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My dictionary defines “vacuous” as “empty, stupid, senseless.” By that definition, Raleigh’s city elections this year were pretty vacuous. And politics abhors a vacuum.

Events in the month since the election make me think we’re about to get a real debate for the next two years – and into the next election.

One debate will be over who decides the shape of the city: government or the market?

As a proud liberal Democrat, I once would have said government. But not now.

I like the vision Sanjay Mundra and Dicky Walia have for the new Soleil Center at Crabtree Valley. I like what John Kane has done at North Hills.

That’s what the market is doing.

But I’m not sure I like what city government. Especially using my tax money to subsidize the Marriott hotels and the light-rail boondoggle instead of better schools and better roads.

Raleigh didn’t have a debate on that issue this year. But I’ll bet we do now.

Sanjay Mundra answered his 42-story tower’s critics this way in the N&O’s front-page article Sunday: “If we’re wrong, there’s no need to punish us. The market will punish us.”

If the politicians and bureaucrats are wrong, the political market will punish them.

Posted in: General, Raleigh
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Speaking of mistakes, former Senator, candidate for Vice President and anti-poverty poster boy John Edwards is admitting he made one when he voted for the war in Iraq.

Confession is good for the soul and it’s always a pleasant surprise to see a politician admit he made a mistake. But former Senator Edwards’ contrition may deserve a second look. The political winds were blowing in one direction when he cast that vote in 2002 to go to war – and they were blowing in the opposite direction when he decided that vote was a mistake three years later. The fact is both times Mr. Edwards voted the way the wind was blowing and if you’re suspecting his latest change of heart might have something to do with polls and running for President in 2008 – you may have a point.

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President Bush’s national secretary adviser, Stephen Hadley, and Republican members of Congress have launched an offensive declaring allegations that the President manipulated intelligence “are flat wrong.”

Alright, let’s agree President Bush didn’t mislead anyone.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with one troubling question.

Now, let me get this right, Mr. Hadley, we’re in a war in Iraq not because President Bush misled anyone but because someone made a mistake and believed a false intelligence report?

Well, everyone makes mistakes and being President is a pretty big job but blundering into a war by mistake – that’s a helluva admission.

Posted in: General
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Last week, the News and Observer reported (11-07-05), “Preaching democracy in the largest country in South America, President Bush urged leaders in the region to pursue his ‘vision of hope…’ The newspaper also reported, “The President did not name names. But his remarks appeared unmistakably aimed at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez…”

Now, I’m no expert in foreign policy and when all this talk about spreading democracy started it sounded pretty good to me. But now I’m beginning to suspect it may be like what Professor Walter Williams once said about Lyndon Johnson’s ‘The Great Society’ welfare programs. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ And I’m beginning to ask myself, if we’re going to set our sights on spreading democracy all over the world where are we going to stop?

China could use a little democracy. Are we going to give it to them? Spreading democracy sounds good, and it probably polls pretty good too. But as a practical matter it seems to be a stickey wicket in places like…Iraq.

I guess any politician who wants to get elected to anything higher then dog catcher who says he’s not for spreading democracy hasn’t got a chance. But I’m also beginning to think if we try one or two more experiments in spreading democracy…that may change.

Posted in: General
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Gary, I’ll give you this much, in regards to your blog “Politics of Indictments” (posted 11/14/05), you’ve put your finger on what may be the most important issue in politics today: corruption. And not just money corruption. Verbal corruption: spin, the verbal sleight hand, the careful turn of phrase have become an art form both parties practice freely and what it amounts to is lying – to fool voters – in a way that is so clever you don’t get caught.

I started out in politics just after Watergate. Nixon resigned, people went to jail and it scared the blazes out of the rest of the politicians and for a few years – relative – honesty reigned.

But today government has become a gaggle of competing financial interests – corporations, conglomerates, lobbies – that want Congress or the State Legislature to give them a legal advantage over their competitors, write them a check from the Treasury (called a subsidy or incentive), or give them a government contract.

RJ Reynolds, just to pick an example, decides it deserves a little help from the government so they ask the legislature to pass a bill – an incentive dressed up with the frills of keeping jobs in North Carolina – that will give them taxpayers’ money or exclude them from taxes other corporations pay.

Is it a coincidence they also give the Democrat Party or the Republican Party or both, say, $100,000?

There is a ‘missing link’ here. The public sees – usually – when an individual or group gives money to a politician. But they seldom see the rest of the picture – what may have been the reason for the gift.

I think it’s time that when anyone with a lobbyist gives a contribution to a politician – they be required to disclose any bill they are lobbying for.

That would show the missing link between money and legislation. And it would turn that kind of thing into an issue in political campaigns. Let Congressmen and Senators explain why they voted to give one financial interest an ‘incentive’ – and then took a contribution from that same group. That’s where this debate should be fought. In public. But to do that we have to drag these ‘deals’ out of the backrooms and into the light of day.

Gary, I get a little ‘itchy’ about overzealous prosecutors too – but if they help do that fine. And what about ‘underzealous’ prosecutors? Does anybody really expect Attorney General Roy Cooper to jump into the lottery scandal ‘hammer and tongs’ in pursuit of justice if it means putting the heat on some of his old political buddies in the State Senate? Attorney General Cooper may surprise me but so far he’s been silent in seven languages.

The issue of corruption in politics is as old as the Republic and it seems to run in cycles. Let’s hope we’ve reached the point where public disgust is about to boil over and puts an end to this one.

Posted in: General
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The last thing Republicans needed right now was to open a new can of worms but they may have done just that.

Senator Bill Frist (and Congressman Dennis Hastert) have called for Congress to investigate the ‘leak’ of classified information to the Washington Post about “a web of secret prisons being used to harass and interrogate terrorism suspects” (News and Observer, 11-09-05). If this sounds like a Republican response to the Valerie Plame case – it just may be. But I suspect Democrats will be more than glad to hold hearings on those prisons and that they are going to ask a few questions like, ‘What was going on in there?’

And Senator Frist and Congressman Hastert think they can say, ‘No. We’re going to investigate the leak – not the prisons,’ they’re mistaken.

Representative Christopher Shays – a Republican from Connecticut – has already said investigating the leak is “acceptable, as long as Congress investigates the prisons themselves.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was blunt. He said, “Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails.”

There may be a perfectly good reason for the CIA to be operating covert prisons in foreign nations. And there may not have been a single abuse in any of them. But what if there was? Senator Frist may think he just ‘one-upped’ the Democrats on the Valerie Plame case but what he may have done is opened the biggest can of worms yet.

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It never does to take politics too seriously. Sometimes, the only defense is a good sense of humor.

Far be it from me to criticize anyone for running a negative ad – but the people who make political ads, and the campaigns and candidates do get a little carried away at times.

In Virginia, Republican Jerry Kilgore ran an ad attacking Democrat Tim Kaine, saying, “Tim Kaine says Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty.”

And in New Jersey, Republican Doug Forrester ran a TV ad quoting Democrat Jon Corzine’s ex-wife as saying, “All I could think was that Jon did let his family down, and he’ll probably let New Jersey down, too.”

Corzine ran a negative ad of his own with a nineteen year old boy in a wheelchair saying, “Doug Forrester doesn’t support embryonic stem cell research, therefore, I don’t think he supports people like me.”

My point is negative ads have their place and purpose – but they do get a little bit ‘whacky’ at times. We’ve come a long way since George Bush senior’s ad in 1988 showing Mike Dukakis driving a tank wearing a leather helmet. At least that was funny.

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The News & Observer ran a front-page article Tuesday on John Edwards’ statement that “I was wrong” to vote for the Iraq war. Edwards announced the switch in an op-ed article that ran in the Washington Post Sunday.

But alert bloggers knew what Edwards was going to say more than a month ago.

His wife Elizabeth posted a blog on the Orangepolitics website last month. It was mostly about their move to Chapel Hill. But she added at the end:

“John has said that the war was wrong and that his vote for the war was wrong. His taking responsibility for that vote, his direct statement that he was wrong (instead of watering it down with excuses) makes me very proud of him.”

Nobody reported his change in position at the time. So why did it take a month to become front-page news? It may be that the mainstream media is looking for news in all the wrong places.

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It is striking how much of today’s political conversation – in Raleigh and in Washington – is centered on indictments and criminal investigations. Witness:

· Nationally, Democrats hope the stench of corruption around the White House and Tom Delay will help them retake Congress next year.

· In the state, Republicans have been warning darkly for years now of indictments against Speaker Jim Black.

· Two North Carolina elected officials (both Democrats) have gone to prison – Frank Balance and Meg Scott Phipps. A third, Republican John Carrington, is to be sentenced soon.

· The North Carolina lottery has spawned a criminal inquiry by the SBI. FBI agents showed up when the Lottery Commission interviewed potential directors.

Is politics more corrupt today than ever before? I don’t know. But I do know that the pressures – and temptations – that go with raising millions upon millions of dollars for campaigns is bound to lead somebody to step over the legal line.

But am I the only one who worries that zealous and politically ambitious prosecutors – whether in Texas, Raleigh or Washington – can be just as dangerous as zealous political fundraisers?

After all, quite a few prosecutors later turn up as office-seeking politicians themselves.

All I know is this: When I was advising Governor Hunt in the 90s, he always resisted my urging that he push harder for a state lottery. Now I’m glad he did.

Posted in: General
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If you saw ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ a few years ago, you may remember the Governor of Texas doing a song and dance routine called ‘Dancing the Two-Step with the Press.’

Governor Easley gave us a first class example of how that works at his press conference about the lottery scandal last week. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, the press asked:

Question: “Given the level of exposure that the lobbying system has gotten in the last several weeks…do you think the lobbying bill needs to be strengthened and all gifts need to be banned?”

Answer: “Maybe so. The problem you run into is that almost everywhere I go, they’ll give you a T-shirt or a hat…You go to a second-grade class or More at Four…they give you a More at Four T-shirt. You don’t want to turn around and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take this. Y’all are bad for giving it to me.’ So it puts you in a bit of a bind. I think you ought to report it. … I think having to report it is fine. We would all be better off it there were no gifts…so there would be no suspicion on the part of people out there.”

Now that’s called dancing the two step with the press. Instead of answering the question he asked – about Scientific Games paying a lottery commissioner $10,000 the day after he was appointed – the governor waxed eloquent about More at Four T-shirts.

The Governor wasn’t done.

Question: “Should Scientific Games be removed from the list of potential vendors for a lottery contract?”

Answer: The Governor said he has confidence in the lottery commission and added, “I think they’ll delve into this and find out more. You know, most of what we know now came from Scientific Games. Once they filed their report that they had the relationship with Mr. Geddings, paying him the $24,000 or $25,000, that’s when we knew this guy’s got to go. I’d look into Scientific Games and find out how deep this went. Was this just one person, or was this the culture in the community…of the entire corporation?”

If Geddings had ‘to go’ for taking $24,000 from Scientific Games how come Scientific Games doesn’t have ‘to go’ for giving it to him? Dodge two for the Governor.

Question: “When you signed the lottery bill, did you have knowledge that Scientific Games had a hand in writing part of it?”

Answer: “Did not. But let me be completely honest with you. I have never seen a lobbyist over there that I can recall that didn’t offer some sort of language. … The first thing you generally tell them is, ‘Give me some language. Show me what you’re talking about.’ … So I don’t think that is at all unusual that they would ask for some language. The press association is always giving us language. … The sheriff’s association gives us language. Nothing wrong with that. Having said that, there may be something inappropriate about the vehicle that was used, i.e., was the person who submitted the language as a lobbyist registered as a lobbyist?”

Red flags went up as soon as I read that line, “let me be completely honest with you.” Here’s what the Governor said: He ‘didn’t know,’ but it happens all the time and there’s ‘nothing wrong with that’ but it may be ‘inappropriate’ this time. That about covers all the bases.

Question: “Should lottery tickets be sold at businesses that also have video-poker machines?”

Answer: “I think you’re going to find that the lottery will pretty much do away with the video-poker industry…I think it’s likely that you’re going to see all the retailers opt for the lottery, and I think you’re going to see consumers opt for the lottery. It’s a decision for the commission to make, unless the legislature acts on it. … I would expect if there’s an opportunity to put the lottery in and video poker out, they’re going to seize that, and I don’t think that would be necessarily a bad thing. And I think a hundred sheriffs in this state would be very grateful.”

The Governor said what the Lottery Commission can’t do, what the legislature can do and what the sheriffs want to do. But after reading that answer do you have a clue whether the Governor wants to ban video poker or not?

That’s called ‘Dancing the Two-Step with the Press.”

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Carter & Gary
Carter Wrenn
Gary Pearce
The Charlotte Observer says: “Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But they both love North Carolina and know its politics inside and out.”
Carter is a Republican. 
Gary is a Democrat.
They met in 1984, during the epic U.S. Senate battle between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt. Carter worked for Helms and Gary, for Hunt.
Years later, they became friends. They even worked together on some nonpolitical clients.
They enjoy talking about politics. So they started this blog in 2005. 
They’re still talking. And they invite you to join the conversation.
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