Bowser became outraged by the court system in 1996 while trying to help a constituent navigate the child-support process. Facing challenges from several attorneys, Bowser says he would take the same "outsider" approach across the street at the courthouse as he did in the county administration building, where he was often a lone voice among more seasoned politicians.
The three-term Democrat's decision not to run is already generating some competition for his seat.
"Several people have expressed interest to me," says Bowser. "I've advised all of them to go for it, if they feel like they have something to offer the community."
His former campaign manager, Democrat Warren Herndon, plans to do just that.
Though this is his first run at elected office, Herndon is not a newcomer to Durham politics. In addition to helping Bowser, Herndon has worked in city elections on campaigns for current City Councilwoman Tamra Edwards and former City Councilwoman Angela Langley. And as the host of WNCU's Community Connection talk show for the last five years, he's had a steady diet of Triangle politics.
Herndon, 48, is a former Duke University's public relations staffer who now works as a business consultant. His resume includes work with the youth- mentoring program "Rites of Passage," the city's Human Relations Commission and the Durham Business and Professional Chain, a black business leaders group.
He says his two main areas of interest are education and economic development.
"Durham is in an excellent position to grow and develop and be a player region-wide," he says.
All five county commissioners are up for re-election this year, with a primary scheduled for May 7 and a general election Nov. 5. Former City Council-woman Mary Jacobs has hinted she is also thinking about a run at the commissioners' race.
As the Habitrail Turns
Nothing like adorable animals to get the well-meaning humans all stirred up. When Jim Kramer resigned from the board of the nonprofit Orange County Animal Protection Society, he began to lay the groundwork for a new nonprofit that could compete with the local APS for the $420,000 annual county contract it's paid for running the animal shelter. Kramer had a beef with longtime APS Executive Director Pat Sanford. "If she's not out of there, there will be an announcement by February," said Kramer.
Well, after 17 years at the helm, Sanford is out of there. She and the APS board agreed to make a change at the end of this month.
Sanford credits an aggressive spay and neuter program she helped implement with significantly reducing the number of stray animals coming into the shelter on Airport Road. The APS is currently conducting a national search for Sanford's replacement.
The Bachelor Party School of Comedy
For a grand finale, it wasn't much. Recent UNC-Chapel Hill grad Troy Griffin drove a limo onto campus Jan. 11 and staged a Jell-O wrestling match in The Pit, complete with video cameras and a scantily clad woman named Miss Kitty.
This was the creative pinnacle of Griffin's public access television show Random Insanity. The program is no more because its host is moving to Los Angeles in search of stardom.
The day after Griffin taped his final episode, two women stood in the bathroom at Barnes & Noble in New Hope Commons. One was dressed in a bright green bikini. The other was wearing a bra and underwear. They were waiting for the right moment to emerge from the bathroom and have their picture taken holding a sign that said, "Never do this again."
At first, they were alone in the bathroom. Then in walked another woman. She seemed unfazed by the sight of two nearly naked women, saying only, "That's nothing. I was up on campus yesterday." Apparently, she'd seen Miss Kitty in action and after that, everything else in the world appeared tame.
For having their picture snapped with a digital camera wearing next to nothing inside Barnes & Noble, the two post-college, pre-family women earned four points in an annual scavenger hunt known as Iron Scav. About 25 contestants broken into five teams participated in this year's ridiculous scramble. The tests of nerve and humility included smoking cigars in Wellspring, climbing as a group to the top shelf in Home Depot and dressing two team members as this year's scavenger mascots: The toilet paper mummy and the diaper cowboy.
The points came pouring in for teams who photographed their mummy and cowboy in the Morehead Planetarium, Fearrington Restaurant and the toy store Zany Brainy. Extra points were given if the photo showed the mascots having a sword fight.
In years past, teams were instructed to order a giant Mudslide ice cream drink from Applebee's. After the bartender served the drink, contestants readied their cameras and snapped a shot as the bravest among them poured the frozen concoction over their head.
So now you know why the bartender at Applebee's gets a nervous look every time you order a Mudslide.
Woe to the Sign Ordinance
A quick re-cap of Chapel Hill's signage saga: On Sept. 12, Top of the Hill owner Scott Maitland, a Gulf War veteran, hung a sign that measured roughly 30 square feet and read "GOD BLESS AMERICA. WOE TO OUR ENEMIES." The size violated a town ordinance, which requires that non-election political signs displayed at non-residential properties be limited to 6 square feet. A couple dozen residents complained to town manager Cal Horton. A few days later, a town inspector told Maitland the sign was too big, and he voluntarily removed it. In its place, he hung an American flag.
Then the fireworks started flying. Shortly before the sign's removal, some members of the Town Council, including the current mayor, Kevin Foy, had objected to its content--in comments to the media and the former mayor.
That wasn't why the sign was removed, but still many people believed it was, and consequently, the critics of the sign reaped a small whirlwind of criticism. Talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy denounced the sign removal, and hundreds of angry e-mails flowed into Chapel Hill government mailboxes, charging censorship.
Lost amid all the right-wing hyperventilating was Margaret Misch's bed sheet. From January 1999 to June 2001, Misch and a collection of peace activists displayed the bed sheet, fully scripted with anti-war messages, at the corner of Franklin Street and Elliott Road every Friday afternoon. Then all of a sudden, the town of Chapel Hill asked her to downsize her all-cotton protest sign.
"No one said tiddily-squat until June," says Misch.
Then came the September attacks, the "WOE TO OUR ENEMIES" sign flap and the accusation that the town of Chapel Hill has something against patriotic slogans.
Perhaps to avoid such accusations in the future, the town has compiled a report on its sign ordinance. The report, all 92 pages of it, landed with a wallop at the Town Council's business meeting on Jan. 15. It shows that town governments are well within their rights to regulate the size of signs. What it doesn't clear up is how such regulations can best respect the right to free speech.
In a memo accompanying the report, town attorney Ralph Karpinos recom-mended that the current ordinance should be reinstated until a public hearing is held and a new one is drafted.
Hold on, protested Mark Dorosin, a Carrboro alderman and owner of the Chapel Hill bar Hell. Dorosin also heads the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chapter of the ACLU. He told the council that if the ordinance is broken, let's fix it before we make it policy again.
"Under the current ordinance, temporary political signs have a limit of 6 square feet, election signs of 4 square feet," says Dorosin. "On the other hand, if you're putting up signs for commercial real estate the limit is 16 square feet. If you're putting up a construction sign to list the name of the architect and the people building the building, it's 32 square feet. If you want to hang a banner that says you're having a grand opening, the limit there is also 32 square feet. The political signs are subject to the most narrow restriction, and as such are overly restrictive."
Under the current ordinance, Chapel Hill business owners can entice customers with a full-sized banner that says, "Get Bombed at Happy Hour." But if they want their sign to say, "Stop the Bombs," they'll have to think small.
The town needs a sign ordinance, but it should be practical and apolitical. Still unclear is how the ordinance should deal with the word "tiddily-squat."
Political Poster Girl
The poster pictured President George W. Bush tugging on a lynch-rope and said he was "WANTED" for executing 152 people as governor of Texas. The knock at A.J. Brown's apartment door in Durham came from a pair of U.S. Secret Service agents. The agents, who seemed nonplused at what they saw, went away, and they haven't been back since. But since first appearing in The Independent, Brown's story continues to spread. First, the article ricocheted around the Internet, posted and re-posted on Web sites and listservs. Then Brown's phone started ringing. The ACLU's national office called first, eager to get the facts about her case. And several media outlets wanted to know: Had this really happened? Can we do a follow-up report?
Brown retold her story to reporters from near and far, from WRAL-TV News in Raleigh to the BBC World Service. Pacifica radio's Democracy Now! program recorded another interview with her, and the Christian Science Monitor cited the poster incident in an article titled, "Political dissent can bring federal agents to door."
George Monbiot, a columnist for the London Guardian, noted that Brown is "just one of many young dissenters fighting for the most basic political freedoms." Unfortunately, Brown's was not an isolated case.
The same week of Brown's incident, in late October, Katie Sierra, a 15-year-old high schooler in West Virginia, was suspended for three days for wearing a hand-lettered T-shirt that read: "Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, I'm So Proud of People in the Land of the So-Called Free." And in early November, agents from the FBI and Secret Service visited Houston's Art Car Museum, saying they'd heard "anti-American" materials were on display--the same thing the Raleigh agents had said to Brown.
Brown is happy to help spread the word about creeping threats against expression. "I felt good that my story got around, and got people thinking about the ramifications of what the government is doing," she says. "But the real problem is not what they did with me, it's the PATRIOT Act and bills like it"--far-reaching legislation that she fears will chill political speech as much as it thwarts terrorists.
Open for Business
Cynthia Brown's U.S. Senate campaign may not have a million dollars yet, but it's got a new office, two full-time staffers and a lot of big plans. Brown moved her office from her spare bedroom to the old Holloway Street School in a working-class neighborhood in North-East Central Durham last week, and has hired a campaign manager and a fundraiser.
The former Durham City Council member is in a crowded field of well-funded Democrats seeking Jesse Helms' seat (see this week's cover story). The Dems are facing several Republican contenders, including front-runner Elizabeth Dole. Brown, a progressive with a long career on the front lines, has promised to run a grassroots, coffee-with-your-neighbors kind of campaign, with the help of Durham anti-sprawl activist Pat Bocckino, who came on board early as her treasurer.
Brown has recently hired California transplant Ken McDouall as her campaign manager and Durhamite Steven Matherly as her fundraiser.
Matherly, a leader in the local and state Green Parties and a Ralph Nader campaigner, is resurfacing on the local political scene after his unsuccessful run for an at-large city council seat last fall. Matherly has left his job at the People's Channel public cable station in Chapel Hill to raise money for Brown, and with competitors already reaching the $2 million mark, he's set his sights high.
"To be realistic, you have to be able to buy airtime. Liddy Dole's got $2.6 million. Erskine Bowles has a couple million; those are the kind of numbers we have to look at," says Matherly, whose first event will be a benefit concert in Durham Jan. 26.
The campaign has set a fundraising goal of convincing 40,000 people to contribute $25 each to raise the first million, says Matherly, who also plans to run again for the council in 2003.
Brown's new headquarters are at 1107 Holloway St.; her Web site is www.cynthiabrownforsenate.org.
The Man Not Named McCain
Russ Feingold used to find it "the toughest thing" to say that he opposed Timothy McVeigh's execution.Sept. 11 changed that, along with a lot of other things Feingold cares about.
The Democratic U.S. Senator from Wisconsin told a group of UNC-Chapel Hill students last week that he would also oppose the death penalty for Osama bin Laden, were the terrorist to be captured and tried in the U.S. justice system.
The 48-year-old progressive hit the road this winter to take his message to American college campuses, stopping in Chapel Hill on Jan. 14 to address a standing-room-only crowd at Memorial Hall.
He's against the death penalty in all cases, even bin Laden's, though he admits, "I hope he gets killed in military action."
"We cannot allow the spectacle of constant executions, especially in places like Texas, to be swept under the rug," he said to the sound of sustained applause.
He's worried about the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of Sept. 11, so much so he was the only senator to vote against the "anti-terrorism bill" approved by Congress last fall. Feingold considered the bill a violation of the Constitution that upsets the balance between law enforcement needs and personal freedoms. Still, he took a lot of heat from colleagues and constituents.
"Voting against something called the USA PATRIOT Act--it's not a politician's idea of a good time," he said.
But the adjective "unpopular" doesn't dissuade him from his core beliefs, a trait that led The New York Times to call him a "go-it-alone Democrat" recently.
He's championed campaign finance reform for so long that some people mistake his first name for McCain, as in, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. In Chapel Hill, he drew plenty of support with his call to ban soft money and provide public financing for all elections.
"The time has come to finish the job," he said, predicting his long-debated bill will pass in the next two months. "It's the only way to return to a genuine system of one-person, one-vote."
After his speech, the first question drove straight at the White House: Would he run for president in 2004? Not likely, he said, though his answer stopped short of "no."
"I am likely to seek re-election to the Senate in Wisconsin," he said. "But I do want the Democratic ticket to reflect progressive values."
One question came from the crowd long before the 50-minute speech even ended. While Feingold talked about abolishing the death penalty, one listener stood up and yelled, "What about the innocent babies?"
"I'll be happy to address that during the Q-and-A," Feingold answered, unflustered, while the protester strode out of the auditorium singing the national anthem at the top of his lungs, off-key.
The under-25 crowd has a respons-ibility in the wake of the terrorist attacks, Feingold told his audience.
"You can be the generation that changes the 'ugly American' aspect of our image--and of our reality," he told the crowd, urging them to learn other languages and take a global perspective. "Our ability to be the leading country in the world while taking minimal interest in the rest of the world is over. It did not end on Sept. 11--that's just the day we began to realize it."
Return that SmileWhen she was 8 years old, Almetta Davis dashed across Fayetteville Street on an errand for her mother on a hot summer afternoon in 1994. A prominent political activist was driving that stretch of road at the exact same time the little girl was crossing. A collision ensued. A lawsuit followed. A settlement was reached without assigning legal liability on the driver, Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People Chairwoman Lavonia Allison. And yet, Almetta remains seriously disfigured now that she's a 16-year-old high-school student whose family can't afford the $10,000 or more to repair the damage from the accident. The money left over from the civil suit settlement is in a trust fund she can't touch until she's 18, and even then, it won't be enough.
Since a Nov. 21 article about Allison in The Independent, a handful of local people have stepped up to help.
Hillsborough's Dr. Joseph Gatewood got involved after a request from one of his patients, News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders, who wrote about Almetta in a December column. Gatewood, who does a lot of pro bono work for low-income children, examined Almetta last month and says she needs extensive dental and orthodontic work, and possibly oral surgery.
"I'm pulling together a team of practitioners to help her," said Gatewood, who has found an orthodontist and a surgeon who will donate their services. Funds collected will cover lab fees and dental and orthodontic appliances such as bridges and braces.
Individuals from small communities all over the Triangle have mailed checks totaling $550 to his office, Gatewood said. Other donors have pledged to help but have not given specific amounts, said Durham County Register of Deeds Willie Covington, who is also raising funds. If you would like to help, you can mail a check to Dr. Gatewood with a note specifying it's for the Almetta Davis Fund at 101 E. Corbin St., Hillsborough, N.C. 27278. He can be reached at (919) 732-9306. Covington can be reached at (919) 384-7874 or email@example.com.
Coming soon to the Indy
Renters get wise in Carrboro.
Spalding Gray battles the forces of voodoo.
A new record label sprouts in Raleigh.
"We came from the West Virginia coal mines
And the Rocky Mountains and the Western Skies
And we can skin a buck we can run a trotline
And a country boy can survive ... "
--Hank Williams Jr.
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Contributors: David Madison, Barbara Solow, Bob Geary, Jennifer Strom, Damien Jackson, Jon Elliston and other Indy staffers. Illustrated by V.C. Rogers.