Logjam broken on live dealers for Cherokee, but not a done deal yet

A political impasse over live dealers and table games at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has been resolved, but the tribe still has some heavy lifting to go before it can close the deal.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians needs the blessing of both the governor and state lawmakers to add live dealers and table games. The tribe offered to give up a cut of gross gaming revenue to win the needed support.

While Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican leaders in the General Assembly had agreed in theory to live dealers last fall, they had locked horns on a seemingly obscure sticking point. Perdue wanted the state’s cut of casino revenue to go directly to schools, bypassing the General Assembly. That way, lawmakers couldn’t be tempted to tap the money for other uses.

Republican leaders, however, said casino revenue couldn’t legally be put in a lockbox and earmarked for future years. One set of lawmakers today can’t impose mandates on how future lawmakers can spend money. It’s up to members of each General Assembly to craft the state budget each year as they see fit, regardless of instructions left behind by previous lawmakers.

For its part, the tribe preferred that the state’s cut of casino revenue be directed to education as well.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said it was admirable of the tribe to choose such a worthy cause for casino revenue, but it’s simply not possible to make those kind of promises.

“I think it is totally appropriate for the Eastern Band to express their wishes for where the money goes, but the General Assembly cannot determine for future General Assemblies where money goes,” said Davis, the state representative for the seven western counties, including Cherokee.

Based on letters written between the Republican leadership in the General Assembly and Perdue in recent months, each blamed the other for holding up Cherokee’s live dealers. The dispute underscored a longstanding source of acrimony between Perdue and her Republican counterparts over education funding.

It appears Perdue eventually gave in, according to a recent version of the live gaming deal.

New language in the proposed deal acknowledges the wishes of the governor and the tribe to see the state’s cut of casino revenue go to schools. But it likewise acknowledges that “the General Assembly is not bound” to spend the money for education. It will simply go into the state’s general fund instead.

Perdue seems to have extracted a promise that at least for the next couple of years, however, the casino money will go to education. But there are no guarantees after that.

“Gov. Perdue believes that the state’s revenue from the new compact should be used for education, and we are confident that will be the case for at least the next two years,” according to a statement from Chris Mackey, Perdue’s press secretary.

 

Other hurdles not yet cleared

While one logjam has been broken, the tribe still faces a challenge in mustering the necessary support to pass the General Assembly.

The tribe is actively lobbying to get the number of votes needed to bring bona fide live dealers and table games to the casino. On the Senate side, things are looking good, according to Davis.

“I think we have the votes in the Senate. I have been working really hard to get those,” Davis said.

It appears to be much closer in the House of Representatives, however — perhaps too close to call right now.

“Some people were concerned it might be another Las Vegas,” Davis said. “There are some people who have real ethical principles against gambling.”

One of those is Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who has been torn over the issue.

Rapp is against gambling for the social ills it causes. For some, gambling is simply a form of entertainment and recreation. But for others, it is an addiction.

Rapp voted against the state lottery several years ago and has been public enemy number one against the video gambling and video sweepstakes industry, leading the charge to outlaw the digital gambling terminals.

“Many of the people who are playing these games have little or no disposable income. They are taking away from their family’s basic needs, food and housing money, to gamble,” Rapp said.

Rapp had resigned himself to the casino’s presence in Cherokee and was willing to support the addition of live dealers there — but only there.

“If they were going to stay in those confines of the existing campus, I would be fine. They already have gambling there, so I could support that,” Rapp said.

But the deal brokered with the state would have allowed live dealers at any new casinos built by the tribe in the future on other tribally-held lands in Jackson, Swain, Graham or Cherokee counties.

“This wasn’t permitting it in place, but was allowing an expansion,” Rapp said. “That brought me up short.”

Specifically, Rapp was concerned about a tribally-owned tract of land near Andrews that is being eyed by the tribe for a small-scale casino — something less than a full-fledged casino but something slightly more than a bingo hall.

There has been movement to amend the language in the compact with the state to limit live dealers to gambling facilities on land held by the tribe prior to the mid-1980s — not tracts it has added to trust lands in more recent years. But that still may be too much of a blank slate for some legislators. If the vote was held today, it’s not clear how the final count would come down.

“It will be a very, very close vote in the House with both Republicans and Democrats voting against it,” Rapp said.

Davis said lawmakers might be a little more flexible after this week’s primary election is behind them.

Davis said while he personally doesn’t gamble, his Libertarian streak doesn’t think the government should over-regulate and limit free enterprise. He also is eager for the economic boost live dealers may bring.

“I think we need to do everything we can to enhance the economic climate in the western part of the state,” Davis said.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino currently is limited to video-based gambling. The tribe has touted the economic impact of adding bonafide table games and real cards.

It would attract more guests — those of a different caliber and demographic than its core base of players today — which in turn will mean 400 more jobs and an economic boost for all of WNC.

It will also mean more money for the tribe, which uses casino proceeds to fund social programs, education, health care and other services for tribal members, as well as a twice-annual personal check for each of the 14,000 members of the tribe.

 

Years in the making

It took years of lobbying and negotiations for the tribe to get to this point. In an historic agreement signed with Perdue last November, the tribe agreed to give up a cut of its revenue from the new table games — on a sliding scale starting at 4 percent and maxing out at 8 percent over the next 30 years. In exchange, the state would allow real dealers and a guarantee that no other casinos would be allowed to encroach on its core territory, namely anywhere west of Interstate 26.

Perdue’s office is putting a positive spin on the prospects of passing the measure before she leaves office in November.

“We are comfortable that all of the issues around the agreement will be settled in time for the General Assembly to pass the appropriate legislation this year,” Mackey said in a statement.

12 votes separate Queen, Davis in race for N.C. House

The race for N.C. House of Representatives between two well-known and prominent Waynesville Democrats, Danny Davis and Joe Sam Queen, came down to the wire Tuesday night.

Queen emerged as the top vote getter by only 12 votes. But, Davis said he was not prepared to concede the race. Results are considered “unofficial” on election night and are not certified for another two or three days, after the county election boards are able to verify provisional ballots, a process that can result in a shuffling of few votes here and there.

“Twelve votes is just too close,” Davis said Tuesday night. “I want to wait until we know more about these other ballots.”

Davis spent 26 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties, what he calls a “front row seat” on the issues affecting people’s lives. Meanwhile, Queen, an architect with a side business managing a vast inventory of rental property, points to his six years spent in Raleigh as a state senator.

While Queen and Davis are both from Waynesville, the candidates had the most at stake in Jackson County — clearly the largest bloc of Democratic voters compared to much smaller Swain County and the fraction of Haywood that lies in the district.

Queen and Davis both spent the day campaigning in Sylva.

“We had a very pleasant day together at the same precinct all day long in the rain and in the sun. We had good sensible conversation, intermittent with shaking hands and trying to win our share of the votes,” Queen said.

Queen said Democratic voters were torn, witnessed by the close vote.

“We are both well-known, well-like Democrats with significant records of public service and loyal constituents,” Queen said.

Queen has been a state senator representing Haywood County but has never been on the ballot in Jackson.

Queen campaigned actively in Jackson County, attending community functions and hosting meet-and-greet receptions with voters.

“Jackson County is half the district, and it was new to me, so it was certainly my battle ground,” Queen said.

The winner will run against Mike Clampitt, a Republican from Swain County, come November.

N.C. voters say ‘yes’ to Amendment One

As predicted, North Carolina voters ushered in a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions in Tuesday’s primary election, joining a flood of states to pass constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in recent years. Missouri was the first in 2004. This week, North Carolina became the 35th state to do so.

Statewide, the ban was passed by a 61-39 percent margin. The margin was slightly higher in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain, with 70-30 percent margin.

Turnout was higher than normal for a primary election, driven in large part by Amendment One. Many voters showed up uninterested in voting for anything but that. In primaries, voters have to pick either a Democratic or Republican ballot when voting. Precinct workers reported many voters coming into the polls, when asked which party ballot they wanted to cast, simply answered “whichever ballot has marriage amendment on it.”

Religious beliefs clearly played a major role in those who voted for the ban on same-sex marriage.

Carlene James of Canton said her pastor at Center Pigeon Baptist Church has preached about it for the past two Sundays. And like so many churches all over the state, the signboard out front has been dedicated to the message “vote for the marriage amendment.”

“I think marriage is for one man and one woman, not two men or two women,” James said as she was leaving the polls Tuesday.

As the election results show, the idea of gay marriage is a concept that society as a whole has not accepted.

“I think that is the way it should be,” Richard Meyer, 28, of Sylva, said of his vote in favor of the ban.

Denise Gibson of Lake Junaluska fears same-sex marriage goes against God.

“I feel like history tends to repeat itself. In the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of gay marriage and I am worried we are heading that way,” Gibson said after voting in Waynesville Tuesday.

But, Francine Popular of Waynesville, a Roman Catholic, said she believe God loves everyone. Religion aside, she questioned the role of government in dictating people’s personal relationships.

“People say we don’t want the government in our lives, so why do we want the government to control people’s marriages — who they love and who they don’t?” Popular asked.

The live-and-let-live viewpoint was shared by many who voted against the amendment.

“If two people love each other and they want to start a family, who am I to stand in their way?” Korey Ramsey, 41, said on his way out of the polls in Sylva Tuesday.

Some who voted against the constitutional amendment out of fear it would have implications beyond gay couples and sends the wrong message about the state.

“It is really black and white, but we don’t live in a black and white world,” said Lauren Bishop of Waynesville on her way out of the polls Tuesday. “I think it would be more harmful than helpful, especially bringing businesses into the area.”

Reporter Caitlin Bowling contributed to this story.

Voters should defeat bigotry and Amendment One

If Amendment One is defeated on May 8, North Carolinians will have made the right decision by refusing to support institutionalized bigotry.

The proposal would add an amendment to our state's foundational legal document that says a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union recognized by law. The wording of the proposal would even strip legal rights from heterosexual partners who live together but aren't married.

My parents never went to college. My father joined the Navy after high school. Mom got married when she was 16 and dropped out. She got her GED when she was in her 40s, after her and my father split up. These traditional, conservative Southerners raised three boys preaching a gospel of hard work and not being uppity.

And that's why they would have voted against this amendment. It's uppity. It would make one person's values superior to another's. In this country, we treat everyone equally no matter what religion he or she may practice. For some, that's no religion. But we are all equal under the laws established by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution.

In almost every case, those arguing for this law cite passages from the Bible and talk about our Judeo-Christian history. That tradition is indeed responsible for much that is good and right in this country, and many good men and women have died protecting ideals that spring from that well.

But it is not the law of the land. Of course, not all who cite the Bible agree on this amendment. A quick perusal of newspapers and websites from around the state will reveal that many ministers who take to the pulpit every Sunday see more harm than good from this amendment.

I would never dare to criticize an individual's religious beliefs. What I have hard time understanding, though, is how some who claim faith as their motivator can justify singling out people because they are different. I can pick up any religious text from any of the major faiths and cite passage after passage that says we should show compassion to everyone.

It wasn't too long ago that women and African-Americans couldn't vote and inter-racial marriages were against the law. That seems ridiculous now, but that was the society we lived in. People were afraid of what would happen if women voted or people "inter-married." Fear. That's basically what this amendment is about.

This early 21st century struggle with gay rights will seem just as quaint and ridiculous in not too many years. Let's let people be themselves and not single out those who may be just a little different. Vote against Amendment One on May 8 and send the right message about North Carolina.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Full-color plates still not a sure thing

By Holly Demuth

What does your car believe in? Here in Western North Carolina, many people choose to express their love of the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, state parks, and the elk and ducks with their full color license plates.  But soon that opportunity to show your support will not exist in its current form.

Full color license plates are slated to be taken off the road in 2015, according to North Carolina law. The plates that financially support attractions that are at the core of much of Western North Carolina’s travel and tourism economy, that provide more than 1 million voluntary dollars pumped into Western North Carolina in 2011 — gone. The program that made the state more than $800,000 in non-tax dollars in 2011 — eliminated.

The attractive Friends of the Smokies plate has helped generate since its inception more than $2.6 million to enhance Great Smoky Mountains National Park — one license plate at a time.  Among many projects, these plates funded history exhibits at the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, where visitation has increased 80 percent since its grand opening last year. It also supports the ongoing conservation of elk herds in Cataloochee Valley, which draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

Improving Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes financial sense for North Carolina. In 2010 alone, more than 9 million park visitors spent $818 million in surrounding communities and helped create more than 14,000 jobs.

Laws can be changed. It takes a great effort, but it can happen. Fortunately, there is hope that our state legislators will repeal the provision when they go back to Raleigh this year.

A recent report from the N.C. Department of Transportation recommends continuing the full color plate program. The state Highway Patrol agrees. And a legislative study committee recently recommended that the General Assembly repeal the 2015 sunset.

Let’s hope that our elected representatives are listening.

Eliminating North Carolina’s popular full-color license plate program will hurt the state’s travel and tourism economy, and beloved tourist destinations like Great Smoky Mountains National Park without improving public safety.

People who love these special places and business who benefit from them can help change the law. Ask your state elected officials to protect this important revenue source and support repealing the sunset on the North Carolina full-color specialty license plate program. More information can be found at www.friendsofthesmokies.org.

While we’re at it, let’s do all we can to support these special resources and show Raleigh what an effective program it is – if you don’t have a full-color plate yet, please go out and purchase one.  

(Holly Demuth is the executive director of the N.C. Friends of the Smokies. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Will NC pass amendment banning same-sex marriages? Question decided May 8

If you believe in polls then North Carolina voters are likely to pass a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriages. But, opponents to such an amendment haven’t given up the fight yet and in fact cite other polls showing exact opposite outcomes.

A decision about whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages will be decided in the May 8 primary.

Fifty-eight percent of likely voters support such an amendment to the state constitution, according to a SurveyUSA poll released late last month. The poll was commissioned by WRAL News and interviewed 1,001 North Carolinians. It found that 36 percent of respondents opposed the law while 6 percent were undecided. Civitas, a conservative North Carolina-based group, says its polls consistently show that more than six out of 10 North Carolina voters say they support a constitutional amendment that establishes marriage between one man and woman as the only recognized domestic legal union in the state.

Those findings run counter, however, to numbers reported in a survey conducted by Elon University earlier this month, which found that 54 percent of North Carolinians opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

Coming into the homestretch voters can expect more polls attempting to gauge public sentiment, and also to see the issue come sharply into focus: should North Carolina, the lone Southern state without such a constitutional prohibition, join its neighbors in a mandated ban?

 

Who defines a union?

Supporters argue that passing an amendment is critical: that by embedding the language into the constitution, North Carolina would be able to successfully block future court decisions that might otherwise allow gays and lesbians to marry. And that’s indeed a needed protection, according to many conservatives who fear extending such legal rights outside the strictures of the traditional man and woman configuration.

“The large majority of North Carolinians believes and stands behind marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” said Bill Brooks of the N.C. Family Policy Council, a group working to pass the constitutional amendment. “The strategy is to put that in the constitution and put it out of reach of the courts — it’s a simple idea to a simple problem.”

But, things aren’t so simple. The amendment would also ban civil unions between same-sex couples and domestic partnerships between couples of the opposite sex in addition to same-sex marriages.

A poll by Public Policy Polling revealed, on the face of it, similar numbers to what the conservative groups are polling: the amendment would pass with 58 percent in favor and 38 percent opposed. But when people realized civil unions would be banned, that support plummeted to 41 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed, with the amendment narrowly being defeated.

“These trends evidence what we see on the ground,” said Liz MacNeil, WNC regional field director for the Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families. “Once North Carolinians understand the harms of Amendment One, including those in Western North Carolina, opposition grows by the day.”

 

North Carolina stands out in South

Ralph Slaughter, head of the Jackson County Republican Party, supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions.

“We are the only one of 15 states that does not have this amendment in its state constitution and we need to have it,” Slaughter said.

Missouri in 2004 became the first U.S. state to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. This took place on the heels of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that its constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. Louisiana became the first Southern state to impose a constitutional ban, followed by Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and more. By 2008, all Southern states except North Carolina had such an amendment.

Slaughter said the N.C. Family Policy Council now has leaders in each county, including Jackson, and that the conservative churches are being encouraged to speak out on the issue.

“Though some of the churches have said it is just too political and won’t take signs” to put out supporting the amendment, Slaughter said.

Kirk Callahan, a conservative in Haywood County, said North Carolina voters are facing an array of issues on the May primary, a fact that could prove confusing to those heading to the polls: there are contested races for the 11th Congressional District, the N.C. House 118th District on the GOP side, plus statewide contested primaries for governor and lieutenant governor.  Nationally, there is a GOP presidential primary.

“All of this presents a full plate for North Carolina voters,” Callahan wrote in an email. “Much evidence suggests that North Carolina is a center-right state, so I think it is safe to assume that voters are concerned about the subject of Amendment One. However, I would not be surprised if many people do not realize it will be on the primary ballot rather than on the General Election ballot. Furthermore, the fact that gay marriage would not be legal in the state even if the amendment fails may lessen some people’s concern.”

 

In the trenches

On the campaign trail, the issue hasn’t been front and center.

“Very seldom do I ever hear about it,” said former state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, who is challenging Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, for his old seat representing the 50th District. Davis said the same thing. Snow was a co-sponsor to an identical proposal banning same-sex marriages during his term in office.

Snow, a retired Superior Court judge, said he supports this Republican-generated amendment even thought state law currently bans such marriages anyway.

“There’s a larger statement to be made about it by making it a constitutional amendment,” Snow said, adding that then North Carolina would “speak definitely.”

Davis actually campaigned the first go-around when he defeated Snow on establishing just such an amendment.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, said while passing the amendment is obviously the decision of voters, a federal court decision to the contrary will trump the state constitution or state statute anyway.

“The supporters of this have invited so much attention to the issue I believe they will end up with a federal challenge,” Rapp said. “They may just come out on the short end of the stick because this almost ensures a federal challenge, and (the amendment if passed) could be thrown out.”

Mark Meadows, a Cashiers Republican who’s vying to represent the 11th Congressional District, for his part said he believes voters are truly galvanized by the issue.

“We’ve knocked on a little more than 9,000 doors, and we have talked about the amendment,” Meadows said. “Two-thirds of the people are strongly supporting it.”

Meadows noted that the results could be skewed some in that he’s targeting doors are Republicans, but the rough poll does include unaffiliated voters and some Democrats, he said.

Additionally, Meadows said, rallies on the issue have brought voters out in force. One recently held in Burke County resulted in 160 people showing up to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions.

 

What the amendment will mean

The wording of the proposed amendment appears simple, but the devil is in the details.

It reads: vote “for” or “against” a “constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state.”

Backers portray the constitutional amendment as a method of blocking any federal court rulings that could pave the way for same-sex marriages in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, opponents say the amendment’s language goes far beyond that and would not only keep the existing ban on gay marriages but also eradicate existing and future legal domestic partnerships between gay and straight couples.

Opponents also say a constitutional amendment isn’t needed if the sole intention is to ban same-sex marriages. That’s because current North Carolina law, enacted in 1996, says that marriage between individuals of the same sex is not valid in North Carolina. This amendment, however, would make that concept part of the North Carolina Constitution.

There is one truly unbiased reviewer of the amendment’s impact, the state’s Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, which approved language for an official explanation of the proposed amendment earlier this year.

Here is the official explanation adopted by the commission: “If this amendment is passed by the voters, then under state law it can only be changed by another vote of the people.

The term “domestic legal union” used in the amendment is not defined in North Carolina law. There is debate among legal experts about how this proposed constitutional amendment may impact North Carolina law as it relates to unmarried couples of same or opposite sex and same sex couples legally married in another state, particularly in regard to employment-related benefits for domestic partners; domestic violence laws; child custody and visitation rights; and end-of-life arrangements. The courts will ultimately make those decisions.

The amendment also says that private parties may still enter into contracts creating rights enforceable against each other. This means that unmarried persons, businesses and other private parties may be able to enter into agreements establishing personal rights, responsibilities, or benefits as to each other. The courts will decide the extent to which such contracts can be enforced.”

One seat with two contenders put Democrats in quandary over state House race

Two well-known Waynesville Democrats running against each other for a shot at representing mountain people in Raleigh so far are playing fair and keeping the race clean.

But their similar platforms, progressive rhetoric and measured campaigns mean voters deciding between Joe Sam Queen and Danny Davis will likely be left to size up the man behind the race rather than the policies they stand for.

“There is little he wouldn’t say in his stump speech that I wouldn’t say ‘Amen’ to,” Queen said of Davis. “This is a Democratic primary, and Democrats have to choose among their friends. I have heard ‘I like you both’ more than once.”

The two men are vying for a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives representing Jackson, Swain and the greater Waynesville and Lake Junaluska area of Haywood County. The winner will run against Mike Clampitt, a Republican from Swain County, come November.

The seat suddenly came open this year when Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, announced he would retire. Haire has served seven terms. Queen and Davis quickly emerged as Democratic contenders following Haire’s decision.

Both men lament the budget cuts witnessed under Republican leadership as being too harsh and decry Republican leadership for taking the state in a regressive direction.

But those arguments will play out in excruciating detail come the general election in November when facing an opponent from the other party. For now, in this civil race between two Democrats, Queen and Davis are left trying to convince voters they have the experience needed to get the job done.

Davis spent 26 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties, what he calls a “front row seat” on the issues affecting people’s lives.

“There is no better training than being a District Court judge when it comes to seeing the problems people in our community face,” Davis said. “If there is a new drug on the street, we are the first to see it. If the economy is bad, we are the first to see it. People lose their jobs and can’t pay their child support.”

Davis has even witnessed the struggle over health care, when people’s insurance runs out, and they turn to credit cards to pay medical bills only to end up with collection agencies after them.

“I wish members of the General Assembly could come to court and see how people really live,” Davis said. “What they do down there has repercussions.”

Meanwhile, Queen, an architect with a side business managing a vast inventory of rental property, points to his six years spent in Raleigh as a state senator.

Queen said it’s easy for first-time candidates to draft legislative wish lists and sweeping campaign platforms. But once in Raleigh, reality sets in, something he learned the hard way his first time around.

“I have been proud, forceful and green before, and you don’t get much done,” Queen said. “I got my pocket picked plenty. There is a learning curve. Experience matters.”

Queen lost his seat in the Senate in 2010 after several hard-fought elections that saw the seat flip-flop back and forth between Queen and his Republican opponent each election cycle. Thus, his six years in Raleigh were served intermittently during the course of the past decade. Nonetheless, Queen said he can get right to work for the region thanks to the experience and relationships he’s already built in Raleigh.

“I know where the landmines are and how difficult it is to pull things off,” Queen said. “We need to have experienced legislators serving us because you get better every year. That is just a fact.”

But, Davis isn’t easily assuaged.

“I don’t think I will miss a beat when I go down there,” Davis said. “I think my experience as a judge gives me instant credibility. I think I have a much stronger background thinking through how legislation is going to affect people.”

Davis says he is familiar with the legislative process and has honed the art of approaching problems with critical and rational thinking.

“Having to sit down with folks and say, ‘Here’s where we are and here’s where we need to get,’ it doesn’t mater if you are a judge or a legislator, the art of negotiating is the same,” Davis said. “I think the best thing I have learned from being a District Court judge is how to listen. No one is ever 100 percent correct, and no one is ever 100 percent wrong.”

Davis also points to the decorum it takes to run a courtroom in a civil, respectful manner while still staying in charge.

Queen countered that his experience doesn’t stop at the steps of the legislative building, but he knows what it means to work in the private sector business world.

“I am an architect, a farmer, a businessman. I have employees and make payroll and deal with business cycles,” Queen said.

 

Do or die county

While Queen and Davis are both from Waynesville, the race will likely be fought and won in Jackson County — clearly the largest bloc of voters compared to much smaller Swain County and the fraction of Haywood that lies in the district.

Jackson accounts for half the likely voters who will cast ballots in the race. Swain accounts for less than 20 percent. Haywood’s partial territory accounts for slightly more than 30 percent.

The breakdown, an analysis by Queen, factors in registered Democrats as well as unaffiliated voters who typically vote in the Democratic primary.

Davis believes he has strong name recognition in Jackson County, where he served for two-and-a-half decades as judge, a post that spanned all seven western counties. Likewise, he has been serving in Cherokee as one of the three justices on the Cherokee Supreme Court and as a substitute tribal court judge.

Queen said his name is known outside Haywood from his years in the state Senate. Even though his Senate district extended to the north and east of Haywood — and did not include Jackson or Swain — his name was still out there. Queen said he partnered with other mountain legislators to get regional projects accomplished, including initiatives in Jackson even though he technically didn’t represent that county in the senate.

But to make sure, Queen is campaigning heavily on the ground in Jackson and Swain counties. He is pulling out all the stops with a series of meet-the-candidate events, complete with free food and a line-up local bluegrass bands at each. His events have run the gamut from a waffle brunch at an outdoor park in Sylva to an upscale restaurant in Cashiers.

“I have really enjoyed this primary. It has been fun, and I try to make it fun,” Queen said. “I try to have good music, good food and a good vision — the vision excites people.”

The kind of campaign Queen is running also takes money, between hiring bands and feeding anyone who shows up. Queen has a history of tapping his personal finances, spending well over half a million of his own money his later Senate campaigns.

Davis is hosting two campaign events compared to Queen’s eight.

 

Primary factors

There’s more than sheer population that makes Jackson a heavy-hitter in the Queen-Davis race.

Jackson County might see higher voter turnout than its neighbors thanks to a ballot measure on whether to legalize alcohol sales countywide (see article on page 12).

Democratic voters in Jackson County also have a primary contest for county commissioner, unlike Haywood or Swain.

It’s hard to predict what kind of voter turnout Davis and Queen can expect. Primaries generally don’t draw a lot of attention.

While there’s not likely to be nearly the interest as in 2008 when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were duking it out in the Democratic primary, it’s not exactly a sleeper either.

For starters, there’s the referendum on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions that is bound to turn out voters who otherwise would sit out the primary.

Democrats also face the task of picking their nominees to run for governor and congress, in the wake of the political retirement of Gov. Beverly Perdue and Congressman Heath Shuler.

 

Do I vote in this race?

Yes, if you live anywhere in Jackson and Swain counties. Also yes, if you live in the greater Waynesville area, Lake Junaluska or Iron Duff in Haywood County.

The answer gets tricky if you live in Maggie Valley, as the Ivy Hills precinct lies in two different N.C. House districts. The best bet for Ivy Hills voters is to call the board of elections at 828.452.6633 and ask them to check your address. But as a rule of thumb, the Dellwood area of Maggie votes in this race. Residents of Maggie Valley proper and Jonathan Creek do not.

 

The primary is upon us

The Smoky Mountain News begins an information-packed month of election coverage this week. Stay tuned for coverage of county commissioner races, U.S. Congress, the same-sex marriage amendment and Jackson County’s alcohol vote.

Early voting starts April 19. Election Day is May 8.

Voters can cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primary but not both. Unaffiliated voters can chose which party’s ballot they want when they show up to vote.

Macon’s highway paved in gold, is a gambling parlor paradise

A huge former antique mall in Macon County will soon become the largest private gambling operation outside of Cherokee when Jokers Wild, a sweepstakes parlor featuring 65 video machines, opens next month.

And, there’s plenty of floor space left to double the number video terminals in the huge, rambling building, located just across the highway from the busy tourist hub Smoky Mountain Hosts.

Heading down the highway toward the Georgia state line, another operation with 30 of these Internet gambling machines will soon be rolled out. In all, there are about a dozen sweepstakes cafés — really, some of these are more like small casinos — operating in Macon County along the stretch of highway leading from Georgia.

Despite criticism that the sweepstakes cafes are simply out-and-out old-style gambling parlors, their popularity is undeniable.

“We’re adults; it’s our choice whether to play or not,” said Joe Donahue, a north Georgia resident who was at Deuces Wild on U.S. 441 one day last week with his wife. “It’s my money.”

By the looks of it, a lot of people feel the same way Donahue feels. This was early on a workday, and several customers were already inside playing. U.S. 441 regulars said that at night, the parking lots of these sweepstakes cafés are packed with cars. Many are reportedly coming in to play from Georgia, explaining the concentration of the sweepstakes parlor on the highway corridor just inside the North Carolina state line.

 

Legal machinations

More than 1,000 sweepstakes cafes are estimated to be operating statewide despite a ban by the General Assembly on video gambling. When sweepstakes machines appeared in the wake of the ban — looking for all the world like a reincarnation of the outlawed video gambling machines, despite owners’ claims to the contrary — operators of the machines and the General Assembly became locked in a game of cat and mouse, leading to a new state law that broadened the ban and, ultimately, lengthy legal challenges.

Continuing uncertainty about whether the state actually can prohibit these sweepstakes cafes, the state attorney general has recommended that law enforcement not shut them down for now.

A few weeks ago, a North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling, with one of three judges dissenting, found that the current state law prohibiting sweepstakes cafés is unconstitutional. This means these bigger sweepstakes cafes — maybe better termed sweepstakes cafeterias — could be just the beginning of what Macon County and other Western North Carolina communities can expect.

The N.C. attorney general’s office says it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  

Sweepstakes cafés sell “time” to customers to gamble online or by cell phone. Customers, in return for whatever amount of money they care to risk, log on to their machine of choice and play for the allotted time purchased.

Sweepstakes café owners and managers argue that letting customers “find” cash and prizes via computers is simply buying and selling Internet or phone time — not real gambling, in other words.

Georgia launched a crackdown last year on certain “illegal” Internet cafes.

Under Georgia law, violators found to be operating illegally are typically charged with commercial gambling or for violating Georgia’s RICO Act for racketeering.

Some operators may have turned their sights to North Carolina.

Based on information gathered in the sweepstakes cafés and from names of permits on file with the Macon County Building Department, many of the gambling businesses in Macon County are, in fact, owned by Georgia residents.

 

Charge ‘em while you got ‘em

Towns across Western North Carolina have imposed steep business license fees on the sweepstakes parlors, hoping to make a little money off the lucrative enterprises operating within their borders.

Franklin recently increased its fees. Franklin charges $2,600 per Internet café establishment and $1,000 per machine. This is an increase from a flat $2,600 fee per business charged previously.

Town Planner Mike Grubermann said establishment owners are making enough money off the machines that even the new fees “are just a drop in the bucket.”

Grubermann said sweepstakes cafes in Macon County have become a major business enterprise.

“It seems like everybody has got to have sweepstakes machines now,” said Grubermann, adding that a dog grooming business in town recently added some “so that people can play while getting their dogs groomed.”

Unlike the town of Franklin, Macon County has no way to cash-in on these sweepstakes parlors, which mark almost the sole form of economic development taking place these days in WNC.

Maggie Valley and Canton currently both demand $2,500 for the first four machines and charge $750 for each subsequent machine. Maggie collects $8,250 a year, while Canton makes nearly $32,000 each year. Waynesville is looking to charge the same amounts.

Waynesville Manager Lee Galloway said the town’s attorney is preparing the necessary ordinance and that he wasn’t certain when the town’s aldermen would consider the law change. Galloway said a new ordinance might not take effect before July 1.

A sweepstakes poker café has opened on South Main in Waynesville with about 40 machines, but Galloway said at most, operations are still the three-or-four machine businesses located in service stations or similar establishments.

Not too long ago, however, two people came into Waynesville’s police department asking for permits to start operations with as many as 40 to 60 machines.

David Connell, who owns the building that has been rented outside Franklin for Jokers Wild, said he’s excited to finally have a renter onboard for the huge, former barn.

“It’s been sitting a year and a half empty. No one else could afford to rent it,” said Connell, adding that the owner of the future sweepstakes café expects to open sometime in April.

Jack Morgan, head of building inspections for Macon County, said the business owner would have to make the building handicap accessible and meet certain other requirements.

Medical marijuana backers try to make their cause heard

Margaret Wakefield is not a college student nor does she sport dreadlocks and Birkenstocks while chatting about how the world should focus more on peace and love.

Wakefield has short dark hair, pink fingernails and silver heart-shaped earrings. Wearing a printed shirt and sweater, the Cherokee resident is dressed as if she was going to a nice restaurant with a friend or just coming from church.

Despite her clean-cut appearance, Wakefield is a vocal leader for, what some may find, a surprising cause — medical marijuana.

Wakefield’s mother died from cancer a year ago, and the life-changing event has made her very open and passionate about allowing people suffering from chronic illnesses to use cannabis as a form of treatment.

“If I had known then what I know now … (my mother) would have had some to smoke everyday,” said Wakefield, a member of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network, a nonprofit with the end goal of passing a medical marijuana bill. Medical cannabis is legal in 16 states and in Washington, D.C. Another 17 states have seen bills introduced.

The N.C. Cannabis Patients Network has about 700 members, most of whom range from age 30 to 60 and beyond, Wakefield said. Members are also allowed to remain anonymous.

“We are just wanting to be able to grow our own medicine,” she said. “We are trying to get our rights back.”

There is currently a bill in a N.C. House of Representatives committee, which NCCPN hopes will be voted on either during the upcoming short legislative session in April or when the newly elected General Assembly leaders meet next year.

House Bill 577, a.k.a. the Medical Cannabis Act, would allow people with debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and osteoporosis (to name a few), to receive prescriptions for medical marijuana from their doctors. Studies have shown that cannabis can increase one’s appetite and offer pain relief.

The state would also profit from the legalization of medical marijuana. Within four years, the state would realize about $250 million in revenue from the production and sale of cannabis each year, according to the bill.

However, Wakefield understands that the organization is in for a tough fight in this Bible Belt state, especially since some are hesitant to sign their name in support of such a controversial bill. When asked what the biggest obstacle to the bill’s passage was, Wakefield immediately spouted the Republicans.

“They tend to be a lot more conservative than Democrats,” she said.

But even when the General Assembly was under a Democratic majority in previous years, similar efforts went nowhere.

While marijuana carries a stigma for its use as a recreational drug, allowing medical marijuana is not tantamount to opening the floodgates of illegal use, supporters claim. Many synthetic pharmaceutical drugs are abused in street settings but are still legal for their perceived medical benefits.

One Democratic state representative from Buncombe County has already put her support behind the Medical Cannabis Act.

Patsy Keever, who is serving her second term of office in the N.C. House of Representatives, said her husband suffered for three years before he died of cancer, and his pain medication was in pill form.

“He couldn’t swallow,” she said.

If medical marijuana was available, her husband could have inhaled it in a vapor form, Keever said.

“Medical marijuana has been proven to treat the pain,” Keever said. “Anything that will just help somebody in pain and not harm them or anybody else seems like a no brainer to me.”

The bill being considered in North Carolina is much stricter than the one in California, Wakefield said.

In California, it is widely claimed that anyone can get a medical marijuana prescription by simply walking into a doctor’s office and saying you have a problem. In North Carolina, patients looking for a prescription would have to have a relationship with their physician, which includes a full medical assessment and the doctor’s willingness to provide follow-up care to determine the efficacy of the drug.

People who wish to grow or sell marijuana or marijuana-infused products, such as cookies or butter, will be required to pay a $5,000 licensing fee each year. That amount could increase to $10,000, pending possible amendments to the bill, Wakefield said.

 

Get involved

The North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network will hold a meeting at 2 p.m. on March 10 at Tribal Grounds Coffee Shop in Cherokee. Discussions will revolve around allowing the use of medical marijuana in North Carolina and educating people about the benefits of prescription cannabis. The meeting is open to the public.

828.497.9045.

Child fatality review in Swain case held up by state backlog

More than a year has lapsed since 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn died on the floor of an unheated single-wide trailer in Cherokee one frigid January night, but it could be several more months before the state conducts a child fatality review required by law in such cases.

Swain County Department of Social Services alerted the state to the suspicious child death the day after Aubrey died in January 2011, but the mandatory case review hasn’t been started yet because of a statewide backlog. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services formally accepted the case for a child fatality review last April, but the review has not been scheduled yet, according to Lori Watson, a spokesperson for the state agency in Raleigh.

Ideally, a child fatality review can help prevent future tragedies. It is supposed to detect where social safety nets failed and whether there are cracks in the system that need fixing.

In Aubrey’ case, it seems there will be plenty to learn from such a review. Cops, neighbors, family members and social workers all came in contact with Aubrey’s caretaker and noticed red flags, from violent behavior and suspected drug use to poor living conditions and even visual signs of abuse.

The child fatality review is not intended to find fault, nor is it a witch-hunt to hold anyone responsible, Watson said. The state in particular is interested in whether new policies or protocols could have saved the child’s life.

It is a learning exercise that taps the insight of anyone who may have interacted with the child — teachers, daycare workers, pediatricians, friends, family and social workers — to determine what could be done differently in the future.

“They will bring all those people together that had been involved in that child’s life,” Watson said.

By design, the case review isn’t conducted on the heels of a child’s death.

“They try to plan them so they give the community an opportunity to heal and people can come back to the table and take an objective approach to looking at the case,” Watson said.

But, a year and counting is longer than it should be in an ideal world. It could be several more months yet before it is conducted.

Watson said the agency is facing a backlog of its child fatality reviews. Watson cited staff turnover and unfilled positions at the state level as reasons the agency got behind.

The child fatality review will likely determine why social workers had forcibly removed other children from the home where Aubrey was living but allowed Aubrey to stay. Social workers had documented inappropriate use of physical discipline against Aubrey when she was just a year old. In addition to bruises on Aubrey, there were also signs she wasn’t developing like a baby of her age should, but she was not being taken to the doctor for check-ups.

Cops had been to the residence multiple times, according to dispatch records. Neighbors witnessed violent behavior in the yard of the home and noted children fending for themselves.

 

Swain DSS records in baby’s death to remain sealed

Prosecutors in a second-degree murder and felony child abuse case in Swain County have sealed social service records for fear they could compromise the on-going investigation or the ability to prosecute the case.

Prosecutors have told the Swain County Department of Social Services not to release records that would normally be made public surrounding the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died more than a year ago. Ladybird Powell, Aubrey’s great-aunt and caretaker, was charged in connection with her death this month.

Since DSS records are highly personal — often revealing private aspects of family life, emotional state and financial status — they are all confidential.

There is an exception, however, when criminal charges surround a child’s death. In such cases, DSS is supposed to release a summary of the agency’s involvement with the child, describing whether social workers had the child’s well-being on their radar and what steps, if any, were taken to investigate or improve the child’s safety and care.

The district attorney’s office has the authority to block the release of the records if it is deemed a risk to the criminal case, however.

In this case, the prosecutor has done just that, citing the highly unusual circumstances of a separate yet parallel case against two social workers. The workers allegedly falsified records following the child’s death, presumably to conceal whether the agency properly followed up on complaints of abuse and neglect, according to a State Bureau of Investigation probe.

Whether social workers did their job or failed to intervene and protect Aubrey has been a source of heated and emotional controversy. The records, if released, would reveal whether social workers acted on reports of suspected abuse and neglect — assuming the records provide an accurate picture.

But releasing those records that describe DSS involvement in Aubrey’s case could compromise a fair trail in the separate case against the social workers, since their involvement — or lack of involvement — is at the heart of that case.

The release of records would “jeopardize the state’s ongoing investigation” and “jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute” the case, the district attorney’s office told Swain DSS when blocking the release of the documents.

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