In 2012, there are opportunities to create a more progressive society | News Feature | Indy Week
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In 2012, there are opportunities to create a more progressive society 

There are 366 days in 2012 (or 356 if you believe the Mayan calendar), ample time for our elected officials to exact further damage on the economy, the environment, equality and our national psyche.

In this look at the year ahead, Bob Geary, Samiha Khanna, Joe Schwartz and I touch on some of the most important issues of the next year—events everyone should be not only watching but also participating in. The agenda: Let's roust the rogues from their perches via federal, state and local elections. Let's participate in civil disobedience (it's fun and all the kids are doing it). Let's speak up and out: We don't want a state constitution that codifies discrimination and hatred. We don't want fracking and sprawl to ruin our environment. We don't want people to be sentenced to death on the basis of race. (We don't even want people sentenced to death, period.) We want fairness and compassion and justice for everyone. And we want it now. —Lisa Sorg


2012 elections

National overview

That the nation is in decline is, if not indisputable, at least a widely shared perception. Check the many polls asking people (voters; registered voters) whether they think the country is on the right track or headed in the wrong direction. By margins of 3-to-1 or wider, the populace is sour—as sour as it has been since modern polling began in the mid-20th century.

Which makes 2012, an election year, as critical a watershed as we've seen since, oh, 2008, or 2004, or any of the other election years when the people were said to be poised to seize power back from the insiders, the elites, the special interests, the—well, just who is it who's screwing us?

Tea partiers, who arose in opposition to President Obama, say it's the special interests who are taking the rest of us for fools—special interests meaning unions, public employees, senior citizens, Wall Street brokers, anybody with pull in Washington and the state capitals.

Critics of the tea party noticed, however, that behind the crowds attacking Obama were some of the very power brokers they berated. The billionaire Koch brothers, for example, through their patronage of the nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity, were big tea party backers. The Koch fortune is based in oil and gas; is there a more coddled special interest than Big Oil? (Or billionaires?)

click to enlarge Occupy Raleigh - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in New York City last fall and quickly spread to cities worldwide, is out to correct the tea party's misimpressions. Sure, special interests are stealing our future, OWS says. But it's not the unions, weak as they are, and it sure isn't grandma and granddad on Social Security. They're not to blame—unless, that is, grandma's fortune puts her in the top 1 percent of wealthiest Americans.

No, the problem is the growing concentration of wealth among a handful of the ultra-rich while everyone else's fortunes stagnate or erode. According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the richest 1 percent now own 40 percent of the nation's resources (wealth), roughly equal to what the bottom 95 percent are worth.

Global financiers amass capital in ever-larger amounts and move it electronically to wherever the labor force is cheapest and the health and environmental standards slackest. Add in the bankers' utter irresponsibility when it comes to selling shaky loans to suckers, plus the politicians' complicity in their rackets (both parties), and you have the world economic and environmental crises in a nutshell.

OWS activists have called the problem for what it is. The 2012 elections will turn on whether the Democrats, from Barack Obama down to the level of state legislative candidates, will latch onto the movement and offer real solutions for the rest of us instead of once again bowing before the power—and campaign contributions—of the 1 percent. Otherwise, look for Republicans to round up the usual tea party suspects and win more than they lose. —Bob Geary

Gubernatorial rematch

Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, took office in 2009 in a terrible economy, and it hasn't improved much since. Not surprisingly, her job-performance ratings, as measured by political polls, have been dragged down accordingly. She only narrowly defeated Republican Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, the first time. In a likely rematch this year, polls show McCrory with a solid lead.

Perdue's biggest problem, says progressive Democratic analyst Joe Sinsheimer, is that she's not polling as well with independent voters as President Obama is. "I don't believe that's issue-driven," Sinsheimer adds. "I think it's about leadership"—and Perdue's inability thus far to stamp herself a forceful leader. But another Democratic analyst, former Jim Hunt press secretary Gary Pearce, has some good news for Perdue. "As long as there is a legislature," Pearce says, "she has a chance."

The Republican-led General Assembly enacted deep cuts to education spending in 2011 over Perdue's strong objections, Pearce notes, bolstering Perdue's standing with base Democratic voters. More of the same in the '12 legislative session will play to Perdue's advantage and put McCrory's nice-guy persona to the test. "Voters like the idea of balance," Pearce says. "Do they want a governor who'll be a rubber-stamp for the legislature? [Perdue] could challenge McCrory to name one thing the legislature passed that he would've vetoed." That might be fun to watch. —BG

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. David Price (top); U.S. Rep. Brad Miller
  • U.S. Rep. David Price (top); U.S. Rep. Brad Miller
Clash of the titans

For the past 14 or so years, congressional elections in the People's Republic of House District 4—Durham, Orange and parts of Chatham and Wake counties—have been predictable, even with Republican-but-he-acts-like-a-Libertarian B.J. Lawson running spirited and well-organized campaigns in 2008 and 2010.

Since 1987, Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. David Price has faced no strong primary contenders (he lost the general election in 1994 to Republican Fred Heineman, only to handily trump him two years later), but if the courts uphold the GOP-designed redistricting maps, Price could duel his friend and colleague U.S. Rep. Brad Miller in the May primary for the right to run in November.

The new maps excise Miller from District 13, which he has represented since 2003, and place him in the Fourth. Both representatives have stated they'll run, which means they will have to raise more money—money they would otherwise save for duel against a Republican in the general election. It could get ugly, and unfortunately so. —Lisa Sorg

Head of the class

The headliner could be the usually obscure race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. The incumbent, June Atkinson, hasn't said if she'll run again, which naturally leads people to think she won't. It's also brought on the knives on the progressive side. "Right now, June Atkinson is failing teachers and students by not standing up to lawmakers who continue to [slash] school budgets," says Gerrick Brenner, who heads the Democrat-aligned advocacy group Progress NC.

A pair of rising progressive stars are ready to run for the job if Atkinson doesn't. State Rep. Rick Glazier, a former Cumberland County school board member, and State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a former teacher and assistant principal in Mecklenburg County schools, promise to be outspoken defenders of a public school system that is everywhere under attack by right-wing conservative forces. A primary election between the two could be, well, educational.

Meanwhile, tea party-style Republicans are lining up for the GOP primary. David Scholl, a small business man and Union County school board member, and Richard Alexander, a special-ed teacher who also lives in Union County but teaches in South Carolina, already have announced, as has Ray Martin, a Cary teacher and former Wake school board candidate.

Also making noises is John Tedesco, a voluble Wake school board member and tea party circuit regular who has been practicing his critique of traditional public education for the past two years. Tedesco is always a big hit with Republican groups. With the GOP suddenly back in the minority on the Wake board, Tedesco may be ready to carry his fight to the state level.

Will the future have public schools as we know them, only better? Or charter schools run by for-profit companies and private schools subsidized with taxpayer-funded vouchers? A knockdown battle between, say, Glazier and Tedesco might help frame the Perdue-McCrory election—presumably to Perdue's advantage. —BG

A heated Durham commissioners race

The terms of several Durham elected officials will end in 2012, and for some, it could also be the end of their tenures.

click to enlarge (clockwise from top left) Durham Commissioners Joe Bowser, Brenda Howerton, Michael Page and Ellen Reckhow
  • (clockwise from top left) Durham Commissioners Joe Bowser, Brenda Howerton, Michael Page and Ellen Reckhow

The seats held by Durham school board members Minnie Forte-Brown, Heidi Carter and Leigh Bordley will be up for election in the spring, as will several judges' positions. But no contest could be as competitive as the race for all five seats on the Durham County Board of Commissioners. Since this board was elected in 2008, commissioners have considered some hefty issues—financial incentives for companies to locate in Durham during an economic downturn, budget cuts that have forced the loss of several positions, and tax increases, including new sales taxes for schools and mass transit. Notably, the commissioners decided in 2010 to allow the development of 751 South, a huge community planned for southern Durham County near Jordan Lake, a polluted reservoir that in its current condition will already cost Durham hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up (see "A gift that keeps on giving" below). Opponents of the project have vowed to challenge the possible re-elections of the three commissioners who have continued to support the project: Michael Page, Joe Bowser and Brenda Howerton.

It appears there is plenty of interest in serving on the board. When former commissioner Becky Heron stepped down from her seat last summer because of illness, nearly a dozen people mounted quick campaigns to be appointed as her replacement. Several have said they intend to run for a seat on the board this fall. Candidate filing begins Feb. 13; early voting starts April 19, with Election Day May 8.Samiha Khanna


State issues

The Racial Justice Act

State lawmakers will meet Wednesday, Jan. 4, at 2 p.m. to decide whether to uphold the historic Racial Justice Act, a law passed in 2009 to spare the lives of death-row inmates who could prove that their trials, convictions or sentences were influenced by racial prejudice. Under the law, inmates who successfully prove their cases would be allowed to serve life sentences without parole instead of being put to death.

Recently released studies have shown patterns of racial bias in the selection of juries in North Carolina over the past 20 years, as well as in the application of the death penalty to defendants, based on their race or the race of the victim.

But in 2011, a mostly Republican ensemble of legislators set out to dismantle the law. Many have argued the legislation is too broad, and others have criticized it as death penalty opponents' way to simply stave off further executions in this state.

During the summer and fall, both chambers of the Legislature supported Senate Bill 9, which effectively guts the RJA. Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the passing of SB 9 on Dec. 14 and chose Jan. 4 as the date legislators could vote to override her veto. The Senate will consider the bill first, then the House. Three-fifths of the present and voting members in each chamber must agree to override the governor's decision. An override in the Senate looks certain, but it could prove more challenging for House opponents of the Racial Justice Act to gather enough support to pass the bill.

Even if the Racial Justice Act is repealed, the issue will continue in 2012. Expect the more than 150 death-row inmates who have filed motions under the law to return with additional legal action based on their in-progress appeals. —SK

A charter free-for-all?

Now that state lawmakers eliminated the cap on the number of charter schools in North Carolina, educators, entrepreneurs, small private schools and even out-of-state companies are clamoring for public dollars to open charters in the Tar Heel state.

The State Board of Education will decide in February which new charters may open in fall 2012, while another wave of applications will hit state files in April. Successful applicants will open their schools in 2013.

Among those that could open here in 2012 are the Triangle Math and Science Academy and The Howard & Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School.

The Lee school is being dissected by critics for its plans to work with National Heritage Academies, a Michigan-based institution whose founder has ties to conservative political groups. A local branch of the NAACP has also protested the establishment of the school, saying it would siphon resources from Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. If established, the Lee school, like all charter schools, would take a chunk of tax dollars per student from the local public school system. But charter schools aren't legally required to provide services such as school lunches and transportation.

In fact, the schools don't have to physically host any students at all. Companies across the U.S. have established virtual charter schools via the Web, with significantly less overhead—and, perhaps questionable results, according to a report last month from the N.C. Justice Center. A representative for K12 Inc., a publicly traded company at the New York Stock Exchange, was in Cabarrus County in early December, asking the school system to collaborate to form a statewide virtual charter school, the report says. The profits the company has reaped from public coffers was the subject of a recent investigative report by The New York Times.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the Lee school and as many as 10 others on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2. —SK

The offensive Defense of Marriage amendment

If anyone objects to the union of the North Carolina Constitution and a ban on gay marriage, speak on the May 8 primary ballot or forever hold your peace.

In September, the Republican-led Legislature that campaigned on job creation and curtailing spending instead pushed its Jurassic social agenda. It passed a bill allowing citizens to vote on a constitutional amendment that would harden the state's stance against gay marriage.

North Carolina already defines marriage as a union between heterosexuals, but the GOP wants to codify discrimination in the constitution so the state won't have to recognize gay marriages that take place elsewhere. If passed, the amendment would also restrict the rights of people in domestic partnerships and civil unions.

Equality NC, a statewide nonprofit LGBT advocacy group, is concerned the amendment could have ramifications regarding child custody and visitation rights, trusts, wills and end-of-life directives, domestic violence protection for unmarried couples, and benefits some municipalities offer for domestic partners.

Nationwide, 29 states have passed similar amendments, and N.C. is the only state in the Southeast without a ban written into its constitution.

In four months, North Carolinians have the chance to join those states that support second-class standing for gay citizens. Or, North Carolinians could make it clear that they believe in equal rights for everyone. —Joe Schwartz

The facts about fracking

click to enlarge Hey frackers, light my faucet - FILE PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Every few weeks or so, more evidence confirms what concerned scientists and environmental activists have long contended: Fracking is environmentally harmful to water, air, land and the people who depend on those resources—all of us.

Last week, seismologists attributed a series of earthquakes in northeastern Ohio to injection wells associated with fracking. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, which is generally deficient in its conclusions and rulemaking, recently linked water contamination in Wyoming to fracking.

The energy industry has been eyeing parts of North Carolina for fracking, particularly the Triassic Basin, which includes parts or all of Granville, Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham, Lee and Moore counties. Last year, the N.C. Legislature passed SB 709, a measure requiring the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources to study impacts of fracking.

Mark your calendars for three significant events related to fracking's future in our state: Industry shills and scientists will likely face off at a daylong fracking workshop Monday, Jan. 9, at Duke University's Reynolds Theater. The event is free and open to the public; it runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The workshop will be streamed live at nicholas.duke.edu/hydrofrackingworkshop2012.

Last month, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced it would expand the scope of its fracking study to address public comments the agency received. The draft report is due in March, shortly before two required public hearings: March 20 in Sanford (location to be announced) and March 27 at East Chapel Hill High School; both meetings run 6:30–9:30 p.m. DENR's final report is due May 1, two weeks before the legislative short session begins. —LS


Local issues

Beyond the roadways

Is transit in Wake County's future? Durham County voters passed the half-cent sales tax for transit in the 2011 elections, and Orange County looks poised to do the same in 2012. But what about Wake, the Triangle's biggest county with more than 900,000 residents? Wake was built on sprawl. And no one loves sprawl—and the homebuilders who gave it to us—more than former Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble, who now leads the four-member Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

Wake voters don't get to consider the half-cent sales tax until Coble's Republican commissioners say they do. And with Coble, who's as anti-tax as his uncle Jesse Helms ever was, running for Congress in 2012 in a primary with former U.S. Attorney George Holding, who's out to prove he's even more anti-government than Coble, transit advocates have their work cut out for them even getting the sales-tax question on the ballot.

One factor that could help: The Raleigh City Council will be looking at a new and potentially controversial zoning code, the so-called Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), starting this week. Adopting it could take a year or even two. Newly elected Mayor Nancy McFarlane is pro-transit. Councilor Russ Stephenson, her mayor pro tem and chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, says that the UDO, if it's done well, should usher in a post-sprawl era of transit-friendly corridors, allowing Raleigh to serve a projected 50 percent increase in population over the next 20 years with sidewalks, bicycle lanes, buses and someday a light-rail system. "Nobody," Stephenson says, "thinks we can expand our roads by 50 percent over 20 years. The cost would be astronomical. So we need to be looking at cost-effective mobility options."

Transit from Raleigh to Durham to Chapel Hill? It's within reach. —BG

A gift that keeps on giving

Attorneys will head to court Jan. 9 to try to settle the latest lawsuit related to 751 South, a mega-sized housing and shopping complex planned near Jordan Lake. The notorious project began in 2005, when the former landowner, Neal Hunter, petitioned Durham County to reconsider where the watershed of Jordan Lake began and ended—and thus which parts of the more than 160 acres he owned there could be developed profitably.

Seven years later, Southern Durham Development, a company of which Hunter is a member, is still fighting to build the project. Its main opponent: a dedicated group of adjacent property owners and environmentalists who don't want traffic nightmares on two-lane N.C. 751—the highway that runs along the project—and who want to spare already polluted Jordan Lake from additional contamination.

If the development is built out completely, it could contain as many as 1,300 homes, apartments and condos, plus 600,000 square feet of shops and office space. But with the civil lawsuit and the anemic real estate market, 2012 could come and go without any major changes to the land. Plus, the developer has submitted to Durham County a new request to change its original plans, which could go to Durham's planning advisors and elected officials as early as March. If county commissioners approve the new plans, their actions could render the civil lawsuit moot, unraveling the efforts of opponents with just a few uttered "ayes."

Then there's the challenge from Mother Nature. Because city officials have declined for the moment to annex the project, the land remains in the Durham County limits, where public water services are unavailable. Southern Durham representatives have said the company hopes to use community wells for water, but securing a steady water supply in this geological region, a Triassic Basin, historically has been difficult.

Conventional wisdom—and Dr. Phil—tell us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. In that case, expect the 2012 chapter of the 751 South saga to be ... uh ... rocky. —SK

Make good in the neighborhood

click to enlarge The Orange County Landfill in the Rogers Road neighborhood - FILE PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

After 40 years of dumping the county's trash in the back yard of the historic, predominantly African-American community of Rogers and Eubanks roads, Orange County leaders say they'll proceed on a plan to close the landfills in 2013 and to finally provide the water and sewer connections that were promised to neighbors when the site opened.

About half of the homes don't have public water, and most, about 80, still don't have public sewer. The county estimates it would cost $4 million to make the connections and offer services.

Rogers and Eubanks residents deal with putrid smell, questionable water, vermin, buzzards and truck traffic, and they complain of headaches caused by the odor.

They also are saddled with dozens of illegal dumping sites where folks who opt not to pay the tipping fees discard tires, paint, hazardous and household waste in the area.

Elected leaders now must find a way to fully address residents' needs and concerns. As the landfill closes, so ends the interlocal agreement between the county and municipalities to manage trash.

The search for a new site started in 2007, but each suggested location from Olver Inc. consulting was defeated, and the county ultimately decided to ship its trash to Durham's waste transfer station until a more lasting solution is reached.

Answers are needed this year. —JS

  • OK, no jetpacks. We'll settle for equality.

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