Thursday, January 29, 2015

What Sarah Palin has in common with Jesse Jackson

If you're among the many critics of Sarah Palin, the news of her recent rambling speech in Iowa and the conservative fallout around it won't be that surprising. Still, it reminds me on a smaller scale of the similar sort of "fading star" treatment the Rev. Jesse Jackson got from Democratic Party leaders after his presidential runs were all done and nobody seemed to know what a Jesse Jackson should be doing if not running for president.

Many wanted him to run for mayor of Washington, D.C., which at the time was still struggling with longtime mayor Marion Barry's much-documented troubles with cocaine and extramarital affairs. But in 1989, as a potential Jackson mayoral bid loomed, the always-quotable Barry issued perhaps the most stinging zinger ever landed against the civil rights icon when he told a reporter: "Jesse don't wanna run nothin but his mouth."

Jackson's influence slipped further in 2001 with news that he'd fathered a child by a woman with whom he'd had an extramarital affair. He has since watched the younger Rev. Al Sharpton slip past him to become today's arguably most prominent civil rights activist, with a talk show on MSNBC and his own national organization.

It appears conservatives have a similar back-seat role in mind for Sarah Palin. With the exception of his much-publicized crude remark against then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, Jackson seems to have taken it with quiet grace. It remains to be seen if Sarah Palin is willing to go as gently into that good night.

--Eric Frazier

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One question the school board will definitely ask the next CMS superintendent

CMS school board chair Mary McCray, vice chair Tim Morgan and general counsel George Battle met Wednesday with the Observer editorial board and education reporter Andrew Dunn. We'll have an editorial later on what they said about new superintendent Ann Clark and how they still don't seem to understand why an outside counsel is needed to look into the investigation and resignation of Heath Morrison.

But Morgan did say he'd learned one thing from the departure of Morrison. Next time, he says, he'll ask each superintendent candidate this question:

"When you took the job you're in, who followed you?"

Morrison apparently didn't bring anyone to Charlotte in 2012 from the Reno-area school district where he was superintendent. That's telling now, given that Morrison resigned amid allegations that included berating and mistreating CMS staff. To be fair, though, the school board can't really be blamed for not thinking to ask that specific question in 2012 of the very highly regarded Morrison.

Failure, however, is instructive, and Morgan says the board will "dig a little deeper" into the next superintendent-to-be. That will likely involve not only traveling to the districts where the candidates work, but conducting what Morgan called "some anonymous meetings" to see how the candidate's subordinates really feel. McCray even suggested showing up at a church or two and striking up some conversations.

We're all in favor of good reporting.

Peter St. Onge

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

From a Patriots fan: Hammer them, NFL

Because this kind of thing is important to some, let's get it out of the way: I'm a New England Patriots fan. I happened to write about that just last week.

But if the NFL finds that the Patriots willfully deflated footballs - 11 of the 12 used in the AFC Championship were underinflated, ESPN reported this morning - then the Indianapolis Colts should be the AFC representative in next Sunday's Super Bowl.

Otherwise, the NFL will be no better than NASCAR, which diluted its product and alienated its fans by allowing one of its best teams to continually violate the rules without significant punishment. That team, of course, was Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team, which chronically cheated yet faced only fines and meaningless team points penalties.

Johnson won five titles, but as I wrote in 2012

It's almost impossible now to conclude that the 48 won five NASCAR championships without the benefit of cheating. And while the culture inside and out of NASCAR garages has forever been "it ain't cheatin' if you don't get caught," if it still ain't punished when you do get caught, what are you left with?

The NFL faces the same question today. No, both teams didn't use the same deflated footballs (each team supplies the balls its offense uses) and yes, it's easy to say that New England would have won if the football were filled with sand. Perhaps, but perhaps not. Who knows whether Tom Brady would have thrown another first-half interception with a ball that was less comfortable? Who knows how the game would have flowed if the halftime score were different?
 Also, it's besides the point. Punishing cheating isn't about predicting what might have happened had the cheating not occurred. It's about assuring the fans that there is integrity in the outcome. As I wrote in 2012:  
Punishment in sport is a tricky endeavor - part deterrent for athletes, part salve for fans. Even in sports where cheating is acknowledged as an everybody-does-it reality, punishment gives fans the appearance of integrity, the sense that their sport's field is level because the possibility exists that cheaters will suffer real consequences.

Johnson's fans argued then what Patriots fans will argue now: That unless there's proof he participated in the cheating, it's unfair to punish him. After all, he can't control what everyone in his organization does. But Johnson then, and Pats coach Bill Belichick now, can and do make clear what is acceptable and unacceptable in their organizations. And as any coach will tell you, teams share success and ignominy together.

Or at least they should. My guess: Belichick and the Patriots will say they had no idea that an attendant deflated the footballs, and the NFL will gladly run through that hole and punish the Patriots only with fines and perhaps the loss of a draft pick or two. Patriots haters will argue that they should get more - and that a New England win two Sundays from now win will forever be tainted.

This time, they'll be right.

Peter St. Onge



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Chiquita waves goodbye

News today that Chiquita is closing its Charlotte headquarters reminds us of what we said last year as the company explored merging with an overseas firm:

Previously published March 12, 2014
Kevin Siers

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

CMS' George Battle: School board isn't hiding anything in Morrison affair

Two months have passed since the surprise resignation of former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison. Contrary to the old truism about time and wounds, this one seems pretty reluctant to heal.

CMS General Counsel George Battle III met with reporters and editors at the Observer Tuesday. Battle, regarded by his critics as the architect of Morrison's downfall, feels a bit wounded by how the affair has shaken out. He said he's been painted by critics as an out-of-control lawyer who did a hatchet-job investigation after the superintendent resisted his plan to reorganize the legal department.

He called the notion that he was on a vendetta to get rid of Morrison "a silly premise." He said he has had policy disagreements with other CMS leaders and still has strong relationships with them. He stood by his decision not to ask for an outside counsel to investigate allegations that Morrison bullied staff and misled the board on the cost of a school at UNC Charlotte. He said using outside counsel would have been a more adversarial approach. It could have required suspending Morrison with pay, causing disruption to schools in the midst of the investigation.

The UNC Chapel Hill graduate and former candidate for Congress said he resents that his professionalism and integrity have been questioned. He even went so far as to pass out copies of his job description, state bar rules governing the client-lawyer relationship, and copies of his last job evaluation. (He received good marks from all nine board members, including, he noted, Eric Davis, who has expressed support for Morrison and has called for an outside attorney to review the process that led to Morrison's departure).

Still, Battle said that because he is bound by confidentiality restrictions, he can't clear up many of the important questions still lingering around the affair. He said his report to the board was more like a summary of the allegations against Morrison -- a sort of "Cliff's Notes" of what he found. That only raises more questions, but he said he couldn't answer without airing information he's not allowed to share.

He understands that his report fails to connect all the dots necessary to explain exactly what triggered the investigation, his handling of it, and the board's oversight. He said he understand's the public's curiosity, and its frustration. Asked if there's any way legally for the board to share all the information it would take to clear up all the questions, he reiterated that the board must balance its desire to be transparent with its legal obligation to protect employee privacy and honor its contracts.

All he could really offer, in the end, is his word. And no matter how strong his code of personal and professional ethics might be, that's still no substitute for a full accounting of what happened.

"There is nothing being hidden by the board," he said. "If they were trying to be slick and trying to shove something under the rug, don't you think they would have anticipated all this better?"

Given the cascade of criticism the school board has taken in recent months, that might have been among his most convincing points.

Eric Frazier

Monday, January 12, 2015

Block parties and painting the town red

A foundation's challenge to Charlotte has brought out clever ideas, from neighborhood mashups to artistic bike lanes to porch swings all over town.

The Knight Foundation received more than 7,000 submissions nationwide after it launched the first Knight Cities Challenge. The project was designed to generate ideas for making 26 communities where Knight invests "more vibrant places to live and work." Today the foundation named 126 finalists, including eight in Charlotte.

The finalists are now being asked to give the Knight Foundation more detail about their proposals in the next three weeks. The foundation will then select winners who will receive a share of $5 million. Many of the Charlotte proposals are promising. Kudos to all who care enough about our city to pursue these ideas.

Here are the eight Charlotte finalists:

·       21st Century Office Access in Charlotte and Beyond by Charlotte Center City Partners (Submitted by Allison Billings): Opening up underused office space in the city to startups and small-scale entrepreneurs through an online platform and creating a model for a business space cooperative that would give companies the flexibility to expand to untested markets or to grow or shrink their workforce according to demand. 
·       Art on the Asphalt (Submitted by Francene Greene): Redesigning bike lanes as blank canvases for local artists to create visuals that depict Charlotte life, history and diverse culture.
·       Connect.Occupy.Transform by LandDesign (Submitted by Kate Pearce): Connecting creative entrepreneurs with the owners of underused space in Charlotte’s urban core to revitalize the North End neighborhood and create a model for redevelopment that could be applied across the city and in other metropolitan areas. 
·       CrownTown Fest by Charlotte Area Transit System, City of Charlotte (Submitted by Jason Lawrence): Weaving together the diverse fabric of neighborhoods, business centers and hidden gems by creating a citywide festival that would use bike-share programs, transit and walking to encourage people to move between venues.
·       Neighborhood Mash-Up (Submitted by Michael Solender): Uniting residents by pairing different neighborhoods across the city to come together on two consecutive Saturdays to host simultaneous block parties that highlight businesses, houses of worship, parks, schools and other resources.
·       No Barriers Project  by City of Charlotte (Submitted by Sarah Hazel): Identifying the physical barriers that separate different neighborhoods and engaging diverse groups to work together on lessening the impact of those divisions with tools such as gardens and public art.
·       “Porch” Swings in Public Places by City of Charlotte (Submitted by Tom Warshauer): Installing porch swings at bus stops and in other public spaces to encourage community interaction and use of public spaces.
·       Take Ten Initiative by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, City of Charlotte (Submitted by Alyssa Dodd): Bringing people together by challenging municipal workers to take 10 minutes every week to connect with a new city resident and ask for their feedback.

Supreme Court should take up gay marriage

Updated, 12:20 p.m.:

The U.S. Supreme Court could decide this week whether to take up the gay marriage question, days after N.C. leaders petitioned the court to rule on the constitutionality of North Carolina's now-defunct ban.

While Sen. Phil Berger and other Amendment One backers are tilting at windmills, they have a point: Until the Supreme Court settles the question once and for all, the legal fights and uncertainty will persist. Two federal judges separately struck North Carolina's ban down late last year, but Berger and others continue to fight.

A lesbian couple from Detroit has challenged Michigan's gay marriage ban. A federal judge ruled in their favor last year, but a federal appeals court stayed the decision. Gay marriage is now legal in 36 states, and conflicting rulings from federal appeals courts could prompt the Supreme Court to settle the matter.

The court this morning declined to hear a case from Louisiana. That case has only been ruled on in federal district court and has not made its way through the federal appeals court yet. The Supreme Court could still take up a case from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky or Tennessee.

However you feel about the legality of gay marriage -- and we think anything less is outright discrimination -- the Supreme Court would now be abdicating its role by declining to take it up. In the meantime, we get nonsensical statements that ignore the Constitution's role of protecting the minority, like this one from incoming N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore:

"Regardless of where you stand on the ultimate issue, it is important to protect the will of the North Carolina voters who overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment."

-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo attack hits home in Charlotte

To many Americans, the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris Wednesday was a horrific event but ultimately just another faraway chapter in an ongoing war with Muslim extremists, involving an organization they'd never heard of. For journalists, and especially editorial cartoonists like the Charlotte Observer's Kevin Siers, the murder of four cartoonists and six other journalists (and two police officers) was a breathtaking, almost personal, assault.

Siers has been the Observer's cartoonist since 1987. His work is so powerful, so funny, so poignant that last year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest honor. With just a pen, he almost daily calls out the foibles of public figures to hundreds of thousands of people. Because it is a cartoon, and because Siers is so good, his message often feels more like a smack to the head than the back-and-forth debate a 500-word editorial often prompts.

There are no sacred cows to Siers, or any cartoonist worth his pay. He calls out Democrats and Republicans, government officials and tea partiers -- anyone whose actions or words deserve derision. For that, he receives angry e-mails and phone calls every week.

But he doesn't receive death threats, and that speaks to a difference between how editorial cartoonists are regarded in the United States compared with much of the world. Here, they are entertainers or irritants, the provocateurs that readers love or love to hate. In Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, their work is taken more seriously, and extremists regard them as an existential threat. Both here and there, cartoonists embody the power of freedom of expression and the power of ideas. Those are values that most Americans cherish, but terrorists, of course, do not.

The hope is that, just as a violent attack could not stop the ideas of then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, this one can not intimidate journalists anywhere into silence. Siers and other cartoonists around the world showed their support for free expression and solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo artists the best way they can: with their pens.

Here are some of their responses. Others are available here and here.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The inaugural 2015 Mayoral Power Rankings

Candidates for Charlotte's 2015 mayoral race can't file officially until July, but that hasn't stopped some from expressing various levels of desire to run, the Observer's Jim Morrill reported last week.

You know what that means: It's time for the inaugural 2015 Mayoral Power Rankings - the candidates we think have the best chance to become Charlotte's 58th mayor (and fifth since 2013.)

We did our first power rankings for the 2013 mayoral race, and if we do say so ourselves, we nailed it. At the top of our rankings in May 2013 was ... current mayor Dan Clodfelter! OK, Mayor Clodfelter took a somewhat circuitous route to the office, but of the candidates who entered the 2013 race, we had eventual winner Patrick Cannon and challenger Edwin Peacock as No. 1 and 2 in our rankings. So there's that. 

Let's try again. A reminder: These picks are not endorsements. They are not necessarily who we think should have the best chance next November. (For the record, we endorsed Peacock two years ago.) Also, the list will surely change as folks decide they want in and out of the race - and as the campaign heats up and we see who's adept on the trail.

For now, our Top 7. Tell us who we missed:

1) Dan Clodfelter - D: Thumb on the scale for the incumbent. Clodfelter remains a candidate with crossover appeal to liberals and moderates, blacks and whites. He's not been particularly inspiring as mayor - we're waiting for some vision and charisma - but dullness might be an asset to voters whose  last mayor is settling into a prison cell.

2) David Howard - D: He's the hardest worker on the City Council. He has deep roots in the African-American community. He has integrity. One disadvantage: Most of that work is the gets-things-done-behind-the-scenes variety. It's valuable, but not sexy. This election, that's OK. (See Cannon, Patrick.)

3) Jennifer Roberts - D: The most eager of the candidates, perhaps too much so for voters. But she seems to be at every meeting and function and happy event in Charlotte. As county commissioner Pat Cotham knows, that counts for more than most people think.

4) Vi Lyles - D: The first-term City Council member has the right stage presence, plus a background in city finance. But thus far, her City Council term has been little more than face time, as she seems reluctant to stake out firm positions that matter. Until she does, she'll be the rookie in the Democratic field.

5) Michael Barnes - D: Some people think the current mayor pro-tem might be the person on this list who'd make the best mayor. He's thoughtful and independent. He commands respect on the council and in the city. But he's shown little public enthusiasm for higher office, and political observers wonder if he really wants it.

6) Edwin Peacock - R: No, we don't think he's running again, either. But until he says he's not, his is the first name that people offer on the Republican side of the race. A Peacock candidacy - like any Republican candidacy in Charlotte - would be difficult. But as editorial page editor Taylor Batten wrote in 2013, it's not impossible.

7) The Unknown Republican: After Peacock, then who? City Council member Kenny Smith and county commissioner Matthew Ridenhour are smart, popular and strong public servants, but neither has won a city-wide election or seems inclined to try just yet. We hope Scott Stone doesn't inflict himself upon another election, and although Republicans and other observers murmur about Charlotte businessman Frank Dowd, we're skeptical his unbending conservatism would fly in this left-of-center city.

That leaves Republicans as weakly positioned as perhaps they've ever been in Charlotte. It's the product of a city that has become increasingly Democratic, but it's also the result of a Republican party that hasn't done enough to cultivate strong young politicians. At least some party leaders in Charlotte know that. Those who don't need only look at the list above.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why North Carolina is losing the biggest battles in the job recruitment war

Chalk up another loss on the economic development front for North Carolina.

Mercedes-Benz, after considering several cities in the state, is reportedly taking its U.S. headquarters to Atlanta. The luxury automaker joins a growing list of prestigious business brands who have thought about moving major operations to the Tarheel State, only to bypass us for other suitors.

Last year, a $107 million offer couldn't land Toyota's U.S. headquarters in Charlotte. They picked Plano, Texas. A whopping $683 million offer couldn't land Boeing's new 777x jetliner plant, which Washington state secured with a massive $8.7 billion incentives deal, then the largest corporate tax break in U.S. history.

Also in the last two years, the state lost out to Lancaster County on a $218 million Chinese textile plant and to Chester County on a $560 million tire plant. S.C. officials offered an incentives deal 10 times larger than North Carolina for the textile project and a deal with tens of millions more in tax savings on the tire project.

Gov. Pat McCrory, left, and Sealed Air CEO Jerome A. Peribere announced last year that the firm will move its headquarters to Charlotte, bringing 1,262 jobs.

Read more here:

To be sure, there have been big job recruitment wins in recent years, such as Sealed Air Corp.'s decision last year to move its headquarters and nearly 1,300 jobs to Charlotte, and MetLife's decision the year before to move about twice as many jobs to Charlotte and the Triangle. Still, there are signs of frustration setting in for Gov. Pat McCrory. He told business leaders at a gathering in Durham Monday that he doesn't have the tools he needs to attract big industry. He's asking for major legislation from lawmakers in the first two weeks of their new legislative session. He's said in the past that he needs a "closing fund" like S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has for last-minute pot-sweetening, and administration officials have said the state's Job Development Investment Grant fund has been running low.

Clearly, something needs to be done. And Republicans running the legislature, bless their fiscally conservative hearts, haven't shown much appetite for throwing ever-bigger wads of cash at corporate suitors. But rightly or wrongly, job recruiting has devolved into a state-eat-state bloodsport. Either you outbid the competition, or you offer such a superior quality of life and workforce that the money doesn't matter. (Hint: Google and Facebook aren't in California for the tax rates).

North Carolina used to have something like that California approach to economic development. We didn't sweat the bidding wars. We invested in schools and universities to make them among the strongest in the region. We developed a reputation, as the New York Times put it in a 2013 editorial, "as a beacon of farsightedness in the South." Despite a legacy of not offering the biggest pots of money to relocating corporations, we still ranked at or near the top of business climate and job creation lists for much of the past two decades.

Nowadays, we're struggling to keep our teacher pay respectable and keep teachers from leaving the state. Lawmakers have a decision to make: either go all-in on the bidding war, as the governor seems to be asking, or increase funding for the state's true job creators -- its schools and universities. Our recent history suggests the latter economic development model works just fine.

-- Eric Frazier