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Entries for August 2009

I spoke to the North Carolina Democratic Party’s annual Sanford-Hunt-Frye Dinner Saturday night.
I talked about the “Go Forward” tradition in North Carolina politics, starting with Kerr Scott and running through Sanford and Hunt.
We sat at Governor Perdue’s table, which gave me some pause given some of my blogs about her. But she was nice to me and my wife and especially to our daughter.
She gave a strong speech. It was just right for the crowd and the night.
That – and the graceful way she handled herself with people – told me three things. 
  • She has “Go Forward” progressive instincts. 
  • She has a real ability to connect with people. 
  • She has a deep understanding of the legislature, state government and the budget. 
So far in her administration, something has been missing. Maybe her new guru Pearse Edwards will be exactly what she needs.
You don’t become North Carolina’s first woman governor without having brains, toughness and political skill.
Don’t underestimate her ability to come back.



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The commentariet says Ted Kennedy’s tactical skills will be missed in the health-care reform debate.
What’s more likely to be missed is his roar.
Democrats– including President Obama – lack a loud, clear voice to frame the debate.
Like Kennedy did on Robert Bork. Like I heard him do at the Democratic “mini-convention” in Memphis in 1978, when he delivered a passionate, lectern-pounding call for decent health care for all Americans.
Does anybody today clearly understand what Obama wants from reform – in terms the average person can grasp?
In the vacuum, Sarah Palin framed the debate with a Facebook posting about “death panels.”
Kennedy’s red-hot rhetoric is alien to Zen Master Obama.
Yes, the President’s cool has worked before. Like last August when Democrats were in a panic after the Republican convention.
But Obama got lucky. Palin turned out to be a disastrous pick for McCain. And the economic meltdown doomed the Republicans.
The President may not be so lucky this September. And congressional Democrats – except for Kennedy’s Massachusetts colleague Barney Frank – seem afraid to take the nay-sayers head-on.


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Ted Kennedy was both an inspiration and political poison to North Carolina Democrats.
We loved him because he was the last link to the glory days of John and Bobby Kennedy, the New Frontier, the Mercury 7 astronauts, the Peace Corps, “pay any price, bear any burden…” and all that.
And his voice always roared for the causes we believed in: civil rights, equal rights, education, health care, fighting poverty, on and on.
But we couldn’t afford to be seen in public with him.
As he became more liberal than his brothers ever were, he became toxic in North Carolina.
I wonder how many fund-raising letters Carter and the Congressional Club sent out over the years featuring Teddy.
The paradox was captured at the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York. I went with Governor Hunt, who was supporting Jimmy Carter against Kennedy’s challenge. We fought the Kennedy people all week along.  But the last night of the convention Kennedy gave the greatest political speech I’ve ever heard.
For all that eloquence, Kennedy could be inarticulate to the point of incomprehensibility. The 1980 speech, like a lot of his better speeches, came from the pen of Bob Shrum, who was John Edward’s media consultant in 1998.
Kennedy had his faults and failings. But forget them all. He was a hell of a political warrior.


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Give Governor Perdue credit: She’s not a quitter.
She has been a blur of activity since the legislature left. Launching a government-efficiency study. Riding a bus the first day of school. Asking for money-saving ideas. Sending out YouTube videos.
Clearly, she has the energy to fight her way back. All she needs now is a sound strategy – and a clear focus.
People close to her say she has two big goals. One is to keep making the improvements in education that Governor Hunt started and Governor Easley, though less energetically, continued. The other goal is to make government more efficient and open.
Her mantra should be Doing More With Less. Keeping North Carolina Moving. Moving despite the Republican legacy of deficits, joblessness and recession.
Keep at it, Bev. You can do it.



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Bill Friday surprised me in our UNC-TV interview when he asked me about the most remarkable characters I’ve met in politics.
So I’ve given it more thought. I’ve come down to two people I met during Governor Hunt’s 1984 campaign against Jesse Helms.
At different times that year, our campaign was advised by two of the oddest characters in the history of American politics: James Carville and Dick Morris.
Carville, who was working on a Senate race in Texas, was unknown then. Will Marshall, our press secretary, had worked with him in a Senate race in Virginia the year before. Carville flew in to Raleigh a couple of times during the spring and met with us.
Spending time with Carville is like being thrown into a Mixmaster. He’s just as jerky, hyperactive, imaginative and funny as he is on TV. Except you can’t turn him off. You’re exhausted after a couple of hours.
In 1984, Morris was still – officially – a Democrat. He was brought in by the late David Sawyer, our media consultant, in October. We were desperate. Sawyer thought Morris might have some ideas. He had a good one: Attack Helms on abortion. Tell voters, especially women, that Helms opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. And would even outlaw birth control.
It was too radical for our campaign. Later, I found out from Carter that Morris was right. It was the one magic bullet that might have turned the campaign around. The Helms campaign always wondered why we backed off.
Everybody in our campaign loved Carville. Morris, not so much. After he left, one campaign aide said she felt like she needed a shower.


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Back in January when Governor Perdue made a healthcare lobbyist head of the Department of Health and Human Services it looked like she’d slipped and put the fox in charge of the henhouse. But the Governor shrugged it off, saying that whoever Lanier Cansler had lobbied for in the past, ‘He’s now owned 100% by the people of North Carolina.’
The Governor inferring her new Secretary could be ‘owned’ by one group then another was a less than ringing endorsement – but, anyway, Cansler swore off lobbying and took office. But he didn’t exactly sever his ties with his old lobbying firm.
Instead of selling his interest in the firm for cash Cansler took a ‘promissory note’ from the company – which creates a problem for both the Governor and Cansler. Because the company has to pay the note and one way it can make the money to do it is by lobbying Lanier’s Department. (In addition, Secretary Cansler’s wife is also a lobbyist.)
Next, during the budget debate, a strange thing happened.
Cansler persuaded the Legislature to let him spend $250 million without the usual process of seeking bids on the contracts – in other words Cansler’s Department’s is going to grant state contracts to venders it hand picks, rather than letting multiple venders bid. Lanier dressed the proposal up in some pretty fine political wrapping, saying letting him pick the venders quickly would save the state money.
So over the next six months Lanier and his Department are going to give out $250 million in contracts without bids (with Britt Cobb, the Governor’s Secretary of Administration, looking over their shoulder) – and naturally, the question is will some of the contracts go to Lanier’s old firm’s clients?
Cansler already seems to be trying to defuse that powder keg. For instance, he sent a memo to his subordinates telling them they need to ‘insulate him from ‘procurement decisions’ that affect his former lobbying clients.
That’s a fine sentiment but when you get right down to it that dog won’t hunt.
Imagine you’re the Assistant-Secretary of-Something-Or-The-Other in Lanier’s Department. You’re about to award a $50 million no bid contract and your bosses’ old buddies are beating down your door to get it. Wouldn’t it be natural for you to wonder if it would make your boss unhappy if, in effect, you told his former client to take a hike? It would be a rare bureaucrat who didn’t at least wonder if he might not be biting off more than he could chew.
Another kind of politics could steal into this equation, too. In his book, The Fourth Witch, former House Speaker Richard Morgan tells a story about a legislator, a lawyer, who represented video poker clients. He dutifully recused himself from every vote on video poker but, then, behind the scenes worked diligently to help his clients.
Cansler ‘insulating’ himself may be a good faith attempt at a solution or it may turn out to be a solution as full of holes as Swiss cheese.
But there is another solution that’s iron-clad. If the Governor is really sincere about eliminating this conflict of interest she should just say none of Cansler’s ex-clients (or his wife’s firms’ clients or his former firms’ clients) can receive a no-bid contract from the state.
In other words, if Cansler’s former clients want a state contract they’ll have to compete for it against other companies and have the low-bid.


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 A strange tale is unfolding over in a courtroom in Hillsborough about madness, an Evil Twin and Alvaro Castillo hearing the Voice of God.
When Alvaro Castillo was a teenage boy – he’s now twenty-two – he saw a new version of the movie Romeo and Juliet, set in a modern day city of Verona Beach  where the Montagues and Capulets battle it out in a gunfight at a gas station.
Later, Alvaro told his cadre of psychiatrists when he saw that gunfight, that’s when his fantasies began – and that’s when his Evil Twin – ‘Red’ – showed up.
Alvaro’s troubles were only beginning: One night, babysitting a three year old boy, he found himself sexually aroused; then he went to a strip club and found it so vile he was repulsed; then he became secretly obsessed with Anna, a teenage girl at his high school.
On top of that (according to witnesses at the trial) Alvaro’s father, Rafael, was a two-fisted Honduran who was beating Alvaro and his mother – which led Alvaro’s mother to tell him he was a coward for not standing up to his father.
So by the time he was nineteen Alvaro had convinced himself he was both a potential pedophile and a rapist – plus a coward; then in his fantasies ‘Red’ turned into a monster – raping Alvaro and telling him he was going to rape Anna unless Alvaro cut off his own hand.
Instead Alvaro tried to kill himself.
But his father, Rafael, came home early from work and stopped him – which Alvaro saw as an Act of God.
He spent a week in the University of North Carolina Hospital, then, when he got out, went straight to Wal-mart and bought a shotgun; a month later he returned to buy a rifle and while standing at the counter saw a Sign from God – his eyes locked on a magazine clip identical to the one used by the Columbine killers. He left Wal-mart certain he knew why God had saved him.
Some how he got his mother to take him to Littleton, Colorado – where he visited the Columbine killers’ graves; then when he got home he named his shotgun Arlene and his rifle Anna (after the girl he was obsessed with) and slept with them at night and even filmed himself holding the shotgun, caressing and kissing it, as he crooned the Mickey Mouse song to the gun.
By now with ‘Red’  whispering in his ear Alvaro had decided killing the teenagers at his high school wasn’t going to be murder – instead he would be offering the students like Paschal lambs as a blood sacrifice that was going to send them straight to heaven and spare them the torments of temptation, sexual urges and paying taxes.
One August afternoon Alvaro walked into his living room, looked down at his father sitting on the sofa reading the newspaper, and shot him in the jaw;---when his father made a strangling sound Alvaro shot him five more times then covered his body with a sheet, filmed it lying on the sofa, then turned the camera on himself and said, I don’t feel bad. Now I have to die. Then slinging the shotgun over his shoulder and carrying the rifle and a pipe-bomb he drove to his high school.
When Alvaro opened fire the rifle jammed and he found himself staring at a Highway patrolman (who worked at school) holding a drawn pistol aimed at him; Alvaro screamed, Shoot me. You’ll like it – but ended up spread-eagled on the ground and handcuffed.
Now he’s on trial and, of course, his lawyer’s saying he’s mad as a hatter while the District Attorney’s hanging on by his fingernails saying even if Alvaro did hear the Voice of God in a Wal-mart that doesn’t mean he missed the fact Patricide was murder.
Toward the end of the trial I had lunch with my friend Richard, the Intellectual, looked across the table and asked, ‘So is he crazy – or did he kill his father because he just couldn’t live with his mother thinking he was a coward?
Richard put down his fork. ‘Neither.’
‘You’ve got another explanation?’
‘You’re forgetting the Evil Twin.’
‘You mean the one who told him he’d be saving those kids from temptation (and paying taxes) by sending them straight to heaven?’
‘ I’d say,’ Richard added, ‘That fellow ‘Red’ sounds like the Devil to me.’


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I never liked the crabby grouch Bob Novak played on television. But I did like Bob Novak the reporter.
I got to know him when he covered the Hunt-Helms race in 1984.
Novak obviously was a conservative, but I don’t know what he thought of Helms. He liked Hunt personally, but I don’t know about politically.
Whatever his personal views, he was a consummate professional. He worked hard. He asked tough, but fair questions. And his stories were always accurate.
Most of all, I was struck by how friendly and courteous he always was. Just like a lot of the Bigfoot Reporters who parachuted into that race: David Broder, Al Hunt, Adam Clymer.
None of them had the arrogant attitude a lot of North Carolina reporters had. Of course, they didn’t need attitude, they had ability.
Amazingly, a lot of them are still working and writing 25 years later. You wonder, the way newspapers are going, if we’ll see their like 25 years from now.


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On Friday night at 9 o’clock turn off MSNBC and Fox and CNN and click over to Channel 4 and you’ll have a once in a lifetime experience: Gary’s being interviewed on Bill Friday’s program.


This could turn out to be like having a front row seat at a movie about North Carolina politics. Gary was part of Jim Hunt’s first two administrations as Governor. Hunt’s campaign against Jesse Helms. Hunt’s comeback in 1992. This will be an interview about North Carolina politics with someone who’s lived through a good part of it – and who despite it all has kept his sense of humor.


Gary’s interview will be broadcast on regular UNC–TV:


Friday at 9pm

And Sunday at 5:30 pm


And it will also be broadcast on UNC Digital TV:


Monday at 8am

Wednesday at 8 am, 12 noon, 4 pm, 6:30 pm, 9:30 pm

Thursday at 12:30 am and 3:30 am.


Sometimes people ask me how Gary and I get along so well when there’s hardly a thing we agree on – the answer’s pretty straight-forward: I could listen to Gary tell stories about Democratic politics for hours. It’s not often you get to hear about what goes on in politics behind the scenes – but you can Friday night on UNC–TV.



You can also catch Gary's interview online here.


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First President Obama retreated under Sarah Palin’s “death panel” attack.
The Great Communicator couldn’t communicate how ludicrous the attack was. The provision actually was proposed by a Republican. It would have reimbursed doctors who advised patients about leaving instructions for how they want their end-of-life decisions made. Something everybody should do. It spares families much agony and expense.
But that provision was never at the heart of health-care reform
The “public option” is. And Obama seems to be wavering even there.
Big mistake.
When you’re in a big fight, you need a big idea to fight for. The public option is clear, simple and one of the few understandable reforms provisions in the reform bills.
Plus, it motivates Obama’s supporters.
It’s the fight he should want. If he ducks it, he’ll regret it.


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