Monday, December 16, 2013

Rucho: I won't apologize for saying truth

What's worse for a public official: Tweeting something incredibly inane or standing by it after having time to think about it?

State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, was on WBT radio this afternoon, defending his tweet from Sunday in which he declared: "Justice Robert's pen & Obamacare has done more damage to the USA then the swords of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined."

Offensive? No, Rucho says. It's just that the "socialist elites" -- meaning the 99 percent of people who think that tweet is over the top -- "are just misrepresenting the facts."

WBT host Erik Spanberg asked Rucho if he could understand why a tweet comparing health care legislation to the deaths of millions of innocents would be offensive. "Nowhere in my tweet does it say that," Rucho responded. "The comparisons are being made by people who want to take away from the message." People "are just misrepresenting the facts on that one."

"There's no way I'm going to apologize for saying the truth," Rucho said.

Spanberg asked Rucho why he would try to convey such a message within Twitter's 140-character limit instead of through, say, an op-ed in the newspaper.

"I've tried op-ed pieces before with the Charlotte Observer and they were rejected," Rucho said. "... Under the circumstances, that was not an avenue."

For the record, we have run several op-eds from Rucho over the years, and know of only one that he has offered that we've not published in the past year. We invited him today to send us one defending or explaining his tweet. No reply so far.

-- Taylor Batten

Note: An earlier version of this blogpost said Rucho hadn't offered the Observer any op-eds in the past year. He did offer one in August.

Enabling the offensive Bob Rucho

Sen. Bob Rucho's tweet about Nazis and terrorists was beyond offensive, and not just because it had three grammatical errors in one sentence.

The Republican from Matthews demonstrated that he has lost all touch with reality. He tweeted it at 7:41 a.m. on Sunday, so it's unlikely that he was under the influence of anything other than far-right delusional thinking.

Saying that Obamacare -- or any legislation passed by Congress, whatever you think of it -- is worse than the killings of millions of innocent people shows utter disrespect for the victims of the Holocaust, 9/11 and other tragedies. Did Rucho consider for a moment the feelings of their descendants? Obamacare is unpopular and appropriate fodder for debate. But labeling it as worse than some of the worst atrocities in world history shows a complete lack  of perspective.

Many of us have said -- or tweeted -- things we later regret. Not Rucho. He defended his comments with this:

But of course, that is precisely why Rucho's tweet deserves condemnation. Words and ideas are powerful, they do matter. Because the pen is mightier than the sword, one of the leading Republicans in the state should be immensely more careful with his pen.

Tweeting vitriol isn't a new thing for Rucho. Last week, he dismissed his critics as "liberal weenies," not exactly the level of discourse you'd want from a Senate leader.

So do Rucho's Republican colleagues -- and Republican voters -- endorse him? Rucho is not some forgotten back-bencher; he is the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, chairman of the Redistricting Committee and chairman of three other joint legislative committees. If Senate leader Phil Berger leaves him in these positions, it is a tacit endorsement of Rucho and his ideas.

Rucho represents a district that's exceedingly safe for Republicans. It's highly unlikely he could lose next November. If Republicans let him run unopposed in the May primary, that will speak volumes about what they stand for and about what kind of people they want running the state.

-- Taylor Batten

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cancel 2014 congressional elections?

Then-Gov. Bev Perdue stepped in it in 2011 when she suggested (jokingly or not) that the 2012 congressional elections should be cancelled so Congress could focus on economic recovery instead of campaigning for re-election.

But if the 2014 congressional elections were cancelled, it would barely change a thing. Elections expert Charlie Cook is out with his new ratings of U.S. House races. They suggest that, as usual, there's very little to be decided, and even less in North Carolina than some other states.

All 435 House seats are up for reelection. Of those, 362 are locks for either the Democrat or the Republican. Thirty more are practically locks, very likely to go to the dominant party in those districts.

That leaves 43 seats that are at all competitive, the Cook Political Report says, and 30 of those lean one way or the other. Just 13 are true toss ups in Cook's estimation. None of the 13 is in the Carolinas and only one of the 43 is -- Rep. Mike McIntyre's N.C. District 7 seat, which leans safe to him.

In other words, here we sit, nearly a year before 20 seats in Congress from the Carolinas will be decided, and a fifth-grader could accurately predict how all 20 will go. It's the result of gerrymandering, clever mapmaking in which politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their politicians.  

Is this really the best way to pick the leaders of the leading republic on earth? Of course not. It's time for North Carolina and other states to follow Iowa's lead by having the maps drawn by bureaucrats forbidden from considering the political implications.

-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Vouchers: Unconstitutional, or just a bad idea?

Diverting public money to private schools is a bad idea. But is it unconstitutional? There is a difference.

More than two dozen parents, teachers  and advocates filed suit Wednesday against the "opportunity scholarships" the legislature created this year. Those provide $4,200 scholarships to low-income students to attend private school beginning next fall.

Burton Craige, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, cites the language in Article IX, Section 6 of the N.C. Constitution referring to public money being used "exclusively" for public schools. "We're going to ask (the court) to declare that 'exclusively' means exclusively," Craige said in the (Raleigh) News & Observer.

But let's look at the full passage that Craige is referring to. Here it is:

"The proceeds of all lands that have been or hereafter may be granted by the United States to this State, and not otherwise appropriated by this State or the United States; all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to the State for purposes of public education; the net proceeds of all sales of the swamp lands belonging to the State; and all other grants, gifts, and devises that have been or hereafter may be made to the State, and not otherwise appropriated by the State or by the terms of the grant, gift or devise, shall be paid into the State Treasury and, together with so much of the revenue of the State as may be set apart for that purpose, shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools."

That appears quite different from saying public money must be used exclusively for public schools and not private ones. The section refers to that money "belonging to the State for purposes of public education" and money "as may be set apart for that purpose." That seems to say that money intended for public schools must go to public schools; it doesn't necessarily prohibit other money from going to private school vouchers.

These vouchers are bad public policy, as plaintiff Mike Ward, a former state schools superintendent, argues. They shift millions of dollars that the public schools need. There's little accountability. It's not at all clear that they are effective in closing the achievement gap.

And they may be unconstitutional in some way. But the context of Article IX, Section 6, suggests any unconstitutionality will have to hinge on more than the word "exclusively." 

-- Taylor Batten

'Whining coming from losers'

Concern about North Carolina's dismal teacher pay, low per-pupil spending and the lack of Medicaid expansion? "Whining coming from losers," says House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Politico today runs a 2,200-word assessment of North Carolina's upcoming U.S. Senate race. Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat, faces the winner from a field of at least five Republicans next November.

Tillis is considered the establishment favorite. And he's unapologetic about his record leading the state House.

"I think for the most part, what I see from the folks who are opposing our agenda is whining coming from losers," Tillis told Politico. "They lost, they don't like it, and they are going to try to do everything they can to, I think, cast doubt on things that I think are wise and that the average citizen when they know what we're doing, I think, like it."

Politico's Manu Raju correctly portrays the race as one that will pit frustration with President Obama and especially Obamacare's shortcomings against anger at the very conservative path the legislature has followed over the past two years. It's a theme I've written about a couple of times this year, most recently in this column from November. Hagan voted for Obamacare and says she would again, even as she has been delivering rhetoric about fixing it lately.

Polls show that Hagan's once-comfortable lead over the Republican field has vanished and the race is now dead even. Hagan's seat is one of the most competitive in the nation in 2014, and it's one of several in which Democrats in red or purple states are trying to distance themselves from Obama.

Hagan, though, hopes that any stain from Obama is outweighed by the unpopularity of the Tea Party and the policies of North Carolina's Republican legislature.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory have indicated that they will try to address teacher pay in the short legislative session that begins in May, in the middle of election season. That may be just one area where Republicans try to soften their image with middle-of-the-road voters. "I think we've learned from some of the policy decisions, and we'll make adjustments," Tillis told Politico.

Two new Gallup polls out today demonstrate why Hagan and her Republican challenger each have hope. On the Republicans' side: Congress's approval is an at all-time low. It hit 9 percent in November and averaged 14 percent for the full year. That's the lowest annual average in Gallup's history and doesn't help Hagan. On Hagan's side? Gallup finds that a majority of Americans now disapprove of the Tea Party. The all-important moderate voters disapprove 54-34. More than a third of conservatives, even, say they disapprove. That will help Hagan if a Tea Party candidate wins the primary, or if she successfully portrays Tillis as one.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Edgy jokes flow at Good Fellows luncheon

Some 1,400 men gathered at the Charlotte Convention Center today for the annual Good Fellows luncheon. Besides their main cause - raising $350,000 or more in one hour to help the needy - the Good Fellows lunch is known for the jokes civic leaders tell based on current events.

We got the feeling that some of the edgiest one-liners were left on the cutting-room floor. But a handful of good ones survived. Here are some of the best, told by Gov. Pat McCrory, developer Johnny Harris and other city leaders, paraphrased a bit:

  • "Hey Johnny," the Republican McCrory says, "do you know how to get to Raleigh?" "Yeah," Harris responds. "You take I-85 to I-40 and when you get to Raleigh you take a hard right."
  • The town is abuzz with the return of the Charlotte Hornets name and colors next NBA season, but don't get too excited, Harris says, "because we all know, Shinn happens."
  • What do you get when you cross Andy Dulin, Ruth Samuelson and Bob Rucho? Two out, one to go.
  • What do you get when you cross John Edwards and Cam Newton? Someone who knows how to make a pass.
  • The city is considering putting movie studios at Eastland Mall. "Which tells you that 'Homeland' isn't the only Hollywood fantasy taking place in Charlotte."
Harris, who is believed to be one of the unidentified "businessmen" behind the move to strip Charlotte of its airport, was coy about where he stands on the issue. Developer Peter Pappas asked Harris what he thought of the effort.

"Some of my friends are for it, and some of my friends are against it," Harris said. "And what about you?" Pappas pressed. "I'm 100 percent behind my friends," Harris replied.

-- Taylor Batten  

Mandela and Jesse Helms: Heavenly meeting?

The Greensboro News & Record's Doug Clark asks a provocative question in his Wednesday column:

"If Nelson Mandela approached Jesse Helms in heaven and extended his hand in friendship, would Helms accept it?"

North Carolina's long-time U.S. senator was well-known for his animosity toward the civil rights movement and anti-black and anti-gay statements over the years, and he came down on the side of the oppressive apartheid system during Mandela's long imprisonment. So good question.

Notes Clark's column: "The Republican senator from North Carolina fought against U.S. economic sanctions on the apartheid South African regime in 1985 and 1986. He also refused to support American demands for Mandela’s release from prison.

"Helms branded Mandela a communist and warned that if the white government in South Africa was replaced by African National Congress rule, Soviet control was the next step.

"The senator apparently didn’t soften his view even after Mandela’s election as president in 1994. When the South African visited Congress, Helms reportedly turned his back.

So would Jesse Helms accept a hand of friendship if he and Mandela wound up in heaven and faced each other? Clark thinks so - and provides an assessment of Helms that critics won't agree with. Read the rest of his article on the News & Record's website.

Speaking of Mandela, Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who snapped that photo of President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking a "selfie" of themselves on a mobile phone at Mandela's memorial service Tuesday didn't consider it a faux pas nor that it was a big deal.

In a blog post Wednesday, he noted: "I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed – I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not. We are in Africa."

He said when Thorning-Schmidt pulled out her phone for the shot, "I thought the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium. For me, the behaviour of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural. I see nothing to complain about...It was interesting to see politicians in a human light because usually when we see them it is in such a controlled environment. Maybe this would not be such an issue if we, as the press, would have more access to dignitaries and be able to show they are human as the rest of us. I confess too that it makes me a little sad we are so obsessed with day-to-day trivialities, instead of things of true importance."

As for Michelle Obama's reaction, Schmidt said "In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, [British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt] included.... Her stern look was captured by chance."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How 'bout a hotline to report distracted drivers?

Texting while driving is illegal in North Carolina. But that law is hard to enforce, and our neighbors in South Carolina are considering taking things much further. Greenville might become the first city in South Carolina to ban all use of cell phones while driving.

The city had considered banning only texting, but the police chief says that would be hard to enforce because drivers could say they were doing something else on their phones and proving otherwise would get expensive. Banning all hand-held devices would make enforcement much easier.

"If it's in their hand and we can see them doing something, it's easy for us to enforce," Police Chief Terri Wilfong said, according to the Greenville News.

There's a law on the books in North Carolina (as there are in 40 other states), but it means little. Charlotte-area drivers see it everyday: Drivers drifting out of their lane while staring at their phone.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says South Carolina is one of only two states (Montana is the other) with no distracted-driving law. A dozen states outlaw all use of phones while driving, as Greenville is considering.

The NHTSA says 3,318 people were killed in crashes caused by distracted driving last year. The group says "at any given moment during daylight hours, over 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone."

North Carolina bans any cell phone use while driving only for school bus drivers and drivers under age 18. The rest of us are free to stare at our maps and call our friends.

Some day, legislators will treat distracted drivers more like drunk drivers. Until then, we should all resist the urge, and put the phone down. And would it be too much to ask for a hotline we could call to report other distracted drivers? We'd pull over before calling it, we swear.

-- Taylor Batten


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Young people abandoning Obama?

A recent Harvard poll is getting a lot of buzz. It shows one of the staples of President Barack Obama's election wins - young people - might be abandoning him. That could mean bad news for the Democratic Party in the future.
Among the key findings of The Harvard University Institute of Politics poll, conducted in October and November, were:
- 52 percent of young people 18-24 and 40 percent of young people 25-29 would recall President Obama if they could; 19 percent of those who voted for Obama in 2012 would recall him; 58 percent of young whites, 35 percent of young Hispanics and 21 percent of young blacks would as well.
- Among 18-29 year-olds without insurance only a third said they would enroll in the Affordable Care Act exchanges; 41 percent were split on whether they would.
- 57 percent said they disapproved of Obamacare
-  55 percent said their health care coverage would get better or stay the same under Obamacare; 40 percent said it would get worse.

The poll though had some interesting twists for Democrats and Obama.
- Among millenials, 83 percent said they would still vote for Obama today if they could recast their vote; 91 percent of Mitt Romney millenial supporters said they'd stick with the Republican nominee.
- Sixty-nine percent of the 18-29 year-olds favor people making over $1 million paying at least 30 percent in income taxes over other options including raising the Social Security retirement age.

Congress did not fare well in the poll either.

- A majority (52 percent) of 18- to 29- year olds would choose to recall all members of Congress if it were possible, 45 percent would recall their member of Congress (45 percent would not). That's about the same split as it was for Obama among all millenials (47 percent recall, 46 percent not recall). 
- And though Obama's job approval rating dropped to 41 percent, he still did better than Democrats and Republicans in Congress whose approval ratings dropped to 35 percent and 19 percent respectively among millenials.

“The reasons for the current lack of support among Millennials for the Affordable Care Act are 
many, and few are surprising given the trends that our polling has revealed for the better part of 
the last four years,” said Harvard Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe. “Young 
Americans hold the president, Congress and the federal government in less esteem almost by the 
day, and the levels of engagement they are having in politics are also on the decline.”

The survey interviewed 2,089 millenials.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

UNC scandal update: A whimper, not a bang

It's possible that in 2011, when Julius Nyang'oro created yet another summer class that UNC-Chapel Hill students didn't need to attend for academic credit, he had his eye on a $12,000 paycheck for little to no work.

It's also possible that Nyang'oro, the African Studies chairman, saw that $12,000 as a make-up of sorts for the many no-show classes he created and didn't take payment for in previous years, as UNC records show. 

It's possible, too, that Nyang'oro created the class with the knowledge and encouragement of athletic department officials. Shortly after "AFAM 280: Blacks in America" was created, it was filled with UNC football players, who took up 18 of the 19 spots.

But unfortunately, it's become probable that while we have a clear understanding of the scope of these no-show classes through the years at UNC, we won't get much closer to learning who and what might have been behind them. For those who hoped that the courts would provide illumination that the university couldn't or wouldn't provide about its academic scandal, this week's grand jury indictment of Nyang'oro is a disappointment.

The News & Observer's Dan Kane reports today that Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall apparently didn't pursue the bigger  questions surrounding the no-show classes. Woodall told Kane that his investigation focused on crimes alleged - specifically Nyang'oro taking money for a class he didn't teach - rather than the cause of the academic fraud. Woodall also said that he didn't see any further investigation justifying the additional time and expense.

All of which leaves us pretty much where we were earlier this year after the university spent $940,000 on a flimsy investigation, led by former N.C. Gov. Jim Martin, who didn't manage to talk to Nyang'oro and other key figures before concluding that UNC's academic fraud didn't involve the athletic department.

That conclusion seemed to ignore Kane's reporting on emails showing a curious relationship between Nyang'oro and members of the school's academic support staff, who offered him football tickets, sideline access and drinks. Martin, and an investigative team from the Baker Tilly law firm, inexplicably didn't get around to including those emails in their report. Martin didn't even bother addressing the issue of athletes disproportionately attending the no-show classes.

There's still a possibility that Nyang'oro will fight the felony indictment - he's charged with obtaining property by false pretenses - and in doing so shed some light on the hows and whys. But the low-level felony typically results only in probation - and those likely aren't stakes worth Nyang'oro possibly implicating himself in a wider academic/athletic conspiracy.

It's possible, of course, that there was no wider conspiracy. But Martin's investigation was too incomplete to offer that conclusion, and Woodall wasn't inclined to take his investigation there. That's perfectly fine with UNC officials, who have been eager from the start to move on from the scandal. It's looking like that's the only direction left to go.

Peter St. Onge