I feel like I’ve aged a decade over the last 365 days.
It’s Trump and the chaos that perpetually surrounds him, but it’s not just that. It’s the news cycle, which both nationally and locally moves faster than ever—and which, by inclination and occupation, I’m obliged to keep up with—but it’s not just that either. It’s the constant wave of technological and cultural innovations, and the sense that these technological and cultural innovations are only exposing the rot of soulless late-stage capitalism (looking at you, Zuckerberg), but, again, it’s not just that either.
It’s the accumulation of these things: a feeling like you’re you’re swimming harder and harder just to stay afloat while the world is coming apart at the seams.
Two thousand and eighteen was a long, hard, often depressing slog of a year. The U.S. government kidnapped migrant children at the border and stuffed them into cages; the U.S. Senate confirmed a man accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court; the president called the media the “enemy of the people” even after five journalists were gunned down in Maryland; we ended the year with a partial government shutdown because the Very Stable Genius who controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal threw a temper tantrum over a border wall that his own chief of staff once called “absurd.”
But there were glimmers of light amid the darkness: Democrats walloped the GOP in November, retaking the House of Representatives; in North Carolina, Democrats broke the Republican supermajorities, giving Governor Cooper some semblance of power; Silent Sam came down, at least for now; the Triangle’s local governments got serious about affordable housing and put some big money behind their efforts, to mention just a few things.
Here, we’ve compiled a list of superlatives from the year in news—the good, the bad, and the ugly in North Carolina and the Triangle, the things that embarrassed us and those that gave us hope, the decisions that made us roll our eyes and the moments that filled us with pride. Join us for one last stroll down memory lane, and then let’s hit the damn reset button. —Jeffrey C. Billman
Biggest Cause for Hope, Part 1: The Busted Supermajorities
Ever since Roy Cooper defeated Pat McCrory, he’s lived in Phil Berger and Tim Moore’s world. (Technically, McCrory did, too, he just didn’t realize it.) They controlled the General Assembly with supermajorities large enough to override vetoes, which rendered Cooper a figurehead, and meant the Republicans never had to bother negotiating with the legislature’s Democrats.
That changes now. Sure, the Republicans still have majorities in each gerrymandered chamber—even though Democrats won more votes statewide—but they’ll no longer have supermajorities, which means they’ll no longer have absolute power. Cooper’s vetoes will matter. Republicans will have to compromise. It’s a brave new world. —Jeffrey C. Billman
Biggest Cause for Hope, Part 2: Thomas Farr’s Rejection
Few of Donald Trump’s right-wing judicial nominees were more obnoxious than Raleigh’s own Thomas Farr, a former campaign lawyer for the white supremacist Jesse Helms who also represented the General Assembly in its losing battles over racist gerrymandering and voter ID schemes.
In Congress’s lame-duck session this year, Farr was within a hair’s breadth of a lifetime appointment to the federal bench even after news surfaced—thanks to ye old INDY—that he may have misled the Senate Judiciary Committee about his knowledge of a postcard initiative the Helms campaign orchestrated in 1990 to intimidate black voters. Senate Republicans, however, had a slim majority and few compunctions about using it (see Kavanaugh, Brett).
Except: Outgoing Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona promised to vote against every judicial nominee unless the Senate voted on a bill to protect Robert Mueller’s investigation, which didn’t happen. That meant, with every Democrat in opposition, only one Republican defector could sink Farr. The duty fell to Tim Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate, who ultimately decided that racist voter suppression was disqualifying. Imagine that. —JCB
Most Portentous Political Trend: The Vanishing Urban Republican
After the election, there’s only one Republican left in Wake County’s legislative delegation. There are zero countywide Republicans officials, nor are there any Republicans on the Raleigh City Council.
The same pattern holds true in North Carolina’s other urban areas. Democrats swept the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners in November for the first time since 1964. There are only two Republicans left on the Charlotte City Council, and one lonely elephant in Mecklenburg’s legislative delegation. Republicans have all but given up in Durham and Orange Counties. And so on.
This trend has been fueled by changing demographics and accelerated by a distaste for Trump. What it means is that the rural-urban divide is going to grow. But even though Democrats may dominate North Carolina’s economic and cultural epicenters, the GOP’s advantage in sprawling rural areas could give Republicans a leg up in the General Assembly for years to come. —Leigh Tauss
Most Embarrassing Scandal: Congressional District 9
It’s bad enough that voters in the Ninth Congressional District even came close to sending a reactionary doofus like Mark Harris to Washington. But the painful, face-palming spectacle that has taken place since the election has been truly something to behold.
As has been widely reported, Harris’s campaign hired a political operative to run an absentee ballot campaign that, well, may not have been entirely on the level. Harris hired the same operative in the primary and narrowly prevailed; his opponent, Congressman Robert Pittenger, reportedly complained to party officials but was ignored. Harris narrowly won—or, more accurately, he’s ahead—in November, too, but there was enough weirdness for the State Board of Election and Ethics Enforcement to refuse to certify the results pending the results of its investigation.
Here’s where it gets fun: At first, the NCGOP professed outrage, demanding that Harris be declared victorious. But as the evidence of wrongdoing mounted, party leaders backtracked, saying a new election may be necessary; in fact, Republicans in the General Assembly quickly passed a law stating that any new election needed a primary, because they didn’t want Harris’s damaged goods costing them a seat. But then the elections board postponed its evidentiary hearing until January 11, which is eight days after the new Congress is sworn in. The NCGOP reversed course again, demanding that Harris be declared the winner because, hey, why not.
Then, last week, another small hiccup: The elections board ceased to exist.
To explain: After Governor Cooper’s win in 2016, Republicans in the General Assembly changed the board’s makeup as part of a power grab. Cooper sued. The board was declared unconstitutional, but the ruling wasn’t to take effect until after the 2018 midterms. In this year’s lame-duck session, the legislature reverted to the original elections-board system, but that law doesn’t take effect until January 31. But last week, the court that originally found the old elections board unconstitutional lost its patience and ordered it to dissolve. Cooper pledged to appoint an interim board to fill in the gap, but the NCGOP says that’s illegal and it won’t cooperate.
Harris, meanwhile, is likely to sue over not being certified. But Democrats in Congress say they won’t seat him—and constitutionally, they have the final word. In other words, no one knows what’s going to happen. —JCB
Most Obnoxious Trump Bootlicker: Mark Meadows
There are plenty of reasons Congress is dysfunctional. But near the top of any list must be the Freedom Caucus, the self-appointed guardians of conservative purity who’ve made it impossible for the GOP to get things done. Their leaders: Jim Jordan, best known for ignoring sexual abuse allegations while he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State, and North Carolina’s own Mark Meadows, the biggest MAGA fanboy around. Trump, of course, loves Meadows, because Trump loves lackeys who go on cable television to prattle on about the WITCH HUNT and FAKE NEWS, which Meadows does with aplomb. Not long ago, it looked like Meadows might become Trump’s chief of staff, but, at least according to the White House, Trump decided Meadows should stay in Congress, where he can continue to insist that House Republicans say things that make Sean Hannity’s nether regions tingle while doing absolutely nothing productive. —JCB
Most Malicious Deportation: Samuel Oliver-Bruno
Last December, Samuel Oliver-Bruno became the fifth person in North Carolina to seek sanctuary from the Trump’s immigration policies, holing up in a Durham church to evade a deportation order. Oliver-Bruno and his family had lived in Greenville for two decades, but, in 2014, he went home to Mexico to visit sick relatives. His wife, who has lupus, returned to the U.S. to get heart surgery. When Oliver-Bruno tried to re-enter the country, he was detained at the border. Under the Obama administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had given him a stay of removal; the Trump administration revoked that stay.
For eleven months, Oliver-Bruno never left that church. But then he got a message that he needed to go the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices in Morrisville to receive a biometric screening as part of his pending asylum application. As soon as he got there, ICE officials tackled and arrested him. A week later, he was deported. You feel safer now, right? —JCB
Most Malicious Prosecution: The Alamance 12
For all the Republican braying about voter fraud, there’s a persistent lack of evidence that the problem actually exists, especially the kind that would be prevented by voter ID laws. An audit of the 2016 election in North Carolina, for example, found that voter ID would have stopped just one illegal vote out of 4.8 million. But the audit did discover that 508 people voted illegally, and 441 of them were on parole or probation.
The state referred those cases to local district attorneys. Most declined to do anything; after all, the people casting these ballots usually didn’t know they were doing anything illegal. That wasn’t the case in Alamance County, where Republican District Attorney Pat Nadolski wanted to make a point. His office charged a dozen residents—nine of them black—with a felony that could land them two years in prison. For voting.
The law under which they were charged was passed in 1901, and, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, was designed to intimidate black voters. (The SCSJ notes that while casting an illegal ballot is a felony, using violence to disrupt an election is a misdemeanor.) In August, the felony charges against five of the so-called Alamance 12 were dismissed as part of a plea deal. —JCB
Most Disappointing Policy Decision: Confederate Monuments on the Capitol Grounds
In the summer of 2017—after neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville to defend a Civil War monument, protesters in Durham tore down one Confederate statue, and UNC students demanded the removal of another—the North Carolina Historical Commission had an opportunity to remove three Confederate monuments from the state capitol grounds.
The commission, which must give its permission to move any “object of remembrance” in the state, punted. It took almost a year for the commission to reach a decision, finally voting this August not to remove them or relocate them to a battlefield, but to “provide a balanced context” for monuments that are an “over-memorialization” of the Confederacy. The commission asked the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to design and raise money for a new monument to honor African Americans—a consolidation prize for a few hundred years of chattel slavery, apparently—but there doesn’t seem to be much urgency to get that done.
Meanwhile, those three monuments to white supremacy still stand. —Sarah Willets
Biggest Own Goal: How the NCGOP Got Anita Earls
Two years ago, Mike Morgan sneaked onto the N.C. Supreme Court, winning a bunch of conservative, rural, Trump-loving areas that you wouldn’t think would swing for a black Raleigh Democrat. And they probably didn’t on purpose. Instead, the state Republican Party got hoisted by its own petard. Earlier in 2016, the General Assembly had passed a law making N.C. Court of Appeals races partisan, and then another law mandating that candidates associated with the governor’s party (then a Republican) be given the coveted top spot on the ballot. However, the N.C. Supreme Court was still nonpartisan, its ballot order was still derived by chance, and Morgan got the top slot. In essence, a bunch of Republicans thought they were voting for a Republican, Morgan won, and Democrats got a majority on the state’s high court.
Republicans weren’t going to let that happen again. This year, with incumbent Barbara Jackson facing reelection, they decided that not only should Supreme Court races be partisan, but there should also be no partisan primaries and no runoffs. They assumed that Democrats would split their votes among multiple candidates while Jackson would stand alone. But then came Chris Anglin, a former Democrat recently turned Republican. Republicans called shenanigans and passed a law stating that Anglin couldn’t appear on the ballot as a Republican because of his party switch; Anglin sued and prevailed, and appeared on the ballot as a second Republican. Anita Earls, the progressive Democrat the General Assembly absolutely did not want on the Supreme Court, won easily—albeit with just a smidge less than an outright majority.
Two elections in a row, the NCGOP tried to rig the system to their benefit. Two elections in a row, they were too clever by half. There’s a lesson in there. —JCB
Worst Response to a #MeToo Scandal: Duane Hall
When Allison Dahle challenged state representative Duane Hall in the Democratic primary, nobody thought she had a chance. But on February 28, the last day of qualifying, that all changed with a story from NC Policy Watch (and former INDY) reporter Billy Ball, detailing accusations that Hall had kissed two women without their consent in 2016.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, prominent Dems immediately urged Hall to resign. He remained defiant, insisting he’d never harassed anyone. Then he said he was a flirt and said one of the incidents was a joke that was being misconstrued by his political enemies. Then he lashed out, accusing Policy Watch of having a vendetta against him because he used to date the daughter of the executive director of the NC Justice Center, which operates Policy Watch, because hell hath no fury like the journalistic minions of the father of a woman scorned, it seems.
Shockingly, that strategy didn’t pan out. Dahle will join the General Assembly January 9. —JCB
Biggest Red Wave: The Teachers’ March
On May 16, the streets of downtown Raleigh turned red, clogged with twenty thousand people wearing the color in support of public education. The march came as educators in other states, particularly red states, went on strike to demand better pay and more respect. On the day of the North Carolina event, 42 out of the state’s 115 school districts—accounting for 75 percent of the state’s student population—closed. (The stunning display of solidarity also gave us one of 2018’s most notable political gaffes: Republican state representative Mark Brody said “union thugs” were behind the march.) Six months after participants chanted “Remember, remember, we vote in November,” Democrats broke Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. —SW
Biggest Legislative Failure: Extreme Risk Protection Orders
After the February massacre in Parkland, Florida, there was plenty of talk about the need to address the uniquely American problem of mass shootings. In the General Assembly, state representative Marcia Morey filed a bill offering a pretty reasonable solution: extreme risk protection orders. The bill, the former Durham District Court Judge explained, would allow judges to temporarily take guns away from people who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others—the kind of people you really don’t want have a gun. Similar “red flag” laws are already in place in six states, and they seem to be effective, especially in preventing suicides.
It seemed like a no-brainer to, well, anyone with a brain. Alas, brains were in short supply on Jones Street, which long ago auctioned itself off to the NRA. Morey’s bill was relegated to the Rules Committee, where it died a silent death. —SW
Biggest Con: The Constitutional Amendments
Of course people should be able to hunt and fish. Obviously, you want to protect victims from criminals. And who wants to pay higher taxes? And while you’re checking yes, why not make everyone show ID to vote, give the legislature more power to fill judicial vacancies, and rejigger the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement?
Don’t worry about the details. Just roll with it.
The legislature put all six of those questions to voters. Even the most benign-sounding were problematic, or at least potentially problematic, as the legislature hadn’t passed the kind of implementing legislation that tells you how these proposed constitutional amendments would work. This was by design: The less meat on the bones, the more likely voters were to approve them without thinking too hard, especially the first three. What lawmakers really wanted were the latter: voter ID, to replace a law struck down as racist by a federal court; and two efforts to strip power from the governor.
The bad news: Voters got suckered by the voter ID amendment and gave Republicans license to pass a law—in a lame-duck session, over Cooper’s veto—that could make it harder for marginalized communities to cast a ballot. The good news: The two power grabs failed. —JCB
Rejection We’re Totally OK With: Amazon
When 2018 began, local officials were giddy about our inclusion on Amazon’s short list for HQ2. Later, we’d learn that the state and Wake County had offered the company more than $2 billion in incentives. But in the end, it was all for show: Amazon chose New York and the D.C. suburbs, which, coincidentally, is where Amazon already has its highest concentrations of workers outside Seattle and where Jeff Bezos already owns houses.
As alluring as the prospect of those fifty-thousand six-figure jobs was, the idea of prostrating ourselves before the world’s richest man was a bit unseemly—not to mention the fact that no one had really stopped to think about what such a massive project would mean for schools and housing costs and all the rest. We didn’t get picked, and it’s probably for the best. —JCB
Rejection We’re Less OK With: Apple
Amazon, whatever. But Apple ditching us for Austin, that stung. Apple’s project was smaller (five thousand jobs and $1 billion in investment at first), but it would’ve had a faster ramp-up, meaning those jobs would have arrived quicker. And while there would have been incentives, they were nothing like what Amazon wanted.
So what happened? Apple hasn’t said. But Apple’s flirtation with the HB 2 state had prompted a backlash from the LGBTQ community. There were also suggestions that Apple was wary of the legislature’s recent constitutional amendments, including voter ID, and questions about whether the region’s infrastructure was ready for primetime. We may never know for sure, but in any event, this has to count as one of 2018’s biggest disappointments.
Or maybe not. Just last week, WRAL reported that the foundation that oversees much of Research Triangle Park had sold a parcel to a company with ties to an Apple lobbyist who is “considered as a primary negotiator on behalf of Apple when the firm is engaging in negotiations for incentives.” Make of that what you will. —JCB
Loudest Collective Whine by Pusillanimous Politicians: The Farm Bill
In April, a federal jury awarded ten plaintiffs who had sued Smithfield Foods $50 million in the first of twenty-six hog-farm nuisance lawsuits to go to trial. The industry and its lackeys in the General Assembly immediately went to work. Never mind that, because of a cap on punitive damages, that verdict came down to just over $3 million. Never mind that the year before, the legislature had muscled through a law to dramatically tamp down the amount of money future nuisance lawsuits could recoup. Nope, Big Pork needed more protection, this time via a Farm Bill that makes future nuisance lawsuits all but impossible and essentially gives the industry carte blanche to do as it pleases.
Since then, Smithfield has lost three more cases, one of which amounted to a whopping $94 million judgment. In October, the company announced that it would cover its hog waste lagoons and convert the methane its hogs produce to biofuel, which is part of what advocates have been begging the company to do for decades. —JCB
Goodest Riddance, Part 1: Silent Sam
In August, as classes began at UNC-Chapel Hill, a crowd that had gathered in McCorkle Place to protest Silent Sam shrouded the Confederate monument in tall banners and pulled him to the ground.
It was a long time coming. Like, a really long time.
Silent Sam was dedicated in 1913 with a virulently racist speech by Julian Carr that left no question about its intent to glorify the Confederacy. For 105 years, it broadcast that message from the heart of campus. For decades, students, faculty, and others called for its removal, saying the statue made them feel unsafe and dehumanized.
They stepped up those calls following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. The university, meanwhile, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security for the hunk of metal while officials wrung their hands over what to do with it, saying a 2015 state law prevented them from removing the damn thing. (They rejected a suggestion from Governor Cooper that the statue be relocated under a public safety exemption to that law.) Fed up, protesters took matters into their own hands.
Sam’s fate is still uncertain. Four months after the statue was felled, UNC-Chapel Hill officials recommended to the Board of Governors that a new, $5.3 million center be built to house it. The Board of Governors, citing the cost and safety concerns, rejected that proposal and formed an ad hoc group to come up with a new plan this spring. —SW
Goodest Riddance, Part 2: Sheriff Mike Andrews
In May, incumbent Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews got whooped in the Democratic primary, losing to Clarence Birkhead by a two-to-one margin.
There were many reasons voters wanted Andrews gone, made only worse by news the morning of the primary that Andrews’s campaign Facebook page had responded “Amen” to a comment warning supporters against “immigrants and minorities” flocking to the polls. On his watch, eight people had died in the county jail, as suicide risks identified years ago had only slowly been addressed. He also clashed with protesters, going so far as to propose a rule requiring advance notice of demonstrations. And after a crowd pulled down a Confederate monument downtown, Andrews aggressively pursued those involved, charging people not only with property damage but with inciting a riot (the riot charges were eventually dropped). He publicly flip-flopped about his agency’s cooperation with ICE, while internally the jail had an unwritten policy to honor all requests to hold people after they should have been released so ICE could pick them up.
Tl;dr: We won’t miss you, Mike. —SW
Our Favorite Reinvention: Pride: Durham
In 1981, Durham held the state’s first gay and lesbian march. Five years later, the city’s annual Pride march began. For three decades, that September tradition continued, but over time it lost touch with the community it sought to represent. After a string of controversies—like allegations that an organizer had assaulted a Black Lives Matter activist in 2015 and a boycott-prompting scheduling conflict with Yom Kippur—Pride seemed to sputter out. Finally, in June, a message appeared on the event’s website stating that it had been suspended.
Enter the LGBTQ Center of Durham, its board chair Helena Cragg, and J. Clapp, also known as Vivica C. Coxx, drag matriarch of Durham’s House of Coxx. Together, they revived the tradition—rebranded Pride: Durham, NC—in just three months. And they did it with intention, assembling a diverse planning committee, taking heaps of public input, and working to ensure that people who felt Pride wasn’t for them before felt welcome this time. —SW
Coolest Experiment in Democracy: Participatory Budgeting in Durham
In May, the Durham City Council decided to let residents vote on how to spend $2.4 million via a process called participatory budgeting. The city collected five hundred ideas from the public, including fare-free buses, crosswalks, and community centers, and this May, residents in each of the city’s three wards will vote on what projects they want implemented.
Unlike regular elections, citizenship won’t be a requirement to vote; voters just need to present proof of Durham residency or sign an affidavit attesting to it. Not only will participatory budgeting lead to new sidewalks or bus shelters or whatever residents want, but it’s also an exercise in democracy, fomenting engagement with local government. And that’s pretty darn neat. —SW
Most Unnecessary Debate: Durham’s Police-Exchange Resolution
Stipulation 1: Police training programs that emphasize military tactics are generally bad. Stipulation 2: The Israel-Palestine situation is, well, complicated, a hornet’s nest that’s plagued foreign policy experts for decades.
In April, the Durham City Council poked that hornet’s nest. It’s not entirely clear what that accomplished.
Here’s the story: An activist coalition had amassed more than a thousand signatures asking the council to condemn police exchange programs with Israel, whose defense forces have “a long history of violence and harm against Palestinian people and Jews of Color.” Former Durham police chief Jose Lopez had attended a counter-terrorism program in Israel, and current chief C.J. Davis had coordinated exchanges at her previous job in Atlanta, but the Durham police weren’t currently involved in any such programs.
The council took up the petition anyway. Everyone got pissed. Members of the Jewish community claimed it was anti-Semitic. Activists accused Israeli forces of contributing to racialized policing in the U.S. Someone accused the Jews of having “an inordinate amount of control” over politics; someone else accused Mayor Steve Schewel, who is Jewish, of being a Nazi sympathizer. You get the picture.
The council tried to thread the needle, voting unanimously in favor of a resolution pledging not to enter into a program “with any country in which Durham officers receive military-style training”—not just Israel, Schewel pointed out during the April 16 public hearing, but also countries like Syria and North Korea, if they offered such programs.
That statement didn’t exactly smooth things over. In December, one of the resolution’s opponents sued the city council for allegedly violating the state’s open-government law while crafting the resolution.
To reiterate: Durham cops weren’t involved in any such programs, so a resolution condemning them had no practical effect. —JCB
Dumbest Controversy: E-scooters in Raleigh
This summer’s sudden arrival of dockless electric scooters was met with some consternation from the denizens of the Raleigh City Council, some of whom often seem, well, less than enthusiastic about newfangled thingamajigs. This consternation quickly devolved into straight-up fear-mongering—The scooters will run you over!—and at least one council member seemed dead set on extinguishing the scooters from his sight forever.
But in contrast to its usual foot-dragging (see below)—perhaps because the scooter company Bird strategically decided to ask forgiveness instead of permission—the council acted pretty quickly, crafting a set of policies for the scooters in a few weeks. Raleigh being Raleigh, those policies are fairly draconian: On top of an assortment of regulations, the city will charge Bird and Lime $300 per scooter for up to five hundred scooters each, which Bird complained was “regressive.” Raleigh being Raleigh, the rules will also likely become stricter later this year. —LT
Most Annoying Examples of Raleigh’s Perpetual Thumb-Twirling: Airbnbs and ADUs
For the Raleigh City Council, 2018 marked another year of stagnation on the oh-my-god-how-are-we-still-debating-this? subjects of Airbnb (introduced in 2015) and accessory dwelling units (2013), not-very-difficult issues that most other cities figured out long ago.
With ADUs, the latest holdup is the pro-neighborhood majority of council members who support strict regulations and what’s called an overlay zone, which would essentially force residents to beg their neighbors for permission to build granny flats on their property rather than being able to do so by right. The planning commission thinks this is too onerous; this year, we’ll find out whether the council will overrule them.
As for short-term rentals—which are still technically illegal, though no one’s enforcing the law—the rules being contemplated would ban whole-house rentals and restrict the number of occupants in a home and the number of rentals in a neighborhood, which, again, critics point out, is pretty onerous. It’s not clear when this one will come back before the council. It is clear the council’s not in any hurry. —LT
Biggest DTR Development: The Warehouse District
Probably the year’s biggest story in downtown Raleigh was the full-on arrival of the Warehouse District, with the opening of both Union Station and The Dillon. The former, of course, is Raleigh’s premier transportation hub—a “front door to the city,” in Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s words, that will eventually connect commuters to all kinds of transit options, including Amtrak, buses, and commuter rail. The latter is developer John Kane’s eighteen-story, block-sized, mixed-use colossus, the first project of its kind in DTR, and a window into the future. —LT
Most Obvious Case of Money Talking: Dean Debnam and Ann Campbell
There’s no getting around this political reality: The makeup of the Wake County Board of Commissioners is what it is today because two well-heeled donors, along with their spouses and PACs, spent nearly $200,000 on behalf of the candidates they believed would improve public education. Or, more specifically, they spent money on candidates challenging incumbents whom they believed had betrayed public schools.
There’s nothing wrong with people of means using their resources to further worthwhile causes, nor is there any suggestion that what Dean Debnam and Ann Campbell did is in any way illegal or unethical. Quite the contrary: It was just politics at its most effective—and it proved that, in politics, money, when well-targeted, talks.
There were two central but related issues. The first was the board’s vote in 2017 not to give the school board all of the money it requested. The second was its later decision to move forward with purchasing the defunct Crooked Creek golf course to turn into a park. Critics argued that if you could spend millions on a new park, you could spend millions more on schools. It was a salient if somewhat reductive argument.
They targeted the four commissioners who’d voted for Crooked Creek. Two of them—Erv Portman and John Burns—lost in the May Democratic primary; another, Matt Calabria, barely eked out a win. —JCB
Most Obvious Twist: Selling Crooked Creek
The Board of Commissioners that took office in December had a new power dynamic. The old board’s center of gravity had been Sig Hutchinson, Calabria, Burns, and Portman—the four who voted for Crooked Creek. Now it lies with chairwoman Jessica Holmes and Commissioner Greg Ford, along with newcomers Susan Evans and Vickie Adamson. Just weeks after the board was sworn in, Ford began pushing to sell off the Crooked Creek property the county had only recently spent $4 million to acquire. A vote is planned for next week. The park’s supporters say they’ll come out in force. Ford thinks he has the numbers. After all, Evans and Adamson benefitted from the anti-Crooked-Creek campaign. —LT
Worst Explanation for Embezzling Taxpayer Money: Laura Riddick
Prior to 2017, Laura Riddick was a widely respected public servant, credited with bringing the Wake County Register of Deeds Office into the twenty-first century. Then, all of sudden, she resigned, ostensibly because of poor health, but at the very same time the SBI announced an investigation into the disappearance of $2.3 million from the office. Coincidence? Of course not.
In August, Riddick pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $1 million. And she offered a doozy of a reason: Early trauma, she said, had created “a compulsion to hoard money,” which sounds a lot like a lawyer-y term for “greedy.” She told the court this wasn’t an excuse but rather an explanation. As part of her plea deal, Riddick will have the next five to seven years in prison to sort out her compulsion. —SW
Story That Nearly Broke Our Website: Young Dolphgate
On May 4, Duke vice president Larry Moneta—who had previously urged tolerance for hate speech—walked into the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop on Duke’s campus, heard a profane rap song, and complained. The store’s management took away from that complaint that it needed to fire the two baristas working the counter that day, and did so. And for a few hours after Katie Jane Fernelius broke the story on May 8 that we came to refer to as Young Dolphgate and the damn thing went viral, we were legitimately concerned that our servers might crash from all the traffic.
They didn’t, but a lot of stuff went down in the days that followed. There were protests at Moneta’s office. The owner of Joe Van Gogh apologized, then cut ties with Duke. Duke president Vincent Price apologized, too. Rapper Young Dolph flew the baristas to a concert in Miami and gave them $20,000 for their trouble. Moneta quit Twitter, then announced a few months later that he would retire from Duke at the end of the academic year.
In December, he also quit Facebook after a series of, um, questionable posts during a trip to China. —JCB
Brightest Glimmer of Progress: Affordable Housing
Last year saw several major strides toward addressing the Triangle’s affordable housing problem—an issue that will only grow with the region’s population.
In Chapel Hill, voters approved a $10 million bond aimed at building four hundred and preserving three hundred units of affordable housing. In Durham, the city council backed a development with eighty-two affordable units next to the Durham Station (and began exploring a second project nearby) and committed to putting affordable housing on the former site of the Durham Police Department. The city has also contributed to the Durham Housing Authority’s redevelopment of its public housing sites, worked on establishing an affordable housing loan fund, and funded nonprofit endeavors.
Durham County made its first foray into affordable housing by approving plans to redevelop two county-owned parking lots with commercial space and 437 residential units, 277 of which will be affordable to lower-income residents. Wake County, meanwhile, hiked property taxes in part to add twenty-five hundred affordable units and end veteran homelessness within five years. And in May, the Raleigh City Council approved $7.6 million for affordable housing in downtown and Southeast Raleigh, part of a broader effort to create eleven hundred new affordable units with $19 million set aside from the city’s housing fund. —SW
Biggest Question We’ll Finally Get an Answer to in 2019: Will Light Rail Happen?
As 2018 drew to a close, the fate of the Durham-Orange Light Rail line seemed a bit shaky.
The project still needed to secure operating agreements with important partners, which are key for the project to apply for federal funding by April, which it needs to do to get a federal funding commitment in September, which it needs to meet a deadline from the legislature to have all non-state funding committed by the end of November. A nonprofit fundraising effort was far short of its goal to raise $102 million by April 30—another do-or-die deadline from the state. At the same time, GoTriangle, which is overseeing the project, was negotiating over the rail alignment through downtown Durham in an effort to appease the railroads, which didn’t want to share crossing systems, and downtown stakeholders, who didn’t want to be isolated by the tracks.
But while there are question marks, the $2.4 billion project seems to be on firmer footing than it was a year ago. Republicans no longer have supermajorities in the legislature, which will prevent further meddling, and a local light rail advocate, Congressman David Price, is about to become chairman of a House subcommittee on transportation funding, which won’t hurt. And GoTriangle caught a break in December, when it worked out a potential solution to the carving-up-downtown problem—a tunnel—though this proposal will cost more and still needs to be approved by the Federal Transit Administration.
One way or another, 2019 will be the year when we learn whether light rail will actually happen. —SW
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