Sunday, September 24, 2006

New Carrboro leaders: So far, so good

Carrboro saw some pretty major changes in its political leadership in the aftermath of last fall's election.

For the first time in 10 years its mayor is not Mike Nelson, as he chose not to run for re-election and was replaced by two-year Alderman Mark Chilton. Another veteran of the Board of Aldermen, Diana McDuffee, also retired after a decade of distinguished service to the town. Longtime Carrboro activist and popular teacher Randee Haven-O'Donnell was elected to take her place.

Most prominently, Chilton's ascension during the middle of the four-year term he was elected to in 2003 led to the need to fill his vacated seat. There was no clear procedure for doing so and after nearly three months of controversy, long-time local activist Dan Coleman was appointed by a divided board.

We're now nine months into Chilton's first term, and the full Board of Aldermen has now been seated for more than seven months. So how are the new guys doing?

Pretty well, in my opinion. None of them have shown any reticence about taking on large amounts of responsibility from the outset in their new positions. For instance, the trio all serve on UNC's Leadership Advisory Committee dealing with Carolina North. Coleman and Chilton, in particular, bring years of experience with this issue to the table. Their presence has made the voices of Carrboro's representatives a key contributor to the dialogue, something which can only benefit the town's residents further down the line.

Another issue the trio has been actively involved with, as has fifth-term Alderman Jacquie Gist, is the ongoing controversy over the use of the lawn at Weaver Street Market. They have come in for criticism in some circles for overstepping their boundaries as aldermen. I think it would be an outrage if they didn't speak out about an issue in town that they are passionate about. They share the outrage of many of their constituents, and one of the benefits of being an elected official is an opportunity to speak out about the issues that concern you.

It's not like the Carrboro officials are just lobbing hand grenades at the mall's management either. While making their positions clear, Chilton and Coleman, in particular, have worked in a conciliatory fashion with Nathan Milian, Ruffin Slater and other people deeply involved in the situation. The chances of an ultimate solution that pleases the largest number of people possible have been greatly increased by the steady leadership Carrboro's public officials have exhibited.

There have been many other successes so far this year. For instance, a new online system to help residents easily get information they need from the government has been implemented. The town has also successfully completed a rezoning around the cement plant that will allow for mixed-use development, including affordable housing.

Mayor Chilton had large shoes to fill -- although the opposition to Mike Nelson was sometimes loud, he always won re-election with a significant percentage of the vote, a sign of overall popularity with the electorate.

It should hardly come as a surprise to most followers of local politics, however, that Chilton has had such a strong start to his tenure as mayor. During his time as an elected official both in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, he has always been a strong and effective leader with an ability to get things done. That he has been able to do so without ever betraying his progressive values is a tribute to him.

Similarly, it is unlikely that anyone is surprised at the contributions Alderman Haven-O'Donnell has made to the board. She had a long history of effectiveness in various volunteer roles both in Carrboro town government and in the broader community before her election, and most people who know her would agree she is one of the kindest people you could ever meet.

Dan Coleman, prior to his appointment, was a bigger question mark. Over the years Coleman -- with whom I served on the Sierra Club Political Committee -- has developed a reputation as being a pretty intense person when it comes to politics and there was some wonder about how he would fit in as a member of a seven-person board.

There are a lot fewer people expressing doubts now than there were eight months ago. He has shown himself to be a strong team player. His encyclopedic knowledge of recent local history gives him a special perspective in every aspect of his role as an alderman. That intelligence and intuition is also an asset to the board in that he has a special sense of what sorts of policies have worked and failed in the past and how that intersects with current policymaking.

There are certainly people unhappy with Carrboro town government, as there will be with any governmental body. But all in all, the new faces in Carrboro's leadership are doing a stand-up job thus far.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516. Caption:


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How to bring more prominent liberals to UNC

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on September 9th, 2006:

If you have a strong stomach and some free time on Tuesday night you can head over to Memorial Hall at 6:30 p.m. to hear John Ashcroft speak. Of course, you might have a previously planned date to wash your hair.

Ashcroft is just the latest in a succession of right-wing extremists to speak on the UNC campus. Other recent appearances have come from well-known conservatives like Ann Coulter, Alan Keyes and Patrick McHenry. There have also been the lesser-known folks like Rush Limbaugh's brother and a speaker billing himself as the "conservative Jesse Jackson."

There is a consortium of conservative groups on the UNC campus that sponsors these events. The College Republicans are often involved, and this week's event is being sponsored by the UNC chapter of the Federalist Society and the Committee for a Better Carolina.

The Federalist Society is a national group for conservative law students. The CBC seeks to increase the conservative voice on campus and came to prominence originally with its protests of the 2002 and 2003 UNC summer reading books -- "Approaching the Quran" and "Nickel and Dimed," respectively.

Bringing all of these speakers to campus is not cheap. The honorarium alone for the Ashcroft speech is $25,000 and the groups bringing him must also pay all of his travel expenses and the fee to rent Memorial Hall.

A lot of the money comes from student fee money. Ten thousand dollars of the cost for this particular speech is covered by student activity fees. The rest of the money has to be raised independently. Hold that thought.

During the past four years, there has been no comparable roster of speakers from the left side of the spectrum. You haven't seen Michael Moore or George Lakoff or any prominent out-of-state Democratic elected officials speaking on campus. There have been a few good liberals -- Paul Begala and Paul Krugman come to mind -- but nothing to match the onslaught of high honorarium Republicans.

There are far more Democratic activists on campus than there are Republicans, so why this dichotomy? It is certainly not because of a lack of interest. Individual progressive organizations as well as various coalitions of them have attempted to bring scores of different famous speakers to campus, usually without success.

As is often the case in life, it's all about the money.

Liberal groups can get student fee money just as the conservative ones do. But raising that extra $10,000 to $25,000 to cover the rest of the costs of bringing a speaker usually has proven to be too high of a hill to climb.

Conservative organizations really value their youth. It is funding from groups like Young America's Foundation, the Pope Center and the Federalist Society that make it possible for all of these right-wing speakers to have their voices heard. There are no comparable organizations on the left, or at least none that have shown much interest in helping to bring expensive liberal speakers to the UNC campus.

Some in the community deserve a hand.

The Orange County Democratic Party, particularly Barry Katz and Nancy Park, has built a tremendous relationship with the UNC Young Democrats that continues to this day. They have been financially supportive and morally supportive as well. But of course they don't have the resources these state and national Republican groups do.

While there have not been a lot of liberal speakers of national prominence on campus, there have still been plenty of events pushing a progressive perspective. U.S. Rep. David Price, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird and state Rep. Verla Insko in particular make a tremendous number of appearances on the UNC campus and should be acknowledged for their contributions.

Former senator and now Chapel Hillian John Edwards has also been generous with his time in meeting with students, as was Erskine Bowles during his two campaigns for the Senate.

But it would still be nice if the headliners came to town more often. In the absence of large, liberal organizations, it's going to take the generosity of individual donors to bring them to UNC.

I do lots of research for political campaigns, and many of the ZIP codes in Orange and Chatham counties are donor central for progressive causes. So if there's a major personality you would like to see in town, get in touch with an appropriate student organization and work with them to raise the private funds needed in conjunction with student fees to make it happen.

When famous speakers come to campus it should be a great asset not just for students but for the broader community as well.

It frustrates me that year after year the folks whose appearances create the most buzz are the John Ashcrofts and Ann Coulters of the world. If local residents and student leaders collaborate more, there may be a solution to the inequities liberal groups currently face in raising private funds.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Come out to Kenan to support Heels

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on September 2nd, 2006:

One of the things I've found most surprising during my four years in Chapel Hill is the empty seats in Kenan Stadium. It may be because I went to high school across the street from a 100,000-plus capacity stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., that has not seen an empty seat in more than 30 years. Still, there is big-time football going on in town six or seven Saturdays every year, and it would be nice to see more support for the team from the community.

The season kicks off today against Rutgers at 3:30, and so does the opportunity for local residents to start attending games in greater numbers.

The good news is that there are already a couple games this year that the stadium has filled up for. Virginia Tech and North Carolina State tickets are sold out, at least in part because of large numbers of opposition fans buying up seats.

The other two ACC home games are against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The game against the Demon Deacons seems like it should get a pretty good crowd from in-state fans, and the matchup with the Yellow Jackets produces a memorable outcome every year.

It seems then that the games most likely to have trouble getting people in seats will be the nonconference ones against Rutgers today, Furman in two weeks, and South Florida next month.

A Herald-Sun report indicated that UNC has had the hardest schedule of any program in the country aggregated over the past five years.

Part of that is by design -- when the Athletic Department scheduled games against teams like Texas, Notre Dame and Wisconsin, an uphill battle had to be anticipated.

It has also been partially because of happenstance, though. Many of the teams the Tar Heels have scheduled ended up being far better than anticipated. Who could have known that Louisville, which destroyed us the past two years, would develop into one of the country's strongest programs? Or that when a trip was scheduled to Utah two years ago they would turn out to be a top-five team?

This year's slate continues that trend. When Rutgers, South Florida and Furman were scheduled, it had to look like three easy wins for the Heels. Now it looks like three games that should provide closely matched action.

Rutgers has been one of the worst programs in a BCS conference over the past decade. But Coach Greg Schiano seems to finally have them on the right track. Taking advantage of the exodus of some of the Big East's strongest teams to the ACC last year, the Scarlet Knights put together a surprising season punctuated with a bowl trip. They are expected to have a similarly strong team this year and should be pretty evenly matched with UNC today.

Furman is not even a Division I-A team, but after getting thrashed by the Paladins at Kenan in 1999, the Tar Heels know they will have to take this game seriously.

Furman continues to be a I-AA powerhouse. They lost in the national semifinals last year to eventual champion Appalachian State, who will hopefully embarrass N.C. State today. This is another game that should provide some pretty strong competition for UNC.

South Florida flirted with a bid in a BCS bowl for much of last season before falling off at the end of the year and facing off against the Wolfpack at the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.

They should have another solid if not spectacular showing this season and most projections have them pretty evenly matched with the Tar Heels -- not bad for a team that's been playing in Division I-A for less than 10 years.

It was cool when Texas came to town four falls ago. I enjoyed seeing Louisville play two years ago. There wasn't too much trouble selling tickets for those games. But UNC was done by the end of the first half in each of them.

The teams on this year's slate might not be as fancy as those, but they also provide the chance for fans to see UNC win against quality teams. It's more exciting to see competitive games against middle-class teams than to see blowouts at the hands of top-level programs -- all the better to turn out for these games.

It looks like this might be the best Tar Heel football team since the first one of John Bunting's tenure. There has been significant improvement over the past two seasons, and things are finally coming together for the team. With another tough schedule, though, they will need all the fan support they can get. I hope I'll see you today and throughout the fall at Kenan Stadium!

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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Lessons learned in South Carolina

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 26th, 2006:

Since I am a most loving grandson, I took off with a friend last weekend to spend a few days with my grandmother in Greenville, S.C. I went mostly expecting to enjoy her outstanding cooking and play with my young cousins, but the trip also got me to thinking about some of the major political issues locally in Orange County.

Until 2000, my grandparents lived in a rural part of Greenville County about 10 miles away from the city. I always enjoyed going out there and getting away from the urban existence. Other than a gas station and a golf driving range, there was pretty much no commercial development within three miles of their house.

The atmosphere out there could probably best be compared to the area north of Hillsborough or west of Carrboro as you head out on 54 toward Alamance County.

When we drove out to their old farm last weekend we were greeted by several strip malls, a Super BiLo, a car dealership and about half a dozen subdivisions. The county is booming and sooner or later there is going to be no open space left. It only took six years to turn the quiet countryside into Sprawlville, USA.

There are a lot of folks who live in Orange County who don't like the rural buffer.

But seeing how the solitude has been destroyed by rapid, large-scale development in a county that doesn't seem to do much planning, I'm glad we have it.

We need healthy economic growth here, and I would like to see some significant growth in the commercial tax base so we can reduce some of the burden of property taxes.

But we also need to preserve open space and keep our county beautiful. I'm even more sure of that after seeing what has happened in Greenville County.

In the rural part of the county I saw where I do not want Orange County to go.

But in downtown Greenville, I saw a model for where downtown Chapel Hill needs to go.

Greenville's downtown has seen an incredible revitalization in recent years, largely due to the creation of attractive housing that has driven people to move back into the center city.

It used to be remarkably dull, but with the influx of downtown residents a vibrant culture has developed that appeals to people of all ages.

One reason downtown is so attractive to folks there is that they can meet many of their basic needs without ever having to walk more than three or four blocks. My friend had forgotten to bring any socks on the trip, and without giving it a second of thought my grandmother was able to tell him where he could get a normal inexpensive pair of socks on Main Street.

There might be a place in downtown Chapel Hill where you can do that, but one does not immediately leap to my mind.

There is also a downtown full-service grocery store.

This seemed to me a preview of what downtown Chapel Hill could look like if we stay the course with the redevelopment of Lots 2 and 5. Certainly, things have not gone as well with the financing of these projects as we would have liked, and they have gone much slower than we might have hoped for.

If I choose to stay in Chapel Hill for the long haul though, I want to be able to live downtown and not have to own a car. That means being able to fill all my normal shopping needs within walking distance.

I don't see that happening if the downtown plans are scrapped. Too much work has been put into them by too many different people to stop now.

Beyond that, I saw last weekend what a vibrant downtown in a mid-sized city like Chapel Hill can look like, and I want to see something like that happen here.

A large contingent of local leaders is heading to Madison, Wis., next month to look at what we can bring home from another college town.

It might be time well spent for a group to head down Interstate 85 at some point and see how Greenville has created such a family-friendly downtown while also retaining aspects that make it appealing to young people.

We're headed in the right direction here with the opening of the Kidzu Children's Museum, but there are still a lot of things we can do to make downtown more appealing to non-students.

I got all the usual love and hospitality from my grandmother on my trip to South Carolina last weekend, but I also picked up a lot of new perspective about how what we're doing is and is not working here in Orange County.

It's very healthy for local leaders to take the trips like the one to Madison next month and also to look at what places closer to home are doing. The ideas we bring home can do nothing but improve our community.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.