Fired up over Devil’s championship run

If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.

Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.

This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.

“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.

How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.


Football unifies community

Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.

It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.

“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.

But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.

“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”

As for Sneed’s winning kick?

“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.

Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.

Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.

That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.

“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”

Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.

“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”


Want fries with that?

If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.

Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.

So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.

“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”

These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.

“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.

Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.

The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.

“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.

This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.

“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.


Overwhelming community support

A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.

Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.

“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”


What else but football?

Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.

How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?

“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.

Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.

Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.

“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”


Listen to the game

Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.

Cherokee plays hardball with state on casino

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has agreed to give up 8.5 percent of the gross revenue from new table games if the state will open the doors for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

In addition to the live dealers, the tribe wants a guarantee from the state that no other casinos will be allowed to encroach on its territory. The state has agreed in principle — but exactly where to draw the line around Cherokee’s exclusive gaming territory remains a major sticking point.

The tribe and the state have made major strides in working out a deal, however. What was once a wide chasm in their negotiating positions has closed to a mere gap over the past 11 months of talks and correspondence.

“I believe we are on the verge of success,” Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks wrote to the governor’s office earlier this month. “Let us resolve these few remaining concerns in short order. Hundreds of new jobs and much needed revenue for the state depend on it.”

Hicks urged the governor’s office to agree on a deal by this week, in time for the General Assembly to take up the issue. State lawmakers are usually on a prolonged recess this time of year, but returned to Raleigh this week to take up a handful of pressing issues that couldn’t wait until the new year.

An agreement with the tribe is tentatively on the General Assembly’s agenda, should the governor and tribe manage to work out their differences.


Where to draw the line

Initially, the tribe agreed to give up 8.5 percent of gross revenue from new table games if the state promised no other casinos would be allowed anywhere in North Carolina.

The state countered that was too big a territory. Cherokee conceded, agreeing it would settle for being the only casino west of I-95. That would satisfy the state’s Lumbee contingency, which hopes to one day get federal recognition as an Indian tribe and potentially open a casino in the eastern part of the state.

But the state again said Cherokee was asking for too much exclusive territory. In the latest counter offer from the tribe, the tribe said it would settle for being the only casino in the western half of the state — determined by the state’s geographic mid-point. But if the tribe had to acquiesce in its quest for exclusive gaming territory, it was no longer willing to give the state an 8.5 percent cut of profits, and instead offered 4.5 percent.

“The portion of our revenue to be shared with the state will depend upon the area of exclusivity provided to the tribe,” Hicks wrote in a letter to the state this month.

The governor’s office replied that it wanted at least 7 percent of the tribe’s revenue, and wanted to limit the tribe’s exclusive casino territory to merely “west of Asheville.”

Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office has more than the tribe to contend with in the gaming negotiations. Perdue and Republican lawmakers are at odds over what the casino money should go toward.

Perdue wants it earmarked for education, namely pre-K education initiatives that saw budget cuts from Republican lawmakers this year. But Republican lawmakers want the Cherokee casino proceeds to simply go into the general budget with no restrictions on their use.

Cherokee has been lobbying the state for more than five years for permission to bring in live dealers with dice and cards and real table games rather than the electronic and video gaming the casino is currently limited to. But negotiations hit a brick wall under former Gov. Mike Easley but were reopened under Gov. Perdue.

The tribe and the governor have bandied offers and counter offers back and forth since January. In one of the most recent exchanges, the state went out of its way to compliment the tribe on the nature of the parley.

“At the outset, I want to express how much we appreciate the cooperative and collegial manner in which we have concluded these negotiations as we work together on these important issues,” Mark Davis, general counsel to the governor, wrote to the tribe’s Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky.

Who has the upper hand at this juncture isn’t clear. Getting live dealers at the casino is critical to the tribe’s financial wellbeing: The Eastern Band has a $633-million expansion to pay for at a time when the recession has taken a toll on casino business.

Meanwhile, the state has budget problems of its own that need solving, and the prospect of a lifeline from Cherokee is coming none to soon.

Safety or politics? Battle between state lawmakers influenced specialty license plate debate

More than a decade ago, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida became the first state to approve a “Choose Life” specialty plate. Since then, similar plates have been OK’d in more than two-dozen states.

Supporters view them as a means to mass-market adoption to mothers who might otherwise abort; detractors believe the plates are government-endorsed attacks on abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose.

Thanks to North Carolina House Bill 289, passed earlier this year by a Republican-dominated state General Assembly and signed into law by avowedly pro-choice Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, motorists around North Carolina can now sport the “Choose Life” message on a specialty license plate.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was among Democrats who voted against the bill, introduced by Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion. Gillespie was out of the country last week; a message left at his home went unreturned by press time Tuesday.

Rapp described Gillespie’s bill as “crafty,” one that satisfied several conservative goals and ambitions: “Choose Life” plates were approved, and by adding groups to the bill such as the Boy Scouts, Fox Hunting and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Democrats such as Rapp who stood in opposition can, in upcoming elections, be painted as “against Boy Scouts,” apple pie and the American flag, the veteran lawmaker said.

“We have, historically, not let issue plates be issued,” Rapp said. “We didn’t want North Carolina cars to become rolling billboards for political issues.”

Drivers can opt for the “Choose Life” plates for a $25 extra annual fee. Nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers opposed to abortion get $15 from each plate sold.

As part of House Bill 289, started in 2015, state specialty plates — including the “Choose Life” plates — must all change to meet a uniform template approved by various law enforcement agencies, including the state Highway Patrol.

Therein lies the next “crafty” machination of state Republicans, according to Rapp. Law enforcement’s concerns were truly legitimate, he said, “and there was a public safety issue, and true cause for concern.”

The new law will gut the attractive full-color plate designs and instead relegate a logo for the organization to one corner of the plate, leaving plate numbers easily seen and the state of origin easy to ascertain. There are 216 specialty plates, but fewer than 30 boast the full-color designs such as Friends of the Smokies.

But in the debate, the particularly popular specialty plates such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway plates, “were held hostage over whether to let the right-to-life plates be in the list of specialty plates,” Rapp said.

“It is a much bigger issue than just GSMNP plates and Blue Ridge Parkway plates,” Rapp said of the behind-the-scenes political fight over what messages should and should not be allowed on license plates.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, agreed. He said that Republicans efforts to get the Choose Life plates have potentially come at the steep cost of the public’s support for good causes such as the Smokies and the parkway.

“That money (raised) really helps these organizations,” Haire said.

Rapp believes there is a solution, though whether he can get it through the Republican-dominated House is debatable. Rapp wants certain groups, particularly the Friends of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, exempted from the new rules. That would allow the nonprofits to continue marketing the full-colored plates used now.

“They helped to get this whole thing started to begin with,” Rapp said, “and I think they should get some preferential treatment. We’ve got to try to find a way around this — that’s a huge revenue source for these groups during these times of revenue cuts, and they need these sources of revenue more than ever.”

The political slugfest that took place over House Bill 289, Republicans thwarted efforts by Democrats to, in response to the Choose Life plates, add a license plate with the abortion rights message “Respect Choice.”

In September, The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking the specialty license plate supporting a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. The lawsuit alleges that North Carolina is engaging in “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment by allowing pro-life but not pro-choice license plates.

— By Quintin Ellison


Existing full-colored specialty plates

• Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

• Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

• Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation

• Friends of the Appalachian Trail

• NC Coastal Federation

• In God We Trust

• Stock Car Racing Theme

• Buddy Pelletier Surfing Foundation

• Guilford Battleground Company

• National Wild Turkey Federation

• North Carolina Aquarium Society

• First in Forestry

• North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation

• N.C. Trout Unlimited

• Ducks Unlimited

• Lung Cancer Research

• N.C. State Parks

• Support Our Troops

• U.S. Equine Rescue League

• Fox Hunting

• Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina

• Home Care and Hospice

• N.C. Tennis Foundation

• AIDS Awareness


Newly approved full-colored specialty plates:

• Donate Life

• Farmland Preservation

• Travel and Tourism

• Battle of Kings Mountain

• N.C. Civil War

• North Carolina Zoological Society

• United States Service Academy

• Carolina Raptor Center

• Carolinas Credit Union Foundation

• North Carolina State Flag

• N.C. Mining

• Coastal Land Trust


• Choose Life

• N.C. Green Industry Council

• N.C. Horse Council

• Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center

State nixes plate designs: Smokies, Parkway lament loss of money-making license plate designs

Dr. Jessica Ange of Sylva enjoys sporting on the back of her Subaru Outback the colorful black and green Great Smoky Mountains National Park license plate, with its emblematic black bear head and background of green mountain peaks.

She’s honest enough to admit her enjoyment comes not just with supporting the Smokies; it’s also simple fact that the plate looks really cool. And, Ange isn’t sure if she would have paid the extra $30 a year, at least originally, if the plates were any less striking.

“Since I’ve already gotten one of the park plates, I might now continue on to support such a good cause,” Ange said. “So that’s part of the allure — but I don’t know if I would have initiated getting one to begin with if the plates were less colorful.”

That’s a choice Ange might soon have to make, however, because of a new law that attempts to standardize the state’s specialty plates to a uniform template.


Could changes hurt sales?

The Smokies specialty license plate costs motorists such as Ange an extra fee of $30 per year. Of the fee, $20 goes to Friends of the Smokies to support efforts to preserve and protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The remaining $10 goes into the Special Registration Plate Account, which supports the following: issues and handling of special plates, N.C. State Visitors Centers, travel and tourism advertising, highway beautification and travel accessibility for disabled people.

Friends members worry new regulations for special license plates could squelch sales. A new state law will eliminate the full-color designs for specialty plates. Instead, an emblem for the group will be shoehorned into one small corner of the plate, with just room to accommodate a logo.

The new law starts in 2015. But, in actuality, new designs will hit the roads when the existing inventory of specialty plates runs out — which has happened, or is about to happen, according to Marge Howell, spokeswoman for the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

SEE ALSO: Safety or politics? Battle between state lawmakers influenced specialty license plate debate

Holly Demuth, North Carolina Director of the Friends of the Smokies, said she understands that the stock for the bear license plates has indeed run dry, and that sales have been suspended.

The Friends group is working with DMV on a transitional-plate design — one that isn’t quite as austere as the new 2015 law would require. It would still feature a black bear, but the plate is less colorful than the current design. The hybrid design will fill the gap until 2015, when the future stark reality of the state’s specialty license plates becomes official.

Last year alone, the sale of specialty plates raised $385,000 for Friends of the Smokies, said Friends board member Steve Woody. All of the money raised was spent on the North Carolina side of the park, including the Parks as Classrooms project, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center displays, the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center at Purchase Knob, helping fund the hemlock woolly adelgid battle and even to help bring back elk into Cataloochee, Woody said.

“It was a surprise to us when the state said it wanted to change the plate,” Woody said. “It had been approved by both the Highway Patrol and the manufacturer.”

Woody said surveys have shown 40 percent of sales are by people “who buy because they like the plate.”

Pat Steinbrueck of Sylva said that when she and husband, Steve, moved here from Pennsylvania a few years ago, the colorful Smokies plate “caught my eye right away — it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a pretty plate and support a good cause.”

Several of the nonprofit groups with specialty plates in the mountains have formed a coalition to lobby legislators to reconsider gutting the plate design.

“We are trying to convince the people in Raleigh to keep them the way they are,” said Joyce Cooper, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I think if they take the color off of them it will destroy the beauty and the interest that people have. They are so attractive, that’s what makes people want to have them.”

The cool factor of sporting a specialty plate indeed seems to be a driver for those buying them. Case in point: after the Smokies redesigned its original specialty license plate — a turquoise and pink color scheme with a silhouette of trees — to the iconic black bear design, sales skyrocketed. Friends of the Smokies saw the number of its license plates on the road increase by more than 50 percent after introducing the new design.

The Friends plate, launched in 2000, was the first in a subsequent explosion of colorful specialty license plates in the state. In addition to “First in Flight” standard plates, North Carolina issues 216 other specialty plates, including a hiker on the Appalachian Trail plate, a scenic mountain road on the Blue Ridge Parkway plate, and an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The problem comes with some of the 25 full background specialty plates now decorating cars on North Carolina’s roads and highways: Highway Patrol troopers have said some of the plates are difficult to read, increasing the difficulty of keeping the motoring public safe.

Yet this year, the legislature approved an additional 25 or so full-color plates — the same lawmakers, and in the same bill, that phases out full-color plates.


The design

Micah McClure, a designer for The Smoky Mountain News, designed the popular black bear Smokies plate. It replaced the older plate which sported pink and turquoise curly-cue letters. He’s attempting now to design the “transitional” plate. McClure said that it’s not an impossible task to create a beautiful specialty tag and meet law enforcement needs, too.

Color choice is critical, he said, as is contrast and not “making it too busy” with too many graphic elements. McClure said that he’d noticed during the weekend a N.C. Tennis Foundation specialty license plate, with dark blue lettering on a dark green background, and understood instantly why law enforcement officers have been complaining.

“There has to be legibility for law enforcement,” McClure said, “You couldn’t read it. But if the contrast is there, then there shouldn’t be a problem.”

The Parkway plate has navy lettering on a yellow background, for example. That color contrast makes it is easy to read, as is the Smokies’ — dark blue on light green.

Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, said getting a specialty license plate approved in North Carolina proved “an incredible political process” to undergo. That Friends group wanted one of the full-color plate designs. But Dixon was told the state wasn’t approving any more of those, and the only design she could have was the new kind with a tiny logo in the corner.

“It was disappointing to us,” Dixon said.

It was also quite confusing to Dixon, because the state did indeed approve full-color plates for certain groups — around 25 or so — including plates for anti-abortion groups, N.C. Mining and Carolinas Credit Union Association.

The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has started selling its plate already, but it must obtain 300 prepaid applications before the DMV will start manufacturing them, a job that is done by prisoners in state correctional facilities.


Specialty plates by the number

Friends of the Smokies

• raised $2.5 million since 2000 in N.C.

• almost 20,000 plates on the road.

Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation

• raised $2.9 million since 2004

• 27,000 plates on the road.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy

• $586,000 since 2004

• more than 5,000 plates on the road.

Backcountry Horsemen

• Need to sell 300 before the state will manufacture and distribute; have sold about 150 since 2004. No plates on the road.

Elk Foundation

• More than 4,000 plates on the road

• Raised more than $200,000 since 2003

Magistrate cuts cause consternation for cops

A state plan to eliminate a part-time magistrate in Highlands is being roundly condemned — and resisted — by Macon County law enforcement leaders and government officials.

Slashing the positions in the name of savings has been likened to a cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face measure. Good on paper, perhaps, if you’re sitting in Raleigh trying to make the numbers add up.

But inane if you’re among those who live in this region and drive the 10 winding mountain miles between Franklin and Highlands — a trip that costs cops and deputies an hour each time they need to charge someone with a crime.

The loss of two magistrates in Jackson County, reducing the number from five to three, is posing problems for the court system there, too, and has prompted official requests that the cash-strapped state Administrative Office of the Courts reconsider the cuts. The last time Jackson had just three magistrates, it was 1979 and the sheriff’s department had 14 employees, said Clerk of Court Ann Melton. Today, Jackson County’s sheriff’s department has 78 employees.

The magistrate situation is OK in Haywood and Swain counties for now, with Haywood standing at five magistrates and small Swain at three, Chief District Judge Richie Holt said last week.

But in light of the cuts in Jackson and Macon, Holt has been forced to reduce the amount of time magistrates in those two counties are available to book suspects, issue warrants and the like. Law enforcement is very unhappy about it, Holt said, and the public is often forced to wait for a magistrate to appear.

There is supposed to be a magistrate on duty 24 hours a day, Holt said. “With three in Jackson County, do the math — we just can’t do it. It’s not possible to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage,” he said.

Magistrates are on-call for law enforcement when they aren’t physically in their offices.

Elimination would take place in the fall of 2012. Macon County will lose another fulltime magistrate in Franklin, too, in the name of state savings, but it’s the part-time position in Highlands that’s causing the heartburn. That’s because if the elimination happens, Highlands would be left without law enforcement protection while officers make the drive down the mountain to obtain a magistrate’s services in Franklin. Or, more town officers or county deputies would need to be assigned to protect southern Macon County.

Most likely at a much higher cost than what the state is proposing to save, Highlands Police Chief Bill Harrell said. The magistrate in Highlands costs the state $20,000 a year.

“In Raleigh, it looks like 15 minutes (between the towns). It’s actually a 40-minute drive,” Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said. And that, of course, doesn’t figure in the amount of time officers and deputies spend on individual cases — that could be hours, not minutes; and in the case of mental-health patients, days and not hours.


What do they do?

Magistrates have legal duties in both criminal and civil cases. In many instances, a citizen’s first contact with the judicial system comes via a magistrate. The magistrate determines if, and to what extent, additional action is needed when a police officer or a citizen says that a crime has been committed. Duties include issuing arrest warrants, search warrants, subpoenas and civil warrants. Magistrates conduct bond hearings to set bail and conditions of release when someone is charged with a criminal offense, among many other duties.

Source: N.C. Magistrates Association

Same-sex marriage heads to the ballot

Next spring, voters in North Carolina will voice their opinions on gay marriage when a constitutional amendment banning the practice will appear on the spring primary ballot.

The question isn’t whether gay marriage should be allowed; it’s already outlawed in the state. But the amendment would entrench the legal ban on same-sex marriage, giving it a much more unassailable legal footing by putting it in the state constitution.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he voted to put the measure to the people as both a campaign promise and a personal commitment to what he called the traditional family, not as an anti-gay tactic.

SEE ALSO: Opinion: It should not be so in America

“That’s not my intention at all. I just think that traditional marriage has been under assault for the last 30 or 40 years in our government, and I think that it’s paramount that we reestablish that in our society,” said Davis. “I think that traditional marriage is the bedrock of our society.”

The amendment got on the ballot after a three-fifths majority vote in the North Carolina House and Senate two weeks ago. In both chambers, all voting Republicans voted yes to a ballot initiative, while all voting Democrats cast no ballots.

North Carolina is the only southern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the outcome of this vote could signal which direction the state is headed in the future, said Chris Cooper, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University.

“What the outcome is going to signify to a lot of people what kind of state North Carolina is,” said Cooper. “North Carolina has always kind-of enjoyed this reputation of being a progressive state in the South. I think that signifies something in the state, we’re kind-of a purple state — we go for Obama, we aren’t for gay marriage but we don’t have a constitutional amendment against it.”

And that progressive, half-and-half reputation is about to be challenged with the spring primary ballot.

It could have bigger political implications, too, for the November election next year. Davis said the reason the initiative is on the primary ballot rather than waiting for the general election in the fall was a concession to Democrats.

Cooper says putting the issue on the primary ballot could give much more right-leaning Republicans the wins in the primary, as voter turnout for such a religiously charged social issue is expected to skew towards a more staunchly conservative demographic.

As for the amendment’s chances at success, Cooper says they look pretty good.

“I think it’s going to have a lot of support,” said Cooper. “Nationally and in North Carolina, younger people are the ones who support gay marriage, and we know that younger people are the ones who don’t often turn out to vote.”

In fact, data collected between 1994 and 2009 by Columbia University graduate students shows that, across the country, approval of same-sex marriage responds inversely to age: the older you are, the less you approve of gay marriage, and vice versa. If a vote on the issue were put to only those Americans 65 and over, no state would allow it. In the most gay-marriage-friendly state, Massachusetts, only 35 percent of seniors endorsed it.

There are 39 states that favor same-sex marriage more than North Carolina, and of the 10 behind it, most are southern states.

What the amendment’s passage would mean for North Carolinians is as yet unclear. Opponents have spoken against it for a number of reasons, calling it anti-gay and a distraction.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was incensed that the General Assembly spent its time and money in the closing days of the legislative session on what he said is an unnecessary measure.

“North Carolina already has a law banning same sex marriage and has had it for 15 years. The law has not been challenged in the courts, but if it were, and a federal court ruled against it, the statute and/or constitutional amendment would be null and void,” said Rapp, in a legislative update. “We spent $150,000 to bring legislators to Raleigh for three days to vote on one constitutional amendment that was not reviewed by one of the House Judiciary Committees, is already a law but will cost even more money to put on the ballot in next May’s primary ballot.”

Before the chambers closed for the year, the issue was hotly debated on both the House and Senate floor, and in the eight months leading to the vote, things will likely get contentious in the public.

Davis said he’s already gotten a massive deluge of calls and emails from both sides of the debate.

In a June study assessing the legal implications of a constitutional amendment, UNC School of Law professors said it would throw into question the benefits and protections same-sex couples now enjoy under non-marriage partnerships such as civil unions.

The study said the dilemma lay in language that was “problematically vague.” An amendment would dictate that “marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

But that’s not what’s in the law now, and not what’s ever been there before.

The law professors found that might cause problems with health insurance, end-of-life issues such as wills, along with child custody and domestic violence protections for both homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples alike.

Davis said this is not the intention.

“I think that they still have legal rights at their disposal to protect them and they can have a civil union,” he said. “It’s just not called marriage.”

It should not be so in America

Editor’s note: North Carolina legislators have voted to place a proposed constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage on the ballot in the May 2012 primary (see related story). The Smoky Mountain News asked Marilyn Jody, a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University and the author of a memoir dealing with her experiences as a lesbian and as a teacher, to write about her feelings on the action by legislators.

By Marilyn Jody

This week I wrote a letter to all the members of my family, telling them that once again it would be necessary for me to speak out in public. And Joanne called her children to ask if they had any reservations about being exposed, once again, as children of a lesbian mother.  

We were referring to the simple fact that we had been asked to write a response to the decision of the North Carolina legislature to place an anti-gay amendment on the ballot. Once again we were reminded what it means to live your life in fear. Would our family suffer? Would we suffer because we were speaking out against discrimination, because some people still don’t understand?

It is difficult to say to people I know and respect, people of conscience and good will, that voting to deny the civil rights of any group of people is wrong. The Constitution was written to protect those rights. Most people in this state and in this country already believe that. But when convictions about same-sex marriage, a matter of personal belief, come into conflict with belief in “liberty and justice” for all, the result is a painful conflict of conscience. We have freedom of the press; we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech; we have the right to privacy. We don’t have the right to deny others those same rights. Not in America.

SEE ALSO: Same-sex marriage heads to the ballot

Same-sex orientation is not a choice, anymore than being left handed is a choice. I know that as I know I have brown eyes. But that isn’t the question. How to live within that reality is a choice that Joanne and I have had to make over and over again in our more than 70 years of life. We have chosen to live in a sacred, committed relationship, one that began more than 50 years ago.

We were married in Massachusetts three weeks after same-sex marriage first became legal in this country, a civil contract that is only symbolic, since we still have none of the rights and protections for our family that heterosexual couples have. We live with the reality that North Carolina law already excludes us from legal protections that are given to other parents and step-parents. As a mother and grandmother, Joanne continues to live with the fear that her children and their families could be hurt because of who she is, who we are.

That should not be so in America.

For most of my life, I lived in silence, in fear that my family would reject me, that my friends would desert me, that I would lose my job, even that I might be accused of criminal behavior or be physically assaulted. It was not until I taught a class on gay and lesbian literature at Western Carolina University that I was emboldened to write a book about that fear, the same one my students were still forced to endure as Joanne and I had done our whole lives.

In that book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, I wrote about the hurtful experiences my students encountered simply because they had enrolled in the class — the young man, now homeless, whose mother had rejected him when he told her he was gay, who told him she prayed to God to let him die rather than live in such sin. I wrote about the students I had known who committed suicide because they had been taught to hate themselves, taught by their families, their churches, their schools, and their government.

That should not be so in America

In writing and publishing a book about my life, I hoped to save others from some of the injury done to me and others by prejudice and misguided conviction. That is still my hope in writing this article. Given the choice, most people of faith would never choose to allow their beliefs to harm or hurt others.  

But this proposed amendment to the Constitution does do harm — to our state, to our families, to all our lives.  Same-sex marriage is already prohibited in North Carolina by state statute. What the proposed amendment does is further the political cause of a limited few and mislead fair-minded people into voting to rob ordinary people of the dignity and respect accorded to every other law-abiding citizen of this state. Millions of dollars will be spent on political ads in North Carolina over the next few months, promoting discrimination against people whose sexual orientation is different from that of the majority. Many young people will be reading and listening, feeling despair, not hope for their future. This amendment will do nothing to protect our families; it can destroy them.      

I wrote a letter to my representative in Raleigh this week, thanking him for voting against placing the anti-gay amendment on the ballot. And I wrote to the Bishop of this Diocese of the Episcopal Church, the church I belong to, thanking him for signing the statement of church leaders in North Carolina opposing this effort to violate the civil rights of North Carolina citizens. I was truly grateful that I could actually speak freely to both state and church on the subject of my rights as a citizen and as a person of faith. That had not always been possible. But that could change if the ballot box is used as a weapon against a minority whose rights are at stake.

That should not be so in America.

(Dr. Marilyn Jody, professor emeritus at Western Carolina University, has taught literature and writing in multiple university settings that range from Ohio, Indiana, and New York to Alaska and the People’s Republic of China. She is a speaker on gay and lesbian issues in a variety of venues, including national conferences, schools, colleges, and churches. In recent months she has done signings of her book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, at City Lights Book Store in Sylva and Malaprop’s Book Store in Asheville as fundraisers in support of equality for the LGBT community. Her partner, Joanne Cleary, is a retired teacher and coach, the mother of two children and grandmother of four. She has been an activist in support of LGBT rights both in North Carolina and New York for more than 40 years.  Marilyn and Joanne were married in Massachusetts in 2004, three weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in any state, 48 years after they first met.)

State prisons, county jails play musical chairs with inmates

Counties with jail beds to spare will soon be able to make a little cash housing state prison inmates.

Under a new program introduced by the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year, minor criminals with short sentences won’t be housed in state prisons anymore. The new measure will mean more heads in local jails and, for some counties, a little more money in local funds, too.

Currently, county jails hold inmates charged with a crime and awaiting trial. Once sentenced, they are shipped off to state prison, unless their sentence is less than 90 days, in which case they serve the short time in the jail.

But starting next year, county jails could end up housing inmates with sentences up to 180 days who would have otherwise ended up in the state system. It will only apply to prisoners convicted of misdemeanors; felons will still go into the state system.

Essentially, it’s a logistical move, said Eddie Caldwell, vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. They’re the group that’s going to manage the project.

“The legislature believes that there is available capacity in the county jails, but we’ve never had a mechanism to match up the heads with the beds that are available,” said Caldwell.

The program is completely voluntary. Local sheriffs don’t have to take on the prisoners if they don’t want to.

But for those who do have extra room, they’ll get paid to house these prisoners that would have otherwise ended up in the state’s prisons. How much counties would get is not yet known, according to Keith Acree, public affairs director for the department of corrections.

“The payment structure has yet to be determined, whether it’s a flat rate or something else,” said Acree. But, he said, what is certain is that on January 1, the department of corrections will get out of the business of housing misdemeanor criminals.

It’s welcome news for some counties that have new or unfilled jails where empty beds are eating up money.

“If you’ve got a county that has beds sitting vacant, there’s a certain amount of cost built into that bed anyway, so the cost putting an inmate in there is incremental,” said Caldwell. “We think that those sheriffs who have vacant beds would be glad.”

Especially if it means they can make a little money to cover their jail overhead.

Originally, state lawmakers wanted to save money by dumping the misdemeanor criminals on counties without compensating them, an idea bandied about for several years, said Caldwell. Several other states already do it.

But clearly the state’s sheriffs didn’t like the idea unless it came with money to cover the inmates room and board.

In the current scenario, the state is still projected to save a bit of money. They’re closing four small, minimum-security prisons, including the Haywood Correctional Facility, which will cut some costs.

And the state will increase court costs starting this month to cover the cost of housing prisoners.

Statewide, the changes should affect between 5,000 and 6,000 inmates, said Caldwell. It’s hard to really pin down an exact annual number of those that could land in county jails — those with sentences between 90 and 180 days with misdemeanor crimes.

On one day in March when he took a tally, there were 1,700 inmates who fit the bill, and he figures that’s about average.

In Haywood County, there were 14 inmates convicted in 2010 who match the criteria. Jackson County had four, Macon County had eight and Swain County only two for that year.

So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem such a big deal for smaller, rural counties.

But in Wake County, the state’s most populous, there were 296 convictions in 2010 that would have to be housed locally somewhere under the new rules. And portioning those out could be a boon to empty jails.

Eventually, Caldwell sees this program giving counties an incentive to build bigger jails than they may need, theoretically paid for by prisoners other places didn’t want.

Currently, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association is figuring out how many beds there are in facilities around the state, then contracts will be signed before the program goes into effect at the beginning of next year.

Meth lab cleanup costs sloughed onto counties

In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.

The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.

More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.

Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.

In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.

The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.

During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”

In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.

Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.

The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.

Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.

Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.

Paddling on the decline, but still alive in WNC schools

In North Carolina, it’s illegal to hit a prison inmate. You can’t hit a child in a day care center. Military officers can’t hit their subordinates. In workplaces, nursing homes, hospitals and elsewhere, hitting is forbidden. It is even illegal to hit an animal.

But in the state’s public schools, there’s no ban on hitting, because North Carolina is one of 19 states that still allows corporal punishment to be used in schools.

The practice, once common, has fallen out of favor, but there are still 38 school districts out of 115 in North Carolina that allow kids to be punished with the paddle.

Only 17 used it last year, and only a handful of times compared to some other states, but the option still exists for teachers and administrators who find it effective. Haywood, Macon and Swain are among those that use it. Jackson and the Eastern Band do not.

Starting this school year, however, the choice falls into the hands of parents, who will be able to opt-out of corporal punishment for their child.

A bill just passed by the N.C. General Assembly requires school districts to get parent permission for corporal punishment at the beginning of the school year, a right already given to parents of students with disabilities last year.

Before, the only parental involvement required was notification. Schools had to let parents know they’d done it, but not necessarily before, and they certainly didn’t have to ask permission.

Allison Best-Teague of Waynesville is one parent who will be taking the state up on that offer.

She doesn’t use that kind of discipline in her own house and is glad she can now have a say in what happens to him at school, too.

“I’m actually against it for the school system overall, so I’m very glad to have the option to opt out for my child,” said Best-Teague. “I really think the bigger problem is that the state is still allowing it.”

Best-Teague now runs Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, but she was once the director of KARE, a Haywood County anti-child abuse organization.

In her role there, she helped parents learn how to deal with disciplining their children. In all the methods she worked with, she never saw corporal punishment listed as an option.

The new state law is a win for groups such as Action For Children, a statewide policy group that advocates for the eradication of corporal punishment in North Carolina schools.

“It has helped that the legislature has voted on this, it has changed policies,” said Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow with the group. “It means that the school district’s that are still allowing it will have to reassess their position on this.”

And in Haywood County, that’s certainly true. It has been used extremely sparingly in Haywood — only 16 times out of student population of more than 7,000 between 2008 and 2010. This past school year, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte estimates fewer than 10 instances of paddling in the county’s schools.

“It’s just not used very often and when it is, it’s by parent request,” said Nolte. None of his schools, he said, ever suggest it to parents. But they might comply if a parent asks for it.

Now, however, the new state law might lead Haywood to end corporal punishment all together for fear of sending the wrong message to parents, Nolte said. The school system would have to send permission forms to the parents of all 7,000 students, creating the false public perception that corporal punishment is commonplace, Nolte said.

Nolte said the decision will be up to individual principals. But he doubts many will choose to send that paper home.

“It’s not worth the trouble or the message to have that option available for five students,” he said.

The result will likely be a de facto end to corporal punishment in Haywood.

The issue is expected to be on the agenda at Macon and Swain County school board meetings this month, if not to look at a ban, at least to discuss the new regulations.

To what end?

In Western North Carolina, there are a number of districts that still allow corporal punishment. Haywood, Macon, Swain, Graham and Transylvania counties are still on the list, as are Burke and McDowell. Jackson County banned it in 2001, and Cherokee and Clay counties have stopped over the past three years. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians school system does not use corporal punishment, either.

Even among chronic users, however, the numbers have dropped precipitously in recent years.

Burke County, for example, paddled 325 kids in the 2008-2009 school year. The next year, it was only 93.

Macon County was much the same: 71 in 2008-2009, but just 30 the following year.

School officials and advocates such as Vitaglione chalk this up to increased awareness and changing times.

“I really think it’s probably a form of discipline that has aged out,” said Nolte. “It’s probably timed out in terms of its broad scope effectiveness.”

Dan Brigman, Macon County’s superintendent, concurs.

“Based on historical data, that’s what I’m seeing,” said Brigman. “I think corporal punishment is effective somewhat on a few students, but in most instances it’s a temporary disciplinary measure and if it impacts long term behavior, that’s a question.”

And that view is essentially a watered-down version of what groups such as Action For Children have long been saying.

“Over the last two decades, study after study has come out regarding school discipline, and none have found that corporal punishment is effective, and by that we mean in ongoing student behavior,” said Vitaglione. “Whatever indicator you use, there’s no correlation in using corporal punishment and improving any of those other outcomes that you’d like in schools.”

And the literature seems to back up that outlook.

Studies in places such as Psychological Bulletin and the Journal of School Psychology have noted little if any long-term changes in how students act because of paddling.

The debate over corporal punishment, though, is unlike other contentious issues in one notable way: it’s pretty difficult to find a strong advocate on the other side of the ideological divide.

There are plenty who have taken the findings as ammunition for their vocal campaigns against the practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a position against it. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch teamed up in 2009 on a study and subsequent campaign that decried the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities. Urban clothing pioneer Marc Ecko has launched a crusade called Unlimited Justice, a play on his Ecko Unlimited label, that seeks to ban physical punishment in all 50 states. There are numerous regional and local groups who have set up opposition.

But on the other side, it seems that there are only a few school administrators who will make a defense for it, and even then it’s half-hearted and with some pretty strong caveats.

“It works on some occasions, on other occasions, that’s not the answer for it,” said Bob Marr, Swain County superintendent.

It could be, as Nolte said, that the practice is just trending out, fading in deference to a more modern perspective.

The touchy legal ramifications probably don’t hurt, though.

While North Carolina hasn’t really faced court challenges over corporal punishment, it is also pretty low in the numbers rankings.

Take Mississippi. In 2009-2010, Action For Children estimates there were 38,000 instances of corporal punishment in that state’s schools. Fellow Southern states Arkansas, Texas and Alabama were similarly inclined, their numbers reaching into the tens of thousands. In comparison, North Carolina’s approximately 700 instances are hardly in the same league.

In Mississippi, however, three suits were brought against school systems for corporal punishment in 2010.

One, a gender discrimination suit brought by a male high schooler, is still working its way through the courts. Two others were money damages suits brought against a single district. The students in those cases were 11 and 6.

In Tennessee, a high school basketball player brought a case against his coaches for what the player said was excessive use of paddling. He lost on appeal, as the court said the action was disciplinary.

That sticking point is one of the key objections of anti-corporal punishment activists.

In North Carolina, teachers and administrators are immune from any prosecution over practicing physical discipline unless the child needs medical attention.

Even then, said Vitaglione, he’s not encountered a parent willing to prosecute.

“There have been a few instances where we’ve heard of a child being injured, but we have not had a family who was willing to participate in filing a suit,” said Vitaglione. “In part they feel intimidated, in part they feel guilty on their own. We, frankly, are loathe to get into that as well. We would prefer that the decision be made in the school board room or in the legislature.”

The legislature, however, is unlikely to enact an outright ban anytime soon. Bills with such proposals were defeated in 2007, 2008 and 2009. This most recent bill leaves the choice in local and parental hands, and both lobbyists and legislators anticipate that it will stay that way.

“Probably not,” was Rep. Ray Rapp’s, D-Mars Hill, answer, when asked if he saw a blanket ban coming anytime soon, although Rapp himself does not support corporal punishment. “I would say that most legislators may have strong feelings one way or the other on it, but they’re content to leave it to local jurisdictions.”

Action For Children says they’ll take what they can get, but statewide elimination is really what they’re pushing for.

One of the main reasons is oversight. There really isn’t any. The state has hitherto not required any reporting of corporal punishment statistics, nor have they handed down any guidelines on how, when or why the discipline can be meted out.

In Haywood County, it’s a principals-only policy. In other school districts, teachers, teacher’s assistants and even substitute teachers are allowed.

Without more careful oversight, say advocacy groups, some sections of the student population may be getting a disproportionate share of the corporal punishment.

Nationally, that ACLU-Human Rights Watch study found this to be the case for students with disabilities. They found those students twice as likely to be hit than the general student body.

Rapp believes that’s partly why it’s on the decline, and why lawmakers were spurred to action on the issue over the last few years.

“Without the strictest supervision and care, you can easily find yourself in court,” said Rapp.

In North Carolina, the districts that allow spanking and paddling are quickly dwindling. Gaston County eliminated it a few months ago. Vitaglione expects Greene County to follow suit at their school board meeting next week. The issue came up at Monday’s Swain County School Board meeting, where the board decided to send the forms to parents this year and revisit the question later.

Macon County’s school board is scheduled to discuss it later this month, if not to consider a ban, at least to look at new regulations.

Nationwide, the trend is also towards extinction for the disciplinary tactic. Most major urban areas have long since outlawed it — New York City schools have had a policy against it since the 19th century.

States that still allow it are mostly in the South, with a few dotted around the rural west.

Internationally, the United States is alone among developed nations in still allowing it in schools. Many developing nations — Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Malawi, Namibia and many others — also forbid it.

Though a nationwide ban seems as unlikely as a state proscription, it’s more plausible that de facto bans will become more widespread, as legislation like North Carolina’s recent bill become more commonplace.

Locally, school administrators say most parents think it has already long been phased out anyway.

“I do think the new law probably makes it impractical to even have as an option,” said Haywood’s Bill Nolte. “Do you want to sent home 7,000 sheets of paper for something you may or may not even do? What’s the practicality in that?”

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