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The Most Important Local News That Will Affect 2018 

click to enlarge Feb. 11: Thousands of demonstrators—the NAACP estimated eighty thousand, though that seems generous—participated in the Moral March on Raleigh, a mass protest against the Trump administration’s policies.

Photo by Ben McKeown

Feb. 11: Thousands of demonstrators—the NAACP estimated eighty thousand, though that seems generous—participated in the Moral March on Raleigh, a mass protest against the Trump administration’s policies.

As crazy as things were this year on the national stage, they were just as crazy in the Triangle. From municipal elections to legislative battles, mass demonstrations to scandals, Confederate monuments to Defend Durham, consequential stories came at us a mile a minute. Here, we've compiled the seventeen local stories we think mattered most in 2017.

The Triangle vs. the President

Donald Trump's hard-line position on immigrants and refugees was formalized with the newly elected president's infamous travel ban, an executive order barring entry for residents of seven Muslim-majority countries. The order set off a wave of nationwide protest—including here.

The weekend after Trump signed his travel ban, more than a thousand people gathered at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, carrying signs expressing warmth toward immigrants and refugees. Protests have since popped up across the Triangle. Just this month, in front of the Wake County Courthouse, youth activists staged a funereal protest mourning the "death" of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that granted temporary work permits and a deportation reprieve to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors.

Throughout North Carolina, faith communities have coalesced around the sanctuary movement, opening the doors of religious institutions for undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Two of the state's five immigrants taking sanctuary at churches are now in Durham: Jose Chicas, an evangelical pastor from El Salvador who has been residing at a religious education center on the property of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church for months; and Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who took up residency at the CityWell United Methodist Church in mid-December.

The question now is what happens next for those who decide to go into sanctuary for what could be the remainder of Trump's presidency. Three years is a long time to stay in hiding, but for many of them, it's still a better option than being shipped home. —EH

Cooper vs. the NCGA

No sooner was last year's razor-close gubernatorial election certified than General Assembly Republicans moved to put incoming governor Roy Cooper in his place. In a hastily convened special session in December, they passed a slate of bills to curtail his authority, including transferring some of the State Board of Education's powers to the newly elected (and, of course, Republican) superintendent of public instruction, blocking him from filling more than a thousand agency jobs and the position of chairman of the Industrial Commission, and stripping Democratic control of the State Board of Elections.

Upon taking office, Cooper sued, arguing that the legislature had infringed upon the separation of powers. To date, state courts have seemed largely unsympathetic to his pleas.

Not suprisingly, the relationship between the legislative and executive branches has been acrimonious from the jump. In Cooper's first year in office, he vetoed thirteen bills, everything from the budget to rollbacks of water pollution rules to judiciary changes to an effort to protect hog farmers from litigation. The Republican supermajorities in the legislature have overridden almost all of them—a clear signal about who's really in charge on Jones Street.

It's unlikely that rapport will improve in 2018. Democrats, emboldened by recent victories in Alabama and Virginia and sensing a wave—not to mention legislative districts that are likely to be redrawn in their favor—have their eyes on overcoming those supermajorities in November, and thus fundamentally reshuffling the deck on Jones Street. That will be the big legislative story of the coming year, but don't expect much camaraderie before November. —JCB

The GOP vs. the Judiciary

Since they took power and began passing sweeping laws—both with Governor McCrory's approval and now over Governor Cooper's objections—Republicans in the General Assembly have faced one seemingly implacable obstacle: the courts. Most of the time it's been the federal courts telling them that their congressional districts are unconstitutionally gerrymandered or their voter ID law is unconstitutionally racist. But state courts have gotten in on the act, too, and that's aroused Republican ire.

The response has been to overhaul the judiciary in a more Republican-friendly manner. Step one came late this fall, when the Republicans voted—over Cooper's veto—to eliminate judicial primaries in 2018. They did this explicitly to give them more time to redraw the state's electoral maps for judges and district attorneys, which would give rural (read: whiter and more conservative) areas more say in who gets appointed to the bench.

That's just the beginning. There's also a plan to end all existing judicial terms next year and then limit judges to two-year terms thereafter, which would lead to an endless cycle of fundraising and campaigning. But really, the bigger play is to get rid of judicial elections altogether and replace them with judicial appointments. Expect to hear a lot more about that in 2018. —JCB

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY SKILLET GILMORE
  • Illustration by Skillet Gilmore

The "Repeal" of HB 2

News of the legislature's proposed HB 2 repeal came almost as quickly as the loathed bathroom bill itself: with a late-night, hastily convened press conference just days before a deadline imposed by the NCAA was set to expire. The sports association called on North Carolina to repeal the bill or lose championship games until 2022. Sports—particularly, college basketball—being what they are in the Tar Heel State, the specter of an NCAA-less future got the ball rolling, and fast.

What ultimately passed was quickly derided by critics as "HB 2.0." The compromise wiped HB 2 from state statute, but it also prevented state agencies from making their own rules about bathroom use and banned cities from passing new nondiscrimination ordinances until 2020. LGBTQ rights groups were incredulous. The NAACP released a statement calling the legislation an "insult to civil rights"; the ACLU and Lambda Legal called it a "fake repeal." Cooper himself admitted the repeal was far from perfect. In the end, it seemed, nobody was pleased—save, perhaps, for those who wanted to see North Carolina in the running to host championship events.

Beyond sports, it's unclear if having HB 2 off the books will boost the state's economy or attract big-name employers to the state, like Amazon's coveted headquarters. Although Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, and Greensboro-High Point are all in the running for the sought-after opening, a CNBC analysis found that the fallout from HB 2 could hurt the state's chances. So, even with the bill formally off the books, it seems, its stubborn legacy persists. —EH

 

The Gerrymandering Lawsuit and the NCGA's Balance of Power

In the 2010 elections, fueled by a wave of tea party rage, Republicans regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and made historic gains in state legislatures. Among them: North Carolina, where the Republicans regained control of the legislature after more than a century of Democratic rule.

Then they got to work. The party that controls the legislature also draws legislative and congressional maps, and in 2011, Republicans wielded their newfound power. The maps they drew earned North Carolina the dubious honor of being named one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. Lawsuits were filed, and their outcomes could, yet again, change the makeup of power in the General Assembly.

In May, the Supreme Court struck down two of the state's congressional districts, ruling they were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered. (These districts had already been redrawn in 2016 following a lower court ruling, so the Supreme Court's decision didn't mean much.) The following month, the high court upheld a lower federal court's decision that twenty-eight state legislative districts were also illegally racially gerrymandered, giving the legislature a September 1 deadline to come up with new maps. After the maps were submitted, federal judges found that Republicans hadn't remedied all of the problems and appointed a special master to redraw some of the districts.

As of this writing, the court has yet to approve the special master's proposal, but there's little doubt they'll be friendlier to Democrats than the current maps.

Whatever ends up happening could be consequential. Democrats need just three seats in the House and six in the Senate to break the General Assembly's Republican supermajority, which would hand Governor Cooper enough power to sustain his vetoes. —EH

Thomas Farr's Nomination to the Federal Bench

With headlines dominated by Russia, neo-Nazis, and white supremacist rallies, it can be hard to remember exactly what decade it is. And with President Trump's pick for a federal judgeship for the Eastern District Court of North Carolina, we were brought back to the Jesse Helms era.

If confirmed, Trump's nominee, Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr, would fill a longstanding vacancy on the court. But his record is controversial—and a big red flag to civil rights advocates. The Congressional Black Caucus, in a letter opposing Farr's nomination, wrote that the nominee has "amassed a record that puts him at the forefront of an extended fight to disenfranchise African-American voters in his home state of North Carolina."

Among the issues of concern: Farr's defense of North Carolina's racist voter ID law, which the Fourth Circuit Court determined targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision"; his defense of the legislature's 2011 gerrymandering; and, perhaps most relevant to his upcoming confirmation, his tenure as an attorney for two of Helms's Senate campaigns.

As the INDY first reported, Farr may have lied to Senator Dianne Feinstein earlier this year when, in a written questionnaire, he said he did not know about the existence of thousands of postcards that a federal court said were intended to suppress the African-American vote during Helms's 1990 campaign. A federal attorney who was part of the Justice Department's probe told the INDY that Farr was part of the team that decided to send the postcards.

Farr's nomination has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, though, in light of this new information, civil rights advocates (and Senator Cory Booker) have called for the committee to re-examine the nomination. So far, no vote has been scheduled for the full Senate. —EH

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

The Hog Farm Protection Bill

This spring, the legislature passed a bill that shields agricultural and forestry operations from litigation—and kicked off a months-long INDY investigation into the commercial hog-farming industry.

The bill, introduced by former farmer and Republican state representative Jimmy Dixon of Duplin, was curiously timed. It came as more than twenty-six nuisance lawsuits—filed by more than five hundred plaintiffs against the world's largest pork-production company, Murphy-Brown—were pending before a federal court. The plaintiffs alleged that the farms' waste-management practices negatively affect their health and quality of life. Dixon's bill would have capped the amount plaintiffs could collect in nuisance lawsuits filed against agricultural companies, including hog farms, and it would have also applied retroactively—effectively negating the twenty-six federal lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown.

Dixon, it turned out, had benefited handsomely from the hog industry: over his career, he'd received more than $115,000 from donors associated with the hog-farming industry. But Dixon wasn't the only industry beneficiary: cumulatively, House Republicans who supported the bill have netted more than $272,000 in campaign contributions from the industry throughout their tenure in the General Assembly.

The bill was vetoed by Governor Cooper in May, but the legislature overrode him. However, during the legislative process, the provision nullifying the pending lawsuits was axed; those cases will start going to trial in April. —EH

The Fall of a Confederate Monument

North Carolinians spent a lot of time in 2017 calling for the state to remove Confederate monuments on public land.

But so far, only one has come down, and state officials had nothing to do with it. In August, after protesters tore down the Confederate monument on East Main Street in Durham in response to a violent white supremacist gathering in Virginia, Governor Cooper initially condemned the action, saying there was "a better way" to go about such things. Later, via Medium, he called for the removal of all the state's roughly one hundred Confederate monuments.

Cooper asked the state historical commission, which under a 2015 law must approve any requests to move Confederate monuments, to relocate three on state capitol grounds to the Bentonville Battlefield state historic site in Johnston County. But the commission demurred, voting to wait until April to take up the matter.

Students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, meanwhile, are waiting for a similar petition, after decades of asking that a statue of a Confederate soldier known as Silent Sam be moved from its prominent place on campus. This year, they upped their game, staging round-the-clock sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. Faculty and elected officials have lent their support, but university officials say their hands are tied by the state law. They're taking public comment on the statue, but they haven't asked the historical commission for permission to move it.

Maybe 2018 will be the year. —SW

The Rise of Defend Durham

In the week after Durham protesters pulled down the statue on East Main Street, demonstrators were arrested by the Durham County Sheriff's Office, which seemed to take the action personally. A Facebook page, called Defend Durham, was created to share public statements from the arrestees and news about their upcoming court dates.

But in the months since the August 14 demonstration, the phrase "Defend Durham" has come to signify more than the Facebook page or the arrestees, who are awaiting trial next year. It even goes beyond the dozens of people who, later that week, showed up at the Durham jail to symbolically turn themselves in for the action, or the hundreds who converged downtown on August 18 after hearing (errantly, as it turned out) that the Ku Klux Klan may be making an appearance.

In the most concrete sense, Defend Durham got rid of a statue of a dead white guy and jump-started a conversation about what to do with other Confederate remnants in Durham. It inspired other cities, like Baltimore, where demonstrators threatened to "Do it like Durham" and dismantle their city's Confederate monuments, prompting officials to remove them under the cover of night.

But more broadly, it brought Durhamites together and made the Bull City proud. —SW

The Wake County Register of Deeds Scandal

The theft of $2.3 million from the Wake County Register of Deeds office blazed up as a scandal on March 31, when District Attorney Lorrin Freeman and now-former county manager Jim Hartmann announced that the SBI was probing the operation. The most recent development came December 13, when former Register of Deeds Laura Riddick turned herself in to law enforcement, facing six indictments that charge her with pocketing $926,215 between August 4, 2010, and January 31, 2017. (Three other employees were also indicted.)

In between, developments in the case kept Raleigh's government, legal, and financial circles—not to mention taxpayers—buzzing with urgent questions: How could this happen? Why wasn't the Register of Deeds office audited? Who's in charge here?

Some blame could be laid on a dubious "tradition" in which offices run by elected officials, such as the register of deeds and the county sheriff, didn't get the same oversight as other county departments. (Sheriff Donnie Harrison quickly offered his own operation up for scrutiny when word came of Riddick's problems.) And a comparison with jurisdictions as close as Durham County showed that some counties do audit elected officials—and do detect problems.

Taxpayers also learned that the county's comprehensive annual financial record doesn't address forensic accounting problems of the sort that showed up at the Register of Deeds office. Instead it relies on a sort of self-reporting by departments and just makes sure those numbers add up. As for the county's internal auditor, John Stephenson, his department probed cash-handling practices in at least ten other county departments during the period when piles of dough were walking out the door at the Register of Deeds office.

But he didn't audit Riddick's.

Many of the questions surround Riddick herself, a popular Republican leader who was thought to run an efficient shop and had easily earned reelection in recent years. She had been in poor health in the year or so before the thefts came to light, but that doesn't begin to explain the scheme described in the indictments. —TG

Wake County Commission vs. the School Board

The Wake County Public Schools System needs more money, the school board said once again this year.

Yes, but we can only afford so much, the board of commissioners once again replied.

It's by now a familiar dance, but there were some twists in 2017. The General Assembly hurled a plus-size wrench into the round of tempestuous exchanges between Wake County's two governing bodies.

The legislature's mandate for smaller class sizes, although modified for the current school year, had budget people from both boards scrambling to find seats for every child, not to mention paying for services the school board deems vital, including counselors for students with mental-health or behavioral problems.

The budget dispute ended in June, with the school system receiving less than half of its record request for $45 million in new funding.

"The big picture is that it's a status quo budget," board of education member Jim Martin said after the June 19 county commission vote. "It just meets growth and inflation. It's a subsistence budget."

After that battle concluded, the conversation continued, even though Sig Hutchinson, county commission chairman at the time, said the budget process should not be revisited until January.

School board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler and other members kept meeting, outlining additional needs and sending their conclusions to the commission. In November, Commissioner Matt Calabria proposed appropriating an additional $3.5 million to the schools for counselors and other needs. An additional proposal to require the school to match the amount remained under discussion.

"I proposed that we work on moving forward without requiring a match, because we know the school system has a number of issues they are dealing with," Calabria says. "It would be an extraordinary measure, but we think there is an extraordinary need."

The extra funding would not extend into the 2018–19 school year. And that's the point at which the state mandate for smaller class sizes in lower grades will really kick in.

In addition, both state and federal budget writers of the Republican variety are proposing changes that would route more money and/or tax deductions to charter and private schools, which are siphoning off an increasing share of the state's students.

Schools advocate Jessica Holmes was named board of commissioners chair in December, perhaps helping Johnson-Hostler as she leads her panel in funding talks to come. But commissioners, including John Burns and Erv Portman, are keeping an eye on the big picture of county needs, including behavioral health care and affordable housing.

The fun starts in January. —TG

click to enlarge July 22: North Carolina FC, formerly the Carolina Railhawks, are trying to earn a franchise in Major League Soccer. This summer, team owner Steve Malik unveiled plans for a stadium in downtown Raleigh. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • July 22: North Carolina FC, formerly the Carolina Railhawks, are trying to earn a franchise in Major League Soccer. This summer, team owner Steve Malik unveiled plans for a stadium in downtown Raleigh.

North Carolina FC Bids for MLS

If you step back and think about it, it's flat-out amazing what Steve Malik has accomplished since purchasing a fledgling soccer franchise two years ago. He infused the then-Carolina RailHawks with cash and energy and then, last December, gave them a new name—North Carolina Football Club—and a new mission: to earn a spot in Major League Soccer by the end of 2018.

In July, Malik and company made their pitch to visiting MLS officials. There was a street party to show community support. There was a slick presentation and glowing media. And, most important, there were unveiled plans for a new soccer stadium in downtown Raleigh.

North Carolina FC didn't make the MLS short list in 2017, but it very well might next year. And that means the stadium—planned for thirteen acres of state-owned land—could well see a big debate in the years to come: How much will Malik want the state and local governments to fork over for infrastructure? What sort of deal will the legislature consider for the land? Is that the right location, or would it just cause a traffic nightmare?

All of which is to say, there are several big steps before Malik's dream becomes a reality. But if it all comes together, it could reshape downtown Raleigh in a huge way. —JCB

Downtown Raleigh Gets a Grocery Store (or Two)

For years now, the downtown Raleigh crowd has lusted after a grocery store. The other pieces of downtown's decade-long renaissance had been falling into place: according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance's 2017 State of Downtown Report, land values downtown were up 106 percent over 2008; property values were up 31 percent; food and drink sales generated more than $200 million in 2016, and 1.5 million additional square feet of office space. More than fifteen thousand people live within a mile of the Capitol, and more than four thousand more will soon join them.

In other words, downtown Raleigh has been booming. But it couldn't get a damn grocery store. Grocery stores are important, urban planners will tell you, because without them, if people have to get in cars and drive to pick up food, you don't really have a neighborhood. This was the last piece of the puzzle.

Then, in a matter of weeks, DTR scored not one but two grocery stores. The first, announced in early November, was Publix, a Florida-based chain coming to the ground floor of an apartment tower at the corner of Peace and West. In early December, Carrboro's Weaver Street Market, the largest food co-op in the Southeast, announced that it, too, would open a downtown Raleigh location, in the Warehouse District.

Downtown's success isn't the end-all-be-all of urban growth. Rising rents have exacerbated the city's affordable housing and income inequality crises, for example. But the more DTR becomes a neighborhood, with neighborhood amenities and (eventually) a better mass transit system, the better off the entire city will be. —JCB

The End of Durham's Bill Bell Era

For sixteen years, Bill Bell has been the face of Durham—and especially of its downtown renaissance, for which he deserves credit. So when the city's longtime mayor announced last year he wouldn't be seeking reelection, it kicked off a long, competitive race to fill his seat.

Bell served on the Durham County Board of Commissioners for twenty-six years and was instrumental in merging the county and city school systems. During his time as mayor, nearly $2 billion in public and private investment went into downtown. Reducing poverty and revitalizing other neighborhoods were also central to Bell's tenure. He launched a poverty-reduction initiative and threw city support at efforts to revamp struggling parts of northeast central and southeast central Durham.

But as downtown flourished, Durham's poverty rate ticked up from 15 percent in 2000 to 19.2 percent in 2015, and people were priced out of their neighborhoods. This wasn't lost on those vying for Bell's seat, or voters. Conversations about equity and helping all residents participate in Durham's newfound prosperity dominated the election cycle.

So the Bill Bell era comes to an end, and the next era will be guided by a largely new, young, very progressive city council. —SW

In Mayoral Elections, the Haves and Have-Nots

On the surface, the Raleigh and Durham mayoral elections had little to do with each other. In Raleigh, it was a popular, if anodyne, incumbent seeking reelection in a thriving city. In Durham, the popular mayor of sixteen years had stepped aside, opening the field to newcomers, but the favorite was always the eventual victor, Steve Schewel.

But as the election results rolled in—both in the first round in October and the second round in November—a clear dynamic took shape in each city. The white candidate—Schewel in Durham and Mayor Nancy McFarlane in Raleigh—was winning the whiter, more affluent areas, while the African-American candidate—Farad Ali in Durham, Charles Francis in Raleigh—was winning poorer, more heavily minority neighborhoods.

This dynamic was more pronounced in Raleigh than Durham; Schewel is generally well-liked and has made good in-roads with Durham's black community over the last thirty years.

That wasn't the case in Raleigh. There, the election and its aftermath painted a picture of a city divided along race and class. In short, the renaissance and growth Raleigh has seen over the last decade have made the whiter, affluent populations happy but left the less-well-off neighborhoods behind. And so, despite Raleigh's preeminent place on every top-ten list you can imagine, there was an undercurrent of discontent that took Francis closer to the throne than many observers expected.

Both Raleigh and Durham have big problems with income inequality, growth, and development that hasn't been equally distributed. The haves are prospering; the have-nots have been left behind. Durham's city government has been largely aware of this problem and committed to trying to figure out how to rectify it. In Raleigh—well, McFarlane's close shave served as a wake-up call. —JCB

Women in Local Politics

The selection in December of Jessica Holmes as chairwoman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners completed a trifecta of sorts, with women occupying the Raleigh mayor's office and the chair's post of the Wake County school board.

It's a first, with some implications for the city and county's future, says Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

"The more women that are visible to the public in elected office, the more it becomes the norm," she says.

McFarlane won re-election in November for her fourth term following a runoff with Democratic challenger Charles Francis. Her only female predecessor was Isabella Cannon, the pioneering neighborhood activist who served from 1977–79.

And Monika Johnson-Hostler, the school board chairwoman, was chosen to head the panel again on December 6. She's been a school board member since 2013.

Why does having women in these positions matter?

"I believe that it is important for women to serve in public office, especially in a visible office, for many reasons," McFarlane says. "It is important to be a role model for younger girls, to let them know that they have the ability to pursue any opportunity or occupation they wish."

Holmes, meanwhile, has spoken out often for causes such as affordable housing, education funding and help for the homeless. Her election as board of commissioners chairwoman, part of a trio of female city-county leaders, can only help as Raleigh strives to keep its sometimes precarious reputation as a progressive city.

The change in local leadership is taking place amid a much broader backdrop of female empowerment—both in the record numbers of women running for office throughout the country and, lately, in the #MeToo movement that has arisen in response to high-profile sexual harassment and predation by prominent members of the media, government, and entertainment industry. There is also President Trump, an accused sexual predator himself, who—thanks to the Electoral College—narrowly defeated the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party in a campaign marred by misogyny and innuendo.

To put it mildly, women aren't taking Trump's bullshit lightly. And many of them are now seeking their own positions of power. —TG

The Deadly Year in Durham Law Enforcement

This year was deadly for people of color who encountered law enforcement in Durham.

Two people were shot and killed by police, and two others died at the Durham County Detention Facility.

Three Durham officers have been absolved in the shooting death of Kenneth Bailey on February 15, although Bailey's family has continued to question the department's narrative, which holds that he fled officers who were there to arrest him for violating the terms of his house arrest and later pointed a gun at them. (An autopsy revealed that he'd been shot in the right leg and the upper back.) A preliminary autopsy showed Willard Scott had been shot in the back by a state trooper after a vehicle pursuit on February 12. The State Bureau of Investigation has completed its investigation into Scott's death, but there's been no word yet from Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols on any charges.

The Durham jail saw its tenth and eleventh deaths since 2000. Seventeen-year-old Uniece "Niecey" Fennell was found hanged in her cell on March 23. Forty-year-old James Staton was found unresponsive in his cell on November 5. No investigative or autopsy reports regarding Staton have been released.

State inspectors, however, found the jail was at fault in Fennell's death—even if she committed suicide, which her family has refuted. A review by the state Department of Health and Human Services suggests Fennell had spoken about harming herself, but she was not placed on suicide watch per jail protocol. The review also indicates that guards didn't check on inmates as frequently as required in the hours around Fennell's death. —SW


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