Thursday, November 21, 2013

The nation's worst big city for walking

Charlotte lands first on another national ranking: Least walkable big city in America.

A national rating system called Walk Score ranked nearly 3,000 cities in the U.S., Canada and Australia on walkability. Of the 74 U.S. cities with populations of 250,000 or more, Charlotte ranked 74th - dead last. That put the Queen City behind such walker-unfriendly cities as Jacksonville, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Some individual neighborhoods earned high scores for walkability. They are, not surprisingly, mostly in or close to uptown: The best scores went to neighborhoods inside the I-277 loop and to Dilworth and Cherry. Most suburban neighborhoods, the survey found, require a car for almost all errands. Providence Plantation, for example, scored a 6 on a scale of 0 to 100. (The full rankings can be found here.)

This does not come as a surprise to anyone who lives here. But we might forget sometimes just how unusually car-dependent we are in Charlotte. Other cities, both bigger and smaller, have developed in a way that make it easier to walk to restaurants, shops and other amenities.

Former Observer associate editor Mary Newsom, an expert in urban planning who is now at UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, reports that these aren't just another in the endless lists of rankings. This is one the city of Charlotte tracks and in which it wants to improve. Newsom has a smart take on these rankings, the methodology, how Charlotte got this way and the challenges of undoing it, over at the PlanCharlotte blog.

-- Taylor Batten

Secrecy around Harry Jones' replacement

The secrecy around the hiring of Mecklenburg County's next manager could soon reach a new high -- or low.

First, county commissioners blocked certain commissioners from knowing anything about the candidates seeking to replace the ousted Harry Jones. Now, commissioners won't commit to inviting the public in on the conversation, even after the field has been cut to three or so finalists.

They should. Mecklenburg's manager fills one of the most important roles in this community, overseeing about 4,000 employees and a budget of well over $1 billion. The manager works for the commissioners and ultimately the public, and his or her decisions and recommendations have a big effect on residents, from property taxes to school funding.

Exposing the candidates to the public is good for the public, the county and the finalists. The process prompts a thorough digging into the candidates' backgrounds and records, while giving the ultimate winner a valuable take on the pulse of the community.

The Observer's David Perlmutt reported Tuesday that the full board met with the county's search firm in closed session, apparently to talk about three to five finalists. It would be the first time the full board had seen the search committee's slate of finalists.

Commissioners will now winnow the field further. Before they cut the field to less than three, those candidates should meet the public. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board arranged such meetings before hiring Heath Morrison as superintendent, and the City Council did so before hiring Ron Carlee as city manager. In both cases, those public meetings were enlightening.

The county's human resources director, Chris Peek, says the board hasn't decided whether to invite the public to meetings to get to know the finalists.

"That could take more time," Peek said. "The city and school board had a number of forums with the community invited to meet the top two or three candidates in the same room. The board has not decided what they want that process to look like."

Here's what it should look like: Inclusive. Open. Responsive to the public.

-- Taylor Batten

Read more here:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

N.C. Poll: Fund education before giving tax cuts

A poll released today shows what teachers and other education supporters - including the Observer's editorial board - has been shouting all year long: N.C. residents don't like cutting funding for public schools even if the savings are passed along to taxapyers in the form of a tax cut.

Sixty-eight percent of the respondents to a Public  Policy Polling survey taken during Nov. 8-11 said they opposed such shorting of education spending to cut taxes. And that view was shared across party or ideological lines. Eighty-four percent of people calling themselves somewhat liberal and 68 percent calling themselves very liberal opposed such cuts. Fifty-six percent  of those dubbing themselves as somewhat conservative and 51 percent of those dubbing themselves very conservative opposed the cuts. Eighty percent of moderates opposed cuts to education. 

By party, 77 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans opposed such school cuts; just 14 percent of Dems and 25 percent in the GOP supported the cuts. 

Just 19 percent of all respondents supported that idea of cutting public school funding, and the numbers were even low for conservatives - 24 percent for those somewhat conservative and 31 percent for those very conservative.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who along with the N.C. legislature has been criticized and protested against by dissatisfied teachers and education supporters, may have already gotten the message. The legislature passed a budget and new tax plan that cut taxes and slashed funding for public schools by millions. The budget gave teachers no pay raise, took away teacher assistants and raised class sizes. In recent days, McCrory has been on the stump publicly saying his administration is looking at options to increase pay for teachers.

He and N.C. lawmakers might want to take note of some other things the 701 likely voters in the state had to say in this poll. The majority - 62 percent - said they think an educated and well-trained workforce is more important to attracting businesses to locate and invest in the state than low corporate income tax rates.

Alex Sirota, head of the Budget & Tax Center that commissioned the poll, said it "highlights that when presented with the real trade-offs, the majority of North Carolinians favor investing in public education and building a quality workforce that can compete for good-paying jobs rather than cutting taxes."

North Carolinians rightly recognize that the biggest bang for the buck the state can get is through support for and boosting investments in education. The poll underscores that N.C. taxpayers are more than willing to put their money toward that cause. As lawmakers get ready for the short legislative session, they should keep that in mind and make adjustments accordingly.

 - Fannie Flono

Read more here:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Arne Duncan: Sorry for 'White suburban moms' remark

This is not helping the cause.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, not known for his timidity, defended the Common Core state standards to a gathering of state school superintendents last week by attacking a previously unknown enemy: suburban moms.

Duncan, speaking in Richmond on Friday, told the superintendents that he found it "fascinating" that the opposition to Common Core included "white suburban moms who - all of a sudden - their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."


Update: 4:39 p.m.: Duncan apologized to CNN moments ago. "My wording, my phrasing, was a little clumsy, and I apologize for that," he said. That came after a day in which media coverage and backlash over the remarks intensified. According the Associated Press: "American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said Duncan "really doesn't get it." Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, tweeted that Duncan "should be fired for dismissing #CommonCore critics as just white suburban moms with dumb kids."

Some quick background: The Common Core standards have been going through a bit of a rough patch lately. After officials in 48 states agreed on developing consistent, demanding math and reading standards for their students, a few states have hit the pause button, and others are wondering if they should back off their commitment.

Adding to the vulnerability: Several states, including North Carolina, are unveiling their first batch of results on standardized testing linked to the Core. The results have been jarring everywhere. In North Carolina, only 34 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math, with only 41 percent meeting reading standards.

The scores also revealed an achievement gap even starker than most imagined, with stunningly small percentages of low-income students scoring well across the country. Middle- and high-income students also are experiencing a drop in scores - albeit smaller. As you might expect, no one is happy to be surprised with a poor test score, especially when you thought your child and his/her school was doing just fine.

So there's a grain of truth in what Duncan said. He just didn't need to say it so acidly.

Duncan and Common Core's advocates already have to deal with opposition from conservatives who despise everything that the Obama administration touches. He has to fight the silly claims about a federal takeover of education, and the sillier claims about the Core being a vehicle for feds to collect data on students and their families.   

Some teachers also are unhappy with the lack of preparation and training they've been given in transitioning their classrooms to the new standards. But most threatening, perhaps, is the budding argument that the Core is just another education fad - and one that adds more testing to already burdened classrooms.

That's the kind of argument that suburban moms - and dads - can latch onto. The argument they need to hear is that the low scores they might be seeing are ultimately a good thing. They're showing how much better our schools need to be.

Duncan said that, too, on Friday. And he acknowledged that parents have been rattled. "You've bet your house and where you live and everything on 'My child's going to be prepared.' That can be a punch in the gut."

Yes. They didn't need a verbal kick in the teeth, too.

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A reminder from Billy Graham's brother-in-law

Billy Graham's 95th birthday celebration last week grabbed attention not only because it was a landmark in a legend's life but also because of the conservative personalities it attracted. The Observer's Peter St. Onge wrote a column calling it a "Fox News gala" and said: "Fox News and its combative agenda seems not to fit with the traditionally open arms of Billy Graham's message. Or does it?"

Now, Graham's brother-in-law, the Rev. Leighton Ford of Charlotte, has written a meditation for Graham's 95th birthday that reflects on the totality of Graham's life by emphasizing the centrality of Jesus Christ and the cross to Graham's ministry.

The gate to God's kingdom, Ford wants us to remember, is open to all people -- "liberal, conservative ... straight or otherwise ... Sarah P and Nancy P."

A Meditation for his 95th birthday, by Leighton Ford.
The cross!
The cross!
the young preacher cried
to the vast crowds
in the football stadiums of the world.
The cross!
the old man says in his husky voice
sitting next to his dog
on the porch of his log house,
gazing with faded eyes at the blue ridged hills.
The cross!
Above his chair in the kitchen
a small cloth banner … a reminder:
“God forbid that I should glory,
save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But why?
Why glory in the cross?
Didn’t Jesus on the cross ask “Why?”
I think I know my brother-in-law
well enough to know
why the cross matters to him so
that after these ninety-five years
he makes it his last word.
He knows how much he himself needs grace.
When he meets the Lord
he’s not going to puff his chest, stick out his hand
and say, “ I’m Billy Graham, your chief envoy.”
Knowing him he’ll be prostrate, on his face,
Saying “Thank You for your mercy,
for choosing me, a sinner.
But it’s not as if he thinks of the cross only as a ticket to heaven.
He knows that coming to the Cross costs nothing, and everything.
How many times I’ve heard him quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“When Christ calls a man, he calls him to die.”
And Jesus: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
He knows that the Cross offers both free grace
And a call to die daily to self-glory.
Billy is a preacher, not a poet,
but I think he’d agree with a poet who writes,
“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross
when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness,
cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”
  (Christian Wiman)
I have seen him gaze with longing at the picture of
his departed and beloved Ruth, wince at the pain
that runs through his jaw and down his leg.
At the Washington Cathedral after 9/11 he said,
“I don’t know why God allowed this. It’s a mystery.”
But he knows that on the cross God was saying
 “I am with you, not beyond you, in suffering.”
There’s more. A Chinese scholar once told me,
“When Billy Graham came to China
he came not with a closed fist, but an open hand.”
That’s because he knows there’s a paradox in the cross
(though he might not call it that).
The cross is both the narrowest gate
and the widest welcome to new life.
The narrowest, for Jesus said, “I am the door, the way.”
The widest because he also said,
“Whoever comes to me I will not turn away.”
That gate is open to all who seek God’s grace
   and are willing to receive it,
   people of every kind and condition –
liberal, conservative
Tea Party, Occupier
Straight or otherwise
Republican, Democrat, Libertarian
Sarah P and Nancy P
Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, or “none”
All kinds of sinners and seekers.
In the cross of Christ God throws open the gate of new life and says,
“Welcome. There’s room in my house for you. Come in.
And you’ll be changed into what I created you to be
 – a human fully redeemed.”
We can hang a cross round our neck,
gaze at it on a steeple,
but it is far more than an icon.
The cross tells us that life itself, creation itself
is cross-shaped, cruciformed,
the hope of  healing for a broken world.
The cross!
Billy has preached the cross,
He also has lived it, or, better
lived by it,
Leighton Ford
November 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Poll: Obama gets thumbs down all over

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act and President Obama's infamous vow that if you if you like the health care plan you've got you can keep it has turned Obama into George Bush.

Not literally of course. But a new national poll released Tuesday has Obama's approval ratings falling "to the level of former President George W. Bush at the same period of his Presidency," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

And Obama doesn't have two wars to blame.

Said the Qunnipiac poll: American voters disapprove 54 - 39 percent of the job Obama is doing, his lowest approval rating in any Quinnipiac University national poll since he became president. Even women disapprove 51 - 40 percent.

Disapproval is 58 – 37 percent among men, 91 – 6 percent among Republicans and 63 – 30 percent among independent voters. Democrats approve 79 – 14 percent. White voters disapprove 62 – 32 percent while black voters approve 75 – 15 percent and Hispanic voters disapprove by a slim 47 – 41 percent margin. 

A hilarious Saturday Night Live skit a couple of weeks ago featuring actress Kerry Washington had black support for Obama at 93 percent - and that was a drop. But this poll shows more cracks in black support than pundits - or comedians - have taken note of. Fifty-seven percent were dissatisfied with the direction of the country.

The Quinnipiac poll shows voters in every income and age group disapprove of the job Obama is doing, with the biggest disapproval, 59 – 36 percent, among voters over 65 years old. 

As critical for Obama, for the first time the majority of voters don't think the president is honest: American voters say 52 - 44 percent that Obama is not honest and trustworthy. His previous lowest marks on honesty were May 30, when 49 percent of voters said he was honest and 47 percent said he wasn't.

Obama's dumpster ratings can be tracked mostly to the health care law, which is unpopular with people of all ideological stripes. Many liberals though didn't think the law went far enough and preferred a single-payer plan while most conservatives don't want the law and have worked for its repeal. 

This poll shows Americans divided 46-47 percent on whether the president "knowingly deceived" the public when he said people could keep their existing health care plans if they wished.
Voters also support 73-20 percent extending the March 31, 2014 deadline for signing up for coverage without fixing penalty.

The poll didn't ask whether the law should be changed to honor the pledge to let people keep the insurance plans they liked that insurance companies cancelled because they did not meet the basics of the Affordable Care Act - something Obama hinted at on a recent TV appearance and that former President Bill Clinton and others are now urging. Whether Congress - even though politicians on both sides of the aisle say the support the change - would approve it is an open question. Bipartisan efforts tend to die in the GOP-dominated House.

A Weekly Standard piece, "Why It's Not Too Late for the Keep Your Health Care Plan Act" does provide some insights into what could happen. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

And Patrick Cannon's opponent in 2015 is...

In April, we released our inaugural Mayoral Power Rankings immediately after Anthony Foxx announced he would not seek a third term. It was a Top 10 list of candidates we thought had the best shot to be Charlotte's 56th mayor.

Now-mayor-elect Patrick Cannon debuted at No. 4 on the list. Republican Edwin Peacock, then No. 2, was ahead of him only because Peacock had declared he was in the race and Cannon hadn't. State Sen. Dan Clodfelter was No. 1 and state Rep. Becky Carney was No. 3. Neither ran. Cannon leaped over Peacock to No. 1 in our rankings as soon as he announced.

With Cannon being sworn in Dec. 2, is it too early for a little fun speculation about 2015? Never! If Cannon has a successful term, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't win reelection, perhaps several times. And if he stumbles?

He could face a primary challenge from a fellow Democrat. But who will represent Republicans on the November ballot?

Here are our inaugural Republican rankings for 2015. They come with the usual caveats: These are not endorsements. They will change over time. They are just an early peek at who might have a chance.

Who did we leave out? Who should be ranked higher or lower? Comment below.

The GOP rankings:

1. John Lassiter. After licking the wounds from his loss to Foxx in 2009, might he jump back in? We doubt it, but he'd have a decent shot if he did.

2. Pat Mumford. Former City Council member has been out of the limelight for a while, but he has the moderate stripes and likability that will be required.

3. Ruth Samuelson. She will have left her House seat and might have the itch to jump back in the fray. Legislative record could hurt her in blue Charlotte.

4. Edwin Peacock. Two years is a long time in politics. If Cannon trips in office, voters could want a rematch.

5. Kenny Smith. Maybe the new District 6 council member makes a splash in his first term. But he might be too conservative and too new to the scene to pull off a mayor's race in 2015.

Tied for a distant 6th: Andy Dulin, Rob Bryan, Scott Stone, Ric Killian and Dan Bishop. (This post originally mentioned Bob Rucho and Jim Pendergraph, but they doesn't live within the city limits.)

Want a wild card? School board member Eric Davis. We doubt he'll stay on the school board for life. But would he run as a Democrat, a Republican or an independent?

-- Taylor Batten

Another factor hurting Charlotte Republicans

Jim Morrill and Gavin Off, in their Observer story and map this morning, showed the clear demographic changes that are hurting Edwin Peacock and other Republicans in Charlotte. Now Greg Weeks, the chairman of UNC Charlotte's political science department, makes an important addition to that analysis.

Weeks, who writes a Latin American politics blog, points out that the rising number of Hispanics in Charlotte will make local elections even more difficult for Republicans because Latinos tend to vote Democratic. He includes this map, which shows Hispanic births in 2009 were spread throughout Mecklenburg County, and were a significant part of the population growth in much of the city. (The darkest red reflects areas where Hispanic births were a quarter or more of the total.)

Weeks acknowledges that these kids won't be of voting age for another 14 years. But many of their parents are already citizens, and non-citizens, Weeks says, "will slowly naturalize, faster if immigration reform with some sort of amnesty with path of citizenship is passed."

Hispanics do not vote in huge numbers in Charlotte yet, but the numbers will continue to grow.

I wrote a column in Saturday's Observer that noted that non-Hispanic whites became a minority in Mecklenburg County last year. "You can embrace it or you can be terrified by it, but you can't deny it," I said. "Thanks to immigration and birth rates, our already-diverse community will become an increasingly multi-colored quilt."

Weeks is teaching the same thing to his students: "As I keep repeating to my class," he says on his blog, "it doesn't matter if you like or dislike this. It's just the way things are, and demographic shifts are going to have major political impacts."

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Justices: Devil-worshipers OK with prayer?

So, the Supreme Court takes on whether government meetings can begin with a prayer and the justices' questioning Wednesday devolves into consideration of "devil worshiping." No kidding.

And the question came from the court's staunchest conservatives, Antonin Scalia.

Bryan Resnick of the National Journal captured the give-and-take with Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religion at the University of Virginia, who said that prayers could be allowed if they were not sectarian. 

The case the high court is hearing centers around a small N.Y. town that begins its monthly meetings with a Christian prayer. The suit was brought by residents who say having only Christian prayers is a government endorsement of such prayers and that's wrong.

On Wednesday, the justices queried Laycock about whether there could be one prayer that different kinds of worshipers would find unoffensive. That led down the rabbit hole of talk about - devil worshipers.

Some of the dialogue drew laughs:

JUSTICE SAMUEL ALITO: All right. Give me an example. Give me an example of a prayer that would be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. Give me an example of a prayer. Wiccans, Baha'i.
JUSTICE SCALIA: And atheists. Throw in atheists, too.
MR. LAYCOCK: Well, some religions that believe in more than one god believe that all their many gods are manifestations of the one god. But the true polytheists I think are also excluded from the McCreary dissent.
JUSTICE SCALIA: What about devil worshippers?
MR. LAYCOCK: Well, if devil worshippers believe the devil is the almighty, they might be OK. But they're probably out —
Of course, this really isn't a laughing matter. How the Supreme Court rules will affect how many towns and cities begin their government meetings. A federal injunction has blocked Rowan County  here in North Carolina from beginning its board of county commissioners' meetings with one specific prayer. The ACLU though says the case before the Supreme Court is different from the case against Rowan County. The high court case, they say, involves clergy delivering prayers at governmental meetings and the Rowan case involves elected officials themselves delivering prayers.
Still, many eyes are on the Supreme Court this week for guidance. The justices seemed to have a difficult time with the question according to Adam Liptak of the New York Times.
Earlier, in a rare alliance, President Obama’s Justice Department and congressional lawmakers — nearly all Republicans — filed legal briefs  asking the court to rule in favor of prayer at government meetings.
The answer will be interesting - coming from a group, the Supreme Court, that begins its sessions an invocation to God.

Did N.C. legislative actions affect mayors' races?

Mayors' races in the bigger cities across North Carolina on Tuesday saw Democrats scurrying to victory. Some Democratic operatives are tagging it as a repudiation of the extreme and unpopular positions the Republicans are taking at the state level. That was certainly the reason that some Democrats in Charlotte cited for choosing Democrat Patrick Cannon over Republican Edwin Peacock. Some said they voted straight-ticket Democratic though they thought a moderate Peacock would be the better choice, and in another time would have split their votes.

It was the "fool-me-once, fool-me-twice" scenario that gave them pause, they said. They supported Pat McCrory for governor under the impression he would be a moderate but that didn't turn out to be the case, they said. Peacock, who also had a moderate background on city council and who claimed he'd be the same as mayor, probably hurt his cause in their eyes when what some call N.C.'s version of Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, joined Peacock at a Charlotte rally last month.

But in another race for mayor where the Democrat ousted a Republican, Greensboro News and Record columnist Doug Clark wasn't buying the notion that Republican extremism at the state level played a role. He wrote on Tuesday:

"'NC Voters Punish Republicans for Actions of Tillis’ Fringe Legislature' is the tag line on an email from the North Carolina Democratic Party tonight. Greensboro voters probably don't realize they were doing any such thing. And, they weren't."

The rest of the short piece said:

"Voters punished Republicans for the fringe actions of the state legislature tonight, handing Democrats victories in key mayoral races," the Dems said in their news release. "Democrats unseated a Republican incumbent in Greensboro, held a hotly contested open seat in Charlotte, and retained key Democratic mayorships across North Carolina."

Note to state Democratic Party: Greensboro's city elections are nonpartisan.

Furthermore, the mayoral race here had absolutely nothing to do with any of the "fringe actions of the state legislature." Nothing to do with school funding, voting law changes, abortion, you name it. It was all about local issues.

True, Nancy Vaughan is a Democrat and Robbie Perkins is a Republican.

The funny thing is that Perkins carried heavily Democratic east Greensboro with its large black population, while Vaughan won the rest of the city, including its most Republican precincts.

So the N.C. Democratic Party is all wrong in its analysis.

Well, analysis is not the right word. Its propaganda. And it doesn't work."

How N.C. Republicans' controversial actions at the state level played into local races is clearly up for debate. Maybe it will be next year's U.S. Senate  races that will tell the story in clearer fashion as to the impact.

- Associate Editor Fannie Flono