Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why moderates win N.C. and liberals don't

Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling has some year-end food for thought about politics in North Carolina, including why moderates win here and why liberals have a tough time. PPP always has interesting stuff.
Among other things, PPP notes how Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s Senate record became more conservative, belying the moderate image she projected in winning the 2002 Senate election here.
And PPP notes that both Democrats and Republicans interested in winning elections should pursue moderate candidates. My guess is liberals and conservatives won't like this advice, but there's good fodder to chew over here.

Take a look.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hagan campaign best, but how about Dole's?

The Washington Post has proclaimed state Sen. Kay Hagan's victory over U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole the best Senate campaign of the 2008 election, Chris Cillizza of the Post blog The Fix has this to say:

Today we tackle the best Senate campaign. Tomorrow we'll do governors and on New Years Eve (a.k.a. Wednesday) we'll finish up with the House races.

Drumroll please.... And the best Senate campaign of 2008 is:

Kay Hagan of North Carolina -- Hagan, a state senator, got into the race against Sen. Elizabeth Dole after a number of better known candidates including Gov. Mike Easley and Rep. Brad Miller took a pass on the contest.

Hagan got into the race as a virtually unknown candidate both in North Carolina and nationally, but quickly showed a capacity to raise money that opened the eyes of many people in Washington. On her first trips to the nation's capital, she wowed even the most cynical of party operatives with a charisma about campaigning and a no-nonsense approach to what needed to be done to beat Dole.

Hagan got a major boost in her efforts by a significant amount of spending by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's independent expenditure arm -- including an ad featuring two men on rocking chairs debating Dole's effectiveness and closeness to President George W. Bush.

But, she proved a strong -- and on-message -- candidate in her own right. When Dole went after Hagan in an ad for attending a fundraiser with the Godless Americans political action committee, Hagan was quick to respond with an effective (and cutting) response.

In the end, the race wasn't close. Hagan beat the seemingly unbeatable Dole 53 percent to 44 percent.

My two cents' worth: Cillizza might also have given Dole the award for one of the worst Senate campaigns. She should have started running seriously years earlier by spending more time in her state -- and making sure people saw her often -- and also by tackling more issues that people cared about. The "Godless" ad that got so much attention didn't kill Dole's campaign, but it made the final margin of victory for Hagan larger than it would have been.

Bugle boys of the Cataloochee

More than five years ago, I stood in the rain beneath dripping rhododendron leave and watched as a small herd of 15 elk -- 10 cows, four calves and one old 12-point bull --grazed in a lovely little pasture in the Cataloochee Valley up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These were not native elk. They were hunted to extinction long ago. These were transplants, brought in from Kentucky, Tennessee and Canada in hopes of reestablishing the presence of elk. It was touch and go for a while. In 2001, 26 elk were brought from the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee; the next year, 27 elk came from the Elk Island National Park in Canada.
The Asheville Citizen-Times reported the other day that the number of elk has almost doubled despite predators such as bears, and the population of elk in the Cataloochee now stands at an estimated 95. Here's a link to Nancy Bompey's story -- headlined "Bugle boys" -- in the Citizen-Times.

On that day in 2003 we had hoped to hear the elks bugling, but the only action was the old bull's slow, deliberate rise to his feet and saunter in our direction when a couple of the calves began wondering our way. The old bull neatly cut them off and herded them back to the other side of the family, but it was still a majestic sight to see. It's worth the long drive just to see these big animals -- up to 1,000 pounds for the bulls, 800 or so for cows -- as they roam the lovely mountain valley. It sounds like they've having a pretty good year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Easley on newspaper 'hatchet job'

My colleague Mark Binker, capital correspondent at the Greensboro News-Record, interviewed Gov. Mike Easley the other day in an end-of-administration session that revealed, among other things, how the governor views the press -- particularly McClatchy Newspapers in Raleigh and Charlotte. It also showed the governor with a startling defense of his administration's poor management of the state's probation system. The News & Observer's series on the probation system -- focusing on 580 murders committed by poorly- or non-supervised probationers over the past eight years -- was nothing but a "hatchet job" on Secretary of Correction Theodis Beck, to whose department the probation system reports.

Leave it to the governor to totally miss the point of the N&O's thorough reporting on the probation system failure: Unsupervised probationers commit too many crimes and his administration did too little to correct the problem. Easley's problem is not that the newspaper did a hatchet job on one of his appointees; his problem is that he wasn't paying attention to what his appointees were doing -- or in this case, not doing -- and the newspaper found him out.

Look: The governor is a charming man, funny, witty, wise in many ways and one of the best woodworkers I know. But on some issues he's full of bull. This is one of them.

I missed the interview in the News-Record Sunday while out of town. Here's a link to Binker's blog, which also has links to audio excerpts from the interview. My friend Doug Clark also has some pithy comments about Easley's words.

Here's Dome's take on it today:

Gov. Mike Easley said the "24/7 press cycle" has led to criticism of him.
In an exit interview with Mark Binker of the Greensboro News-Record, Easley said that the increased demand for news online had led to "gotcha" journalism.

"There's a 24/7 press cycle now," he said. "People calling all night long. They want access to the governor all the time ... So that's created a lot of competition, especially on the print side the pressure has been downsizing and original content. Original content is gotcha stories."
Easley said the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer had been hardest on him of state media because his administration would not release e-mails relating to personnel matters and corporate recruiting.
He said a recent series on problems with the probation system was a "hatchet job" on Correction Secretary Theodis Beck, though he argued that probationers killings are better than they used to be said the death of Eve Carson was being unfairly blamed on the system.
"Some young lady gets brutally murdered by a couple of probationers ... it's now the probation officers fault," he said. "When are we going to start holding some of these people accountable and get some of these executions going again?"
Easley said he tries to be fair to the media for his part.
"I try to keep my side of the window clean," he said. "My job is to be nice to other people and their job is to be nice to me. Just 'cause they're not doing theirs, doesn't mean I shouldn't do mine."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Legend of the Christmas Flounder

North Carolina holiday customs are unlike any I've heard elsewhere. In Cherryville they bring out the big guns to fire on New Years day, big old muskets that make a whale of a racket.

In Rodanthe they celebrate Old Christmas on Jan. 6, a custom that dates to days before the revision of the Julian calendar.

And in Wilmington, or so this quaint old story goes, some old timers still revere The Christmas Flounder.

I dunno how much credence to attach to this story -- or the notion that some impecunious youngsters once hung Christmas Flounders on the mantle in hopes that Santa would stuff them with goodies. I think our someone's pulling our dorsal fins, if you take my meaning.

But here's a piece that for years has appeared on Christmas Eve in the Wilmington Star, its editors used to say, in "an effort to keep this grand tradition alive."

Here 'tis:

Twas the night before Christmas

And all through the sound

Not a creature was stirring,

Not even a flound(r). --- Anonymous

If there is an old-timer in your house today, he probably is not reminiscing about the grand old tradition of The Christmas Flounder. It is practically forgotten.

The Christmas Flounder is a Yuletide custom unknown outside Southeastern North Carolina, according to Paul Jennewein, the veteran newsman who is the world's only authority on the matter.

As is the case with many traditions, the origin of The Christmas Flounder is obscured in the mists of memory, but according to Mr. Jennewein it apparently began during the Great Depression, when people in this area were even poorer than usual.

Buying and stuffing a turkey for Christmas dinner was out of the question for many. Something else was needed, something that poor folks could procure in the days before food stamps. And so it came about that one Christmas Eve in the reign of Franklin the King of Four Terms, the merry glow of kerosene lanterns and - for those who could afford the Ray-O-Vacs - flashlights gleamed over the waters of the sound.

Westward wading, still proceeding, went wise men who knew that dull-witted fishes would be sleeping in the mud at that time of night. Suddenly the sharp splash of steely gigs shattered the starry stillness.

Next day, the unfortunate flounders, lovingly stuffed with native delicacies such as oysters, crabs, collards and grits, graced Christmas tables all over the area. Non-Baptists who knew a reliable bootlegger accompanied the humble dish with a jelly glass of high-octane cheer.

It was a tradition born of hardship, but it is unique and deserves to be remembered as part of the folklore of the Lower Cape Fear.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Serendipity: Aunt Sissie's rolls

Terry Eastland, publisher of The Weekly Standard, author and a leading light in the world of conservative thought, didn't live in North Carolina long but he made a big impression on readers of The Greensboro Record, where he wrote lively, provocative and witty editorials before moving on and up in the world of serious commentary.
Terry Eastland has many talents and a great curiosity, among them his search during the 1970s for a recipe to use to make doughnuts as good as Krispy Kremes. He discovered a solution in a family recipe that belonged to his Aunt Sissie, a Texan with whom his parents had stayed when they were courting long ago. We never tried making the doughnuts because we regarded the rolls -- a somewhat simpler product -- as a measure of perfection.
Alas, we misplaced the recipe a few years ago, and though we came close, we couldn't quite replicate from memory the genuine article. Then last week while looking for something else, we came across a stash of our favorite recipes in a corner of a standup desk in our kitchen -- no doubt squirreled away while hastily straightening up the place for company.
These are the best dinner rolls we know of. Eastland described them as light, fluffy and slightly sweet, and he's right. We've made them for sit-down affairs, for stuffing with chopped barbecue for a buffet and for Christmas morning rolls with currents and frosting added.
Here's what you'll need: 1/2 cup of Crisco, 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt, 2 eggs, 2 packages of yeast to dissolve in 2 cups of lukewarm water, and 6 cups of plain flour. (You can use other flours, too, as you see fit, but use plain the first time).
Here's what to do: Cream the half-cup of sugar with the half-cup of Crisco. Dissolve the two packs of yeast in the two cups of lukewarm water. Add that to the creamed sugar mixture, along with the two eggs. Add the six cups of flour and two teaspoons of salt.
Knead the dough and then set it in a warm place until it has doubled in size -- usually around two hours. Roll it out thin -- about 3/8 of an inch, according to one copy of the recipe from the old Greensboro Daily News, and cut out with a round cutter. Put butter on one side, then fold it back on itself. Give the rolls plenty of time to rise (one recipe called for two hours!), then place into an oven preheated to 500 degrees, and immediately reduce the temperature to 450. The rolls will be ready in 5 to 7 minutes.
If you want to try the doughnuts, the recipe says to cut out doughnut shapes, dip in melted shortening and put it on wax paper to rise for an hour or more. Then fry in deep, light shortening 30-40 seconds on each side, then dip in glaze made of milk and sugar while it's still hot.
The doughnuts may have been perfect, as Eastland used to say, but we never made them because Aunt Sissie's Rolls were what we liked best. As Garrison Keillor croons every week in another context, "If your family's tried 'em, then you know you've satisfied 'em."

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Christmas tree in the gloom

When I pulled onto Raleigh's I-440 at 6:45 a.m. the other morning for a quick back-and-forth trip to Charlotte, the world was a gloomy place -- a nasty little mist putting a fuzzy aura around lampposts and headlights. It was going to be a long, hard day -- and then I saw a sight that never fails to lift my spirits. Perched high in a copse of pine (Sunday addition: and hardwood) trees just off the beltway where motorists from both directions can see it well, a brightly-lit Christmas-tree-shaped decoration shone through the gloom. It's a Christmas gift to travelers who race around Raleigh, a brief interlude in a fast-paced lifestyle that reminds me to slow down and enjoy the season.
It's been that way since some time back in the 1990s when Mike Minikus and his family first hoisted a hula-hoop-and-wire contraption lit with lights to the top of a tree towering over the brick wall separating his property from the highway. After the 9-11 attacks, the lights were red, white and blue for a while. Each Christmas the lights reappear and provide a moment of cheer for motorists and passengers along that way.
It also reminds me of other roadside memorials along the waysides of this state's roads. When I take U.S. 64 west towards Charlotte, I always look for the scale replica of the twin towers that a stonemason built beside the road somewhere between Raleigh and Asheboro -- perhaps six feet high or so, one with slightly darker stone than the other, representing the World Trade Centers that fell in the 2001 terrorists attacks.
And there's a field alongside I-85 south of Greensboro where someone flew a lone American flag in the middle of an empty field, a sentinel that I still watch for on those long rides down the road.
These bits of Americana are priceless gems to me, signs of an American spirit that endures in tough times, and help brighten the way. I'm grateful for them -- and for the hands that put them up for all of us to see.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Charlotte's stimulus list: $422 million

The City of Charlotte has sent the U.S. Conference of Mayors a list of projects it believes is eligible for inclusion in a federal economic stimulus program -- and it includes projects totalling nearly $422 million and involving as many as 3,610 jobs if all projects were funded.

The list -- part of a MainStreet Economic Recovery Survey on INfrastructure Job Potential -- is among many others available here at the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It includes such items as $110 million for extension of the LYNX transit system's Blue Line -- which might involve 1,100 jobs -- and $13 million for widening of "NC29/US49" -- involving 130 jobs. There's also $22 million on the list for the Fred D. Alexander Boulevard, involving 220 jobs, and $30 million for bus purchases, which the list says would mean 300 jobs.

It's an impressive list -- one of many hundreds that local and state governments are forwarding to Washington in hopes of funding for a proposed stimulus package. It's worth noting, as Julie White of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition notes, that "The Governor-elect (Perdue) indicated today that the State may have a willingness to consider passing some money through to cities if it only flows to the State."

That's a concern to local governments who fear that much of the money will wind up in state hands.

"Coalition Mayors are organizing around this effort. They have established a committee with Mayor Pro Temp Julie Robison of Cary and Mayor David Combs of
Rocky Mount as chairs to spearhead our efforts to ensure some portion of the
economic stimulus package goes directly to MPOs and cities….We are asking the Metro Coalition cities to pass a resolution (or write a letter of support) and plan to present them in total to our federal and state leaders as well as send them to the Obama transition team," White says.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Smithfield Foods and J.P. Stevens

The news last week that workers at the world's largest pork slaughterhouse had won a union election after 16 years of effort was widely hailed as a turning point in employer-employee relations at the Smithfield Foods plant in Bladen County. It harkens up memories of the euphoria that workers felt in 1974 after a long and bitter campaign to organize J.P. Stevens' textile plant in Roanoke Rapids. Workers then thought their union victory would be a turning point in the South -- and state AFL-CIO President Wilbur Hobby said it was "a new day in Dixie." He also prophesied a trend toward unionization: "J.P. first, the textile industry second and then the whole South."
The victory at the Stevens plant was even memorialized in the 1979 movie "Norma Rae" featuring Sally Field, who won an academy award.
But it took the union another six years to negotiate a contract with Stevens, and the union victory never led to the sweeping unionization of the industry or North Carolina -- let alone the South -- that the late labor boss Wilbur Hobby imagined.
Some optimists believe the workers in Bladen County could have a contract within six months, and it does sound as though Smithfield Foods is more amenable to working things out than J.P. Stevens was 34 years ago. "We respect the employees' decision and look forward to working together," said Dennis Pittman, a company spokesman, after the vote, according to news accounts.

Clodfelter for DENR?

Is state Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte in line for appointment in the Perdue administration as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources?
Dome hears he's interested. The N&O Web site had this to say:

"Dome has heard one more name for the secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.

"Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a five-term Charlotte Democrat who currently sits on the Committee on Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources, is reportedly interested in the job.

"He joins a long list of names, including current Secretary Bill Ross, parks director Lewis Ledford, former Secretary Bill Holman, Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss, conservationist Reid Wilson, transportation board member Nina Szlosberg and consultant Freda Porter."

Here's my two-cents' worth: Clodfelter is a highly knowledgeable workhorse on a variety of issues, including the environment. He was a key player in the long campaign to adopt better stormwater runoff rules. He's also an effective senator and skilled legislator, so if he were appointed, it would be a loss to the Senate for his expertise and judgment -- but a gain for the administration for the same reasons.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What would Bev do?

In case anyone is looking for clues to what Gov.-elect Bev Perdue will do once she takes office Jan. 9, there's new information on her Web site from 14 Transition Advisory Groups who've looked at the issues since the election and made specific recommendations to Perdue for actions she ought to take in such areas as environment, commerce, education and so on.
For example, the group looking at transportation issues made these suggestions, among others:
--Sell infrastructure (for example, bridges, ferry system) to private entities.
--Require counties to maintain county roads.
These reports don't bind Perdue to anything, but they may provide some hints to her thinking once she's in office.
Take a look here for all 14 reports:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Grinch Who Stole the Pay Raise

If you read Observer Washington correspondent Lisa Zagaroli's story Wednesday about the pensions that members of the N.C. congressional delegation will be eligible for when they leave office, no doubt you noted the curious case of U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, a Republican from Guilford County and a true skinflint.
I say that with some admiration. I've known Coble for decades and he's pretty tight with a buck -- his, yours or mine.
He didn't enroll in the congressional pension system, though by now it would have earned him a pension of about $65,000 a year after 24 years in the U.S. House. "It's a taxpayer ripoff," Coble told Zagaroli.
"I think the taxpayers probably should contribute to a modest pension, but this one is not modest. This is a lavish pension plan, vesting at five years and automatic cost of living (increases) worked into that."
When Coble was in the N.C. House of Representatives back in the 1970s, he was in the distinct minority on a lot of issues related to spending. He once sponsored a bill to stop a proposed legislative pay raise. My colleague the late Brent Hackney, then a Raleigh correspondent for the old Greensboro Daily News, wrote a story calling him The Grinch Who Stole the Pay Raise.
Coble, ham that he is, loved it. For years thereafter he reveled in the nickname -- and when he called his hometown paper to speak to one of us, he'd growl, "This is the Grinch."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

2010 -- it's begun!

Tom Jensen, the analyst for Public Policy Polling whose writings about the 2008 election proved so accurate in this year's elections, is out with word that Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is in a good position to challenge Republican Sen. Richard Burr in 2010. Here's a link:

$2 to $3 billion for NC transportation?

There was some hopeful talk for travelers around Charlotte and those headed across the Yadkin River at this morning's final meeting of the 21st Century Transportation Committee. No, it's not that the General Assembly would adopt recommendations quickly and produce a lot of immediate revenue for highway, mass transit and other transportation projects. That's going to take a while.
This time the talk was some optimism about getting money from President-elect Barack Obama's proposed national infrastructure program, for N.C. transportation projects such as completion of the I-485 loop around Charlotte and replacing the aging I-85 bridges east of Spencer over the Yadkin river -- the principal east-west crossing for a great many cross-state motorists.
While there's no information on a specific sum that might be available if and when the president-elect gets congressional approval for his program in 2009, committee chairman Brad Wilson speculated that North Carolina's share might come to as much as $2 billion or $3 billion -- "big money," he accurately noted, making it critical for the state to have projects in the pipeline and ready to go when money becmes available.
State Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, is concerned that enough projects won't be fully ready to go. "If DOT has ever been in a hurry on anything, I've never seen it," Hoyle said.
The transportation committee reportm isn't online just yet but will be available at the committee's main Web site at

Users v. withdrawers: getting it right

Richard Whisnant, UNC Chapel Hill professor and co-author of a new study on state water allocation policy, notes that there's an important distinction that may escape some casual readers. The study recommends that those who withdrawn large amounts of water be required to get permits to do so -- but that's not the same thing as large users of water.
"The two populations are very different, since so many large users buy their water from someone else who withdraws and treats it," Whisnant says.
An Observer editorial Wednesday morning referred to water "users."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Data flowing on water study

A comprehensive study of the state's water allocation policies -- launched during a fierce drought and aimed at helping policymakers sort through competing issues and arriving better water policies that would preserve water resources as the state grows rapidly -- has developed over the past year on a Web site that invites the public's contributions. It also tracks changes as the study moved along.

The water study's principal authors are Richard Whisnant of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government and Bill Holman of Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. You may have read about it in Bruce Henderson's story in the Observer Monday.

Whisnant and Holman were just the right analysts for the job. They've got a ton of experience, knowlege, judgement -- and wit to tackle the subject. As the so-called "water Wiki" notes:

"You cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh waters are flowing in upon you." ~Heraclitus, 500 B.C.

"You cannot click twice into the same water wiki, for fresh data are flowing in upon you." ~An Editor of the Water Wiki, 2007"