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  • The role of the press is to keep an eye on the henhouse

    The Boston Globe has called on newspaper editorial boards to publish pieces on Aug. 16 denouncing President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the press, specifically his oft-repeated charge that the news media is the “enemy of the people.” We’re small fry in the media ecosystem and as such weren’t approached by the Globe, but since Aug. 16 is our publication date, we thought we’d speak our piece on the issue. That’s because when somebody with as large a megaphone as the president of the United States repeatedly makes such an accusation, it filters down all the way and can have an impact even on the most humble news organization. So, for the record: We’re not the enemy of the people. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees the freedom of religion, speech, assembly and petition. There’s no accident it singled out a single profession – the press – for protection as well. The founders were all about a government run by the consent of the governed, and knew full well that the governed needed information about what their governors were up to in order to make the best decisions regarding their own fate. In 1765 John Adams wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right … an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.’’ In 1792 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will.” In less flowery terms, the role of the press is to keep an eye on the henhouse. Quite often, that comes in terms of covering municipal and county meetings. People are busy and can’t always sit in on these kind of official gatherings. The press is there to sit in for those who can’t attend, to let them know what their leaders on the local level are doing. These meetings are sometimes, honestly, a bit boring, focusing on the formation of a task force to study this or that esoteric concept. At other times, they can mean you wake up one day with a gun range bordering your property, or a hog farm, or who knows what. It’s our job to give you a heads-up as to what’s coming down the pike. We may opine about the ramifications of such decisions on these pages – that’s why they’re called the opinion pages. Our reporting, on the other hand, strives to deliver the facts and the context as truthfully as possible. At times, that truth can be painful to people, particularly when it casts someone they’re fond of in a negative light. But it’s still the truth. And a truth many people forget in an age where there’s a war being waged on the press. The fact is, people write their own stories. We just report them. In an ideal world this paper would be filled with nothing but positive stories (and in fact, this community being what it is, we are able to run a great many more positive stories than can be found in other communities). But the fact is, there will be arrest reports, there will be crime, there will be times when a government official, through negligence or sinister motives, does something to impact a community. To use an example from a nearby county, there’s a reason a sheriff isn’t rolling in video-gambling money, and a reason a county manager isn’t living large on the taxpayer tab. It’s because they chose poorly in writing their own stories, got caught, and were reported on by the local press. Sure, there are bad reporters out there, as with any other slice of society. There are bad cops. Bad teachers. And bad politicians. But there’s a difference between a bad reporter and universal condemnation of a First Amendment guarantor by the person holding the highest office in the land. It’s leading us into uncharted territory in this country, a potential moment described best by political theorist Hannah Arendt: “The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. … And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. “And with such a people you can then do what you please.’’ No, we’re your eyes, your ears, perhaps even your nose – we’ve seen many a seasoned reporter who can tell something just doesn’t smell right. We’re not the enemy. We’re just doing a job, sometimes imperfectly, for the communities and country we love. Cheerleaders or stenographers we’re not. And have no intention of being such.

  • Who says bipartisanship is dead?

    For starters, not North Carolina’s five surviving former governors. In an unprecedented gathering, Jim Hunt, Jim Martin, Mike Easley, Beverly Perdue and Pat McCrory stood together at a dais Monday afternoon in Raleigh to announce their united opposition to two of the six proposed constitutional amendments slated to appear on the November ballot in North Carolina Martin and McCrory are Republicans, Easley, Hunt and Perdue Democrats. The group issued a prepared statement that reads as follows: “As former Governors of North Carolina, we believe that two of the proposed Constitutional amendments would crippled the separation of powers in our state. These two amendments transfer clear executive authority to the legislature and the ballot language misleads voters as to how damaging these changes would be to our checks and balances in government.’’ Let’s back up a bit to see how we arrived at this moment. Democrat Roy Cooper narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the 2016 election. The outcome was disputed for several weeks. Also, in 2016, the GOP kept its supermajorities in the N.C. House and Senate, but lost control of the state Supreme Court. McCrory called a special session to deal with a disaster relief package. As the doors closed on that session Republican leaders called for another special session, and that’s when it became clear Cooper – and the courts – were in the crosshairs. In no particular order, here are the proposals that were presented in that session: Removing the governor’s control of the State Board of Elections, overhauling county election boards to prevent Democratic control, make Supreme Court races partisan, reduce the number of state employees appointed by the governor from 1,500 to 300 (that number was raised from 500 to 1,500 when McCrory was governor) and require Senate approval of Cooper’s picks for the Cabinet. Some of those items passed, some were modified. But the legislature wasn’t done. As the new legislative session opened this year, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore were asked if they had plans to strip Cooper of any more of his powers. Berger, laughing, said, “Does he still have any?” Moore chipped in with “If you have any suggestions, let us know.” The path from those statements to the sight of former governors taking a bipartisan stand was direct. Two of the six proposed constitutional amendments that may be before voters would restructure the balance of power in North Carolina’s government. One would move the ability to fill vacant judgeships away from the governor to the legislature. The other would overturn 100 years of established practice giving the governor appointment powers over the state elections and ethics board and hand it to the legislature. It would also give the legislature control of duties and appointments to any commission or board it creates. Regarding the first amendment, there are also serious issues with the way the question on the ballot is worded, saying voting for it would switch to “professional qualifications instead of political influence when nominating justices and judges.” However, there’s no guarantee at all politicians wouldn’t simply pack the court with their pals. The former governors lit into the proposals in fine fashion. Martin said, “This is not about partisan politics. It’s about power politics. And it must be stopped. “It may seem brilliant – I would say deviously brilliant – that they now propose to put these amendments to the constitution that would give them absolute power over both the executive and judicial branches. … I’m going to say to you personally, that it is embarrassing to me after a career devoted to building a healthier more competitive two-party system in our state, that it is a legislature controlled by my Republican party that has hatched this scheme.’’ McCrory was just as blunt, saying, “My advice to legislators…if any of you want to take on the responsibilities of the governor, then have the courage to run for governor, and win. Earn it. Do not hijack these duties through two deceitful and misleading amendments that attempt to fool our great citizens.”. These amendments would weaken the office of governor in North Carolina, already one of the weakest in the nation, very nearly to pointlessness. We’d point out that the office of governor is one that is voted on by all North Carolina voters. These amendments came from the leaders of the House and Senate, voted on by people in their district and people in their party – not people across the state. It’s inexcusable for them to be making such a power grab. The interest in more control of the courts is obvious, considering the legislature keeps losing cases in court regarding various pieces of legislation, starting with the disastrous black eye to the state called HB2. That may happen again this week, when a three-judge panel hears legal challenges to get four of the six amendments off the ballots. The sensible solution would be to drop the push to get the amendments on the ballot. This legislature would seem to prefer changing the courts, and sending the governor off to mall ribbon-cuttings instead of exercising the constitutional charge of leading the state.

  • Prioritizing K-12 Education in North Carolina

    As summer vacation for students nears an end, now is a good time to take a look at the state of K-12 schools in North Carolina, given the significant changes legislated over much of this decade by the Republican-led legislature. One notable is the change in control of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) along with a number of other moves that are changing the face of public education in North Carolina. The overriding question the public has to ask is: Will legislative and administrative changes by State Superintendent Mark Johnson result in smaller class sizes, higher reading and math scores, graduation rates, and recruitment and retention of teachers? Give the Republicans credit; they have made a strong effort to improve public schools since they took control of the legislature. Remember, elections have consequences. At the end of the day every person in the state covets better schools. Better schools result in students being better prepared for college, careers and assuming the role of being responsible and informed citizens. Our democracy is predicated on having educated people who can lead the next generation. Johnson has put in place a web-based infrastructure for school and district performance accountability by providing access to a Report Card for the general public. The report card is comprehensive and covers a wide range of areas, including overall school and district performance, end of grade performance in math and reading, readiness of students, teacher qualifications, teacher turnover and much more. The Republicans have been strong advocates for preparing students to join the workforce. The report card site also offers a student readiness indicator for students who are interested in a technical education. The transparency of school performance is to be commended. Another significant change is the reporting relationship between the local district superintendents, DPI board and the state superintendent. Johnson informed DPI leaders that their reporting relationship had changed and they now report to him, the state superintendent, and not the State Board of Education. Johnson cited the N.C. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Session Law 2016-126, that gives the authority to direct education in the State to the State Superintendent. With the state superintendent’s new power and the lifting of the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, it is important for parents and legislators to watch the growth of state-funded charter schools. Charter schools are not fully accountable to many of the educational regulations that public schools must follow. Charter school enrollment now exceeds 100,000 and continues to grow. We can expect this trend to continue with taxpayer funding being tapped to allow families to send their children to alternative schools, which are often becoming more racially and economically segregated. No one can fault a parent for seeking the best education possible for their children in their neighborhood. However, policymakers need to ensure that the growth of charter and private schools does not diminish the educational opportunities for children who are less fortunate and live in rural and urban areas, which rely more heavily on traditional public education. The continued growth of charter schools will potentially lead to more separation and unequal education opportunities for children. The 2018-19 DPI budget is $9.60 billion dollars. Notable budget adjustments include an average 3.3 percent teacher pay raise, with raises for almost every step and an increase and bonuses of $385 for 25 years of service. Click here for more detailed budget information. Compensation for teachers and the importance of having committed and well-compensated teachers is an important component of a successful educational system. The state deserves some credit for increasing teacher pay by an average of 20 percent since 2013-14. However, keep in mind North Carolina’s legislature did not legislate the compensation increases willingly. Teachers pressured legislators, similar to the political pressure that took place in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Despite the pay increases, North Carolina teacher pay is ranked an abysmal 43rd in the nation at $47,941 and below the national average of $58,353, according to the National Education Association and US Census. North Carolina ranks 9th in the nation in terms of student population with 2 million children aged 5 to 17, which speaks to the critical importance of fair educational opportunities for all children. The legislative requirements to lower K-3 class size to 17 students per class within three years is laudable, and the fact that legislators have earmarked $61 million for art and PE teachers demonstrates a commitment to executing the smaller classroom policy. Many systems were looking at the prospect of eliminating those positions in order to find dollars to meet the smaller class size mandate. Funding needs to be a priority to ensure classroom space is made available and teachers are recruited and competitively compensated to fulfill this worthy and timely educational policy. The next few years will position North Carolina to move up the rankings for educational achievement and teacher pay. Not doing so would be a doing a disservice to the teachers and students of the state.

  • Opiod Crisis in North Carolina

    The effects of the opioid crisis on North Carolina are far-ranging. According to CDC estimates, the cost of unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths in the state totaled $1.3 billion in 2015. But those hurt most by the crisis are inevitably those on the front lines: the opioid users themselves, their children, and the caregivers who pick up the pieces. According to a new report by North Carolina Child, addiction has thrown thousands of children into foster care. Some 16,556 North Carolina children lived in foster care last year. For 39 percent of foster care cases in 2016–2017, parental substance misuse was a contributing factor, up 50 percent since 2007–2008. North Carolina Child cites a lack of affordable health care for parents as a major contributing factor. According to the report, most North Carolinians with a mental health diagnosis or substance abuse disorder in 2014 fell into a “coverage gap,” meaning they would gain access to health insurance only if the state expanded income eligibility for Medicaid. By the parents not getting treatment, the children are at increased risk of becoming addicts themselves. North Carolina moved to the national forefront of the opioid crisis after a 2016 study from the health care information company Castlight found that 22 out of the top 25 cities for opioid abuse were in the South, with four in North Carolina: Wilmington in the number one spot (11.6 percent opioid abuse rate); Hickory fifth at 9.9 percent; Jacksonville 12th at 8.2; and Fayetteville 18th at 7.9. In its study of prescription opioid drug use in the workforce, the study found that in Wilmington, more than half, or 53.8 percent, of all opioid prescriptions in the city were abused. That year, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, nearly four North Carolinians died each day from an unintentional opioid overdose. The North Carolina Action Plan, developed last year with input from the state’s Opioid and Prescription Drug Abuse Advisory Committee, laid out a strategic approach for combating the opioid crisis. The plan called for creating a coordinated infrastructure, reducing oversupply of prescription opioids, reducing diversion of prescription drugs and flow of illicit drugs, increasing community awareness and prevention, making naloxone (Narcan) widely available, linking overdose survivors to care, expanding treatment and recovery, measuring the impact and revising strategies based on results. A dashboard of metrics tracked by the state provides details on progress toward goals established last year. Two areas show promising results: Reducing the oversupply of prescription opioids. This is essential. According to Politifact, quoting Steve Marshall, an epidemiologist and director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Injury Prevention Research Center, “When we talk to people who are injecting heroin, they all got there through prescription opioids. It’s not some of them. It’s all of them.” In the last quarter of 2017, under 121 million opioid pills were dispensed in North Carolina, down from over 141 million dispensed in the same quarter of 2016. Also, in the fourth quarter of 2017 20.3 percent of patient prescription days had an overlapping benzodiazepine and opioid prescription, compared to 25.1 percent in the last quarter of 2016. Increasing access to treatment and recovery. This metric can be an indication of increased access to treatment, since buprenorphine is administered in medication-assisted treatment to help treat opioid addiction. Over 154,000 prescriptions for buprenorphine were dispensed in North Carolina during the last quarter of 2017, up from 128,000 in the last quarter of 2016. Gov. Roy Cooper agrees that access to affordable health insurance is a vital component to combating the crisis. In a letter to Congress in January, he wrote “One in five adults with an opioid addiction is uninsured, and in our state, like others, there is a correlation between areas with a large uninsured population and rates of addiction. Making health care more accessible and more affordable helps people struggling with substance use disorders and their families as well as those at-risk of developing addictions. At least 150,000 North Carolinians could benefit if Medicaid were expanded to cover people with substance use disorder.” By looking at what has worked elsewhere, North Carolina can not only save lives, but save families. The North Carolina Child report states that millions of Americans have found help for their opioid addictions through health care coverage provided under Medicaid expansion in other states. North Carolina’s failure to provide this for our state means that more families will be torn apart by addiction, with children paying the ultimate price. ————————— The Carolina Commentary team would like your feedback on our first year; what we did well, what we can do better, and what issues may have fallen through the cracks. Go to survey here and help shape the face of Carolina Commentary in the coming year.

  • Immigration Reform Failure Steers U.S. Toward Food Production Crisis

    The U.S. House’s recent defeat of a second and more moderate Republican proposal to reform immigration demonstrates a failure to deal with one of the most significant economic, food security and humanitarian issues of our time. North Carolina is one of many states whose economy suffers from that failure, yet few lawmakers have been more instrumental in exacerbating the problem than Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and the Freedom Caucus he leads. Meadows represents the state’s western counties. The state’s agriculture industry is one of the largest in the U.S. In terms of value-added, it’s the top sector of the state’s economy according to an N.C. State study, contributing $84 billion in 2017. Farming is an uncertain business in the best of times. But fewer hands to do the work has taken the place of the weather as many farmers’ number one worry. After analyzing 15 years of North Carolina farm labor data, economist Michael Clemens concluded “There is virtually no supply of native manual farm laborers” in the state. Even during the Great Recession with an unemployment rate in some counties in the teens, unemployed North Carolinians did not come forward for these jobs. The pool of immigrant labor so essential to farm operations has dwindled as a result of tightened enforcement, deportations and the country’s utterly dysfunctional immigration laws. The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018 rejected in late June made no pretense of being bi-partisan. But unlike a more conservative bill defeated earlier in the month, it made an effort to find a compromise between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party. Basically that compromise gave a form of legal status to young immigrants who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. Otherwise, it was a hardline bill that provided money for a border wall, decreased legal immigration and raised the bar for seeking asylum in the U.S. The negotiations leading up to the votes on the two bills were contentious and sometimes angry, including a shouting match on the House floor between House Speaker Paul Ryan and Meadows, whose caucus pretty much scuttled the compromise bill. Granted, it was a bad bill, but the need for reform is desperate. For farmers, the greatest disappointment came in the failure to address their need for a fair, workable and legal way to employ immigrant labor to do the work for which there is no native-born labor pool. Though not included in the final bill, an earlier proposal that would have helped farmers would create a new guest worker program to replace the cumbersome, costly and inadequate H-2A visa program. Called H-2C, it would eliminate H-2A housing and transportation requirements. But its most significant feature would allow experienced farmworkers already in the country without documentation a way to come out of the shadows and obtain a legal guest worker visa. Estimates are these workers represent 50 percent to 70 percent of the current farm labor in the U.S. This acknowledges the reality that without these workers, much essential farm labor would go undone resulting in lost crops and ultimately in lost farms, leaving Americans ever more dependent on foreign produce. A report prepared for the Partnership for a New American Economy found that while just 14.5 percent of the fresh fruit Americans purchased from 1998-2000 was imported, by the 2010-2012 period, 25.8 percent was imported. For fresh vegetables, imports as a share of total spending climbed from 17.1 to 31.2 percent during the same period. The partnership brings together Republican, Democratic and Independent mayors and business leaders who support immigration reform. The report found that labor challenges faced by U.S. farmers and the inadequacies of the H-2A visa program are a key reason why American farmers have been unable to maintain their share of the domestic market. The inability of U.S. growers to keep pace with rising consumer demand at home represents a major lost opportunity for many rural communities dependent on the agriculture industry. This is not only an economic travesty, it represents both a food safety and a food security issue. This version of the H-2C proposal contains a “touchback” feature requiring undocumented workers to leave the country in order to obtain H-2C status. Most farmers oppose this feature because of the time, expense and risk of workers not returning. The proposal has other problems as well, but that’s a topic for another day. Our immigration laws need to be fixed. The ongoing failure to do so leaves North Carolina farmers dealing with uncertainty and frustration and puts domestic food production at risk. Unless Meadows and the Freedom Caucus he leads become part of the solution, voters who care about domestic food production and about treating farmworkers fairly need to hold them accountable at the polls.

  • America’s Democracy is being challenged

    Many Americans, both Republican and Democrats, agree on one thing. The Russia investigation should be allowed to be completed. As we concern ourselves with a president who attacks our institutions as he seeks to satisfy his base, we need someone to trust and give us an unbiased analysis of what happened with the Russians. That person is Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. America’s democracy is being challenged by partisan politics that are designed to maintain a white superiority in our fast-changing, ethnically diverse nation. The 2016 election was not about voters feeling economic deprivation. It was about their cultural fears that their status was at risk as a result of the changing racial demographic trends of the nation, according to a study published by PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). America is projected to be a “minority-majority” nation by the year 2044, according to numerous demographers. This cultural shift contributed to Donald Trump’s election as president. Trump and other Republican elected officials are using this racial and cultural anxiety to their advantage and to the detriment of the nation — a nation of immigrants. A quick look at recent history illustrates the fierce dismantling of democratic processes and fair government in our country. North Carolina is considered a political microcosm of the country’s hyper-partisan politics and growing mistrust among political parties, according to Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy. When you examine the political warfare in North Carolina, the list of issues the state has faced, including Republican racially motivated voter suppression, voter ID laws, gerrymandering of voter districts, and the push to end Sunday and same-day voting, has resulted in Republicans holding supermajorities in both the N.C. House and Senate. Progressive pastor and former North Carolina NAACP President William Barber says “systemic racism” in restricting voter participation is a threat to our democracy. Barber goes on to say that 22 states passed voter suppression laws since 2016. Moreover, the political maneuvers to restrict the authority of newly elected Governor Roy Cooper with regard to his responsibilities as governor of North Carolina are also meant to keep power with the Republicans. Trump has demonstrated authoritarian tendencies by attacking America’s institutions, including the media, the courts, the justice system and anyone that he sees as a threat to his authority. Trump has demonstrated that he will not tell the truth and is embolden by a weak Congress that refuses to execute their responsibility to hold the executive branch accountable. The president has refused to acknowledge the Russians impacted our elections and continues to call the investigation of the Russian tactics a “witch hunt.” He fired FBI director James Comey and on national television admitted that he fired him because of the Russian investigation. Trump’s actions and those of his elected supporters should give American’s pause. U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, closed off the House Russia investigation without allowing a minority dissent report, and U.S.. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), is pushing attention away from the Russian investigation and calling for an investigation into the FBI in an attempt to distract from the issue. These activities and many more, including the president’s infatuation with dictators and strongmen, call for an evaluation of the direction of the nation. Trumps supportive comments of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has positioned himself as president for life, demonstrate his infatuation with dictators. Trump was quoted by CNN as saying, “And look, he (Jinping) was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” Another example: Trump called Putin, America’s chief opponent, to congratulate him on his re-election, drawing bruising criticism from members of his own party, including a leading senator who scorned the election as a “sham.” The nation needs Mueller, an American icon, a man who has served the nation as a decorated soldier. He served as the sixth director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 2001 to 2013. A Republican, President George W. Bush, appointed him. President Barack Obama gave his original ten-year term a two-year extension, making him the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover. He is our best hope to help our country find out how the Russians attacked our electoral process and what we need to do to prevent it from happening again. We also need a Congress that lives up to its constitutional responsibilities as an equal branch government. Enablers such as Rep. Nunes and Rep. Meadows should be voted out of office. Our president is challenging America’s democracy and Congress is not holding him accountable, while he continues to attack our institutions of government and our sense of checks and balances. America needs Mueller to complete his work and to provide answers to the role Russia had, if any, in the president’s campaign.

  • March For Our Lives

    Our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, just days after a group of teenagers from Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, organized hundreds of thousands of people in the March 24 “March for Our Lives” nationwide protests against gun violence. On February 14, a gunman killed 17 people and injured another 17 at Marjory Stoneman. Nikolas Cruz, 19, has been charged. Within 6 weeks, students from Stoneman organized hundreds of thousands of people at more than 800 nationwide protests, including the Washington, DC, march that brought together 800,000. Statewide, thousands marched in Asheville, Raleigh, Wilmington and elsewhere. The “March for Our Lives” movement faces gun control opponents, particularly the National Rifle Association. Conservatives in the news media and social media trolls have ridiculed the massacre survivors. Stoneman student Kyle Kashuv has emerged as an outspoken pro-Second Amendment advocate. But it’s easy to lay out dichotomies, color the nation in black and white along battle lines. That is the work of the nefarious Russian social media bots that spewed hate-filled messages bent on dividing Americans prior to the 2016 elections. They built on the worst in us, and America took the bait. It’s harder to seek and act on opportunities for change by using King’s principles. To make a difference, we don’t have to hate the people with whom we disagree. King describes this and other strategies for nonviolent resistance in his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom.” 1) Resist evil without resorting to violence. 2) Seek the “friendship and understanding” of the opponent, not to humiliate him. 3) Evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. 4) Suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. 5) Refuse to shoot the opponent; refuse to hate him. 6) Have a “deep faith in the future.” King, only 29 when he wrote “Stride,” had that faith in the future. As in King’s time, the Stoneman Douglas teenagers are building a movement on a shared cry for justice and outrage at a political system that has ignored them. To their credit, they haven’t aligned themselves with a particular political party. Instead, they call for Republicans and Democrats to come together: “We demand morally just leaders to rise up from both parties in order to ensure public safety.” To back that up, like King, they have made voter registration and voting one of the cornerstones of their movement for change. At “March for Our Lives” rallies, volunteers worked the crowds, registering young and old to vote. The students also have sponsored or have planned “Town Hall for Our Lives” with candidates in cities and towns statewide, including Wilmington, Hickory, Greensboro, and Raleigh. While thousands of North Carolina students have walked out of class, marched, and organized to demand tighter gun control laws, Republican legislators are unlikely to respond to the students’ call for change. To the contrary, they are more likely to loosen state gun laws. The “March for Our Lives” movement comes at a time in our state’s history when we have a Republican-held Legislature with a super majority holding enough votes to overrule Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. But this could change. In past elections, where district lines have been drawn to heavily favor one party, the other party has failed to put forth a candidate. According to an analysis by the News and Observer, the 2016 general election included 73 districts in which just one of the major parties fielded a candidate. Republicans had no candidate in 30 House races and four Senate races; Democrats didn’t have a candidate in 28 House races and 11 Senate races. This year, both parties heavily recruited candidates. Some districts have more than one candidate from a particular party on the ballot. North Carolina holds primary elections May 8. For the first time in recent memory, Democrats and Republicans have filed to run for nearly all 170 state legislative seats. The 13 U.S. representatives from the state have filed for re-election. All of them have at least one opponent. “March for Our Lives” seeks to get younger voters to register and vote. There is tremendous opportunity for this generation to flex their muscles at the polls. This year, millennials will pass baby boomers as the largest generation of Americans eligible to vote, making up 34 percent of the voter-eligible population. Their challenge is to get these voters to the polls: Young voters historically vote at lower rates. But the angst of the young, like King and the Stoneman students, can fuel important social and political change. Now is the time for them, and for the rest of the state and nation, to seize this moment. The students also have hope—that their movement will make a difference. As history has shown, seizing power requires shrewd tactics fueled by passion and the persistence to see the fight through in the long term. These kids have their whole lives. As King wrote, “The universe is on the side of justice.” T

  • Democracy Off the Rails

    North Carolina achieved a dubious honor earlier this year. Two Harvard professors named the state an example of what America in the post-Trump era may look like — a place of politics without guardrails. In a book titled “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine how democracies unravel and point out that in the 21st century they rarely end in swift bloody coups. More often they die slowly at the hands of autocratic elected leaders determined to retain power. Two norms have undergirded American democracy and helped it avoid the partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies elsewhere in the world, they write. Those norms are toleration (competing parties accepting one another as legitimate rivals) and restraint (the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives). These have served as the soft guardrails of American democracy. But today, Levitsky and Ziblatt say, those guardrails are weakening. “American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press and threaten to reject the results of elections,” they write. “They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as ‘Laboratories of democracy,’ are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.” Though lawmakers in other states are guilty too, North Carolina’s legislature, in their view, represents the best example of this. North Carolina Republican lawmakers have tried to intimidate and undermine state courts, take control of the elections board, gerrymander districts for the express purpose of electing as many Republicans as possible and diminish the power of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Their efforts represent exactly the kind of behavior that Levitsky and Ziblatt write about, the autocratic impulse to sacrifice democracy in order to hold on to power. The North Carolina Republican in charge of drawing new district maps, Rep. David Lewis, justified the Congressional maps that were rejected by a three-judge federal panel in January by saying, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” In a democracy, it is not Rep. Lewis’ prerogative to decide what is better for the citizens of North Carolina. That would be the voters’ prerogative. Lewis freely admitted that he ordered the districts drawn to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats because he did not believe they could be drawn in such a way to elect 11 Republicans and two Democrats — this in a state where 38.9 percent of voters are registered Democrats, 30.3 percent are registered unaffiliated, and 30.3 percent are registered Republican. Lewis’ comment suggests a lawmaker who does not see Democrats as legitimate rivals, but as enemies that must be defeated even if that means gaming the system. GOP lawmakers’ efforts to undermine state courts are perhaps even more treacherous. Already, they have made non-partisan judicial elections partisan and reduced the size of the Court of Appeals from 15 to 12, depriving Gov. Cooper of the opportunity to replace three retiring members. A new raft of bills aimed at intimidating judges includes one that would reduce all judicial terms to two years and one to redraw district and superior court judicial districts in a way that, according to analyses by NC Policy Watch and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, would disproportionately harm voters of color and Democrats. As Americans, we believe that our democracy is different from those in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine — countries written about by Levitsky and Ziblatt, where elected leaders subverted democratic institutions. But we see the kind of tactics those autocratic leaders used on display here as courts and other institutions that function as checks and balances are intimidated or undermined. Though Democrats also have tested the guardrails, Levitsky and Ziblatt say the current win-at-all-costs era began with the hardball tactics of Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich who schooled fellow Republicans that they were fighting a war for power and used over-the-top rhetoric calling his opponents “corrupt,” “sick,” “anti-American” and “anti-family.” It also is true that rapidly changing technology, demographics and economic trends have contributed to the two underlying forces that Levitsky and Ziblatt believe are driving American polarization: racial and religious realignment and growing economic inequality. Autocrats can exploit these forces to their advantage in their quest to become ever more powerful. If we, as citizens, hope to preserve our freedoms and our say over who holds power in our state and country, we can’t sit on the sidelines. Finding solutions to the challenges we face won’t be easy, but we should be wary of deploying the tactics that have brought us to this place. As Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, hardball practices like refusing to consider the nomination of a qualified Supreme Court candidate as the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate did when President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, foster tit-for-tat behavior that leads to dysfunction and stalemate. Democracy is about compromise. But in our polarized atmosphere, we seem to have forgotten that.

  • How did jaywalking lead to a brutal beating?

    Two things are striking about the video captured by then Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman’s body camera when he and an officer-in-training stopped Johnnie Rush for jaywalking near McCormick field in Asheville in the early morning hours of Aug. 25, 2017. The first is that their concern for his safety should have been the officers’ primary motivation for asking him to use the crosswalk, but there’s no indication in the video they conveyed any such concern to Rush. This was a jaywalking incident, not an armed robbery. Jaywalking is a crime because it endangers the life of the pedestrian who is doing it. It also risks upending the life of a motorist unlucky enough to come along and hit said pedestrian and risks causing related traffic accidents when a driver attempts to avoid the person in the highway. But without a doubt the pedestrian, who stands to be killed or seriously injured, has the most to lose. Yet nothing in the officers’ attitude implied they stopped Rush to protect him. Rush believed, as he said in the video that the officers were just harassing him when he was tired and trying to get home from a 13-hour shift at work. He undoubtedly knew that scores of people jaywalk in that area at times of heavier traffic during baseball games. The second thing that’s striking is how quickly, and without any threat on Rush’s part, the encounter escalated into a brutal beating. Rush was Tasered twice and Hickman used his fists to repeatedly beat him in the head after Rush was subdued and on the ground. The Asheville Citizen-Times published the video in late February after an unknown source turned it over to a reporter. Those who enforce the law represent one of the most important institutions in a civil society. Those who have visited or lived in countries without effective law enforcement know what it’s like to live in walled compounds, to find a guard with a shotgun at the entrance of a paint store or a bank or to take your life in your hands when you drive on a highway where the aggressive and fearless dictate the rules of the road. The presence of well-trained, dedicated law enforcement officers keeps us safe from that in America. For most white Americans, the presence of a law enforcement officer provides a sense of security. But if you are African American or Latino in America, that sense of security is compromised. Studies have shown that your chance of encountering officers ready to assume you have or are about to break the law is significantly greater than for white Americans. A 2015 analysis of five years of police data by The New York Times found that in Greensboro, North Carolina, police officers used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars twice as often as white motorists, even though they found drugs or weapons significantly more often when the drivers were white. “Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason,” according to The New York Times story about the analysis. “And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.” The Greensboro police chief initially disputed the story, but when interviewed by the Greensboro News and Record a day after the story broke, he said, “The numbers, we believe at this point, are accurate.” The New York Times chose North Carolina for the analysis because it is among the states that monitor traffic stops most intensely. The Times reported that similar racial disparities were found across North Carolina and in seven other states with extensive data on traffic stops and searches. Other studies and analyses conducted throughout the country have consistently shown racial bias on the part of law enforcement. Confidence in public institutions is what makes civil society work. It’s what forestalls chaos. When members of a community become more fearful of those empowered to enforce the law than they are of those who break it, the prospects for civil unrest are greatly enhanced. But, if you are black, how can you watch the video of Johnnie Rush being beaten and not be frightened and outraged? We ask a lot of police officers, but the most important thing we ask of them is to keep us safe. How can we trust them to do that when we don’t feel safe from them? What kind of rage would compel an officer to severely beat a man guilty of nothing more than mouthing off and jaywalking? Law enforcement officers do a job that is dangerous, physically demanding, underpaid and that sometimes requires them to make snap judgments on which their lives or the lives of others depend. As is the case with other maligned professions, most are hard-working and conscientious. But one thing seems certain, the answer to why Johnnie Rush was brutally beaten isn’t just one rogue officer. It’s a systemic problem and solving it demands that law enforcement agencies become much more proactive in rooting out racist practices and behaviors. Everyone’s security depends on building law enforcement agencies that are as diverse as the communities they serve, where there is a culture of respect for all, and where the safety of all citizens is paramount

  • Let the sun shine on open government

    It’s Sunshine Week, the annual event held to “promote open government and push back against excessive official secrecy.” Sunshine Week is a nationwide initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors. While the seven-day campaign began in 2005, its roots go back to 2002 when journalists in Florida were fighting attempts to enact massive exemptions to that state’s public record laws. Why is Sunshine Week important? Simply put, citizens of this country have a right to know how decisions are reached by the officials representing them, all the way from Pennsylvania Avenue down to Main Street. In many cases that knowledge keys on access to records of deliberations and meetings. It’s about accountability. If the sheer moral aspect of expecting such accountability isn’t enough, we’ll appeal to baser instincts: The decisions those leaders make affect your life. And you’re paying the salaries of those leaders through your taxes. They’re your servants, not the other way around. As such, you have a right to know what they’re up to. This isn’t a conservative issue, or liberal, or libertarian. It’s everyone’s issue. If we know what leaders are up to, they’re far less likely to be up to no good. Judge Louis Brandeis framed the issue well when he said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” The sunlight/policeman analogy hits home in these parts in that it sums up the controversy surrounding the biggest story of the year thus far: the Feb. 28 release of a video that showed Asheville Police Department Officer Chris Hickman beating and tasering an Asheville man following an escalation in the wake of a man who was stopped for alleged jaywalking. The affair highlights a serious flaw in North Carolina law, which does not regard police bodycam video as a public record. If you’re someone who appears on such footage you can request access to look at it, but to get the footage released you’ll need a court order. That serves neither the public nor law enforcement well, and the Asheville incident is a textbook case of that. The incident involving Hickman occurred on Aug. 25, 2017. The bodycam video was reviewed by Asheville’s police chief the following day; the officer’s badge and sidearm were taken from him. An internal investigation occurred, and the officer resigned shortly before the chief was ready to fire him. That was in January, more than 130 days after the incident occurred. The public had no idea. In fact, it would still have no idea if someone hadn’t broken the law and leaked the video to the Asheville Citizen-Times, which broke the story on Feb. 28. The value of bodycam video is that it can bring rogue officers to justice, but also that it can exonerate officers from accusations at the hands of rogue citizens. That is, if it’s public record. This case is at best a public relations disaster for the APD. With a lack of sunshine, rumors are flying wild in the public regarding what happened regarding the investigation, and with a lack of sunshine questions are flying regarding whether the public would’ve heard about this case at all were it not for the leak. The FBI has taken an interest in the matter. The APD may be being treated unfairly in the court of public opinion; we just don’t know. We do know it feels like a cover-up occurred in many corners of the community. In the end, it’s safe to say the whole affair could have been prevented if North Carolina had written its law in a more sensible fashion. Certainly, bodycam footage shouldn’t be released in an indiscriminate manner. But this case vividly illustrates that it needs to be public record. Otherwise, what’s the point in having it at all?

  • They Say She’s a Dreamer

    During the second semester of 2014, I received a call from a student asking specific details about our affordable housing programs. In particular, the young person seemed interested in housing scams and discrimination targeting residents from Spanish-speaking countries. Her questions were so precise and inquisitive, that I assumed she was interviewing me for a graduate-level research paper. As the former executive director of The Lexington Housing Community Development Corporation, that was my first conversation with Cinthia Pecina, a transfer student at Davidson County Community College who was calling various nonprofit agencies to volunteer as a translator. Our agency appeared on a list of possible locations seeking volunteers and Cinthia made it clear that she was looking for a real opportunity to impact the lives of others who faced a situation similar to her experiences. She interviewed our agency carefully before asking if we were accepting interns. I later learned more about Cinthia and her path of becoming a United States citizen. She came to the United States from Mexico when she was 9 years old and did not speak English. When she first arrived, she had difficulty adjusting to a new language and culture. In November 2012, Cinthia’s purse was stolen and she had to prove she was a legal resident. Although the honor student had completed her secondary education, she suddenly couldn’t prove she was even allowed to be in this county. Without those documents, she couldn’t prove she was legally allowed to work. She couldn’t obtain another copy of her Social Security card or driver’s license until she received another copy of her permanent resident card, which would take months and a lot of money. With the help of Casa Guadalupe Catholic Social Services in Greensboro, she submitted her application and was sworn in as a citizen in January 2013. Cinthia later enrolled at Davidson County Community College, and during one of her classes, a teacher gave her a list of service projects to earn extra credit. Harkening back to the days when she first came to this country, she decided to volunteer as a translator. When she contacted us, I knew that she was serious about seeking social justice for families. Outside of translating documents she worked alongside our staff as a translator and wrote about issues as a bilingual reporter in our Empowerment Magazine. Her work inspired city agencies to contract with our program in order to hire Cinthia to help coordinate outreach including surveys and a neighborhood revitalization project for the Lexington Office of Business and Community Development. Cinthia’s work was instrumental in reaching residents of our city who could not speak English. She spent hot summer days going door-to-door visits in order to explain the city’s neighborhood plans and broaden the community feedback. Indeed, Cinthia is out there changing the world. She emailed me recently to say that she graduated from UNC in 2017 with a degree in public policy. She started a new job in October working as a legal assistant at the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office, specifically working in the Domestic Violence Unit and she is looking toward law schools. “I am looking for volunteer opportunities this spring to maybe mentor middle or high school students,” she said. Indeed, Cinthia is one of our dreamers — but she’s not the only one. It’s time to find a permanent immigration solution. Republished with writer’s permission by Women AdvaNCe. Antionette Kerr is a news correspondent, lover of poetry, publisher and consultant. Email her at T

  • Election limbo demands voters stay vigilant

    Filing for candidates seeking office across North Carolina begins Feb. 12. As far as certainty regarding the 2018 elections in the Tar Heel state goes, that’s about it. Seriously. As we rolled into February there were uncertainties regarding: Congressional district lines As it stands now, North Carolina could see its fourth straight election conducted with congressional district maps federal courts say are unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court paused a federal court ruling against those maps to consider partisan gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland. A decision on the legality of gerrymandering is expected in June, long after congressional campaigns would have set sail. The high court has been hesitant to step in on partisan gerrymandering in the past, but hasn’t had to deal with maps as blatantly gerrymandered as the ones being turned out now, thanks to powerful computing technology. In North Carolina, registration runs Democrat, Unaffiliated and Republican, in that order. Yet the state’s maps have seen 10 of 13 congressional districts go to Republicans. GOP state Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, in a defense of the map, said “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.” He also said the GOP holds 10 of 13 seats only because they couldn’t come up with a map guaranteeing them 11. State legislative lines A federal three-judge panel in 2017 decided state legislative district maps were racially biased and ordered them redrawn. In January, the redrawn maps were also thrown out, and the court used a map drawn by an outside expert to produce new maps. GOP lawmakers asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay. As the filing deadline approaches, any number of hopefuls are uncertain of what district they could run for. If the matter stays tied up in court, it’s entirely conceivable maps deemed illegal could be used in this year’s election for state house races. State courts The Republican majorities elected in 2010 have been very busy on this front ever since. Public financing of campaigns has been eliminated; non-partisan races are now partisan. Shortly after Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016 and two Republican judges neared retirement (as governor, Cooper had the power to name their replacements), the size of the appellate court was cut by three seats. Judicial tinkering has gone into high gear recently. A law was passed making every judicial race in the state partisan. All judicial primaries for 2018 were cancelled. Proposals have been floated to cut the length of judicial terms, to redraw judicial lines in a manner that would force sitting Democratic judges to run against one another and to replace elections with a legislature-controlled appointment process. On Jan. 31, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles issued an order restoring primaries for statewide judicial offices. If that stands, it will prevent the possibility of a cluttered ballot and prevent the possibility of a judge being elected with a mere 30 percent of the vote. With the General Assembly still considering redrawing judicial lines for lower courts, the ruling doesn’t apply to district and superior court judgeships. Election boards This is one that has flown under the radar of most people, but it’s important. Following Cooper’s election, the General Assembly passed S.L. 2017-6, which merged the state’s ethics and elections board into the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics. It changed the makeup of county election boards. Previously, the party of the governor held the majority of the three-member county boards. S.L. 2017-6 changed the composition of the boards to an even number of Democrats and Republicans. In the current partisan environment that makes a recipe for gridlock in many counties. Cooper sued, and over the seven months of the suit county boards were left at three members with GOP majorities. In late January, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned S.L. 2017-6. No timeline for naming new boards was included in the ruling. The case will be back in the hands of a three-judge panel that is expected to determine the impact of the ruling, likely by mid-February. We may look back at those seven months as critical ones. Actions not addressed by an empty state board include replacing aging voting machines and making sure software that went haywire in 2016 has been decertified. (That software, by the way, was targeted by Russian hackers across the country in 2016). North Carolina’s 2018 elections are surely built on shifting sands, and those shifts could continue with the back-and-forth of court rulings and challenges and a state legislature that seems to have endless … creativity, shall we say … when it comes to rigging the game in one party’s favor. Voters will need to stay tuned to an unprecedented degree.

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