffiliated votes used to the idea of casting votes for Republicans -- an idea that at the time was still new to a lot of voters in North Carolina who had not voted Republican in previous elections. In time, Democrats also allowed unaffiliated voters to announce at polls on primary day which primary they wanted to vote in. Based on voter registration, after all, the unaffiliated category is where a lot of the voter registration growth has been.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Parkway's many fathers -- and fans

Sunday's column about the Blue Ridge Parkway and the need to boost maintenance and preserve vistas brought several responses -- including one that pointed out I should have credited Josephus Daniels rather than Jonathan Daniels as a principal player in bringing the parkway route through Western North Carolina instead of Tennessee, as a parkway study committee had recommended.
While Josephus Daniels was Ambassador to Mexico at the time, he was an influential adviser to President Roosevelt, having been close friends since the days of the Woodrow Wilson administration when Daniels was Secretary of the Navy and Roosevelt was his assistant secretary. Jonathan Daniels, Josephus' son,was also a parkway supporter. He became an adviser to Roosevelt in 1941, well after the parkway route decision had been made.

Susan Jackson Mills, executive director of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, wrote:

Did you know:
·that FRIENDS of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s nationally known program is Save Parkway Views?
·that where land trust groups cannot secure the land that abuts the Parkway that FRIENDS has planted thousands of trees by thousands of volunteers.
·that as the celebration was kicked off in NC that FRIENDS was planting trees in Virginia on both Friday and Saturday to save Parkway views.

A Charlotte reader wrote:

I enjoyed your column on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I moved to Charlotte a few years ago and have taken a couple of trips on the Parkway (Asheville to Boone sections) including a recent one with my mother. She was from Chicago and went on a honeymoon drive on the Parkway in 1957 and had never been back till last year. She was struck by the number of trees and the lack of views with the exception of the overlooks. In your column you mentioned you were on the parkway in the 50's. Is that your memory as well that the length of the parkway was mainly tree free with vista's from every bend?
A problem with the Parkway now is that too many of the overlooks are getting overgrown with trees. (You noted this as well) I am sure we are way past cutting trees along the length of the parkway but what is the problem cutting a few trees at the overlooks? Is the problem dollars or is it environmental? (I am not talking about full scale logging just pruning a few trees in the overlooks where they are encroaching on the view.)

Another reader recalled the contributions of former U.S. Rep. Robert "Muley Bob" Doughton of Allegheny County, a farmer so popular with his constituents that he won 21 terms in the House, serving from 1911 to 1953. It was Doughton for whom Doughton Park -- the largest park and recreational area on the parkway -- is named. Doughton is also credited for having steered the Social Security Act through Congress in 1935. He was also said to be mighty tight with the taxpayers' buck. My friend Ralph Grizzle once recalled that he liked to warn his colleagues, "You can shear a sheep year after year, but you can take his hide only once."

And Joe Epley, the former Charlotte newspaperman and public relations firm executive, reported in from Tryon:

As a trustee of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, I applaud your column in Sunday’s Charlotte Observer. Thank you for making a case about the Parkway’s dilemma and critical need for adequate funding.
We in the Foundation are working diligently to help preserve and enhance the Parkway’s beauty and uniqueness. That’s why more than 25,000 cars in North Carolina support Parkway with the special Blue Ridge Parkway tag. Twenty dollars of each tag fee goes to the Foundation to benefit the Parkway.
When I was a child back in the 1940s, I remember my favorite treat was having my father drive the family up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I then took my children there as often as I could, and later, I gave my grandchildren the same thrill. It is one of America’s great treasures.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Perdue's popularity numbers improve

Gov. Bev Perdue has had a tough year in the opinion polls, with her popularity sliding about as fast as the unemployment rolls and the state budget deficit have risen. Things got so bad at one point that she shook up her communications leadership, hiring Pearse Edwards away from Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and bringing him back to North Carolina to be her communications and policy advisor. Not long ago Perdue also made headlines when she opposed the imminent parole of inmates who had been sentenced to life in prison for violent crimes, including murder, which may have struck a positive chord with voters.

Now two different polls have shown Perdue's approval ratings have improved, at least a little. Last week, the Civitas poll found improved results. Dome reported that "43 percent of state residents approved of the job Gov. Bev Perdue was doing at the end of October, a surge of 14 points from earlier in the month." But Dome also noted that Civitas' Chris Hayes detected a difference between performance and their view of the governor: "Even if her job approval has ticked up, people still don't have a good feeling about her," he told Dome.

The Civitas poll is available at

Meanwhile, on Monday Public Policy Polling also found better results for Perdue. Analyst Tom Jensen notes:

For the first time since June Bev Perdue's approval rating is out of the 20s. 30% of North Carolinians express support for her work this month with 49% disapproving and 22% unsure.
The positive movement for Perdue is largely a result of the Democratic base warming back up to her a little bit. Where last month more voters within her party disapproved than approved of her work, now 46% give her good marks with only 32% disapproving. She continues to suffer from pretty paltry ratings with independents and Republicans though- 24 and 11% approval respectively.
Perdue has consistently received better marks in the Triangle than the rest of the state. While part of that can be attributed to the region being more Democratic the difference is so large it can't be traced to that alone. She has 41% approval here compared to 22-32% everywhere else. This could be chalked up to Perdue's being much more visible here, particularly on the tv news, and that the more people see her the more likely they are to really think she's attuned to the state's problems. Improving visibility in the rest of the state could go a long way toward bringing up Perdue's overall numbers.
There are also some indications in this month's findings that while Perdue is certainly in a difficult place, the hole is not too large to climb out of. Asked to assign her a letter grade the most common response, from 28% of respondents, was to give Perdue a 'C.' That's an indication there is a lot of ambiguity in voters' feelings toward Perdue and that while they lean toward disapproving of her right now getting their support back over the next three years is not an impossibility.
Only 35% of voters give her a D or F, suggesting they're gone forever, compared to 40% who rate Barack Obama that poorly. It is certainly true that few voters love Perdue- just 15% giving her A's as opposed to 32% who do the same for Obama- but you don't necessarily have to be loved to be reelected.
There's not much doubt if Perdue had to stand for reelection today she'd be toast. The first year has not been particularly successful in the court of public opinion. But she's not 'done for,' so long as she can learn lessons from the difficulties so far and use that experience to do things different in the future. Whether she's capable of that kind of adaptation remains to be seen.

This analysis is also available on PPP's blog:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hunt, Rand, power and paroles

Ben Niolet of the News & Observer noted in Dome the other day that Chris Hayes of the Civitas Institute had turned up an interesting factoid questioning how long Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland and the Senate's majority leader as well as rules committee chair, has contemplated taking a job on the parole commission. Rand surprised almost everyone a week ago when he announced he would step down from the Senate by year's end -- and a short while later Gov. Bev Perdue announced she would name him chairman of the NC Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission. It's a full-time job that pays $100,000.

Here's what Ben posted on Dome, followed by a recollection about Gov. Jim Hunt and how he remade the parole commission early in his first term as governor when he discovered he didn't have any immediate openings on the commission to name appointees to:

Rand's retirement plan?
How long has Sen. Tony Rand been thinking about leaving the state Senate for the state's parole board?
Civitas' Chris Hayes has dug up an interesting fact. In 2005, Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat, sponsored a bill that would have changed the structure of the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission. Rand's bill meant to change the panel from three full-time members to one full-time member and two part-time members.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously on April 13, 2005 and was later incorporated into the 2005 budget bill to be signed into law.
I guess the question becomes, is this just a coincidence or did Rand have this all planned out years ago?
On the other hand, Rand was a powerful force in the Senate and has his name attached to an overwhelming majority of bills that were adopted.

As I've noted previously, back in 1977, when Hunt was in his first year as governor and I had just arrived in Raleigh as capital correspondent for the Greensboro Daily News, the parole commission was chaired and staffed by appointees of Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser, who had served from 1973-1977. Instead of waiting for vacancies to occur, Hunt's allies in the legislature went right to the point. They introduced and passed legislation that abolished the old parole commission and then created a new parole commission whose appointees would serve at the pleasure of the governor. It was an exercise in the wielding of quick power -- so much so that when the bill was introduced, I called then-Parole Commission Chairman Jack Scism for a comment, only to find out that neither Scism nor any of his colleagues knew the bill was coming or what it did.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Should veterans get a holiday on Veterans Day?

It's Veterans Day, and across the land the military veteran is being honored with department store sales, parades, memorial services, thoughtful editorials, wreath-laying services, grand speeches, solemn ceremonies and a holiday -- a holiday, that is, as long as you work for a government agency. Some private and non-government employers also give the day off, to be sure. But take a look around: What you'll see is what you normally see in America: Those who have jobs are working today, including millions of veterans who served stateside and around the world, in foreign conflicts and in peacetime.

The sad fact is that veterans are honored mostly with lip service. Of course, giving a veteran the day off is not the only way to properly honor a vet's service. There are many ways to honor them, and I've never heard a veteran complain publicly about this. Most of them simply do what they did in the service: they do their jobs and they move on. But a holiday for veterans as well as for their fellow Americans would more completely recognize the sacrifice and commitment of veterans and their families. A holiday for all veterans on Veterans Day, too often honored as an afterthought in a too-busy world, would show those who served under arms that their service is truly appreciated.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Perdue's pledge on I-485

Gov. Bev Perdue's announcement Monday of a new financing plan to begin construction of the last remaining portions of I-485 around Charlotte before the end of the year is an example of why folks have learned not to bet against Perdue. When she pledged back in February to start construction by the end of the year and finish it within a few years, it was obviously a risky pledge. The reason was simple: There was little if any money available, and the economy was on a long downhill slide. As Deputy DOT Secretary Susan Coward noted in a memo, "it is highly likely that all of these projects will be delayed due to lack of funding."

It reminded me of former Gov. Jim Hunt's promise back in 1996 to cut the travel time for a new Raleigh-Charlotte passenger train from nearly four hours to two hours -- by the time he left office. It was an audacious pledge, and one that would surely cause travelers to flock to the train. The state has steadily trimmed time from the train schedule over the ensuing 13 years, but it isn't close to a two-hour trip yet. It can take millions of dollars to trim a minute or so from the schedule -- and making trains run faster at the same time you're rebuilding tracks and making seven stops is incredibly difficult. Even with great steps forward, the trip now takes three hours and 12 minutes from Raleigh to Charlotte.

When I talked with Pat Simmons, head of N.C. DOT's Rail Division back in May, he said everyone had learned a lot since Hunt made that two-hour pledge.

We didn't get there," he said, "but we have made a lot of progress."
And I wrote: "I wouldn't bet against Perdue. But if the hoped-for funding doesn't come through, there is precedent for this approach: No, we didn't keep our promise, but we sure made some progress."
This deal still isn't done. As Perdue acknowledged in a meeting Monday with the Observer's editorial board, she may be on the phone next week with firms urging them to participate in the design/build/finance method of infrastructure construction that other states such as Texas have used.
It's a novel thing here in what used to be called The Good Roads State. It would require construction firms to participate in financing the project -- split into three sections -- and get paid back over 10 years. It might mean the freeway would be finished by 2015 instead of just being started by then.
But you've got to give her credit for coming up with a plan that might jump-start the I-485 completion. I wouldn't bet against her on this one, either.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A changed landscape without Powell's cartoons

Political junkies in North Carolina's eastern Piedmont woke up Thursday morning to a new reality: Dwane Powell, the News & Observer cartoonist who has interpreted state and national politics for more than three decades, caricatured blowhards and the beloved alike and left no political balloon unpunctured, has taken a voluntary buyout and retired from the newspaper.

He has been cartooning so long that few can remember a time when he wasn't drawing an exaggerated pompadour atop Jim Hunt's skull or those widespread beady eyes at the far corners of Jesse Helms' eyeglass frames. He skewered them equally -- and apparently they loved it. They'd call Powell to chat and ask for the original to hang at the office or at home.

Powell's last day was Thursday, and columnist Jim Jenkins let Hunt know that Powell was packing up. Hunt came by to bid Powell farewell, and under his arm he had one of Powell's cartoons from 1978. Hunt good-naturedly told a small assemblage that while writers can publish stories that cause politicians discomfort, it's cartoonists like Powell who can make it sting.

The framed cartoon Hunt brought showed Hunt with wild, unruly hair and his wife Carolyn sitting at the breakfast table in bathrobe and curlers as Hunt asked something like, "Have you seen my curling iron?" Hunt said that was the one cartoon over a long career that got him in serious trouble -- not in politics, but at home.

Powell's cartoon reference to Hunt's hair became a signature for his lampooning of the carefully groomed Hunt, whose hair in his younger days was dark with never a strand blowing out of place even in a stiff breeze. His hair was so ripe for fun-making that Powell often portrayed him with a comb in the Hunt mane -- a jibe that led to one of the funniest public performances ever given by a North Carolina governor.

It was at the annual Capital Press Corps skits nearly a decade ago, a must-attend event in which reporters make fun of legislators and other pols near the end of every session. Hunt was winding up his fourth term and showed up in the audience that night.

One of the skits was about a press-corp competition to do an imitation of Hunt, and at the end, then-press corps chairman Dennis Patterson asked if anyone else wanted to try out. Up rose Hunt – a surprise to everyone except Patterson, who had arranged Hunt's cameo appearance. Here’s what I wrote the day after that 1999 appearance:

When Hunt stepped to the podium, he … launched into an uproarious parody of himself that had the crowd howling. He laid it on thick, as only Jim Hunt can do, lavishing gratuitous praise on those present, proclaiming pride in all things and dropping into every other sentence the program name he talks about so much: ``SmartStart.'' It sounded like machine-gun fire: ``SmartStart.'' ``SmartStart.'' ``SmartStart.''

He brought the house down with the intensity and fervor of his declaration that he was working his head off every moment ``for the itty-bitty chirren of North Carolina.'' He delivered a hysterical reprise of a speech from years back about the early development of children's brains, with their neurons going ``snap, crackle and pop'' inside their tiny little heads.

And he topped it all off with the observation that there's one more important thing for a governor to have. Drawing out a huge comb and passing it through his graying-but-still-impressive pompadour, he drawled, ``You've got to have great hair!''

Then he paused for effect, turned to Patterson and asked if he'd gotten the part - ``or do I have to go back to my day job as an editorial writer for the The News & Observer?'' That brought the house down. Even Republicans who long complained that newspaper was Hunt's official party organ caught themselves applauding.

It's not often you can get a governor to lampoon himself, in public, with a prop first emphasized in a political cartoon decades earlier. Dwane Powell did, and those of us who looked forward every morning for more than 30 years to his latest 'toon will miss his pen and his sharply defined points.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Pay to play on Wildlife Commission?

The influential N.C. Wildlife Federation has asked Gov. Bev Perdue to investigate whether seats were sold on the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, a key state regulatory agency, for large campaign contributions during the Easley administration. The board of directors of the Wildlife Federation, which is credited with helping birth the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission more than 60 years ago, voted Monday to seek the inquiry after testimony last week before the State Board of Elections raised questions about political appointments and campaign contributions.

The federation said the request was based on testimony "that the appointment of certain commissioners to the Wildlife Resources Commission was predicated upon political donations of over $100,000." Developer Lanny Wilson told the board he had proposed a five-point plan for Gov. Easley's campaign fundraising that involved getting large contributions. Wilson told the Easley campaign that his business partner, Charlotte developer Gary Allen, wanted to retain a seat on the Wildlife Resources Commission as well as get a boat ramp permit at a development in Brunswick County. After Allen wrote one $50,000 check, he got the boat ramp permit and reappointment in 2004 to the commission. The following year, Easley also appointed Randy Allen, Gary Allen's brother, to the commission.

“If these allegations prove true,” said Tim Gestwicki, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, “we call upon Governor Perdue to immediately demand the resignations of any individuals who were appointed under such inappropriate circumstances. She should then appoint duly qualified, representative citizens to serve out any replaced terms. That’s a fair, straightforward process to restoring credibility to the current appointment process and structure of the state agency responsible for the wildlife resources that belong to all North Carolinians.”

Two N.C. judges nominated for federal appellate judgeships.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan says President Obama has nominated two North Carolina judges, including one from Charlotte, for the federal appeals court that handles cases from five southeastern states. She announced Wednesday morning that N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Jim Wynn of Cary and Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Albert Diaz have been nominated for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Their nominations, which come as no surprise, are subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Wynn is a longtime member of the N.C. Court of Appeals and Diaz has handled complex business cases during his term.

If confirmed, the two would be only the seventh and eighth North Carolina judges on the 4th Circuit in its 208-year history. Currently there is only one North Carolinian on the court, Judge Allyson Duncan. The states in the 4th circuit are South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

“Today’s announcement is a victory for North Carolina,” Hagan said in a news release from her office. “For too long partisan bickering and obstructionism on both sides of the aisle have unnecessarily derailed the nominations of qualified North Carolinians.
“One of my primary objectives has been to ensure North Carolina has the representation on the court it deserves and that the nominees are the most qualified and fair-minded choices to serve the 4th Circuit states. I have been working closely with President Obama and the White House Counsel’s office to accomplish these goals and have been pushing for two additional North Carolina seats. I am thrilled that President Obama has selected two North Carolinians, and that our state is finally in a position to get fair representation on the court. Judge Wynn and Judge Diaz are both extremely qualified justices, and I will be working to ensure the confirmation process is smooth.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Make tax rates low, base broad, expert advises

A joint House-Senate Finance Committee began revisiting tax reform Tuesday in an effort to come to some consensus on whether North Carolina can restructure its revenue system. The committee, which may make recommendations to the 2010 short session of the General Assembly, began by listening to William Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

What Fox said was interesting even though it was along the line of what many who have studied this issue for years have recommended: Broaden the sales tax base and then cut the sales tax rate as well as the income tax rate.

But Fox's recommendation focused as well on sales taxes on business: Don't do it, he said. "It's not in the best interest of the economy," he said.

Fox noted that North Carolina has "a very narrow" sales tax base that taxes only about 30 of 165 potential sales transactions, including services. (Committee co chair Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, thought this state taxes more like 40-some kinds of sales transactions.) Fox said nationally the sales tax base is shrinking -- and in response the states are raising tax rates. That's the wrong direction to pursue, he said: "Keep your bases very broad and your rates very low, and you will have the best results."

A couple of statistics caught my eye.

Nationally, state sales taxes represent nearly 31 percent of revenue. In North Carolina, however, general sales taxes represent only 23.1 percent of state revenue. That's "very light for a southeastern state," Fox said, and shows that this state relies more on the income tax,

Over the past three decades, the sales tax base as a proportion of personal income has dropped from about 53 percent in 1979 to about 38 percent now. Among the reasons for this decline are the state's decision to drop the state sales tax on food, to have an annual sales tax holiday just before the start of school, and the state's narrow use of services.

The sales tax holiday is popular, but makes little sense from the economy's point of view, Fox said: "Economists are nearly unanimous that it's a bad idea; Politicians are nearly in agreement that it's a good idea."

Some personal consumption expenditures have changed greatly over three decades. In 1979, we spent 20.3 percent of income for food and beverage but only 13.7 percent in 2007. On the other hand, we spent 47.4 percent of income on services in 1979, but by 2007 that was up to 59.7 percent. One reason: health care is a part of the services sector.

North Carolina loses perhaps as much as $300 million in sales tax revenue from e-commerce sales, Fox said. That estimate has risen a lot since last year, when it was computed at $212 million. But overall, most e-commerce sales are not business-to-consumer transactions. They are business-to-business transactions, and while the states should tax e-commerce consumer transactions, they should leave business-to-business transactions out of the revenue mix, Fox said.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Hall: Dems were not 'cleared'

Hall: Dems were not 'exonerated'

Bob Hall, the director of the nonprofit organization Democracy North Carolina, a watchdog over government in general and elections in particular, is one of the reasons the State Board of Elections held a series of hearings last week that wound up with the board penalizing former Gov. Mike Easley's campaign $100,000 (a $60,000 forfeiture for air flights that were not reported and a $40,000 fine for the cost of the board's investigation) and sending evidence it received to the Wake District Attorney's office to determine whether criminal charges should be pursued. Hall had filed a complaint with the board arguing that a review of campaign finance disclosure reports showed evidence of a plan to raise contributions beyond the legal amount from individual contributors to Easley's campaign by channeling them through the state party.

The board also ordered the State Democratic Party to forfeit $9,000 in contributions that that the Easley campaign had sought. The contributions were to be sent to the party and earmarked for Easley's use, according to testimony. The State Democratic Party took note of the fact that the State Board of Elections did not single out the party for any wrongdoing, and said that amounted to the board's exoneration of the party.

Not so fast, says Hall. In a Saturday afternoon e-mail to reporters and editors at the News & Observer and the Observer, Hall said the evidence made it clear there was "sufficient evidence" to show that the scheme worked as planned -- and that the Easley committee, two contributors and the party had violated state law. He also took issue Monday with a line in an Observer editorial that said the board did not find the Democratic Party at fault.

Here’s what he said Saturday:
I don’t think it’s right to say the State Board of Elections cleared the Democratic Party of all wrongdoing. The unanimous vote to order the Party to forfeit $9,000 resulted from concluding that there was sufficient evidence to show that donations had been solicited for Easley’s benefit, made payable to the Party, and used to pay expenses for the Easley campaign – i.e., that the donor, Easley Committee, and Democratic Party were all involved in a type of earmarking that violates NCGS 163-278.14(a): “No individual, political committee, or other entity shall make any contribution anonymously or in the name of another. No candidate, political committee, referendum committee, political party, or treasurer shall knowingly accept any contribution made by any individual or person in the name of another individual or person or made anonymously.”

The statute of limitations has expired on misdemeanor charges, but not on a civil penalty. The Board decided that it had evidence regarding the donations from Lanny Wilson and Nick Garrett, but testimony did not support charges involving other donations. The penalty could not have been assessed unless there was evidence the Party participated in the earmarking scheme for the Wilson and Garrett donations. I’m not asking you to write more about all this, except that in your Correction section, I think it would be good to say that beyond two cases of illegal earmarking involving the Wilson and Garrett donations, the Party was cleared of any further wrongdoing. That way, the clarification will appear when somebody retrieves the original story some months from now. What do you say?

BTW, here’s how Fayetteville Observer reports it: “The board ordered the state Democratic Party to forfeit $9,000 in campaign funds for two donations that were solicited by Easley's campaign committee. Easley supporters Nick Garrett and Lanny Wilson, both of Wilmington, testified that they gave the Democratic Party donations above the $4,000 individual campaign limit with the understanding that the money would be returned to Easley's committee. The board ruled that the party violated campaign finance laws because a $4,000 check from Garrett and a $5,000 check from Wilson had been earmarked for the Easley committee.”

And here’s what he said Monday:

Maybe quoting the Board’s adopted motion itself will be helpful, which I have below. I see CO’s weekend editorial also says “the board did not find the party at fault,” which I’m sure delights party’s spinners. Maybe a correction that will ride with that editorial into Google-land would be appropriate. Illegal earmarking includes the party spending the money for the earmarked candidate.

Leake motion, unanimously adopted, about the 2 cases of earmarking ended with him saying “. . . the sum of $9,000 and, as there has not been sufficient evidence shown of any OTHER violations of North Carolina law on the part of the North Carolina Democratic Party, that the remainder of the complaint as to that entity be dismissed.”
See 1:38 into video of his motion at:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Easley on the stand

During Wednesday's historic State Board of Elections hearing that offered the spectacle of a former governor being grilled publicly by board members, there was a short break and Easley wandered over to where I was reading the New York Times. Before the hearing resumed I had time for one question: In hindsight, was it that good an idea for him to testify publicly? I had heard the governor's lawyers didn't want him to testify when other officials were still conducting inquiries, and I could see why. By the nature of the questions from board members, I had the distinct impression that Easley's version was not finding as much credibility as was his former ally McQueen Campbell's Monday version about flights, home repairs and payment. I didn't have my pad and pen in hand and thus couldn't record his answer, but the gist of it was that he felt, after all the stories about him and his campaign, some obligation to the people to answer questions publicly.

It has been clear from news stories that he wasn't going to answer questions that News & Observer reporters have for him, and that's too bad. They've done a lot of good work on Easley's record, and to my mind their questions are probably better focused than the election board members' sometimes rambling questions. But the truth is coming out, some of it, and some of it in fits and starts, and we'll know more when the board comes to its conclusion and when other authorities complete their investigations.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sausage-making and campaigns

We've all heard the old line about legislation and sausage -- that neither should be watched in the making. But for stomach-turning details, it would be hard to beat the N.C. State Board of Elections hearings in Raleigh this week. If you've tuned in to the Web streaming or watched on TV, you know that the list of unseemly things should include political campaign finance operations.

Consider: In just a day and half we've heard testimony that:

* Scores of flights to political events worth more than $87,000 were never reported on required state campaign finance disclosure forms by former Gov. Mike Easley's political campaign in 2000 and 2004. The pilot, McQueen Campbell, essentially gave the flights to Easley. Easley later named him to the N.C. State University board of trustees. Campbell helped the Easleys in several ways, including helping Mary Easley get a job at N.C. State. It was a cozy arrangement.

* The campaign treasurer, Raleigh lawyer Dave Horne, told the board Tuesday morning that it wasn't his responsibility to find out about airplane flights the governor might have taken to make sure they were properly reported. He later testified that he did make sure airplane flights were properly reported for the flights that he knew about or helped arrange from another pilot.

* When Easley needed someone to assess whether his Raleigh home -- while his family lived in the Executive Mansion -- needed repairs, he asked old friend and pilot Campbell to look at the problems and have them fixed. When Easley had yet to ask Campbell how much he owed, Campbell said he called Easley and understood the governor to instruct him to send the campaign a bill for some of those unreported flights so that they totaled up to the cost of the home repairs. They cost 11,000.

* When a campaign aide balked at paying one bill and asked for documentation, she said, Easley called to tell her it was okay and to just pay the bill. Then the kicker: Easley filed a claim for the damage with his insurance company and collected something like $5,400. Campbell got paid with campaign money, not insurance money, but here's the thing: At that time, it wasn't even illegal to convert campaign money to pay for personal things -- as long as the candidate reported the money as income. Uh, oh.

* Campaign contributors such as Lanny Wilson and Nick Garrett told how they had helped raise a lot of money for the Democratic Party and believed it was headed right for the Easley campaign. Wilson also told the Easley campaign they should tap developer Gary Allen for a $50,000 contribution to the Democratic Party that would make its way to the Easley campaign. In exchange, Allen wanted reappointment to the N.C. Wildlife Commission and a state environmental permit for a boat ramp on the coast. That's just the way it happened. Can you smell the aroma?

* In questioning this morning it was clear that Board of Elections members believe that the Easley campaign had cooked up a plan to run big campaign contributions through the state Democratic Party or the Democratic Governors Association. There's a $4,000 limit on contributions to individual campaigns, but not on political party campaign contributions to political campaigns.

* Campaign Treasurer Dave Horne couldn't recollect such a scheme. He also told Board Chairman Larry Leake that he couldn't understand why anyone would want to avoid having a controversial contributor's name on Easley's campaign disclosure reports by first donating the money to the Democratic Party in the foreknowledge that it would wind up in Easley campaign hands. I'm guess Horne was the only one in the room who couldn't understand that scheme -- or who would say they didn't understand it.

Politics is a contact sport in many ways, and it takes more than a large checkbook and a strong stomach. But what's troubling about the elections board hearings so far is that they show a disregard for the letter and spirit of the law by a campaign and a candidate who first came to political prominence as a crime-busting prosecutor with a squeaky-clean image. Worse yet, they draw a picture of a man who would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to spend money for items that everyone else in the world has to find a way to pay for. I don't know if that set of circumstances involving the home repairs and the insurance claim he filed will put him in a courtroom, but it's one of the seamiest stories I've ever heard told about a North Carolina governor going back more than 40 years of covering N.C. politics.

This is exactly what Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was talking about when he referred to the culture of corruption in Raleigh. It seems to pervade everything -- personal dealings, party fund-raising, favor-taking and favor-granting and, when investigators come calling, a whole lot of smart people suddenly unable to remember certain details. It reminds me of what Sen. Sam Ervin said in the Watergate hearings 35 or so years ago: A good forgettery is better than a good memory. Sheesh.

Friday, October 23, 2009

'Rule One of Politics'

They broke ground Thursday morning on the rolling land that once was a dairy farm that supplied food to Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh -- but which will soon be the home of a new research library named for former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. It's to be quite a place -- perhaps the best feature yet of the highly successful Centennial Campus on the N.C. State University campus, launched 25 years ago as Hunt's second term was coming to a close.

As Hunt told the story Friday morning, Raleigh Mayor Avery Upchurch came to his office to ask that the state give the land for a new housing development. But Hunt had had another idea, one sometimes ridiculed back in 1984: Give it to N.C. State University for a new kind of business-research-residential-student-government office complex that would be envy of the world.

Pretty audacious stuff -- but it has reshaped N.C. State University's reputation, giving it a cutting-edge sharpness about producing the processes that entrepreneurs will use to produce jobs of the future and creating a sort of global envy about what they've got going on the Centennial Campus. Read about it in Jay Price's story here.

At this morning's festivities, former UNC Charlotte Chancellor James Woodward, now the chancellor for the interim at NCSU while a search proceeds for a new chancellor, gave credit to Hunt for the transformative idea: "No Jim Hunt, no Centennial Campus," he said.

Woodward also gave a warm introduction to a series of speakers, including a glowing tribute to UNC System President Erskine Bowles. Bowles got up, strode to the podium and told the assembly something like, "You've just witnessed Erskine Bowles' Rule One of Politics: Always be introduced by someone you appointed to high office."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The 'statriotic' CD 'Old North State'

Politics and public policy get most of the attention on This Old State, but I've got to take notice of notable contributions about the culture of the place when it arrives. And just the other day came a note about the Red Clay Rambler's latest CD of N.C.-centric songs. It's called "Old North State," and like the Rambler's previous works, it's a toe-tappin', finger-poppin' delight.

One reason is the band's cast of musical mavens, including Clay Buckner, Jack Herrick, Chris Frank, Rick Good, Bland Simpson and Rob Ladd, not to mention the backup vocalists. They're all superb musicians with a flair for the kinds of funny send-ups, haunting melodies, rural skits and pulse-quickening pieces they play. Go see one of the performances of the Ramblers' big band, as pianist Bland Simpson calls it when everyone's on stage at once, and you'll see more than two dozen instruments played during the course of the evening. I once saw the drummer tapping out a rhythm on the strings of the fiddle while the fiddler was busy sawing away on a melody. Where do these guys get this stuff?

Well, from their imagination, from nature, from the state's history, from previously penned lyrics and from their own creativity. Simpson, for example, is head of the creative writing program at UNC Chapel Hill, has written books about the state's coastal and sound regions, hosted a public television program about the coastal area and collaborated with his Rambler colleagues and former Charlotte Observer cartoonist Doug Marlette and Pulitzer Prize winner, now deceased, on the musical "Kudzu."

Even the Ramblers' name hearkens to another time in N.C. history: Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers made roots music popular in the 1920s with such songs as "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down." It's often said that the North Carolina Ramblers and Poole paved the way for such popular acts as Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, and the country music of Hank Williams. The original Ramblers have inspired other bands with the name Ramblers, too.

In the new CD, which Simpson calls "statriotic" (a blend of state and patriotic, I do believe) and confesses that the band has wrapped itself in the flag of North Carolina, there are salutes to big band leader Kay Kyser, jazz musician Thelonious Monk, composer Louis Jordan, author Thomas Wolfe, and Charlie Poole's original Ramblers. It also features a Jack Herrick orchestration, first performed with the Red Clay Ramblers and the North Carolina Symphony in 2007, called "The Old North State Rambler." It includes some fiddle tunes as well as "The Old North State," the state song written in 1835 by Judge William Gaston.

I'm partial to "The North Carolina State Toast and Breakdown," which combines the toast (Here's to the Land of the Long Leaf Pine, the Summer Land Where the Son Doth Shine….." and an old Arthur Smith and the Dixieliners' fiddle tune called the "North Carolina Breakdown."

As a historical note, the Ramblers point out, the state toast was first delivered not in North Carolina, but in Richmond, Va., in 1904 when the Rev. Walter Moore, a Charlotte native, closed his speech to the North Carolina Society of Richmond with a recitation of Leonora Martin's toast about this old state. When we're in Virginia and seated at table, we try always to toast the Land of the Long Leaf Pine.

Find out more at

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wedding present for GOP chief Tom Fetzer

Political analyst and consultant John Davis always has an interesting take on North Carolina politics. Davis cut his political eyeteeth in Mississippi before settling in this state, and his savvy analysis of state legislative and other races has always brimmed with insight.

Davis took note the other day that fromer Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer, a longtime bachelor and now N.C. Republican Party chairman, married over the weekend. Davis wasn't invited, he noted, but he is giving Fetzer "a wedding gift in the form of a true story about a transformative lesson I learned from a reclusive millionaire banker in Mississippi … a lesson that may help Tom as he works to lead Republicans in North Carolina towards their goal of winning power over the state budget in 2010, as well as winning influence over reapportionment following the next census."

Here's a link to that story. The short take on it is all about being willing to learn from your mistakes instead of being defensive about past performance. The whole story abut the reclusive Mississippi bankers is worth reading, but for those pressed for time here's what Davis says about Fetzer's task, and his opportunity:

Fetzer’s experience as a candidate, party activist and consultant gives him the ideal skill set for political combat. As the first GOP mayor of Raleigh in the 20th Century, he built a winning coalition that led to three wins and raised a record-breaking $500,000 for his reelection.

Another vital change underway at the North Carolina GOP is a renewed commitment to unity evidenced by the rallying theme for the 2010 elections, “One Team, One Goal, Victory.” A quick glance at Fetzer’s endorsements for party chairman reveals that the theme is more than PR fluff. He received the backing of the who’s who from the Helms, Holshouser and Martin eras. Almost every former party chair along with current and former statewide elected officials worked together to help elect him chairman.

However, the final and most difficult change for North Carolina Republicans has yet to be made, and that is the need for crafting their message for the 2010 electorate. Many are saying that 2010 is trending Republican-friendly … a year that could be as revolutionary as 1994, the first time in the 20th Century that the GOP won a majority of the seats in a legislative chamber. But North Carolina is nowhere near the same state it was in 1994.

Our state had only 3.6 million voters in 1994. We have 6.1 million today. In 1994 only 10.3% of North Carolina voters said they were “Liberal.”2 Today, that number is 24%.3 Now here’s the real clincher: In 1994, Democrats had a market share of 59% of North Carolina voters, compared to 33% for the Republicans and only 8% Unaffiliated. Today, Unaffiliated voters have tripled to 23%, the GOP share is about the same, and Democrats have plummeted 13 points to 46% … at the same time the number of “Liberals” has more than doubled!

My wedding gift to Tom Fetzer is the transformative political lesson from a reclusive Mississippi banker, the importance of embracing past mistakes so that they are not repeated. Accepting the fact that we are not the Old South of 1994 is critical to winning in the New South in 2010.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Burr, Bowles: Once adversaries, now friends

Dome today has a piece about the ongoing friendship and collaboration of UNC System President Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, and their economic summit at N.C. Central University in Durham.

The two have become friends since their bruising 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, when Burr beat Bowles and captured the seat being vacated by former Sen. John Edwards, the Democrat whose popularity numbers have slid over the abyss.
If you watch Carolina basketball you'll sometimes see Burr sitting with Bowles in the Smith Center. The two men obviously like one another. It's good to see them working together, but it ought not surprise anyone. Bowles has a history of working across the aisle and within the complicated factions of both political parties. That's how he helped arrange a balanced budget when he was White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. And Burr will talk your ear off when he's interested in a topic and has some thoughts about how things might work.

But I can't help wishing they had talked directly with one another back during the 2004 campaign, when they might have hit on ways to give voters a better campaign that was less about money and more about issues.

In fact, they tried, but the couldn't seem to talk directly to one another. Here's a segment from a column I wrote about that topic in June, 2004, after talking to both men:

They came close to doing the right thing the other day, but something got in the way.
After a Virginia-based independent group called Americans for Job Security began running pro-Burr ads in North Carolina, Bowles had a suggestion: Let's agree to discourage third-party independent spending campaigns in North Carolina.
Bowles knows how ugly they could be; environmental and workers' groups criticized his 2002 Senate opponent, Elizabeth Dole, in negative ads that year. Bowles himself was the target of negative ads financed by national Republican interests. He wrote Burr the other week to tell him he thought outside special interests have no place in N.C. politics. How about a pledge to keep special interests out?
Trouble was, Bowles didn't just send that message to Burr. His campaign sent it to the press, which is how the Burr campaign found out about it. I don't know about you, but if someone wanted me to do something, I'd want to know what it was and think about it a bit before I heard about it from a reporter.
The Burr folks thought it over and made a counter-proposal: Why don't we also agree to keep the influence of big money out of our campaigns by agreeing not to make big personal contributions? Bowles is wealthy and put considerable sums in his 2002 campaign; Burr is pretty well off, though not in the same bracket as Bowles.
Bowles regarded that as a rejection, but wrote back that he would accept Burr's proposal - though he had contributed an equivalent amount that had been spent in Burr's behalf by Americans for Job Security, around $600,000 or more.
You guessed it: the wheels came off. Burr's campaign rejected the Bowles' campaign offer, concluding that Bowles had already violated the Burr proposal by putting money in his campaign. The matter is closed, a Burr spokesman said. We're done talking about it.
Too bad. They came so close. Or did they?
Both campaigns were engaging in a kind of one-upsmanship that sent the idea down the tubes. The Bowles campaign's appeal through the media appeared designed more to get publicity than results. The Burr counterproposal seemed designed to mitigate Bowles' personal financial advantage, ignoring the fact a big personal contribution would at least be disclosed and could hardly qualify as special-interest money. Bowles' response that he would agree to the deal but had made a personal contribution equal to the independent ad campaign sent the Burr folks down the slippery slope of suspicion, souring any chance of further negotiation. The Bowles campaign thought that was a sign that Burr was never serious about it in the first place. Burr's camp thought the same thing about Bowles.
We'll never know. What we may end up with is another of those campaigns that make North Carolina infamous, with specials interests from somewhere else trying to tell us who we ought to put in the Senate and spending gobs trying to buy our votes.
Bowles is now suggesting the candidates discourage their own political parties' senatorial campaign committees from running independent ads. Burr's campaign dismissed the suggestion as one more hollow attempt to make a deal through the news media, and anyway it was no longer listening.
It's too bad these two candidates aren't talking directly, and seriously, about doing something to give North Carolina voters a better campaign.
But that would take some leadership on someone's part. Either Burr or Bowles has to pick up the phone and start the conversation - person to person.
It's an opportunity to lead. Will either candidate take it?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A brighter outlook for Republicans

Those looking for continuing signs of a brighter future for Republican candidates will find it in the latest work by a Democratic polling firm. Public Policy Polling in Raleigh does a lot of work for Democrats, but its findings have a lot of credibility among political observers across the spectrum not only because it called the election accurately last year, but also because it has been taking note of poor popularity numbers for Democrats and the increasing likelihood that Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, once thought to be in some trouble for re-election next year, is in pretty fair condition because Democrats have not come up with a popular candidate who fares any better against Burr.

The other day PPP found that Jessecrats in Eastern N.C. -- the Democrats who once helped Sen. Jesse Helms win and stay in office for decades -- think better of President Obama, a black man, than they do of Gov. Bev Perdue, a white woman.

Now PPP finds that N.C. voters are planning on voting for Republicans in federal and state races next year. Here's what PPP analyst Tom Jensen says:

Our newest poll finds the GOP holding a 48-38 lead on the generic Congressional ballot and a 46-39 one on the generic legislative ballot.

There are two key reasons for the early Republican lean: independents are leaning toward them and they're more unified than the Democrats are. For Congress independents prefer Republicans 37-21 and for the legislature it's 34-23. 90% of Republicans but only 76% of Democrats plan to support their party in Congressional races and for the legislature those figures are 89% and 77%.

These high levels of Republican unity are becoming a constant in our polling across the country as the party's voters seem to realize they'll all have to be on the same page to avoid repeats of the disastrous 2006 and 2008 election cycles.
The generic Congressional numbers aren't that important. Unless Bob Etheridge ends up getting into the Senate race there's really only one seat that's shaping up to be at all competitive next year, and that's Larry Kissell's. We'll likely do a poll on how folks think he's done in his first year sometime next month.

The legislative numbers are more meaningful because there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple dozen seats that could be closely contested next year. A Republican takeover of the legislature is entirely possible in this climate. It just remains to be seen whether they'll be able to raise the money and recruit the candidates to take advantage of it. Democrats at the state level have often been able to weather bad years for the national party because of superior campaigns and fundraising.

And of course the election is 13 months away. Six months ago it would have been almost unthinkable that Democratic prospects could decline so much in such a short period of time, and there is certainly a possibility that things will be much rosier for the party a year from now than they are today.

This analysis is also available on our blog: