Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Joe Hackney will make a great speaker

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, January 27th:

"Throughout his career in the North Carolina House, Joe Hackney has always been a top-rated legislator. These high rankings are not earned by avoiding tough issues ... they are earned by clear thinking, consulting with all the players ... working in good faith to find winning solutions."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Those were just some of the words of Orange County Rep. Verla Insko in nominating her colleague Joe Hackney to be speaker of the House on Wednesday.

I wrote several columns last summer saying that it was time to clean up the legislature. It is unfortunate, but the actions of a small handful of people were allowing the image of the entire institution to be tarnished.

With its selection of the impeccably ethical Hackney as speaker this week, the members of the House have made a strong commitment to improving the image of their body, moving beyond the scandals of the last few years, and getting to work on the business of improving the lives of average North Carolinians.

Hackney struck the right note in his first address as speaker, promising to make sure the voices of all House members are heard and to always emphasize people over politics.

Hackney emerged as the choice of a highly contested race to be the speaker candidate of the Democratic caucus. For many folks there he was not their first choice, but he appears primed to treat all the voices of his caucus with due respect, regardless of where their loyalties initially stood in the speaker election. That is the mark of a noble leader.

It was also encouraging to hear him actually talk about issues during his speech! North Carolina still has a ways to go in terms of teacher pay, the environment and health care, among other items. It was good that Hackney addressed the importance of those issues in his maiden address -- it's even better that he has a record of hard work on them in the legislature.

I was glad to hear him talk about those issues of particular concern to the progressive community, but I was also glad to hear him talk about the need to maintain the state's strong fiscal health.

The knock against Hackney during the speaker race seemed to be that he would not be friendly to business interests. But he certainly knows the importance of maintaining a strong economy and I'm confident that he will be fair and accessible to all of the state's key interests, one of which is certainly maintaining profitable private enterprise.

I want to address a few faulty perceptions the statewide media spread about Hackney over the last few weeks. A common theme was that he had moved to the center over the past few years in order to move up the ladder of the House leadership.

I don't think Joe Hackney has sacrificed his principles to get ahead a bit. What I do think is that he does a good job of representing his constituents.

For most of his career, southern Orange County was the population center of Hackney's district. That meant that in acting on the priorities set out for him by his constituents, he was often pushing what might be considered "liberal" issues.

When multi-member districts were eliminated in 2002 though, he became the representative of a district overwhelmingly composed of the residents of Chatham County, with just a small handful of Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents still in his turf.

With that new constituency came a different set of priorities. When your average constituent is a Siler City farmer rather than a Carrboro peace activist, you have to change your priorities in Raleigh to continue to be an effective advocate for those who elect you. I don't think there's anything opportunistic about Hackney's behavior during the past few sessions -- he's just being a good representative for the folks in his district.

The other theme the press has pushed is that Hackney has a dour personality and is difficult to get along with. This is just a complete disconnect from what constituents of his I've spoken to have experienced as well as what I have experienced myself. He is giving of his time and always respectful and charming.

I think Chris Fitzsimon of North Carolina Policy Watch may have hit the nail on the head about this point when he recently wrote: "The people most often critical of Hackney's less than warm and fuzzy personality are the well-heeled lobbyists who are used to spending evenings with legislative leaders at Raleigh's finest restaurants."

We are blessed to have a speaker of the House who would rather come back at night and meet with his constituents than stay in Raleigh to have fancy dinners with lobbyists all the time.

You can stick whatever ideological label you want on Joe Hackney, but at the end of the day all that matters is that as speaker of the House he will be fair to his colleagues, treat all interests before the legislature with respect and govern with integrity. We couldn't ask for much more.

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

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Tom Jensen named as 'one of seven who will matter in 2007'

Here's the original story where the Raleigh News and Observer named me one of their 'Seven who will matter in 2007.'


And here is the follow up:

Huffington Post
Sierra Club
Sally Greene
Paul Jones
Brian Russell

Thank you to everyone for their support.

Take care of roadkill and rabies

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, January 20th:

Orange County won the state championship in 2005, finished a close second behind Guilford County last year, and is already well on its way to another state championship this year.

I wish I was talking about football or SAT scores or something of that ilk. Unfortunately I'm talking about the county's relative standing in the number of rabies cases it has compared to the rest of the state.

It seems like every day when I open up the paper there's been another confirmed rabies case. Most of the time I don't bat much of an eye. The vast majority of the cases are way out in the county, and since I live near downtown Chapel Hill, don't affect me.

But I kind of reached my breaking point when one of 2007's first pair of cases was a rabid fox that attacked someone walking near UNC Hospitals. I walk around there all the time, and that could just as well have been me.

We also had a rabid beaver in Umstead Park last year, right across the street from where I live. He was running right after some folks picnicking in the park. One of them had the ingenuity to jump up on a table and beat the heck out of that thing with a stick. I'd like to hire that fast thinker as my bodyguard because there's no way I would have had the guts and wherewithal to do that. My sense is that few other people would either.

I want to preface by saying that it could well be the case that Orange County does a better job of reporting its rabies incidents to the state than other counties do, and that's a part of the reason for its frontrunner status.

Still, there's no reason I can see that we should have more cases than virtually anywhere else in the state, including counties that both cover a much larger area and are on balance much more rural.

I think it's time for the county commissioners to put some pressure on their staff to figure out why we have such a rabies problem, and what can be done about it.

I don't want to have to move with trepidation every time I see an animal acting weirdly when I'm walking around town.

We have outstanding folks working for the county, and I'm confident that if told to find a solution they will be able to come up with some steps toward resolving the problem. There's lots of thing that Orange County leads the state in, and almost all of them are good. By tackling the rabies problem I hope we can get rid of the bad one.

As long as we're on the topic of public health issues, I'd like to see Chapel Hill look at how it can do a better job of cleaning up roadkill.

One day in October I was on the phone with a Town Council member as I stepped in a dead squirrel right on the sidewalk on Cameron Avenue.

As grossed out as I was by the experience, it had long struck me as inevitable. There is a real problem with roadkill being allowed to sit on the sidewalk for days without being cleaned up. I suppose I could call and report every time I see it, but the onus should be more on the town than individual citizens to ensure that's being taken care of.

The most disgusting piece of fallout from this problem I've ever seen happened one day last summer when I saw a dead squirrel while walking downtown. I made a point of walking back home on the other side of the street -- and I was sure glad I did when I saw a raccoon eating it for dinner!

That's a site I could live without seeing ever again. Needless to say I didn't have much of a dinner that evening.

I'm sure folks are doing their jobs, but I'm equally sure that I've never been in any other community that seemed to have dead animals sprawled across the sidewalk with such frequency. There must be some room for improvement in how we dispose of roadkill, and I'd like to see it made. Chapel Hill's town government is outstanding at virtually everything it does, and this is one more thing to add to the list.

Roadkill and rabies. These are two of the problems that have been bothering me of late in an otherwise outstanding community. Let's hope our elected leaders and the great staffs they oversee can do something about them.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Breaking down the 2008 North Carolina election

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on January 13th, 2007:

It’s hard to believe, but we’re now less than 16 months out from the next key election in North Carolina, the 2008 primary that will decide nominees for governor, Senate, and our share of the delegates in the presidential race. It’s never too early to start breaking down the political landscape.

Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling, which seemed to have the most accurate numbers of any firm in the state for the 2006 election cycle, released a comprehensive poll of the presidential and gubernatorial races this week.

On the Democratic side for governor, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue has a 12-point lead over Treasurer Richard Moore. This is basically in line with what most polling has shown over the last year.

Orange County Rep. Bill Faison, who may or may not be a candidate for the job, pulls 7 percent in the polls with about 40 percent of folks not surprisingly still undecided.

One interesting aspect of this race is that there are significant regional disparities in the results of the poll. For instance, Moore leads Perdue in the Charlotte area. He has been perceived as a strong leader on financial issues and his edge there could reflect the banking-oriented economy in that region.

In the Triangle though, Perdue has a 32-point lead on Moore, carrying a significant 49 percent of the vote.

I’m not surprised by this. When I was the statewide College Democrats President, I saw Perdue four or five times for every time I saw Moore. Perdue is omnipresent at various functions across the state, but particularly in the Triangle.

The Triangle also interestingly had by few the smallest number of undecided respondents, likely reflected by the heightened political awareness of those living near the epicenter of state politics.

There’s less to analyze on the Republican side of the gubernatorial race.

Conservative activist Bill Graham leads with 24 percent of the vote. Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, and state Sens. Robert Pittenger and Fred Smith trail with 13, 10, and 9 percent of the vote respectively.

Graham’s lead is almost certainly attributable to his self-funded ad campaigns on radio and television across the state about the gas tax and immigration. Right now he’s the only candidate with a really strong statewide profile, but I imagine the field will tighten once the other contenders begin to up their name recognition.

I’m still waiting for someone else to enter the race on the Republican side, because I don’t think there’s a shred of a chance any of these guys could win. Of course, it’s fine with me if the NCGOP just throws in the towel!

In the Democratic Presidential race, I’m surprised that John Edwards has only 29 percent of the vote at this point, although he does have a significant leads on Hillary Clinton with 16 percent and Barack Obama with 15 percent.

Edwards’ support is well distributed. For instance he leads Clinton among women and leads Obama among black voters. He also has the advantage in every region of the state.

My guess is that a lot of people are flirting with Obama and Clinton but will come home to Edwards. I would also expect that most undecided voters will end up choosing him as well.

The Republican results for President are more interesting. Rudy Giuliani leads the state with 30 percent of the vote, barely edging out Newt Gingrich’s 29. John McCain is further back with 22 percent and Mitt Romney only has 6 percent.

Gingrich’s strength in North Carolina is stronger than anywhere else in the country I’ve seen. His outpacing McCain would seem to indicate that he is the candidate of choice for North Carolina conservatives.

I found it ironic that Gingrich had by far the most support among voters who listed their top issue as moral or family values, considering his history of marital infidelity. I guess his support comes from the ‘do as I say and not as I do’ wing of the Republican Party.

McCain’s strongest regional support came in the 910 area code, which contains much of North Carolina’s military infrastructure. Although I would never support McCain, I am happy to see that voters in that area appear to appreciate his undeniable service to our country.

I was surprised to see Giuliani in the lead since Republican voters in the state are pretty conservative and he tends to be a moderate. I have a feeling that his support comes from voters who like him because of a perception that he is a strong leader. When Public Policy Polling does future polls on this race, I’d like to see ‘leadership’ be one of the issues they poll on.

It is still a long ways off and there will doubtless be a lot of shifting in these races. Still, this effort from Public Policy Polling gives us a good starting point in seeing what is to come in the 2008 election in our state.


Monday, January 08, 2007

Kudos to Carolina North committee

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on January 6th, 2007:

Around this time last year, I was extremely skeptical about UNC's plans for a "Leadership Advisory Committee" on Carolina North. It seemed like just the latest in a series of bureaucratic bodies, at best another pointless waste of time and at worst a cooptation technique designed as an end run around substantive public input on one of the most important issues our area has ever faced.

Twelve months later, I am pleasantly surprised with the work it has done and cautiously optimistic about the direction we are heading in. Folks are engaging in a constructive dialogue about town/gown issues in a way that we have not often seen.

That this committee has been successful is a testament to the quality of the folks leading it. In particular I give credit to the head of the committee, former Mayor Ken Broun. Bill Strom and Cam Hill from the Chapel Hill delegation, and Mark Chilton and Dan Coleman from the Carrboro delegation have also been integral to its productivity. Roger Perry, who has an interesting dual role on the committee as both a Chapel Hill resident and a UNC trustee, has also played a key part.

The thread that ties those folks together is that they've been working on the Carolina North issue forever. Broun and Chilton were on the Chapel Hill Town Council back in 1994 when the first Horace Williams committee was formed. Strom and Coleman were leading progressive activists in the community then, and while Hill is newer to involvement in Chapel Hill politics, he served on the Horace Williams Citizens Advisory Committee before being elected to the Town Council.

Stacking the LAC with folks who have a long background of working on Carolina North is important because they've learned from past experience what sorts of things have allowed previous bodies to stagnate and fail to reach consensus.

That was an important factor in the early stages of the committee, when it worked to set its ground rules. Leaders of the Chapel Hill and Carrboro delegations were criticized for slowing the committee's work by spending a lot of time focusing on what the vision and goals of the body were. Instead they should be commended -- the LAC has been successful because it has clarity about what it is trying to accomplish. Without that, it likely would have become just another in a long list of committees that failed to meet expectations.

Ken Broun deserves a lot of credit here as well. In May 2006, several members of the UNC Board of Trustees, frustrated with the pace of the process, made some thinly veiled suggestions of obstructionism towards the Chapel Hill and Carrboro delegations. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy responded in kind, and things were pretty hot for a little while.

The committee could have degenerated then and there and lost any possibility of accomplishing something. But Broun worked to help keep the group together and on focus, and in the seven months since that flare up it has entered the period of its greatest productivity.

The goals that the committee has agreed on are admirable. For instance, UNC has committed to including space for schools and child-care facilities. The more the university provides the infrastructure to handle its expansion, the less Chapel Hill and Carrboro will be adversely affected.

Bill Strom has been calling for a transit master plan and a fiscal equity study related to Carolina North for years. Roger Perry has played a key role in getting UNC to agree to fund those projects. He also seems to have convinced the university through the LAC process to agree to the town's stated principle that this should be a transit-oriented plan. The collaboration of Strom and Perry in this group has been something to see, and is a great sign for future town/gown relations.

On this issue, Carrboro's leaders also deserve credit. When transit discussions bogged down last spring, Chilton and Coleman deftly and articulately advocated for a transit-oriented approach that all agreed to.

I was disappointed that UNC wouldn't commit to preserving a set amount of land as open space, but it does seem committed to keeping the tract as beautiful as possible without making specific promises.

The goals that have been agreed on are broad. Former Town Council member Joe Capowski, who has been following the process closely, says "the lower strategic planning level, at which the principles are implemented, will force the difficult tradeoffs."

Capowski is particularly concerned about parking at the site, possibly the greatest area of worry for southern Orange residents and particularly neighbors of the project.

There are difficult decisions that still need to be made. Nevertheless, the process has been the most productive example of town/gown relations in recent memory. This is in no small part thanks to the good will shown by the delegations of Chapel Hill and Carrboro by engaging in the process. Hopefully this positive momentum will continue.

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

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Support UNC women's basketball team

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on December 30th, 2006:

Two Saturdays ago I attended a men's basketball game against UNC-Asheville at the Dean Dome, took a half-hour break and then went to a women's game against South Carolina State at Carmichael Auditorium. Even though I attended about 95 percent of the men's home games while I was a student and about half of the women's games, this was the first time I had ever gone to both on the same day. So how did they stack up in close proximity? Frankly, I enjoyed the women's game a lot more.

That's probably a good thing since in my first year of post-studentdom I'm not likely to get into a lot of men's games without breaking the bank.

Like the men's team, our women's team this year is fast-paced, exciting and ranked in the top five in the country. Unlike at the Dean Dome, women's tickets are generally easy to get, inexpensive and universally close to the court.

Coach Sylvia Hatchell is truly underrated in the Carolina community. She has more than 700 wins in her coaching career and will likely end up with more than Dean Smith by the time she retires. She does it with the same understated humility that Roy Williams does, and it's a shame that Tar Heel enthusiasts don't love her as much as they love him.

Ivory Latta is the most electrifying basketball player in the country, male or female, college or pro. I have never seen an athlete who so visibly loves playing the game and does it with so much enthusiasm.

Last year she won several national awards. It seems less likely that she'll do it this year but that's just because she's such an unselfish player and isn't putting up the scoring totals that players usually need to get that kind of honor. Hopefully the voters will see she's the best player in the country regardless of the numbers.

This team does not start and end with Ivory Latta though. For instance, in their biggest game so far this year, against Tennessee, junior Erlana Larkins really stepped up with a star performance inside that led the team to victory. She is one of the most improved players on the team this year and will be key down low as the team enters ACC play.

Along with Latta and Larkins, Camille Little is the team's third finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award. She is an aggressive player with a multifaceted game who can score, rebound, and steal with the best of them.

The rest of the starting lineup for the Heels includes sophomore Rashanda McCants, much improved from her freshman year, and LaToya Pringle, a force inside who leads the team in blocks.

The team also has a strong bench. Heather Claytor is the team's best pure outside shooter, freshman Jessica Breland appears to be a future star both offensively and defensively, and Alex Miller compensates for her small size by playing so hard that I'm always worried she's going to get hurt.

Just like in men's basketball, there's an ACC coach whom I absolutely despise and want to see the Tar Heels destroy.

It is not, however, Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. After all, Duke has not beaten UNC in its last five attempts. And that's not going to change this year either. It's hard for me to harbor too much animosity toward an inferior program.

It's Maryland coach Brenda Frese who has earned my wrath, so much that I am going to go to the UNC game at Maryland next month just to yell at her.

The most exasperating sporting event I went to in 2006 was UNC's home game against Maryland. That woman's complaining to the refs makes Mike Krzyzewski look docile. She absolutely should have been double t'd and ejected based on her behavior during that game. But she was effective, I'll grant her that.

Even though Maryland fouled UNC players pretty much every play of the second half, the calls went in the Terps' favor. Right to the last play of the game when Ivory Latta was assaulted on a shot to tie the game and the whistle didn't blow. Frese reminds me of Ann Coulter.

OK, I'm working myself into a frenzy and need to calm down. Bottom line, more people need to attend women's basketball games. There is a home game this afternoon at 2 p.m. against Tennessee Tech. You should go. This outstanding team deserves your support.

Other key upcoming home games include Jan. 15 against Connecticut and Feb. 8 against Duke. It would also be great to fill up Cameron with Tar Heel fans for the Duke away game on Feb. 25.

I fully anticipate that on April 2 and 3, the UNC men's and women's teams will both bring home national championships. I hope they'll do it with the equal support of the Chapel Hill community.

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