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  • NC Congressional district maps tossed out

    Last week, a federal three-judge panel struck down North Carolina’s congressional district maps. Tuesday’s ruling said the congressional maps drawn by state lawmakers in 2016 were unconstitutional and ordered new maps drawn by Jan. 24. The unanimous ruling marked the second instance maps drawn after the 2010 Census have been tossed out by a three-judge panel. A 2016 ruling said two majority black districts originally drawn in 2011 relied too heavily on race. The map redrawn as a remedy sparked a new round of lawsuits. Last week’s ruling did not focus on race, but on raw partisanship. It marked the first time a federal court has stepped in to block partisan gerrymandering, an issue the courts generally have steered clear of. The 191-page opinion written by Judge James Wynn, a Democratic appointee, says “Rather than seeking to advance any democratic or constitutional interest, the state legislator responsible for drawing the 2016 Plan said he drew the map to advantage Republican candidates because he ‘think[s] electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.’ But that is not a choice the Constitution allows legislative map drawers to make.” The representative in question is David Lewis, R-Harnett, who also said the 2016 map was designed to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” Western Carolina political science professor and department chair Christopher Cooper said “This is the most politically consequential redistricting ruling in NC since Reno v. Shaw—the 1993 ruling that limited the degree to which states could use race when redistricting. Unlike previous cases out of NC, however, this case is significant because it is about partisanship rather than race. In brief, in this case, the court ruled that the NC General Assembly violated the equal protection clause of the constitution when they virtually guaranteed the Republicans would have a massive advantage over the Democrats.’’ The numbers do reflect the advantage. Registration figures from earlier this month showed 2.6 million voters registered with the Democratic Party, 2.09 million unaffiliated and 2.06 million registered Republican. Despite that relative balance North Carolina’s congressional delegation contains 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats. With the redrawn maps, Republicans won 49 percent of state’s congressional votes in 2012 and took nine of 13 congressional seats. In 2014 the party took 54 percent of the congressional vote and landed 10 seats. “This case joins recent cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland—both of which are currently before the Supreme Court,’’ said Cooper, “and both of which have held that their respective states went too far in securing partisan majorities for the ruling parties.’’ “Although no one knows exactly what will happen, it is almost certain that the Republicans will appeal this decision,’’ Cooper said, “and ask that the Supreme Court consider North Carolina’s decision alongside Maryland and Wisconsin. If the court is amenable, these trio of cases may settle, once and for all, whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.’’ State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse defended the GOP maps, saying in a news release that the districts “are fair and were drawn following all known rules, and existing case law.” Woodhouse is correct on that point, as the courts have not deemed political gerrymandering as a constitutional violation. At least, not yet. That could change. U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen Jr. concurred with the three-judge panel’s decision but partially dissented regarding legal analysis. However, the George W. Bush appointee wrote, “In my opinion, Article I, Sections 2 and 4 (of the U.S. Constitution) set a clear limit on unconstitutional political gerrymandering. When the legislature, through its redistricting plan, controls the outcome of the election, whether as a result of partisan consideration or another factor, the plan is unconstitutional.” Cooper said the impact of the outcome of this case could be very significant for Western North Carolina. “If this case holds, our members of Congress will run in different districts than those they currently represent,’’ Cooper said. “Although it’s far too early to know what the new districts will look like, it’s almost certain that they will be more favorable to the Democrats than our current districts. “And nowhere will this be more apparent than right here in WNC, where our congressional districts (the 10th and 11th) sit on perhaps the largest gerrymandering fault line in American politics.’’ Mapmakers took the 11th District, which includes Sylva, and removed a large chunk of liberal Asheville to the conservative 10th District in new maps after 2010. That changed the 11th, traditionally perhaps the most competitive seat in North Carolina, to a seat with a 14-point GOP advantage. If Asheville is made whole again, the math would revert and the district could be up for grabs again. Arguments in the Wisconsin case were heard by the court in October; in December the court agreed to hear the Maryland case. On Thursday the chairman of the Senate’s extra session redistricting committee filed a notice of appeal of the North Carolina decision to the Supreme Court. The shape of the decisions to come will shape the future of North Carolina politics. Jim Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.

  • Broadband needs a level playing field

    Broadband access is a critical resource for all Americans to participate in today’s technology-driven society. Access to educational information is vital. It is imperative for educators, students and parents to have reliable broadband or a creative approach to ensure students in rural areas have a level playing field with high speed broadband and access to the world. The United States has made progress in expanding high speed internet access to rural areas by adopting reforms by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). North Carolina has addressed some of the more significant issues relative to broadband. A positive for North Carolina is the fact that 93 percent of the state has broadband coverage. A challenge is to increase the percentage of households that have access to speeds greater than the low-end speed of 25 megabits per second (mbps) and 3 mbps upload. In some areas, there is a need for cable and telephone connections. North Carolina does rank 15th in the nation for connectivity, with over 16 Internet providers, according to the FCC. However, the FCC reports that more than 48,000 residents in 16 counties of Western North Carolina do not have access to high- speed internet service. At issue is who will build the infrastructure to accommodate rural communities lacking access. Local governments that cannot legally build their own systems are challenged with convincing private sector companies to invest in rural areas. In 2008, Wilson, North Carolina built its own high speed broadband network. But a federal appeals court reinstated a 2011 North Carolina law that blocks local governments from building their own broadband service in competition with telecommunications providers. Another factor to consider in expanding broadband to rural areas and cities is the resistance cities face from opponents who are fighting access. The situation that took place in Louisville, Kentucky is an example of a stifling strategy. The city of Louisville proposed $5.4 million to expand Louisville’s ultra-fast internet access. Dave Williams, president of the Taxpayers Alliance opposed this proposal. The Taxpayers Alliance is part of the Koch brothers’ political donor network. Williams said, “fundamentally, we don’t believe that taxpayers should be funding broadband or internet systems.” The digital impact on education is certainly a major issue in North Carolina. The North Carolina General Assembly passed Session Law 2013-12/House Bill 44. The bill is intended to transition public schools funding from textbooks to digital materials including textbooks and instructional resources for all learners by 2017. As we enter into the New Year, the question: Where does the implementation on House Bill 44 stand relative to switching from traditional textbooks to digital materials and instructional resources in schools located in rural North Carolina? Myra Best of digiLEARN, the Digital Learning Institute, a national non-profit established by former Gov. Beverly Perdue, says, “Teachers need support to make that transition and the digital resources and the quality digital content to meet the expectations for higher education. We have come a long way, we have the infrastructure and network for schools, now we have to get students ready to personalize this learning opportunity and close the digital achievement gap. A major accomplishment in North Carolina is that all public and private schools and universities are connected to the same network.” MCNC, a nonprofit organization, was part of the research network that was used to build a ring to connect all of the public schools. This bodes well for the state going forward. But Best added, “In June of 2018, every classroom will have unlimited access to Wi-Fi. Despite this, it does not solve the problem for kids who go home and do not have access to the internet.” Kevin Smith, Schools-Community Relations Coordinator for Transylvania County Schools, highlighted what is being done in his school system to address the problem for children lacking internet access. Educators and community leaders have made a conscious effort to ensure students without home internet service are not disadvantaged in their educational learning. The initiative in Transylvania County Schools makes a good attempt to close the digital gap for students. Even without internet access at home, they can open their documents offline using school-provided Chromebook computers. Students can create, view and edit files, with changes synced back to their online profile at school. This is an innovative concept to address the rural gap for internet access. This concept provides a degree of equity and fairness to children by putting devices in their hands. Smith says the effort requires constant oversight and coordination, and he gives great credit to the Golden Leaf Foundation for their investment in this initiative. Another partnership has been implemented by Sprint and their public service act of providing 10,000 North Carolina high school students with wireless devices. Buncombe County Schools is partnering with Sprint to ensure all of their high school students have Internet connectivity by utilizing a “Homework Hotspot” from their school. The Homework Hotspot enables school-issued devices to connect to the Sprint Network. Both of these initiatives are stopgap measures and do not alleviate the need for real time internet access to the homes of students. North Carolina businesses would not accept the lack of real time capability for their operations, nor would lack of real time communication benefit first responders, who need the capability to contact with homes and businesses in rural areas. The network connection for public and private schools and universities demonstrate what can be done with public-private partnership. The stop gap innovations noted above are to be commended for the short time frame, but the public and private sector must continue to work together to provide real time internet communication capabilities for all areas of North Carolina and the nation. Jane Smith Patterson, Partner, Broadband Catalysts contributed to this commentary.

  • Crystal ball for the year ahead

    Given the turbulence of the politics in 2017 in North Carolina, The Sylva Herald thought it would be appropriate to turn to Chris Cooper, professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, for his thoughts on what lies ahead here in 2018, a year that will see all the state’s congressional seats, in addition to all its state legislative seats, up for grabs. Cooper graciously broke out his crystal ball to answer 10 questions from Herald staff. What are the moving targets in 2018 in North Carolina that voters should pay attention to in 2018? Two words: Constitutional amendments. The rumor mill around the state indicates that the Republican General Assembly may take some of the more controversial issues directly to the people, in the form of Constitutional Amendments. While they could propose any number of amendments, the most likely seem to be voter ID and judicial elections. And, if the past is any guide, these amendments would have a good chance of passage (about 85 percent of previous amendments have passed). Bringing controversial ideas to the people allows the Republican supermajority to move their agenda forward without facing intense backlash from likely opponents. Simply put, it’s a smart political move. Pending the outcomes of the previous question, what are the areas of the state that could see a swing to the right or left? There are 12 counties in North Carolina that I view as bellwether counties—counties that have shown recent trends towards supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates for high office. All but one of these counties are rural (New Hanover being the exception). The battleground in 2018, therefore is much more likely to be in Jackson and Watauga than Mecklenburg or Wake. November is a long way off, but current conventional wisdom says the Democratic Party has the momentum. Is that true in North Carolina to any degree? Absolutely. There is clearly a national swing towards the Democrats—we can see that in poll results and in special election results where Democrats have fared very well. Some of that is simply the cyclical nature of politics (the President’s party always takes some hits), but some of it is due to Trump’s anemic approval. And there’s no reason to think that all of this doesn’t apply to the Tar Heel State. What are the prospects of Democrats retaking the state House or Senate? Taking back the state House or Senate would be extremely difficult (and that’s probably an understatement). Even if we see some movement in the courts on partisan gerrymandering, I haven’t seen any scenario that gives the Democrats a legitimate chance of taking back the majority. If they somehow pull it off, it would be the political equivalent of a #15 seed making it to the Final Four. What are the prospects of Democrats breaking the filibuster-proof hold on either chamber? The goal of the Democrats should be to run a candidate in every election (or darn close), and to break the super-majority. The former strategy is important in the long-run as the Democratic party needs to reassert itself as a viable alternative in all types of districts. The latter goal is important as it will allow Roy Cooper to move his agenda forward—right now his power is almost completely symbolic. The bar in the Senate is extremely high (the Democrats currently just control 15 of 50 seats), but the potential for beneficial redistricting combined with a national Democratic wave may give some hope in the House to break the supermajority. The economy is generally the top issue for voters. Does that appear to be holding true this year? Bill Clinton liked to quip, “it’s the economy, stupid.” And that remains true today, although the mechanism may be slightly different than it used to be. Rather than the key being raw economic numbers, it tends to be people’s perceptions of the economy—and in today’s information environment, those two do not always jibe. Is the relative decimation of the state’s Raleigh press corps having any impact on this year’s election? It will have an impact in important ways — and in ways that I don’t think necessarily benefit either party. Whether voters like to admit it or not, we all depend on journalists in Raleigh to translate state news for us. Information is the currency of politics and there are fewer people proving this currency than in any time in our state’s history. While this is a national problem, the effects may be greatest in a state like North Carolina—a state that is growing rapidly and undergoing some serious growing pains. The two trends in American politics that give me the gravest concern for the future are the staggering levels of political polarization, and the decline of a robust press corps covering state politics. What are the “Black Swan’’ issues that could impact the election, either to the left or right? The potential resolution of the redistricting decisions clearly provides one such issue. If the Court sides with the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin redistricting case, it will have ramifications across the country, including in North Carolina, where the standard being litigated would immediately deem our districts unconstitutional. We can’t know what the resulting districts would look like, but they would have to change—and any change would almost certainly benefit the Democrats. I also think that the national conversation about sexual harassment and sexual discrimination has not moved to the state legislative level yet—and when it does (and I do think it’s a when, not an if), there’s no telling who will have to reckon with their behavior and who might quickly become a political liability. As Governor, Roy Cooper is the state’s most recognizable Democratic leader. Who in your view is the face of the GOP in North Carolina? The Republicans are fortunate that they have built a strong enough party that they don’t rely on one leader. Speaker Tim Moore and president pro-tem Phil Berger certainly hold the formal leadership positions in the legislature, but neither has cultivated a statewide presence in the way that former speaker (and current U.S. Senator) Thom Tillis did. Western North Carolina’s Tom Apodoca certainly yields tremendous power for the Republicans in the lobbying corps, and Dallas Woodhouse draws a great deal of attention (and some ire) as head of the party in the state. As powerful as these men are, however, none singlehandedly drives the state’s attention. Regardless of your opinion of the Republican party’s policy stances, this sort of distribution of power is a sign of a healthy party. How tightly are Republican fortunes in North Carolina tied to Donald Trump? There is no doubt that any president—particularly this one—leaves a wide wake. When the president is popular, he helps his down ballot candidates with his coattails, and when he’s not, the reverse happens. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Donald Trump is a singularly unpopular president, and this lack of popularity extends to the Tar Heel State. The Republicans in North Carolina are in an awkward position—they certainly can’t attack the president as the vast majority of their voters voted for Trump, but at the same time, they may not want to jump on his coattails for fear they get tossed off. The best chance for Republican candidates is for Trump’s approval to improve slightly and him not to take too active a role in the campaign. Chris Cooper, professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, provides expert commentary on matters involving politics and political science in (and beyond) North Carolina. Cooper’s research focuses on state politics and policy, political communication, political psychology and Southern politics. He was named the 2013 “Professor of the Year” in North Carolina by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. That year, he also was honored as one of the top professors in the University of North Carolina system by its Board of Governors. Originally published in The Sylva Herald

  • 2018 – The Year of the Stretch

    The act of stretching is an intentional decision to extend oneself beyond perceived limits. This year, 2017, was definitely a stretch year for many individuals, communities and organizations that have taken a forward facing posture to address the complexities of social change with an eye towards having systems-level impact. Prompting a challenge for all of us to remain balanced in our efforts, while holding just enough healthy tension against a shifting social, economic, and political backdrop. This type of stretching is not only in response to the actual strategies that are being deployed to address complex social issues. It is the required heavy lifting that we all must do everyday to “hold the necessary space” to support the most critical piece of this puzzle – the cultivating, building, modeling and sustaining of healthy, positive, and equitable relationships. Healthy, positive, equitable relationships are those relationships with citizens, leaders, organizations, and communities that require hard conversations about difficult issues, creation of intentional space, and interruption of false narratives. These relationships are grounded in truth and resist complicity in supporting issues or practices that perpetuate inequities, operate from a place of good intention and honesty, without a hidden agenda and resist vilifying or rendering individuals invisible when issues get uncomfortable and hard – while extending grace, support and space to grapple with the intense change necessary to amplify our collective efforts. These relationships form the rich tapestry that’s woven together to form a complex web of alliances, collaborations and networks to support aligned, effective and sustainable change. Consequently, the effort to maintain their integrity is constant and necessitates individual self- reflection, learning and on-going growth. It requires us all to go deeper into ourselves to… Become conscious of our own triggers that are grounded in our own secret insecurities and traumatizing situations that have occurred in the past and seem to show up unconsciously in present situations or engagement with new individuals. Retreat when needed and embrace the type of vulnerability that enables us to say, “I don’t know – can you be a thought-partner with me?” Regroup when we feel paralyzed and integrate lessons learned towards seeking a different result or alternative path forward. Have the courage to stand alone and model a way of being that creates a bigger table for unpopular voices towards creating more grounded, innovative, and successful strategies. Be present, silent, and listen to/with others to see past their struggle, acknowledging the things they have done well and challenge them to let go of what has been to dream of what could be. Know when to stop pushing… to pause, encourage respite, celebrate, break bread together, and get to know each other on a deeper level beyond the present work without trepidation or fear. Sit in the reality of the moment, while balancing the vision of what it can become. Deal with our fear of being rendered invisible, discarded, and unappreciated as we tackle this really hard work. This is our work! The cultivating, building, modeling, and sustaining of healthy, positive, equitable relationships must be a constant thread in all of our work everyday. It will help steady us in our most challenging moments and provide collective strength as we embrace a futurist posture that enables sharp pivot towards greater impact. Only in this posture can we anticipate and acknowledge shifting trends and galvanize the collective towards a shared future that is shaped by diverse voices, new narratives, innovation, and aligned collaborations that disrupt policies and practices that further perpetuate barriers and inequities. I challenge us all to continue the stretch as we move into 2018. We all have to do our work and continue to grapple with these critical questions: What is your struggle to nurture healthy, positive, equitable relationships? What do you need to heal and embrace to have the courage to lean into this work? What trauma do you need to face that stops you from embracing this movement? What ways will you choose to resist practices, behaviors, and strategies that hinder the impact of the stretch-even when you feel hurt, discounted, or uncertain about change? What three things are you prepared to let go in 2018? What three things will you continue, elevate and do differently in 2018? I invite everyone to embrace this challenge and movement. I would love to hear your responses, if you are willing to share at Our ability to have ongoing discourse about this important issue will help drive us towards the best solutions that are necessary to create a better tomorrow for future generations to come. Tracey Greene-Washington is the founder of CoThinkk, former board chair of The Center for Leadership Innovation, and leads two statewide initiatives focused on health and early childhood success. She has over 18 years of experience in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector and is a native of Asheville North Carolina.

  • Budget-busting increase in homeowners insurance

    Most North Carolinians don’t appear to be very upset about a potential budget-busting increase in homeowners insurance in 2018. The reason for that appears to be that most North Carolinians have no idea it may be coming. North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey announced in November that the North Carolina Rate Bureau filed for a statewide average rate increase of 18.7 percent for homeowners insurance. State officials haven’t exactly hidden the proposal, but they certainly haven’t been going the extra mile in raising awareness of what might be coming down the bend. Insurance firms say the hike is warranted by their models of future extreme weather, and anyone who watches The Weather Channel has undoubtedly notice the uptick in catastrophic events. (It’s more than a bit ironic that these forecasts are being taken seriously in a state that was widely ridiculed for a 2012 legislative effort to bar state agencies from making plans for sea level rise). Regardless, North Carolinians are a pretty savvy bunch, so the lack of outcry over the proposal reflects the lack of publicity surrounding it. The Department of Insurance website has a prominent notice of the proposal, but offers no explanation of how the state is divided up into insurance territories or a map showing how specific areas would be impacted. NC Rate Bureau Proposes Major Home and Rental Insurance Increase Wayne Goodwin, who served as North Carolina Insurance Commissioner for 8 years, said “It is rather curious that the new Insurance Commissioner failed to include in his initial November public announcement either a link to a map showing the proposed rate changes by geographical territory or the comparative summary data chart. When I served as Commissioner it was imperative to include that information for maximum transparency under the law. Also, without the maps or summary data how could the public meaningfully understand what has been filed by the insurance industry and how could the public meaningfully participate in the December public comment period?’’ Full disclosure: Goodwin is now serving as Chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, so partisans may dismiss his comments. But it’s hard to dismiss how awful this proposal really is. In some areas proposals were put forth requesting homeowners increases well over 50 percent. The NCRB is capping increases statewide at 25 percent for those policies, but if you’re buying rental insurance or are a condominium owner, caps on those policies could rise 40 percent. For people on fixed incomes, those numbers mean even tighter budgets and less money to spend in their local economies. And again, those numbers get worse in some areas. Willo Kelly told WRAL she’s afraid the increase could drive people out of their homes in some areas such as the coast, where many property owners also have flood and wind insurance policies in addition to homeowners insurance. “When you add all of your insurance up,’’ Kelly said, “it can be more than your mortgage payment.’’ Regulators for the state will negotiate with insurers; if a compromise is reached, it would be up to Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey to approve it. It one is not reached, the issue would be the topic of a public hearing, probably to be held next summer. This issue is of paramount importance to retirees, anyone on a fixed income or anyone seeing slow wage growth. Couple the prospect of significantly higher insurance rates with looming higher charges for electricity and health care costs virtually guaranteed to rise, and 2018 looks to deliver a nasty triple threat to family budgets. North Carolinians can do more than simply hope this proposal dies on the vine. They can speak out. However, time is running short. “Safeguarding consumers against unfair insurance practices is the responsibility of NC Department of Insurance. Consumer participation in administrative, legislative, and judicial processes is valuable for these purposes,’’ said Steve Hahn, AARP North Carolina Associate State Director. “Unfortunately limiting the ability to weigh in undermines our opportunity to make any problems and concerns known. That is why AARP is urging people who oppose this major insurance rate increase to act quickly before the December 29th deadline passes.’’ The North Carolina Department of Insurance is taking public comments on its proposal via email or mail until Dec. 29th. Send comments via email to or mail to Tricia Ford, 1201 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1201. This commentary was written in cooperation with AARP North Carolina. Distributed by Carolina

  • Toward an Electric Future, by Design

    An historic evolution in how we get from Point A to Point B is set to take place over the next 20 years—the shift from fossil to alternative fuels for powering vehicles. What sort of fueling infrastructure will North Carolina need to support the demand? What role can public policy play? Light-duty vehicles, which include cars, produce most of the nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from mobile sources in North Carolina. NOx irritate the lungs and weaken the body’s defenses against respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza. They also contribute to formation of ground-level ozone and particulate matter. Increased use of alternative fuels over fossil fuels would improve human health and slow the effects of climate change. For this reason, China, India, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Norway plan to ban gas- and diesel-powered vehicles altogether. At the same time, the cost of building electric cars has been falling rapidly. They will become as cheap as gasoline-powered models by 2025, according to the 2017 Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast. The sale of electric cars will overtake that of fossil fuel-powered automobiles by 2038. GM announced in October its plans to go all electric, joining Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin. By 2040, a third of the automobiles on the planet—530 million—will get their power from an electric plug instead of a nozzle. But there are more immediate indications. In Consumer Reports’ 2016 Owner Satisfaction Survey, Tesla’s electric car finished at the top, with 91 percent of owners saying they’d buy a Tesla vehicle again. A recent federal report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory addresses the question of how much plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) charging infrastructure our country needs. The report seeks to guide public and private stakeholders interested in shaping the future electric vehicle-charging network. Unlike internal combustion vehicles fueled by gas stations, PEV infrastructure also includes residential electric vehicle supply equipment. That’s because most people charge their cars at home. They also don’t really drive that far: 70 percent of daily driving for gas-powered vehicles is less than 40 miles; 95 percent is under 100 miles. An average vehicle only travels 100 miles or more on six days per year. The real issue for most drivers considering purchase of an electric vehicle is what happens when they travel outside their vehicle’s range? Long-distance travel has been a barrier to PEV adoption ever since the first electric car. But an extensive and convenient network of charging stations could make intercity travel reliable. The analysis found that approximately 400 corridor-charging stations (spaced 70 miles apart on average) would be required to provide convenient access to PEV drivers across the U.S. Interstate System. The next step for North Carolina is development of a statewide network of charging stations that benefits urban and rural travelers, including those who live in multi-family housing. We have the opportunity to accomplish this through wise investment of the $92 million fund North Carolina will receive under settlement of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The amount was determined based on the 16,000 affected 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel engine vehicles registered in the state. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is accepting comment on how the state should spend the money through Dec. 31 at There are 10 categories under which the money may be spent. Up to 15 percent of the funds may be spent to buy and install charging stations. North Carolina should follow the example of California, which has made installing charging stations under the Volkswagen program in low income and disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by air pollution a priority. Investing in charging stations will supplement the 2,500-plus non-proprietary electric vehicle chargers Volkswagen will install at more than 450 station sites along high-traffic corridors between U.S. metropolitan areas. Also, Volkswagen will install community chargers in 11 cities nationwide, including the Raleigh area. Governor Roy Cooper has directed the DEQ to develop a plan for spending the settlement; however, the General Assembly has said legislators must approve how the money is spent. Regardless of how the plan is developed, public hearings should be held for transparent and open debate on how we will shape the future of transportation and access to alternative fuels. Show up! Speak out!

  • No evidence to back up claim of sonic attacks

    HAVANA – A few hours before I was to meet the Cuban doctor overseeing an investigation into an allegation of sonic attacks on members of the American diplomatic community in this communist country, I stood outside the Hotel Capri second guessing my decision to go inside Hotel Capri. Built by American mobsters in 1955, the Capri – according to U.S. government officials – is a crime scene. It’s one of the places where “numerous employees at the U.S. embassy in Havana have been targeted in specific attacks” from a phantom weapon, the state department charged back in October. I went to the 19-story hotel to see this torture chamber for my self. I expected to find just a few foolhardy souls inside. But the Capri’s lobby was teeming with people who seemed either unaware –or unafraid – of the sonic attacks that the state department claims injured some of the Americans who spent time in this 19-story hotel at the corner of 21st and N streets in the Vedado section of the Cuban capital. While U.S. government investigators say they have no reason to think Cuba actually launched these attacks, President Trump said he believes Cuba is responsible for the alleged attacks – which are thought to have started shortly after his election in November 2017. The victims, according to the state department, have been hit with headaches, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and some cognition problems. I experienced none of these things during my visit to the Capri. Of course that doesn’t mean a sonic weapon wasn’t used on American diplomats in this hotel and at other locations throughout Havana. But to believe in the existence of such a weapon you have to believe that Cuba has developed something akin to a neutron bomb. The neutron bomb is a Cold War-era weapon that kills people and leaves buildings standing. Its sonic counterpart – if it exists – would be capable of targeting a single person while not injuring anyone nearby. If you think that’s the stuff of science fiction, so does Manuel Villar. An ear, nose and throat specialist, Villar is the coordinator of the 10-member team of Cuban doctors that has been trying to solve the medical part of this conundrum. I met with him shortly after leaving the Hotel Capri. “This is very, very weird,” Villar said of the state department’s sonic attacks theory. “We are trying to find the reason for what they (U.S. officials) claim happened to these embassy employees. But they have given us little to work with.” Villar said the U.S. hasn’t told Cuba which embassy employees claim to have been injured, or shared the prior medical histories of the people whose symptoms have been diagnosed. “They don’t want to cooperate,” Villar said. “They hide information.” Maybe, maybe not. What’s certain is that facts are in short supply in this strange case. So far, what we know for sure is that the U.S. government has offered no evidence to back up its claim that “sonic attacks” are responsible for the mysterious symptoms that, reportedly, have afflicted American embassy workers in Cuba. “To accuse someone of a crime,” Villar said, “you have to have the weapon, the victim and the motive.” By these measures, Cuba hardly seems to be a good suspect. It doesn’t appear that Cuba had a motive. Relations between the United States and Cuba didn’t begin to sour until months after it is believed the “sonic attacks” started. As for a weapon, it’s a stretch to think that this cash-strapped country has the means to produce a sonic weapon capable of targeting a specific person in a crowded hotel or elsewhere without being detected – or harming others. And while it’s been reported that nearly two dozen Americans in Cuba have been injured in some way, not a single one of these “victims” has been identified. Still, as the host nation, Cuba must shoulder a lot of the responsibility for safeguarding American diplomats – and for figuring out what caused the illnesses that are believed to have befallen them. To help do this, Villar said his committee, while continuing to work with U.S. government investigators, will urge nongovernment organizations in the United States to help solve this medical mystery. “I am offering an open invitation to any researchers at American universities and medical institutions to come to Cuba to work alongside us to research this problem,” he told me. I hope someone takes him up on this offer. It may take such an intervention to move the United States and Cuba beyond this diplomatic impasse. By DeWayne Wickham–cuba-sonic-attacks-20171013-story.html

  • N.C. senators’ first concern should be safe use of firearms

    When Sayfullo Saipov careened down a bicycle path, killing eight people on Oct. 31, police had no trouble tracing the weapon he used, a Home Depot rental truck. But that task would likely have been considerably more challenging if Saipov had used a firearm. U.S. lawmakers, supported by the National Rifle Association, have enacted laws that hobble the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when it comes to collecting and using information that could aid law enforcement and improve gun safety. As a result, an organization with a claimed membership of 5 million has managed to restrict information that affects the lives of almost 324 million Americans. Let’s start with the ATF. The bureau is precluded by law from creating a searchable database or registry of gun owners or firearm transactions. That’s right. Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of the NRA, the ATF is required to scan records in such a way that they can’t be queried or turned into searchable files. That means that when it gets a request from a law enforcement agency trying to track a gun found at a crime scene, ATF staff members are, in essence, flipping through a file cabinet to learn where, when and to whom the gun was sold. Any system is subject to failure due to human error, as the Nov. 5 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, demonstrates. The shooter had been convicted of assaulting his wife, which should have barred him from being able to own guns. But the Air Force has acknowledged that an officer failed to enter his domestic violence court-martial into a national database. That doesn’t mean the database shouldn’t exist. It isn’t just the ATF that is hobbled by such a completely indefensible law. Responding to pressure from the NRA, in 1996 Congress prohibited the CDC from funding public health research into firearms. When fatal car accidents occur, data about speed, age and sex of driver, seatbelt use, and numerous other variables go into a database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thanks in large part to that data, car safety standards have resulted in 27 percent fewer car deaths over the past few decades, according to a report in Wired magazine. The CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control exists to fund research into topics like suicide and domestic violence. If Congress didn’t forbid it from funding research into gun-related violence, it’s possible that the number of deaths from such incidents could be greatly reduced. When did we become a nation afraid of information that could save lives? We can only suppose that those who control the NRA fear such knowledge might result in a groundswell of support for severely restricting access to guns. But the U.S. Constitution affirms our right to own guns and the Supreme Court has said it is an individual right. A gun is a tool that can be used for numerous legitimate purposes, including self-defense, hunting and marksmanship. What’s needed are the kind of laws and safety standards that apply to other potentially deadly tools we use every day. Even with improved safety standards, cars killed more people in the U.S. than guns in 2013, by 33,804 to 33,636. The Oct. 31 murders-by-truck in New York City are a tragic reminder that cars have even become a weapon of choice in terrorist attacks. No one is talking about banning cars. But no reasonable person wants you to drive one unless it’s registered, you’re licensed and that information resides in a searchable database available to law enforcement. When NRA paranoia makes solving crimes and improving safety standards more difficult, it’s gone too far. How can such a small percentage of the population have the power to muzzle government agencies? Here’s how: The NRA spends millions of dollars to support the campaigns of candidates who agree with its positions. And two of the top current beneficiaries represent North Carolina. In October, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that only one of the 535 members of Congress has gotten more help from the NRA than Sen. Richard Burr and only three, including Burr, have gotten more than Sen. Thom Tillis. Both have perfect scores on NRA-backed legislation. Voting in lockstep with any powerful lobbying group, especially one as paranoid as the NRA, results in the greatest failure one can manifest as an elected representative — serving special interests at the expense of constituents, especially where health and safety are concerned. It’s time North Carolinians pressured their senators to put them first and lead the charge to reverse these unsupportable laws.

  • We must be truthful

    Washington, D.C. – I stood behind a bank of television cameras on Thursday at a late afternoon press conference in the National Press Club looking at Bruno Rodriguez, and thinking of Donald Trump. Rodriguez is the Cuban foreign minister who came to the Edward R. Murrow Room in this citadel of American journalism to deny that his country’s government is responsible for the strange afflictions that have befallen nearly two-dozen U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba. Trump, the reality TV show host who now occupies the White House, says the Cuban government is responsible for the headaches, dizziness and hearing loss that the embassy employees have reported suffering. According to the State Department, these Americans are believed to have been singled out by a dog-whistle-type device that emits sounds beyond the range of human hearing. Never mind that acoustics experts have panned the possibility of such a Buck Rogers-type device being responsible for what ails these diplomats, Trump clings to his argument like a barnacle to the side of a ship. “I do believe Cuba’s responsible,” Trump said days before Rodriguez’s press conference. “I do believe that, and it’s a very unusual attack, as you know, but I do believe Cuba’s responsible.” It’s that kind of mushy-mouthed talk that riles Rodriguez. “Anyone who says it was a deliberate attack (on the Americans by Cuba), is deliberately lying,” Rodriguez, a lawyer who taught international public law before joining Cuba’s diplomatic corps, said in a departure from his prepared remarks. In essence, he was accusing Trump of knowingly lying about Cuba’s complicity in the illnesses that have befallen the American diplomats. I have no way of knowing if Trump is misleading Americans when he blames Cuba for these maladies. But what I do know, Trump is a serial liar. The list of the prevarications he has been caught telling since he emerged as a contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is breathtakingly long. Back in July, The New York Times published scores of them. Politifact keeps a running update of the president’s “false statements” that is now eight pages long on its website. Last month, the Washington Post reported that during his first 263 days in office, Trump made 1,318 statements that were false or misleading. That’s an average of five a day. In one of the most memorable scenes from the 1958 movie “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a character played by the legendary actor Burl Ives proclaims; “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity!” He’s right. And it is because the stench of mendacity fills the airs so often when Trump speaks that it is hard to know when he might be telling the truth. So far, here’s what we do know about the mysterious illnesses. Instead of working with the Cuban government to figure out what has caused them, the Trump administration has decided to politicize these health problems. “It is high time for the United States to speak the truth” about this matter, Rodriguez told the journalists who filled the press club room that is named for the journalist who helped chase Joseph McCarthy from power. McCarthy was a Republican U.S. senator from Wisconsin who terrorized thousands of Americans with misleading and untruthful accusations of communist leanings during the Cold War’s early years. But the most damning evidence of the lie in Trump’s charge of Cuba’s role in creating the embassy workers’ medical problems just might be what Rodriguez said near the end of his press conference. “If Havana were really an unsafe place (for Americans), the U.S. authorities would not have requested 212 visas for relatives and friends of diplomats between January and October, nor (which its diplomats have made) more than 250 pleasure trips outside” of Havana. Murrow once said that to “be credible we must be truthful.” By this standard – and in the absence of any showing of proof – it is hard to believe anything that Donald Trump says about Cuba’s role in the my serious illnesses because he has revealed himself in so many other matters to be incapable of telling the truth to the American people. By DeWayne Wickham

  • Money can talk

    “We’re here today to talk about Move to Amend, the push to … (Stunned silence as an animated dollar bill walks into the room, waving his gloved cartoon hands in the air to gain attention. He clears his throat.) “Hi there!! I’m money! I can talk!’’ The dollar strikes an endearing pose and bats his eyes. “I don’t just talk! The Supreme Court says I’m speeeeeech.’’ “That’s ridiculous. You’re an inanimate object.’’ “Whatever. You can call me Bill. The name works for me and all my friends, the $50, the $10. Doesn’t matter! Even a Bill-y-un! We’re all Bills! He-men Bills! No chicks on any of our faces!’’ “But you’re not a person!’’ (Rumbling sound. Plaster begins to fall from the ceiling. Through a gaping hole in the room steps a 40-story building. In a booming voice…). “HI THERE!” “Good Lord! You can speak too?” “OF COURSE. I’M A CORPORATION!” “Yeah, I can see it says that on your façade – hey, I think that falling plaster broke my leg!” “HA HA! CAN’T MAKE AN OMELET WITHOUT BREAKING A FEW LEGS!” “That’s eggs – wait, why would a building want an omelet?” “THE SUPREME COURT SAYS I’M A PERSON! PEOPLE LIKE OMELETS. HI BILL!” “Hi! Can we talk? I’m everywhere! Talking! I never get tired! Of talking!’’ “HA HA, TALK AWAY, BILL! NEED ANY IDEAS ON WHAT TO SAY? I HAVE LOTS OF IDEAS!” *** The preceding was a fantasy. Except it’s a reality. One created by Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that said corporations can contribute to PACs under the First Amendment’s right to free speech. The 5-4 vote overturned a century of campaign law restricting campaign spending by unions and corporations and helped codify the theory that corporations are people. A lot of people predicted Citizens United would lead to an explosion in campaign spending. They were right. In 2016, candidates running for federal office spend $6.4 billion campaigning. Meanwhile, lobbyists spent $3.15 billion trying to shape federal legislation. In each instance, those totals doubled the amount spent in 2000. Citizens United didn’t lead to straight-up bribery. Offering a congressman money in return for a favor is still illegal. Instead, Citizens United led to the rise of super PACs, which can’t directly coordinate with a candidate, but can collect unlimited amounts of money from the wealthy to campaign for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation. The non-profit, non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that spending by overall outside groups – not just super PACs but by dark money groups and other organizations – topped $1.5 billion in 2016, up 43 percent from the previous presidential race. Spending by outside groups in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate contest topped $77 million alone. In 2016, 135 wealthy donors each gave more than $1 million to outside groups. Consider the income disparity this country currently experiences. David Koch and his brother, as of Feb. 28 of this year, were each worth $47 billion. Forty-seven billion is 831,412 times the annual median U.S. household income. The Kochs throw around a lot of money for candidates and political causes. Back in June at a Koch-sponsored gathering one donor said his “Dallas piggy bank” was closed until Congress would “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed. Get it done and we’ll open it back up.” if you’re a congressperson on the phone five hours a day trying to raise campaign money from that group of people, odds are good you’re going to pick up some of their views. You might even wind up trying over and over to pass a health care “reform’’ bill that polls slightly below a bucket of warm spit. Here’s a remedy to this problem: “We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other related cases, and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.’’ That’s the language in the Move to Amend push for a constitutional amendment to redress the situation we’re in. Hundreds of communities across the country and state, from Raleigh to Sylva, have called for the amendment. To learn more go to In objecting to Citizens United, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it.’’ Stevens was just stating the obvious. Sometimes the obvious hasn’t been stated enough. So we’ll throw one more out there: Money talks. But it isn’t speech.

  • I always stand for the national anthem

    Every time that old barroom tune – which didn’t become this nation’s official patriotic song until 117 years after it was written – is performed, I stand up. I get up even though the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner contains a hated-filled rant against the runaway slaves who won their freedom by fighting for the British during the War of 1812. Some of those slaves helped defeat an American force in 1814 that was defending Washington, D.C. When the American troops broke ranks and ran from the battlefield, they cleared the way for the British to burn the White House and Congress. Francis Scott Key was among those who fled that fight only days before he wrote the Star Spangled Banner, journalist Jefferson Morley reveals in his book, Snow Storm in August. I rise for every performance of that song by Key, a Maryland lawyer and slave owner who once branded blacks “a distinct and inferior race of people.” I stand even though I know of the awful mistreatment that far too many of the black patriots who joined this nation’s military have been forced to suffer. From President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 decision to dishonorably discharge all 167 members of a black infantry regiment based on a trumped up charge of misconduct that wasn’t reversed until 1970, to the 1941 lynching of a black soldier on the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Ga., that was never solved, it’s understandable that some blacks might find bogus the national anthem’s patriotic appeal. Add to this the denial of “equal protection of the law” to dozens of unarmed black men that were killed by police in the first decades of this century, and whose murders were affirmed by judges and juries, and it doesn’t surprise me that some protestors refuse to stand for Key’s song. My decision to stand for the Star Spangled Banner is not rooted in a rejection of those blacks who take a knee. I do so in partnership with them. In October 1964, I volunteered for military service as the Vietnam War was heating up. Three months earlier, Donald Trump got the first of five draft deferments that he sought to duck military service when the nation he now leads was at war. Now, as president and the nation’s self-anointed “patriot-in-chief,” Trump bristles at the sight of professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest the mistreatment of blacks by the cops who give police in this country a bad name. But he took a knee for years during the Vietnam war. When I stand for the national anthem, I do so as a black man whose claim to patriotism is validated by a national defense service medal, a Vietnam service medal with a Bronze Star and a Republic of Vietnam Campaign medal that I earned. I stand as the grandson of an impoverished black man who served 2 ½ years in the U.S. Navy prior to World War I and whose dirt-poor son – my father – left a Baltimore ghetto to serve this country during World War II. In 1944, my dad volunteered to serve with the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12 Armored Division Infantry, a white combat unit that had taken heavy casualties and was badly in need of replacements. He was among the first blacks to serve in an integrated combat unit, years before President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces. Like my grandfather, my father returned from his wartime service to a lifetime of menial jobs and low pay. I stand for the national anthem to honor their military service. But most of all I stand to contrast my family’s service to this country against that of Donald Trump, whose claim to patriotism can be found only in his tough-talking tweets – not his real life actions. I stand in support of the right of Colin Kaepernick, the blacklisted NFL quarterback, and other black athletes to non-violently protest violence against blacks. By DeWayne Wickham Related Links

  • Passing RAISE a win for caregivers — and Congress

    Congress has been roundly criticized for its lack of ability to pass legislation. Yet it now has a golden opportunity to pass a commonsense bipartisan bill to help address the challenges family caregivers face. Last week the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage, (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act (S. 1028). The thrust of the measure is to develop a coordinated strategy to support family caregivers that would engage the private and public sectors. The Senate version of the RAISE Family Caregivers Act was sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. and Reps. Gregg Harper, R-Miss. and Kathy Castor, D-Fla. sponsored the bill (H.R. 3759) in the House. The importance of the 40 million Americans who help care for loved ones – and the moral and fiscal importance of supporting them – cannot be underestimated. Nor can the importance of enacting the RAISE Family Caregivers Act. Aging in place at home is a far less expensive alternative than a nursing home. In many cases that’s only made possible by family caregiver help with bathing, dressing, transportation, meals, and more, along with vital medical tasks from managing medications to giving injections and providing wound care. The moral imperative of caring for a loved one is obvious. The hard dollar value of such care often isn’t. It’s estimated that the value of unpaid care provided by this silent army of family caregivers is $470 billion a year. By way of comparison, that roughly equals the annual sales of IBM, Hewlett Packard, Apple and Microsoft in 2013-2014. Combined. The equation here is simple: If that $470 billion in care didn’t exist, either the care wouldn’t exist or the taxpayers could be picking up the tab to provide it. A look at America’s demographics show a level of urgency on this issue that might escape most Americans. On one hand we’re aging as a nation, with 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day (with up to 90 percent of that cohort dealing with one or more chronic health conditions). The fastest growing segment of the population is Americans 85 and older; that’s the segment most at risk for multiple and interacting health problems requiring higher levels of care. On the flip side, we’re running low on family caregivers. In 2010 there were 7.2 potential family caregivers for every American 80 and older. That’s expected to drop to 4 to 1 in by 2030 and 3 to 1 by 2050. Caregivers are going to need more help. They already need more help. Caring for a loved one is the right thing to do, and it’s rewarding, but it often comes at a cost to the caregiver including through elevated levels of stress and health problems of their own, particularly a greater incidence of chronic conditions like depression, cancer and heart disease. Here’s how the RAISE Family Caregivers Act will help: It calls for bringing together private and public sector voices to recommend action steps via an advisory council formed under the bill. The council would include veterans, family caregivers, social service and health providers and employers, among others. It would help identify actions already being taken or that ought to be taken to recognize and support family caregivers, related to: • Promoting greater adoption of person-and family-centered care in all health and other settings, with the person and the family caregiver (as appropriate) at the center of care teams; • Assessment and service planning (including care transitions and coordination) involving care recipients and family caregivers; • Information, education, training supports, referral, and care coordination; • Respite options; • Financial security and workplace issues. The unanimous, bipartisan support in the Senate sends a strong message to the House, where the legislation is pending in the House Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. Another North Carolinian, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, said “The unanimous Senate vote sends a clear and strong signal that supporting caregivers is an urgent national priority, especially as we experience the effects of an aging population, better understand the unique needs of our wounded warriors, and recognize the drastic personal, financial, and health challenges of caregiving. (The Senate) vote signals that help is on the way, and that the work caregivers do day in and day out for their loved ones is critically important. “Now it’s time for the House of Representatives to act, and I call on them to pass this legislation before the end of the year. “The Elizabeth Dole Foundation is proud to have joined with more than 60 national organizations in supporting this important legislation.” This is a nonpartisan issue that affects families across the country. And it’s a legislative accomplishment waiting to happen. The sooner, the better.

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