Drivers ed fee increase looks worthwhile

My son is nearing time to take drivers education in his public school. The $50 fee seems like a bargain. Now Legislators are considering a plan to raise those fees to offset their boneheaded proposal to cut other vital services to support pay hikes for teachers, which are long overdue. Transportation services are high on the list of proposed cuts. Bad idea.

When I was in high school, in the mid-1970s, drivers ed was free. Typically, physical education teachers got the call. (Mine didn’t do such a good job, which is another story.) Now the fee is $50, but Republicans propose raising that fee to as much as $300. I can afford that, although it doesn’t make me happy. Other parents can’t, but it seems there must be ways to make provisions for them.

All this is part of the ongoing debate about GOP-led plans to cut essential services in our schools to pay for teacher pay hikes. Bravo on the pay hikes, but shame on the Republicans who would gut other programs to cover the cost.

We need good young drivers on our roads. It’s reasonable to pay for their education, even with a proposed fee increase. Those who can’t handle the cost can receive hardship consideration.

The attitude by Republic legislators to seek increases in teacher pay but cutting important programs is getting more and more curious — and very old at the same time.

Keep the raises in place. Raise revenues to cover the cost. It’ll be painful for some, but it’s a small price to pay in the end.

Meanwhile, give a honk and a thumbs up next time you pass a student in a drivers ed car. It might make his or her day. They’re under enough pressure already.

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N.C. teachers still on the run

Did you hear the one about the hitchhiker on I-40? He was heading west with a sign reading “Texas Or Bust.” Probably just another North Carolina teacher exploring better opportunities in Houston.

And who could blame him?

The governor and GOP leaders in our legislature want to give teachers a much-needed pay increase, but it’ll cost us all kinds of other crucial resources if their budget makes it into law. Little things. Like support for transportation, text books and teaching assistants. Teaching assistants? Text books? Can they be serious?

No wonder a recent job fair in the Triangle attracted so many educators interested in hearing about better-paying jobs in Houston — better-paying to the tune of $16,000 a year.

Even without that monetary enticement, too many hard-working, skilled North Carolina teachers are leaving their ranks. And who gets hurt? That should be obvious.

Who could fix the situation? That should be obvious too.

When Gov. Pat McCrory recently announced his plan to give our teachers substantial pay hikes — admittedly something that should have happened years ago — he beamed from ear to ear. But what he didn’t divulge was his plan for covering the cost. That came later. Not surprisingly, it was an insult to all North Carolinians who want to see our public schools become competitive with their counterparts regionally, if not nationally. If McCrory isn’t familiar with the saying, “Robbing Peter To Pay Paul,” he’s certainly doing a good job faking it.

Yes, public money is tight these days. Yes, competing needs exist. We need to support efforts to protect our environment. We need to support residents on Medicaid. But we absolutely must do better by our teachers.

I’ve said it before and will repeat it now: Teacher salaries must be raised, but not at the expense of other staples in our educational system. It doesn’t take a genius to see that new revenues must be raised to pay the price. If that means tax hikes, so be it. Painful, yes. But perhaps necessary.

Which taxes? Cigarettes? Alcohol? Tourism? Corporations? I’m not a budget writer, but I would say virtually everything should be on the table.

If we don’t act, things will get worse in our public schools. Teachers will continue to leave. Students will continue to suffer.

And before you know it, there just might be a long line of hitchhikers on I-40 with the eyes of Texas squarely on them.

 

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Getting weirder every single day

While some of us struggle to regain a sense of calm and normalcy in what sometimes seems to be a world gone over the edge, the damnedest things keep happening.

Witness some of this morning’s headlines:

First: Former McClatchy chief Gary Pruitt is named CEO of Associated Press. As such, he’s assigned to oversee the last of the really important worldwide news operations during a frightening period upon which may rest nothing more than the fundamentals of the First Amendment. This after his own company did so much to appall so many of my newspaper friends  all over the world. Understand, please now, these are people who continue to work their tails off carrying our water in one of the most unappreciated work environments today. Whether you support your local rag or not, don’t forget  these folks are supporting our Constitution every single day. (Touche to newspaper people everywhere!)

Second: Mitt Romney rejoices upon receiving the endorsement of a Bush? Calling Paul Newman: Who are these guys?

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Washington Post weighs in on GHL client’s struggle with CIA

The following is a powerful and enlightening treatment of tension that exists in Johnston County, where ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights have been staged by the CIA with the support of a local company, Aero Contractors. G.H. Lawrence & Associate’s client, N.C. Stop Torture now, has been working for years to get someone to pay attention and to do something to cease the flights. The Washington Post’s top National Security and Terrorism reporter and one of the top practitioners of his trade in the world, Joby Warrick, came down for a few days and later delivered this riveting piece. Just as important, previous ground-breaking reporting by the very fine, highly respected reporter Jay Price, of the The News & Observer, first broke this story several years ago, so Jay deserves as much credit as anyone by educating citizens about what’s happening in their own backyard. Kudos to both Jay and Joby, two of the best in today’s reporting business. So what next? Who knows. But this piece in the Post is a must read — and perhaps a big step for NCSTN:

————————————

Jan. 9, 2010

CIA ‘rendition’ program still divides N.C. town

By , Published: February 9

SMITHFIELD, N.C. — The small airport that houses what some here call Smithfield’s “dirty secret” lies just beyond the town’s outskirts, where tobacco warehouses and car dealerships give way to pine forests and then, abruptly, an imposing 10-foot-high fence.

Inside, in a metal hangar with its own security, is the headquarters of Aero Contractors Ltd., a private aviation company whose ties to the CIA have long inspired local speculation and gossip. Newspaper investigations and books have linked the firm’s planes to secret abductions, waterboardings and more, usually eliciting the same mute response from the occupant of Hangar No. 3.

These days, Aero’s jets are seldom seen in public, and the controversy over the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program — in which captured terrorist suspects were secretly transported to another country for interrogation — has vanished from the headlines in most of the country.

But not so here, where Aero’s operations have spawned a dogged opposition movement in its otherwise conservative, fiercely patriotic back yard. The protests continue to gather steam after six years, despite counter-demonstrations and occasional threats, and amid uncertainty over whether Aero is still involved in what critics alleged was a “torture taxi” business.

“I don’t want to live in a country that acts this way,” said Julia Elsee, 87, who bundled up in a pink scarf for a protest at the Johnston County Airport on a recent chilly afternoon.

The most controversial interrogation and detention practices ended in 2006, and further limits were imposed by the Obama administration, which has prioritized killing suspected terrorists over capturing them. Yet, 10 years after the first “high-value” detainee was hooded and forced into a CIA plane, Aero’s presence remains for opponents a powerful symbol: a rare, visible reminder of what they view as a uniquely shameful chapter in America’s history.

Such views are far from universal here. Many in this central North Carolina community of 13,000 say they’re proud of the contributions that Aero may have made to the fight against al-Qaeda. Local politicians are only too happy to count Aero, with its fleet of planes and a workforce that protesters estimate to number as many as 150 employees, as part of the tax base in a community that can no longer rely on tobacco.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” Allen Mims Jr., chairman of Johnston County’s Board of Commissioners, told Aero opponents who asked at a recent hearing for a county probe into the company’s practices.

The protesters, who want to see the company investigated, censured and possibly shut down, likewise have made little headway in gaining public support from the state’s Democratic administration, or from most of the state’s congressional representatives, or from the Obama administration, which has banned waterboarding but declined to broadly investigate the CIA’s interrogation program.

To the disappointment of human rights groups, the White House has said it will continue to permit extraordinary renditions under certain conditions.

Yet, the protests continue, propelled by housewives, Sunday school teachers, real estate agents and grandmothers. A rally in January drew about 50 people to the airport, and roughly the same number attended a vigil near the state capitol in Raleigh.

At the Smithfield protest, they carried signs that read “Crime Scene,” “No More,” and “Who Would Jesus Torture?” They displayed the battered visage of a man believed to be one of Aero’s former passengers. And they cheered when one speaker, the chaplain of nearby Duke University’s campus chapel, called for eliminating a moral blight that “rots our country’s heart.”

“It is time to say this is wrong,” said the chaplain, the Rev. Sam Wells, gesturing toward the blue hangar at the far end of the tarmac.

Aero officials declined invitations to attend the rally or speak to reporters. The airport management’s only response was to position an employee near the door of the tiny brick terminal to study the protesters through binoculars.

“We don’t comment on these things,” an Aero receptionist said.

‘Mayberry cloak-and-dagger’

Allyson Caison, 51, a real estate broker and mother of two, remembers the first time she heard about the company she now knows as Aero. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were still years away, and the whispers about a clandestine air service at the tiny Johnston County Airport seemed more exciting than sinister.

“It was a kind of ‘Mayberry cloak-and-dagger,’ ” said Caison, who recalled how parents buzzed about the airport’s mysterious tenant during Boy Scout meetings in the mid-1990s.

Like many in the county, she was fascinated when news stories in 2005 first linked the contractor to the CIA’s extraordinary renditions. That practice also was newly coming to light, along with tales of secret prisons and harsh interrogation methods that included waterboarding, in which detainees were made to believe they were drowning in order to coerce information from them. But as she read the stories, Caison was hit by a jarring realization: She was personally acquainted with several of the managers of the company now publicly linked to the CIA’s abduction of terrorist suspects overseas.

“Holy cow, I know these people,” she recalled thinking. “I’ve baked gingerbread houses for a couple of them.”

The news reports described what was then a 20-year relationship between the CIA and Aero, a company founded by James Rhyne, a former chief pilot for Air America, the former CIA-run company that flew clandestine missions for the agency during the Vietnam War. After Sept. 11, when the agency needed transportation help in dealing with newly detained terrorist suspects from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Aero already had a record of supporting the agency’s complex international missions with complete discretion. Its small jets and experienced pilots could be summoned quickly for missions anywhere in the world, free of the risk of being of directly traced to the spy agency.

Beginning in early 2002, those missions reportedly included shuttling between the cities of South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, where scores of young Muslims were being questioned on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda. Human rights groups allege that the CIA used Aero’s planes to pick up detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and transport them either to the CIA’s so-called black-site prisons or to the custody of foreign governments for interrogation and imprisonment.

Flight records for Aero planes show regular travel between those countries between 2002 and 2006, as well as stops at a regional airport in eastern Poland, where the CIA operated one of its secret interrogation centers.

Agency officials have repeatedly defended the practice of extraordinary rendition as legal — authorized in presidential directives by a succession of U.S. administrations as an effective tool for dealing with suspected terrorists. Both the George W. Bush White House and the Obama administration have denied knowingly sending detainees to countries to be tortured. The CIA has declined to discuss its relationship, if any, with Aero, and also declined to comment for this story.

In addition to calls made to Aero’s headquarters, e-mails sent to Aero corporate officials were not acknowledged.

Mims, the county commissioner, said in an interview that the company has been an upstanding local corporate citizen for more than two decades. He said local officials knew the company operated a charter service but had no direct knowledge — and no jurisdiction — with regard to business it may conduct overseas.

Mims suggested that he would not be disappointed to learn that the company had helped the CIA in its pursuit of suspected terrorists. Even if the stories are true, he said, Aero was only the transportation service.

“It’s not much different from hiring a taxicab,” he said. “I’d rather that the CIA do it that way than put a terrorist on a Delta flight and endanger the rest of us.”

To Caison, it wasn’t the company’s link to the CIA that was troubling. Rather, it was the idea that planes from Smithfield were being used to deliver young men of roughly her sons’ age to foreign prisons where they could be tortured, in a system outside any of the usual norms of U.S. justice. To her, torture was a moral red line, a tactic used by despots and by terrorists themselves, but not by a democracy with a predominantly Christian population.

“Our country is better than this,” she said. “We’re supposed to be a beacon of light.”

Caison shared her views at church, thinking that her fellow Methodists would be as outraged as she was. To her amazement, few were.

“The usual response was: ‘Those people are terrorists,’ ” she recalled. “Even if a few innocent people got caught up in it, it was okay if it kept our country safe.”

Caison left her church and eventually found herself participating in the airport protests that were then getting underway. It was an unfamiliar role and a costly one: Her real estate business suffered, and some friends and neighbors began avoiding her. Caison’s two sons were mocked by classmates, and an essay in the local newspaper derided her family as “America-haters.” She received threatening letters, and once, during a 2007 protest, was menaced by a counter-protester, a tattooed motorcyclist who screamed profanities at her, his crimson face inches from her own.

She stood her ground. But five years later, the memory still rattles her.

“Torture is not the issue I would have picked,” Caison said recently as she drove through her neighborhood and past the pink-and-white wood-frame house where she and her husband raised their two sons. “But this happened in my back yard. I live literally in the flight path.”

A detainee’s story

Abou el-Kassim Britel has been in that flight path, too, but his perspective is markedly different. He recalls lying on his back on the floor of what he believes was an Aero jet, wearing diapers and handcuffs as men with American accents barked orders at him.

“I lay like that for six hours, maybe more,” said Britel, a Moroccan-born Italian citizen, describing in an interview a harrowing late-night journey from Pakistan to Morocco in 2002. “When I tried to move to get comfortable, the man sitting near me would hit me.”

A decade later, Britel, now free and living in Italy, has become intimately connected to the cause of the North Carolina activists, none of whom he has met. His American correspondents sometimes carry posters of Britel’s face in their rallies, and they read letters from Britel or his Italian wife at public hearings.

Over the months, he has become both a human face of the rendition program and, short of indictments, a reason for the protesters to keep on campaigning.

“We’re looking for a measure of accountability,” said Josh McIntyre, an administrative worker at a local college and a founding member of the North Carolina group that calls itself N.C. Stop Torture Now. “But we also want to say to these people as a society, ‘We’re sorry about what happened to you.’ ”

Britel, for one, isn’t holding his breath. While Italian courts have exonerated the former Arabic translator of links to terrorism, a U.S. judge, citing secrecy laws, dismissed a private lawsuit brought on behalf of Britel and other former detainees seeking damages from Aero.

“No one recognizes this injustice,” Britel said in the interview.

An affidavit prepared as part of his legal case lays out the basics. Britel, it says, was in Pakistan on business in March 2002 when Pakistani authorities arrested him, initially on immigration charges. After an interrogation, he was accused of being a “terrorist fighter” and subjected to abuses that he says included being hung by arms from the ceiling and beaten with a cricket bat. Britel said he suffered permanent hearing and vision damage because of the beatings.

After signing what the affidavit says was a false confession, Britel was handed over to Americans. On May 24, 2002, five men wearing black clothes and masks put him in diapers and whisked him to the airport.

“I was then dragged on board a small aircraft and forced on my back,” Britel said. Hours later he was in Morocco, where he remained imprisoned until he was released eight months later without having been charged. (He was later arrested by the Moroccans in connection with an unrelated offense; he was freed last year.)

Britel acknowledges that he could not have known who owned the plane. But flight records subsequently showed a privately owned Gulfstream V turbojet leaving Islamabad and arriving in Rabat on dates that matched with Britel’s account.

The jet’s identification numbers match those of a Gulfstream jet owned by Aero, according to a 70-page dossier on Aero’s alleged role in rendition flights, prepared by University of North Carolina law school faculty members and students on behalf of anti-torture activists.

The UNC report, issued last month, contends Aero “appears to have violated” international law by allegedly filing “dummy” flight plans to disguise routes and destinations while flying for the CIA. It also alleges that the company “aided in the kidnapping, extraordinary rendition, secret detention, and torture,” while operating under a state business permit and being subject to the state and federal laws.

The accusations were not new, but the North Carolina activists seized on its release to make a fresh pitch to state and county government officials. Members of the group recently delivered copies to officials from the governor’s office and state attorney general, who accepted them politely but made no promises.

More copies were distributed to a handful of reporters who attended the group’s rally at the airport. Christina Cowger, one of the protest’s leaders, hailed the report as a step toward what she hoped would be a formal investigation of Aero by the state.

“Good people must start doing the right thing, now,” Cowger told the crowd, speaking through a microphone wired to a small guitar amplifier.

As Cowger spoke, one of the private planes based at the airport taxied along the runway and halted at a point adjacent to the group’s makeshift podium. For several minutes the pilot gunned the engine, drowning out her words.

-30-

 

This small Johnston County runway is said to have been used for CIA 'extraordinary rendition' flights. The photo results from the spectacular work of Ted Richardson, one of the best photojournalists around. He's based in Raleigh.

The members of N.C. Stop Torture Now are remarkable. We didn't know them before taking what became a whopper assignment. But the people turned out to be first-rate and the work fulfilling. Hard to beat that combination. In particular, it was a pleasure to get to know Christina Cowger and Allyson. So committed, so dogged, so very cool to work with. And as with the photo above, this shot is more of Ted Richardson's excellent photography.

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Mary Semans: The loss of a ‘little giant’

Mary Semans died this morning, a passing that marks the loss of a powerful force wrapped in one of the tiniest bodies you’ll ever see. Mrs. Semans couldn’t have been more than 4-feet-10 inches tall. By the time she died today at Duke Hospital, she was rail thin. But make no mistake: The swath she cut in North Carolina and beyond was spectacularly large.

In Durham, Mrs. Semans, 91, was known for many things that would make any good citizen proud. For me, however, I will always remember that she was one of the last remaining direct descendants of the famous family for which Duke University is named. While so many other family members chose to live elsewhere, Mrs. Semans chose to stay in Durham. Of course, she had the means to reside anywhere in the world, but she didn’t. She liked it here in Durham. And that helped some of us in Durham feel better when our oft-maligned city was taking a beating.

Long a generous supporter of the arts, Mrs. Semans also accomplished important and courageous things earlier in her long and meaningful life. She was a strong and influential voice for progressive change during the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when so many Southerners were afraid to speak out. She was an early and effective supporter of women’s rights, a special and lasting passion for her. She was a woman not only of strength, kindness and commitment, but also bravery. She had an admirable sense of duty to give back to her community, something she continued doing until the very end.

Some of us who have lived in Durham a long time, and who were lucky enough to know Mrs. Semans, enjoyed calling her “Mary DBT,” a fond reference to her heritage that followed her even after she married Dr. Jim Semans, who died a few years ago. When Mrs. Semans lost him, some of us wondered how long she, herself, might hold on.

But hold on she did. Until relatively recently, I’d run into her while she did her own shopping at the Harris-Teeter on MLK Boulevard, always accompanied by a loyal assistant. She regularly greeted me with a smile and a hug, a grasp from such a small woman I sometimes barely felt it. Remarkable to me was that she continued offering this reception even when the years began to mount and I wasn’t sure she always fully recognized me.

Mrs. Semans was certainly fond of her routines. As evidence, I offer this: During the past few years, she ate lunch at the Guglhupf Bakery nearly every day. Literally. Every weekday and sometimes on weekends.

I can’t count how many times I’ve paused to look up at her wondrous family home on Forest Hills Drive. The majestic Tudor with pink highlights on the trim, is palatial, the sort of dwelling that demands a formal name. And it has one: “Pinecrest.” The grounds, especially in the rear, are like something you might see at an ancient European villa. Obscured from the street by the house, the back gardens are sprawling and serene, a glimpse into another lifetime. The grounds encompass virtually an entire city block. At some point, she and Dr. Semans decided to move, full time, into another home on the same property, a more contemporary place that required less upkeep. “A more modest place,” she once told me. “It’s more practical and we can manage things easier.” Smaller yes, but the newer house is not exactly a hovel. It also has stature enough for a name, which it eventually received: “Les Terrasses.”

The Duke community lost a matriarch today. Durham lost a leader of uncommon influence and kindness, the kind who comes along rarely, perhaps a few times each generation. Others lost a friend. I might not have known her as well as some. I never dined in her home. We didn’t exchange Christmas cards. But she never allowed you to feel like you were merely an acquaintance, even if that’s exactly what we were. She had a knack for making people feel special. She glowed. And it rubbed off.

So that’s a snapshot of the Mrs. Semans I knew. And that’s how I’ll remember her — as a friend. It’s funny: I already miss her, that eensy giant of a woman. The word of her death hit me harder than I might have imagined. When I heard the news, I looked at my arms in time to see goose-bumps rising and my hair perking up. I was really moved. In my book, it doesn’t get much better than that.

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Ignore the smoke and seek the fire

I was just watching a live news conference held by Joe Amendola, the chief defense attorney for Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach charged with molesting young boys. So far, this case is so heinous and disturbing that most people seem to believe Sandusky is guilty, even though he’s not yet had his day in court. I must admit, I too have felt outrage and disgust as this case has unfolded.

But today, while watching Sandusky’s experienced and dogged defense attorney answered question after question from a mob of reporters, I was reminded of a few important points: First, I always advocate openness, honesty and cooperation for all my clients, even if they’re suffering under the glaring eye of the national media. The worst thing someone in such a position can do is use the ‘No Comment’ defense. “No Comment” nearly always translates into one thing: “I’m hiding something and, therefore, I’m guilty.” That may not be fair, but that’s how it works. I never allow my clients to do that. Never have, never will. Amendola seems to understand this. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a defense attorney engage in such a conversation with reporters, all of it being broadcast nationally and live.

Amendola’s tirade also reminded me of some absolute fundamentals on which our justice system is based. When defendants are surrounded by the skeptical media — along with blinding, billowing smoke — that doesn’t mean they’re guilty. It’s hard for many to see that, but it’s true. Sandusky certainly appears guilty, but how could I possibly know? That’s the point isn’t it?

I’m reminded of the Duke lacrosse case. In the days following charges against the Duke students, most everyone seemed to believe the lacrosse players were guilty. The woman who had allegedly been assaulted, for some reason, seemed to become a credible accuser. The DA then, Mike Nifong, fueled the fire with his public insistence that the players were guilty, even recounting, through physical re-enactment, how he had become certain a crime had been committed. Still, the lawyers representing the players stood firm, even when they faced ridicule by some. Wade Smith, Joe Cheshire and Kerry Sutton never gave up on their clients. They insisted on their innocence even when many, including myself, had doubts. Now we all know the Duke students were innocent. Now their once ‘”credible” accuser is embroiled in a murder case that could land her in jail for a long, long time. Innocent until proven guilty? You’re damn right.

The lesson? It may sound trite, but it’s true: Americans charged with crimes are not guilty until proven otherwise — or admit their guilt. We can’t forget that. Ours is a judicial system that’s served our country well for more than 200 years.

Is Jerry Sandusky guilty? Maybe. Seems like it to me. There’s a ton of smoke pouring from this case. Still, I’m trying as hard as possible to keep an open mind. Let’s allow the system to do its job. Let’s not pass judgment until it has. As difficult as this might be, it’s the right attitude. And we should all, difficult or not, think this way.

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We need Kerry Sutton in state Senate

Regular followers of this blog know I don’t typically endorse individual candidates. I did it for my friend Steve Schewel when he ran, successfully, for Durham City Council not long ago. Now I am doing it for Kerry Sutton. She also is my friend. More important, she’s exactly the kind of person we need in the North Carolina General Assembly. She’s dogged, honest, smart, dedicated and among the hardest-working people I know. I’m thoroughly convinced that North Carolina will be better off with her in the state Senate. I’m including the release we used to announce her campaign. You can also read about the campaign on various blogs flying here and there online. Go Kerry!

FOR RELEASE

KERRY SUTTON COMMITTEE

DATE: Nov. 30, 2011

CONTACT: Kerry Sutton, (919) 886-6597;  George Lawrence, (919) 452-6086

Durham attorney Kerry Sutton announced Wednesday she will seek the District 22 state Senate seat representing a significant portion of Durham County and all of Person and Caswell counties.

Sutton, a Democrat, is well known for her record of community service as well her work in the courtroom. She plans to file state Board of Elections paperwork to formally establish her election committee Thursday. She already has heard from voters.

“I’m humbled to know citizens believe in me,” she said. “I’m confident I can get this job done. Otherwise I wouldn’t run.”

Sutton, 50, gained national attention as a member of the legal defense team representing a group of Duke University lacrosse players wrongly accused in a sexual assault case in 2006. Her client, along with his teammates, was cleared of all allegations.

Sutton has served the state in various ways throughout her career. In 2009, Gov. Bev Perdue appointed her to the Governor’s Crime Commission, the chief advisory body to the governor and the Secretary of the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety on crime and justice issues. She has long been an active leader and is a former Board of Governors member for the N.C. Advocates for Justice.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., an incumbent Democrat who represents the majority of Durham’s city core, was pleased to hear the news.

“We need a Democrat in that district and I would be delighted to serve alongside Kerry Sutton,” he said.

Like all 50 of the state’s Senate seats, District 22 was newly drawn as part of a redistricting plan initiated by Republican legislative leadership earlier this year. The entire proposal has been legally challenged by multiple groups that argue the plan was designed to limit minority voting while giving Republicans unfair advantage in future elections. The issue will be decided by a panel of three Superior Court judges, which has yet to set a time frame for its decision.

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Scrambling in a pool of sharks

It almost got to be tiring for a while. This was several months ago, of course. Over and over, it was the same refrain: “When the economy comes back ….”

Well folks, I’m no economist, but I do operate a small business. Which, these days, seems to qualify me to theorize about where things are headed. Point is, I don’t think the economy is coming back. At least not the economy we once knew.

It was good to see the Dow pop back up the past few days, but how long will it last? I’m afraid to guess. What should we do with our investments? Our retirement accounts. I’m afraid to venture much of a guess about that too.

One thing I will say with confidence is that things have changed for good. We aren’t going back. And the economy isn’t either. I want to be clear that I’m not saying we can’t become a more prosperous and healthy nation again. We can. I suspect we will.

Thing is, it’s going to be different. Vastly different. The high unemployment rate suggests to me that big business is not hiring right now. It also suggests to me that more and more people are going it alone. Increasingly, this feels like a place where it’s everybody for his or her self. It’s an entrepreneurial world, right?

The next several months will tell us a lot, I believe. By the time the holidays are over and we roll into 2012, I’m going to be making some big decisions. If not sooner.
Everyone on their own? That’s a cruel idea. But damn, it’s tough out there. Guess we’d better get used to it.

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Steve Schewel: Durham really needs him

I don’t typically use this forum to plug individual candidates, but I’m making an exception in this case because it’s so important: Steve Schewel is running for Durham City Council. We need him. And we need him badly.

Durham has made remarkable strides in recent years. Take a quick look downtown for evidence of that progress. The American Tobacco complex alone is phenomenal. In general, downtown Durham is the go-to spot in the Triangle these days. Only a few years ago it was moribund. How rapidly things can change with a little wisdom, vision and guts among those in a position to make the big decisions.

But there’s more to Durham than downtown revitalization. Issues such as our ability to balance rapid growth with fundamental quality-of-life issues are absolutely critical. Steve is convinced this is one of the top priorities facing our city today — and he is right.

Steve, who among other achievements founded and operates the Independent Weekly and has served on the Durham School Board, believes it is essential to make our city functional, economically vital and enjoyable for all residents. He is correct to believe that we must consider the needs of a broader range of residents, not simply those who have the means to catch a Bulls game, by whim, any given night, then hit Tyler’s Tap Room afterward for a few apps and a beer.

I believe significant issues such as the merging of city and county services also must continue to receive close scrutiny. Addressing the duplication of some of these services could reflect big savings for our community. Why has so little happened in this area recently?

Of course, crime remains an issue, although it’s not the problem it once was. And it certainly is not the problem our neighbors in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and elsewhere would have people believe. Violent crime in Durham is actually down. Property crime is up. But it’s property crime that touches the lives of most people. We must continue to improve in this area. Steve knows this and wants to help bring about change.

City dwellers still pay relatively high taxes. Are we getting our money’s worth? Can’t we have more serious, intelligent debate about these needs? There must be alternatives. It’s complex stuff — balanced delicately with the need for growth and management of development — but it’s the kind of issue we must face as a community head on. That is the kind of leader Steve Schewel is. And in my book, it doesn’t get more basic than that.

Finally, during the past decade, watching City Council meetings has at times resembled old Laurel and Hardy sketches. But I can say the following with utter confidence: Steve Schewel is no Laurel. He’s no Hardy. He’s a smart, committed citizen who, if elected, will work his rear end off to make Durham a better place to live. If you know Steve, this is something you already understand . If you don’t know him, you should. Steve is the kind of person who wants to leave a better place behind when he’s gone. That’s the nut, isn’t it? What more could one ask for?

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Feed them and they will come

The deer we encounter each morning as my son and I head through northern Durham County to his river camp on the Eno are fearless. Literally. At least when it comes to humans and cars.

Each morning, as we wind our way through the surprisingly full, green countryside that leads to the river, we come upon a herd of deer at the very same spot, every single morning. Across the little paved road sit two tidy homes accompanied by large, handsome gardens that are already bountiful, certainly for early July. Surrounding these gardens are tall fences, poles and nets, patched together with obvious care using chicken wire and other materials aimed at keeping the deer from making regular meals of the veggies inside.

Yesterday we counted six deer, including does, bucks and a nice little fawn still splashed with its spring-birth spots of white that signal it as a yearling. Today it was 11.

These guys barely raise an eyebrow as we cruise by. We’ve even had to honk the horn to clear a path. This morning a big, plump doe, clearly well fed, even began approaching our vehicle when we stopped to say good morning. (Where were these deer when I hunted such animals on a more regular basis?)

Here’s the kicker: It turns out the folks in these houses, the same people who tend the impressive gardens, are feeding the deer with massive quantities of corn, apples and other goodies. They’ve been doing it for years, meaning generations of deer have grown accustomed to the ritual. The humans do this not to be kind, although surely the deer appreciate the food. Instead, the daily feedings are a piece with their attempts to keep the deer from their veggies.

After trying to fend off the deer for years, met with constant futility, one of the gardeners came up with an alternate approach. Instead of working endlessly to keep the deer out, why not simply make them so full, so satisfied with the food in their bellies, that they won’t care about the gardens. Apparently it works. At least better than the fencing alone. So in the end, these deer are part wildlife, part pets and part recovering garden marauders.

One problem: The more food the humans provide, of course, the more breakfast guests they receive. I’m told the owners of these two homes alone spend upwards of $75 a month on deer grub. Now that we’d been provided the back story, my boy and I figured this morning’s especially friendly doe simply missed the omelet station today and was still up for a snack.

For these clever humans, $75 a month must be worth the luxury of being able to pick their supper from their own yards. If one happens to be a vegetarian, I suppose one could live this way forever. And if you happen to be a carnivore, fret not. Don’t forget: There are always the deer.

 

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