The Hurricanes, as you know, nixed a parade when the city offered it, saying it should await Stanley's arrival. Just as well. You can't parade down the Fayetteville Mall anyway--too many raised concrete pools full of stagnant water are in the way. As we were heading off, our group saw Mayor Charles Meeker and agreed with him that, now that the City Council has voted to tear out most of the mall and restore Fayetteville Street from near the Capitol to near the Convention Center, work should proceed post-haste (budget problems were not mentioned) since the 'Canes' victory parade may be only a year away.
Hizzoner did not tarry to discuss policy matters, however. Shortly, he was doing what he was supposed to--posing for a picture with a tiny Caniac and his XXL Dad, both in their official Hurricanes garb. So he wasn't on hand when our group agreed that, once the mall is removed, the Convention Center must be next. There it sits, too small to attract an actual convention, but big enough to block Fayetteville Street short of its historic destination at Memorial Auditorium. Knock it down, and we'd have a plaza capable of holding 30,000 people. While it's there, though, even a crowd of more than 6,000 is a tight fit.
Judicial Elections: A Moisture Test for Campaign Reform?
When we last visited the issue of campaign finance reform in North Carolina, a bill creating a system of public financing for statewide judicial campaigns had just passed the state Senate. That was last fall. Now, Senate Bill 1054 is in the House, where a leading proponent gives it a 50-50 chance of passage before the end of the current short session. "I think the votes are there," says Chris Heagerty, executive director the N.C. Center for Voter Education, an election reform group, "but no, it's not going to pass with ease."The situation might be described thusly: Since the Democrats who control the Senate passed it, many House Republicans will just naturally suspect that it's some kind of plot to keep the GOP from electing more judges. And since the Republicans hold 58 of the 120 House seats, if they take a party position to oppose it, don't look for the 62 Democrats to stick together and pass it anyway. After all, it could be, gulp, controversial.
Heagerty, though, is hopeful SB 1054 won't become a partisan football. The bill would dun lawyers an extra $50 when they renew their licenses and take $1 from everybody's income tax returns to make public financing available to candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals. The whole thing is voluntary: Lawyers could decline to pay, taxpayers could opt out (though it wouldn't save you the $1) and judicial candidates could say no thanks. Whether they take the public money or not, the bill would reduce the maximum private contribution to a judicial candidate from the current $4,000 to $500. Candidates taking public money--about $200,000 for Supreme Court candidates, less for Court of Appeals--would agree to limit private contributions to a set figure of about $50,000.
When the bill passed the Senate, every Republican voted no, objecting to a provision that would make all the statewide judicial races nonpartisan. Like everything else in this state, the courts used to be all Democratic, but in recent years the Republicans have grabbed 5-2 control of the Supreme Court and they like their chances of adding to the 3 seats they now hold (out of 15) on the intermediate-level Court of Appeals. On the other hand, as Heagerty points out, some Republicans did support the legislation that made all District Court and Superior Court races nonpartisan as of this year. So principle--judges aren't supposed to be political--could trump the politics, he thinks.
One obvious question is how the Supreme Court's 5-2 decision to chuck out the Democrats' legislative districts and, courtesy of a Republican trial judge, replace them with a map favorable to the GOP will play into SB 1054's fate. Heagerty says no one can know the judges' minds, of course, but it can't have passed public attention that all five Republican justices voted against the Democratic map while the two Democrat justices voted for it. "Even if it wasn't a partisan decision, the appearance is there, and the public will have a legitimate basis for believing that it was partisan," he says.
Moreover, Heagerty says, two Supreme Court decisions in the late '90s that cost the state treasury $1 billion--one striking down the intangibles tax, the other exempting federal retirees from the state income tax--reminded the public of the power of the judiciary. Best, if you're going to elect judges at all, to have campaign laws that bolster confidence in the winners' integrity and minimize the suspicion that they're going to listen to their political pals and big contributors. Sadly, NCCVE's polling shows public confidence sagging, especially among black voters (new poll results are on the Web site, www.ncvotered.com).
Proponents of public campaign financing made a tactical decision awhile back to support SB 1054 and put aside for a while their dreams of a comprehensive bill that would establish (voluntary) public financing for all elections to state offices. Some thought that taking just the judicial part of the loaf would just postpone the day when reforms would come to the governor's race, other Council of State races and legislative campaigns.
Heagerty, though, thinks the opposite is true. "In North Carolina," he says, "we don't usually venture off into bold uncharted territories of reform. We tend to put our toe in the water and test it out first, and financing of judicial campaigns is a way to do that."
On July 2, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips will be the featured speaker at an NCCVE-sponsored dinner in Raleigh to pump up support for SB 1054. Others on the dais: former N.C. Chief Justice Burley Mitchell; Raleigh lawyer A.P. Carleton, the president of the American Bar Association; and UNC-Chapel Hill Law School Dean Gene Nichols. For information, call 839-1200. Democracy South, the campaign watchdog group, has scheduled a legislative lobbying day for SB 1054 on June 25. Call 967-9942.
Shave and a Haircut--One Vote
Residents of East and North-East Central Durham are getting a surprise at beauty and barber shops this summer. In addition to getting a little coiffing, they can register for the simplest and most powerful act in our democracy--a chance to be heard at the polls. "A person can't have an opinion until they have a vote," says Fred Foster, a Durham activist who co-founded the Durham Voter Coalition this spring.
The DVC, whose mission is to "register new voters and re-energize existing voters" has engaged local beauticians and barbers, as well as churches, in its effort to give a voice to a segment of the Bull City's populace that is traditionally under-represented on Election Day.
So far, the group has enrolled about 250 new voters, says Foster, who hatched the idea with fellow Durham activist Melvin Whitley.
"We're starting to pick up steam," says Foster, a Division of Motor Vehicles employee who ran unsuccessfully for Durham County Commissioner in 2000.
The group, which focuses on voter education, will not endorse particular candidates, though it admits to having a "progressive" approach.
The beauty shop poll and registration drive is only one prong of the group's attack. Through its Web site, http://communities.msn/DurhamVoterCoalition, residents can register to vote on-line and learn about candidates, who are invited to post information about themselves.
To support its ambitious budget of $16,000 (so far, they are operating on donations from the two founders and their friends), the DVC will hold a fundraiser breakfast at N.C. Mutual on June 29, with Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker heading a panel of several speakers.
To spread the word about the upcoming primary--date still TBA, thanks to redistricting--the group will also host a candidates' forum on July 13 at 10 a.m. at the N.C. Central University student union.
The public is invited to both events; call Foster at 479-8305 for more information or to RSVP.
Return to Loves Creek
It's a warm Friday afternoon, and I'm driving down Silk Hope Road through Alamance and Chatham counties. It's a familiar route that I used to take several times a week, when I was reporting on the life of Siler City's Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission. For eight months in 1999 I threw myself into the life of this immigrant church, watching its members pray together, celebrate together, and help one another through illness, unemployment and family crisis. Now, returning, I'm struck once again by the summertime beauty of this road: Queen Anne's lace and trumpet vine; day lily gardens and tractor sheds; junipers heavy with ripening berries; trees that overhang the road, like a dark green archway welcoming me back. Here, even the Quonset-hut chicken farms seem bucolic.Then I drive past a charred house and am jolted back to the reason for my trip. Three days earlier, Victor Manuel Sánchez, a church leader who had immigrated from El Salvador in the 1980s, was awakened at midnight when a lightweight extension cord overheated and set his living-room sofa on fire. Sánchez grabbed his 2-year-old daughter Agustina, broke a window, and dived to safety, assuming the others would follow. But they didn't, and the fire was too vicious to allow him to return. According to news reports, Sánchez ran to a neighbor and said, "My family's in there, and I think they're all dead. I think they're all dead." Sadly, he was right: Smoke had claimed the lives of his wife Felipa, three of their children, and Sánchez's brother and sister-in-law.
Friday afternoon, the sanctuary of Loves Creek Baptist Church--the mission's sponsoring congregation--is fuller than I have ever seen it: brown, black and white faces united in disbelief. Six gunmetal gray caskets, some on wheels, cluster in front of the pulpit, and the ushers struggle to find seats for everyone, herding the latecomers into the glass-plated cry room in back of the sanctuary. TV cameras and print reporters are everywhere, responding to death in a way they rarely respond to immigrant life here. For the depth of the tragedy, though, the service rarely gives in to grief. A profound faith guides the Sánchezes' church community, a faith that survives even the most inexplicable disasters: hurricanes in Nicaragua, earthquakes in El Salvador, civil war in Guatemala, deadly fire in Silk Hope. In the theology of Loves Creek, heaven is assured for those who have accepted Christ into their hearts. Felipa Sánchez, an ardent evangelist, is in no danger of missing out on eternal life.
"For all of us it's a tragedy, but in heaven they're having a fiesta," says José Franco, a young former Catholic who married Victor Sánchez' sister and quit drinking after coming to Loves Creek. He picks up his electric guitar and announces, "This is a favorite of Felipa's. She's listening in heaven." And with a voice so layered that it contains both melody and harmony, he sings a hymn that has brought comfort to believers week after week:
There's a fountain in me
That is gushing,
That is flowing,
Jesus inside of me.
The Rev. Israel Tapia takes the pulpit to eulogize Felipa, a quiet woman who would nonetheless deliver Bible readings at Saturday night services, or pray over the collection plate, or go into the community trying to win converts. "Brother Victor was inseparable from her," Tapia orates. "Brother Victor was nothing without her. How can we respond to the tragedy? The Bible says that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people."
At the end of his sermon, Tapia leads the congregation in the anarchistic prayer that defines Loves Creek: each person praying aloud, with different words, from his or her own heart. Most of the room buzzes softly, but from the front-left quadrant of the sanctuary--where Victor and his relatives huddle--prayer erupts so feverishly that a stranger, with eyes closed, could imagine it to be a street riot but for the occasional cries of "¡Gracias!" and "¡Hallelujah!" The cacophony continues for a full five minutes, finally dissolving into long, tearful hugs that start with Victor at their epicenter and radiate out to parishioners in every direction.
Later I ask Tapia, whose own sons had grown up with Felipa's now-deceased boys, 13-year-old Emmanuel and 10-year-old Ramón, how he keeps the faith in moments like these. Tapia talks about seeing Victor Sánchez in the aftermath of the fire, a disaster that could have burned out his very soul, but somehow he managed to function after losing so many loved ones. To Tapia, there's no explanation besides divine intervention: The Holy Spirit lent Sánchez the strength to carry on. The minister admits, though, that he didn't know how he would make it through the sermon; he had spent most of the previous three days crying.
I can't but believe that something else helped support Sánchez through the first horrible days after the fire: the tightly woven social fabric of Siler City's immigrant community, which seemed to serve as a safety net, or a stretcher, to carry him through his grief. In my eight months reporting on Loves Creek, I found a congregation bound so closely to one another that I didn't pull away for a full year after the series was published. I kept returning--for services, for Christmas pageants, for weddings (including that of Veronica Sánchez, Victor's daughter, who lives with her husband in another county). It's a lesson we can learn from our new immigrant neighbors. You just have to show up at church, and listen.
Donations can be sent to the Sánchez-Zagada Fund care of the Mid-Carolina Chapter of the Red Cross, 151 N. Fayetteville St. Asheboro, N.C. 27203.
Send all digs, ribs, jabs, barbs and tips to: firstname.lastname@example.org or call David Madison at 286-1972 ext. 154.
Trotline is illustrated by V.C. Rogers.