Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Coker connection, arboretum and forest

If you've spent any appreciable time on the campus at UNC Chapel Hill, you've probably strolled through the Coker Arboretum just east and a little north of The Old Well. It was created early in the 20th century by a campus botany professor named William C. Coker, who turned a swampy area on what was then the eastern edge of the UNC campus into a peaceful, quiet oasis of plant life for botany students and a place where students, alumni and anyone who wants to take a stroll can get away from the pressures of academic life for a little while.

So as I drove to work Monday morning while listening to WUNC radio news about a 56-acre protected research forest that Elon University has created on the edge of its campus, my ears caught a familiar name. According to a transcript on WUNC's public radio website, the report went on:

"Biology professor Jeffrey Coker says he's thrilled about the decision.

(Jeffrey Coker:) 'Although Elon Forest itself is small, in terms of where it is, it's actually very significant, and very large even, compared to the types of natural resources that you might find around a lot of bigger schools in North Carolina and across the country.'"

I wondered right away if Jeffrey Coker was kin to the Professor Coker whose work created Coker Arboretum. Elon spokesman Eric Townsend sent my question to Jeffrey Coker, who responded:

"That is an excellent question. I have been asked this many times and it has drawn the interest of historians at UNC Chapel Hill. The short answer is that I’m not sure. Here is what we know for sure...

The Coker at UNC was William Chambers Coker. Our families both originate in South Carolina. Our fathers were both employed by the pulp and paper industry. We both earned PhDs in Botany. We were both professors at N.C. universities. We both helped to create natural preserves at our universities. We both place(d) great value on teaching and educational innovation. He served as the Editor of the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, which later became the Journal of the N.C. Academy of Science, and I serve on the Board of the N.C. Academy of Science and am the Chair of its Education Committee. And so on and so on. So we certainly have a great deal in common. I didn’t know most of this until Bill Burk (historian at UNC) sent me materials about William Chambers Coker, and so the whole thing is incredibly ironic.

Nevertheless, William Chambers Coker had no children, and thus I cannot be his direct descendent. My attempts to figure out my family history have led me to the South Carolina archive, where I was told that Sherman’s march led to the burning of the records that would help me trace my “Coker” roots. It seems very likely that we are related by a common ancestor in the 1700’s or 1800’s, but I can’t be sure.

Best wishes,


Professor Coker taught my father botany at UNC sometime in the late 1920s. As a boy I recall flipping through a notebook my father had kept of Prof. Coker's lectures, and his drawings of the plant life Coker lectured about.

I was also interested to know that there was one more well-known Coker academician born in South Carolina who became a mainstay at a North Carolina university: Zoologist Robert Ervin Coker, who taught zoology for years at Chapel Hill and whom then-UNC President Frank Porter Graham tapped in 1946 to organize the Institute of Fisheries Research in Morehead City. It's now known as the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. According to William Powell's Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Robert Ervin Coker and William Chambers Coker were both from Society Hill, S.C., and were cousins.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tar Heel high school phenoms in the big show

If you didn't catch it earlier, here's a link to Tim Stevens' story today on local-boy-made-good Josh Hamilton, who leads the Texas Rangers against the San Francisco Giants tomorrow in the 2010 World Series.  Stevens is a fine reporter who has spent a lot of time with Hamilton over the years, recording the ups-and-downs of a career that has, at times, been a sad story and, lately, a storybook tale of determination and redemption. He was once called the best high school baseball player in America.  He once was addicted to alcohol and cocaine, his life a total wreck.  And now he's sober, walloping the hide off the baseball and leading Najor League Baseball in hitting.

Hamilton was a high school phenom at Athens Drive High School on Raleigh's west side, and folks around here have been pulling for him to straighten out his life and make full use of his talents. He has excelled this year, winning the American League batting title with an .359 average and becoming Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series. His career stats: .311 batting average, 93 homers, 331 RBIs, 553 hits. He hits left, throws left and plays left field.

Hamilton's comeback is an inspiring story, especially to those who once had dreams of diamond glory and now have aging knees that sometimes seem to pop like a fastball planting itself in a catcher's mitt. I have found it hard to forgive the Texas Rangers for moving the old Washington Senators out of D.C. in 1971 when I was stationed at the Pentagon.  But Josh Hamilton has done something I didn't think possible: He has not only become a great baseball player and by all accounts a first-rate person, but he's also made me a Texas Rangers fan. Play ball!

Update: A reader reminds me I ought to have said something about the other Tar Heel in the World Series: Madison Bumgardner from Lenoir's South Caldwell High (not Lenoir County, as this blog first and incorrectly said). Here's what the reader suggested mentioning:

-          Second youngest pitcher to start a game for the Giants since they left NY.
-          Youngest pitcher in Giants franchise history to win a post season game
-          Named Starting Pitcher on the 2010 Baseball America All- Rookie team
-          Had 1.13 ERA in 5 games in September as Giants overtook the Padres to win the NL West.
-          He’s from Hudson, NC (near Lenoir) and led South Caldwell HS to the state championship his sr. season.
-          Committed to play at UNC but chose to sign with the Giants after they made him the 10th overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A better Senate debate last night

Last night's debate in the U.S. Senate race, the second of three planned for this campaign, was likely much more helpful to voters than the first. Sponsored by NBC-17 and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, it included Libertarian Party candidate Michael Beitler, a business professor at UNC-G whose views provided voters a third choice in addition to Republican incumbent Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Elaine Marshall. As Rob Christensen points out in his front-page coverage of the debate, exchanges between the two major candidates were more pointed -- especially the debating points made by Marshall, the N.C. Secretary of State. She was more intently focused on making points that Burr has been a captive of special interests in Washington and that she is more of an outsider, pointedly noting this time that she was not the hand-picked darling of the Senate leadership.

I thought Burr did a better job this time, too, not just responding more aggressively but more effectively carrying his message against Marshall -- and at one point accusing her of supporting a single-payer health care system. Marshall retorted she had never supported that system and branded Burr as wrong. He surprised me at one point, though, giving a less than ringing endorsement of the public's right to know who's giving money in politics in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Marshall has been critical of that decision and Congress's failure to insist on disclosure of who's contributing money to independent campaign committees.

Beitler chipped away at the image of both, but most pointedly accusing Burr of cronyism in accepting large contributions from Wall Street and supporting the big bank bailout, calling it a "perfect example of big business and big government." He accused Burr of voting with "fiscal liberals" and declared himself the only fiscal conservative in the race, a point that the record certainly seemed to bear out.

I liked the debate format and setting a lot better Wednesday night, too. On my TV screen the lighting was much better, and the format allowed each candidate a number of rebuttals to each other. This forum may not have been a classic debate in the sense of candidates asking questions of one another, but the ability to respond to one another's remarks if the candidates chose to use their opportunities was helpful to watchers looking not only for information on issues but also how the candidates stood up to one another and for nuances in their positions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Burr-Marshall debate would have been livelier with Beitler

Last night's Senate debate between incumbent Republican Sen.. Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Elaine Marshall explored some key differences between the two veteran politicians. Rob Christensen's story from UNC-TV studios where it was broadcast has a good rundown on those differences.

But I was struck more by appearances, and what might have been. Burr, the former Fifth District Congressman from Winston-Salem, seemed to be in the position of sitting back and letting the debate come to him. He landed fewer jabs at Marshall than she swung at him, and Burr's trademark smile -- detractors call it a smirk, admirers think of it as a boyish beam -- shone throughout the one-hour debate. I learned six years ago when he first won the Senate seat that Burr has an appeal to voters that may be hard for observers to immediately grasp. He campaigns his own way and makes a connection with individuals with the same kind of personal appeal that made him an outstanding microwave oven salesman before he went full-time into politics. It's easy to underestimate Burr, as many political opponents have discovered on election day.

Marshall, a veteran state legislator who became the first woman to win a statewide executive branch office when she became Secretary of State, wore a bright red suit that on my TV screen (cable, not high def) seemed to bloom, almost overpowering her presence. I checked three channels and the results were similar, and I wondered if that sharp contrast was off-putting to other viewers.

Marshall held her ground pretty well, but for someone who the polls show to be facing a significant gap, I thought she missed a chance to swing hard and swing aggressively at Burr. She did land some body blows, but I also thought, again, that she was missing an opportunity to remind viewers in a more direct way that she was not the hand-picked candidate of the Washington insiders with whom so many voters nationally are reported to be thoroughly disenchanted. She did observe in an understated way that she was not the anointed candidate of the Senate leadership, but I thought her advisers should have pushed her to make the point in a more forceful and emphatic way. Perhaps they did. I take it that she does not see any point in antagonizing Senate leaders if she does win, but I believe she has to find a way to strike a chord with voters who aren't enthusiastic about Burr. His numbers haven't been great all year, and while he has a big lead in the horserace, Marshall ought to pursue a way to focus on that.

The debate was moderated by Carl Kasell, a Goldsboro native, UNC Chapel Hill graduate and star of National Public Radio. But I thought the debate would have been livelier had it included Michael Beitler, the Libertarian Party candidate and one-time bodybuilder who is a professor of business at UNC-Greensboro. Beitler has a sharper sense of humor than either Burr or Marshall and would have lightened up the debate with his pithy comments. As the Observer's Jim Morrill noted the other day, Beitler says Burr panders to the "Glennbeckistani crowd" and accuses Marshall of sometimes "talking but saying nothing." But Beitler is way down in the polls, and the sponsors set a minimum of 10 percent standing in the polls. The N.C. Broadcasters Association Foundation sponsored the debate; there will be two more.

Update: Beitler will appear on Wednesday night's 8 p.m. debate sponsored by WNCN-TV and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Solomon Burke's Charlotte connection

Solomon Burke, to his fans the King of Rock and Soul, and to others little more than a distant foonote in the development of rhythm and blues, died Sunday on a flight from Amsterdam to Los Angeles, the wire services report. It was a sad thing to hear, because Burke was a wonderful singer who bridged many gaps from gospel, country, rhythm and blues, blues and rock and roll. I plumb wore out two casette tapes of his Best of Solomon Burke before CDs were invented. He just never got the same attention that other famous entertainers have enjoyed, but he made solid contributions that helped a lot of rich superstars get where they are. He wrote for the big boys, too.

If you're a fan of Burke, I don't have to tell you how important he was. If not, it may help to point to his work that was featured, among many other places, in the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing with the song "Cry to Me" and in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers with his song "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love." The Blues Brothers had one of the worst movie plots in memory but the entertainment was just terrific, including pieces from Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and a host of the best session players in the world. We watched it so many times my children memorized the dialogue -- and as adults still quote it at the appropriate times.

There's a Charlotte connection with Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love." According to this website , Burke hired some unnamed musicians from Charlotte to play a Long Island gig with him and them help him cut the song he wrote with Jerry Wexler and Bert Russell in the 1960s. The website doesn't say who those Charlotte players were, but they were there at the beginning. Here's a snippet from the article:

Solomon Burke recalled to Mojo magazine August 2008 that he'd hired musicians from Charlotte, North Carolina, to play at a gig in Long Island and he drafted them in to play the instrumental riff on this. The riff was the money march he did at church where the congregation marches down the aisle to the front to make offerings. Burke continued: "Got the band cooking, get a bit of echo, we went through it, came back out, said to (record executive/producer) Jerry (Wexler), 'Whaddya think?' He said, 'Too fast. Doesn't have any meaning.' (Engineer) Tommy (Dowd) says, 'What can we lose? His band's here, let's just cut it.'"

The Blues Brothers covered this. Their version featured in the 1980 The Blues Brothers film. Nine years later, it was released as a single in the UK, backed by "Think" and it peaked at #12.

Anyone have any idea who those Charlotte musicians were?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Supreme Court: Easley transfer unconstitutional

The N.C. Supreme Court made some law Friday by deciding not to decide. Or maybe that's by not deciding to decide, letting stand a lower court ruling that says Gov. Mike Easley should not have shifted money from the Highway Trust Fund in 2002, even to help balance the state budget.

The court split 3-3 on the issue after Judge Patricia Timmons-Goodson properly recused herself from the case. She had been on a Court of Appeals panel when it considered a procedural issue affecting the case.  Later the Court of Appeals dealt with the substantive issue whether governors can alter legislative decisions to put money in a specific trust fund -- in this case, the Highway Trust Fund. The Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 against it, and the Supreme Court's 3-3 tie leaves the lower court's ruling intact. Thus a two-judge majority on the Court of Appeals decided an important question -- at least for the time being. The ruling does not have precedential value, as an earlier version of this post stated. But lawyers and politicians will argue about the impact regardless of that.

The lawsuit was filed in response to Gov. Mike Easley's using $80 million in Highway Trust Fund money to balance the state budget in 2002. He argued that the constitutional provision directing the governor to manage the state's money gave him the authority to transfer money as needed.

What's interesting is that this does not exactly reflect a political split. After all, many Republicans as well as Democrats in the General Assembly supported the lawsuit and supported the Court of Appeals decision.  If there was any split at all, it was between a legislature that argues its decisions on designated money cannot be overruled by a governor, even when there's a financial emergency, and the executive branch.

Update: There was bipartisan support on both sides. Former Govs. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser, both Republicans, supported  the theory that the Constitution gives governors the authority to tap special funds in order the balance the budget. 

And it's a big win for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, which represented former state Sen. Bill Goldston and former Secretary of Transportation Jim Harrington in challenging the transfer.

"The Constitution and the People have prevailed. The Court of Appeals decision will stand and government accountability will stand with it,” says the institute's senior staff lawyer, Jeanette Doran. “The People can count on the constitutional mandate that the General Assembly set the budget and the governor administer it as enacted. Voters can count on future governors not raiding special trust funds.”

Here's the court's decision today:

Justice TIMMONS-GOODSON took no part in the consideration or decision of this case. The remaining members of the Court are equally divided, with three members voting to affirm and three members voting to reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals. Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals is left undisturbed and stands without precedential value.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Perdue planning government reorganization

Gov. Bev Perdue will announce next month what could be the most important initiative of her governorship: a merger, consolidation and maybe elimination of state programs and possibly agencies, too. Dome reports she made remarks about the coming reorganization at the end of Tuesday's Council of State meeting, though it was not exactly a stunner. She has previously talked about the need for such a reorganization to deal with a projected budget deficit of as much as $4 billion next year, when federal stimulus funds are no longer available to help tide the state over.

Perdue is absolutely right about the need to reorganize state government. In a period of growing demands for basic services such as education, health care and public safety, and a weak recovery from the recent recession, ends no longer meet.  Perdue is promising "a big announcement" and her spokesperson, Chrissy pearson, notes that this is an opportunity to "transform state government."

Both political parties and the broad-based middle ought to embrace such a transformation -- but also concentrate on avoiding hurting those who need help the most while making hard decisions that would cut programs or agencies that have served a public purpose in the past but no longer can be regarded as critical to our future.  While everyone has their least favorite agencies or programs that they'd get rid of in a minute if they had the opportunity, the fact is that they exist because either legislators or other elected or appointed officials saw a need and got enough of a consensus to create them.

Perdue should think boldly about what state government should look like and offer a comprehensive vision for how agencies might work together.  It may be far too much to hope for, given the public's opposition to losing what they perceive as an opportunity to vote even for judgeships whose occupants many do not know the names of, but a wholesale revision of the Council of State itself also ought to be under a spotlight.  Do we really need separate elected constitutional offices to supervise and regulate insurance, agriculture and labor? Should there be a separate superintendent of public instruction or an elected secretary of state, for example? There are arguments for and against all these offices, but getting a constitutional revision on the ballot next year may be beyond reach.

It's also worth nothing that it's possible to reorganize widely without saving a lot of money, if programs and agencies are merely reshuffled. To save money, Perdue is going to have to recommend ending or sharply cutting spending in a lot of places.   She'll find, as have other governors who have pushed for reorganization -- including Gov. Bob Scott in his landmark reorganization four decades ago -- that a lot of folks will come out of the woodwork to argue for keeping a program that doesn't seem to be all that essential.  That's all the more reason for Perdue to work hard on this, take the broadest view of what we need to end up with and seek allies across the board. This is important work, and she needs all the help she can find.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Gov's office takes exception to Democratic poll

 I meant to take a blogpost note of an unusual e-mail yesterday from Pearse Edwards, senior advisor to Gov. Bev Perdue, taking issue with a recent polling firm finding that blames Perdue in part for the troubles Democrats are having in this year's election. Edwards objected to Public Policy Polling's conclusions about a relationship between Perdue's job performance and the possibility of Republican gains this fall.

PPP is a Democratic polling firm, which is what makes the response especially interesting. So is the fact that the response to PPP came from the governor's office and not her political committe. First, here's what Tom Jensen of PPP sent out:

A majority of North Carolinians continue to be unhappy with Bev Perdue's job performance and the relationship between that and likely Republican legislative gains this fall shouldn't be underestimated.

Perdue's the face of Democrats in state government and her approval rating continues to languish at 35% with 51% of voters disapproving of her. She's starting to see some improvement in her numbers with her own party's voters, pushing her favor with Democrats to 57%. But she continues to be toxic with independents at a 25/64 approval spread and whatever limited appeal she may have ever had to Republicans is gone. Only 8% of them like the job she's doing.

When you have a highly unpopular Governor that's going to take a toll on your party's legislative candidates and Republicans continue to hold a 50-42 lead on the generic legislative ballot. That's fueled mainly by a 50-27 advantage with independents and an incredible degree of GOP unity. While 17% of Democrats say they're planning to support Republican candidates this fall, only 2% of Republicans say they'll go back in the other direction and vote Democratic.

If Republicans really do end up having an 8% advantage on the legislative vote in November they will almost definitely gain control of both the House and the Senate. But many legislative Democrats have a long history of outperforming the general leanings of their districts and if that remains the case again this year the party could narrowly retain control.

Back to Perdue's numbers- while her approval rating is better than it has been some months over the last year and a half what might be most distressing for her is that just 18% of voters in the state think she's improved on her first year performance during her second year in the Governor's mansion. 27% they think she's gotten worse and 55% feel she's doing about the same, which is not a good sign given how dimly voters viewed her after year one. Part of her problem may be a failure to communicate with average voters. 48% think her communications efforts have been ineffective while only 36% think she's doing a good job on that front.

Perdue still has time to rehabilitate her image for her own reelection campaign but it looks like it's too late for her to be anything but a liability for Democratic candidates across the state this fall.

See the rest of the poll and the analysis at

That led to Edwards' response to Jensen and Dean Debnam, CEO of the firm. Edwards, a savvy political communications and policy advisor whose family has strong ties to N.C. politics and business, was hired earlier this year to help Perdue get her message and her proposals across to policymakers as well as to constituents.  Here's Edwards' response :

We believe your analysis of these numbers is not only unfair but wrong.

 Gov. Perdue’s net job approval has improved by five percentage points since May, according to PPP’s own surveys. Her support among Democrats has increased by 18 points.

 Those same polls show that the support for Democrats in legislative races has remained the same.

 Voters are not angry with Democrats. They are not angry with any one party. They are angry with incumbents, period, and that anger shows in polls nationwide. It’s easy to draw a bull’s eye on the one person in power who is seen all the time. Why do they see Bev Perdue? Because she gets out of Raleigh – out of the capital – in the streets talking to real people and working to create jobs and make North Carolina’s economy better for the people.

Here are the numbers that matter:

* North Carolina ranked fourth in the nation for job creation.

*30,000 jobs created and $5.2 Billion in investment.

*As USA Today recently reported, North Carolina is one of a handful of states leading the nation out of the recession, ranking No. 4 for income gains.

*North Carolina has been recognized for the best business climate in the nation.

*CNBC declared North Carolina No. 4 among the Top States for Business this year.

*North Carolina was awarded $400 million in the federal “Race to the Top” grant for Gov. Perdue’s innovative “Career and College – Ready, Set, Go!” education initiative.

 Nineteen months into the Perdue administration, people are angry because we’re in hard times. But times would be harder without Gov. Perdue’s unflinching commitment to growing jobs and making North Carolina better place to live and work.

Monday, October 04, 2010

GOP opposition to judges 'inexcusable, irresponsible"

A spokesman for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says there's more to Republican opposition to Democrats' nominees for federal judgeships than I wrote about in Sunday's column about the failure to even vote on President Barack Obama's nominees. The column failed to take note of a key procedural roadblock, writes Regan Lachapelle, deputy communications director for Reid:

Hi Jack,

Just saw your article on judicial nominations. I think it is good, but there was just one thing (procedurally) I want to clarify.

Everything that we do here in the Senate has to be done by unanimous consent- that includes setting up debate time and scheduling votes.

It only takes one Senator to object to anything. So, that means that Republicans are objecting to us even scheduling a vote. The only way to schedule a vote over these objections is to file cloture.

With Republican cooperation we could confirm every single judge on the calendar today and put them to work ensuring that justice for Americans seeking redress in our overwhelmed court system is no longer denied or delayed. Republicans have used their ability to draw out and delay confirmation as their primary leverage for obstructing the Senate from holding votes on these well-qualified judicial nominees who have volunteered to serve their country. Democrats have asked consent for votes on virtually all of these nominees and Republicans have objected, filibustering these nominations and requiring a cloture petition to be filed in order to secure a vote. Republicans are well aware that it requires approximately three days of Senate floor time to break a filibuster on each these nominees, and that it would therefore take approximately 69 days of Senate floor time, well more than is left in the current Congress, to confirm all of the judicial nominees currently pending on the executive calendar. Their stance is inexcusable and irresponsible.

Hope this helps and please let me know if you have any questions.



Regan Lachapelle

Deputy Communications Director

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid