Scott McLeod

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The Tour de France

Each July for the past decade or so, I’ve been riveted by this race, especially the dominance of Lance Armstrong. Riding more than 2,000 miles in 21 days is a super-human feat. Perhaps that is why performance-enhancing drugs became the norm and the sport is suffering from a blackeye. Well, Lance is gone, and superstars like Floyd Landis (last year’s winner), Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso have all been implicated in the doping scandals. Now, though, cycling is likely entering a new era as drug testing has become more sophisticated and the chance of getting caught is hopefully dissuading riders from using. Despite the black cloud and the withdrawal of many superstars, I’m still watching. George Hincapie from Greenville, S.C. — whom many local bikers know personally — won Saturday’s prologue in London. Something about mind-boggling, physical feats like this race — where riders burn more than 6,000 calories a day — draws me in.

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op frA trusted friend surprised me the other day. At his child’s elementary school, it had been decided parents should not walk their children into the classroom in the mornings. Seems such habits, according to the school officials, foster dependency instead of independence.

I laughed at first, thinking of my friend’s sense of humor. He knows I’ve always taken a keen interest in my own kids’ schooling, and I was sure he was kidding me. No joke, he retorted.

Comment

Jackson County commissioners have given final approval to what are generally regarded as the state’s toughest subdivision and steep slope ordinances.

The approval of the ordinances was followed by a lifting of the controversial moratorium on new subdivisions that was enacted in February to provide county planners time to develop the new ordinances.

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op frEven though there’s little room for compromise, I’m going to step into the fray.

Haywood County commissioners are trying to come up with a policy about Confederate flags and whether they should be allowed at the Confederate memorial that adorns the courthouse lawn. The flags — tiny, hand-held ones at that — were offensive to at least one person who raised the issue to the county, but I suspect there are many others who find the symbol just as offensive but are keeping their mouths shut.

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op frCount me among those who hope the MedWest affiliation between Haywood, Jackson and Swain hospitals survives. Otherwise, I fear none of the three hospitals will survive, but instead be swallowed up or severely marginalized in within a decade.

It’s been a tumultuous four years for the hospitals in the counties west of Buncombe. Despite the bumps in the road, though, there seems now at least a path — via the management contract with Carolinas HealthCare — for the three hospitals to move into the future serving pretty much the same role in their communities they’ve been serving for decades.

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op frWhen Lori and I moved to Waynesville with our then 2-year-old daughter Megan, we made a conscious choice to build a life in a small town. Our belief was that the pace of life in such a place would be more satisfying for us and more conducive to raising a family.

That was a little more than 20 years ago, and I know now we made the right decision — and for more reasons than I could even have imagined at the time. It has been and still is a great place to raise a family, and we have developed many great friendships over the years.

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The decision by Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, to do away with a column in The Cherokee One Feather was a mistake.

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op frNorth Carolina’s General Assembly — under the leadership of Republicans for the first time in more than a century— will hopefully refrain in the future from pushing unfunded mandates onto the backs of counties and their taxpayers.

The U.S. Congress approved the Help America Vote Act so that counties could keep electronic voting machines updated and election workers properly trained. After the Bush-Gore debacle in 2000 that ended up in the Supreme Court, that seemed a wise decision. Electronic machines could have prevented the problems that occurred in Florida, problems that left Americans in limbo as to who won the presidential election.

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Too often debates about immigration veer way off course, inhabiting some netherland of hysteria that is so far from reality it borders on the ridiculous. In the past couple of weeks we in North Carolina have witnessed just such a situation as the decision that community colleges should admit illegal immigrants exploded into newspapers and radio talk shows.

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The praise for outgoing Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy has been plentiful. Both of the other newspapers in Haywood County have beat me to the punch, publishing glowing articles and laudatory editorials.

But I’ll still add my voice to the chorus. Foy’s tenure as mayor has just about mirrored my own career as a Western North Carolina journalist. He was elected in 1991, and I moved to the mountains in the summer of 1992. I’ve gotten to know these mountain communities at the same time I’ve gotten to know Henry Foy and watched him in public life.

 

Setting an example

Each year I spend covering politics and local governments, my appreciation grows for those who conduct themselves with class. It’s a trait that we all recognize when we see it but perhaps have difficulty describing. And that’s exactly the point. Someone who has class earns it by cumulative action over time. It’s not something one can sum up nicely in a campaign slogan or some pithy speech.

I distinctly remember meeting Foy’s old architectural partner, Tai Lee, soon after I moved to Waynesville. Lee had this absolutely wonderful sense of humor, and his outgoing nature endeared him to many. Foy, as many well know, is much more quiet and workmanlike.

Sometime in those first few weeks in the mountains I was introduced to Foy. Ken Wilson, then publisher of The Mountaineer — I was the editor — had the very helpful habit of giving me the background on those I met. He let me know right away that Foy and Lee were prominent town fathers who were well-liked, powerful in their own right, and just good people. Ken’s instincts were usually right on.

As time passed what I learned to respect about Foy more than anything else was his dogged pursuit of those issues he felt strongly about. Though he has always been congenial and, as I said earlier, a person with class, he is also a fighter. His position as mayor was both a job and a passion, and he worked hard at it.

 

Old Asheville Road

Here’s a comparison that reflects absolutely positively on Foy’s influence on Waynesville. Consider the difference between driving into Waynesville on Russ Avenue from Lake Junaluska and driving from Lowe’s on the Old Asheville Highway.

Russ Avenue is a wide ribbon of asphalt with absolutely no attention to landscaping or pedestrian amenities. Its design encourages drivers to just fly along. Nearly every time I’m on that road my instinct is to go faster than the posted speed limit.

On Old Asheville Highway, the opposite is true. Its landscaped medians, sidewalks, traffic circle and other design elements encourage drivers to slow down and be careful. It also looks pretty darn nice for what it is — a road.

Foy and the rest of the Waynesville aldermen and staff fought hard to get that road, and they wanted even more pedestrian amenities. The county commissioners at the time wanted a road exactly like Russ Avenue. As editor of the community paper, that was one of the first issues I took on. We editorialized time and again for more planning, re-thinking design plans, viewing this roadway as an entrance to Waynesville and not just another highway.

It was a long time coming, but the state Department of Transportation for the most part came around to the town’s vision. A series of work sessions in which the public took part with experts led to a process that had community buy-in and resulted in what we now have.

Foy played a critical role, and by my estimation it was the first time a community in this region forced DOT to re-design a road and come up with something better. Now, towns in the region stand up to DOT all the time.

 

Recreation for all

The second great fight I remember Foy taking center stage in was for the recreation center that opened about eight years ago in Waynesville.

Haywood Regional Medical Center had only just opened its beautiful fitness center, and there was a general consensus among many in Haywood County that if Waynesville built its own it would fail. Not enough people in the county, they said.

Foy, however, did not waver. I remember hearing him speak about the need to build a place where children could go, a recreation center versus a fitness center. He had help on this one from the likes of Bob Brannon, who also knows how to stand up for what he believes in, and many others. Again, I was editor at The Mountaineer at the time and we believed just as strongly in the need to build a place for children that would provide an anchor for the town’s Vance Street Park.

Foy and the recreations supporters succeeded, and now Waynesville has a park complex that is the envy of much larger towns.

 

A regional influence

Part of why I admired Foy so much is that our views were very similar on many of the important issues that have faced Waynesville and other mountain communities. He saw the wisdom in building the county justice center downtown, in preserving the town’s watershed, in developing a groundbreaking land-use plan and in supporting Waynesville’s Main Street program.

These are not political beliefs but quality-of-life values. Because of the stance Waynesville took on many of these issues — and Foy had plenty of support from other elected officials, town staff and many in the community — this is a great place to live.

And other mountain towns and communities have looked at Waynesville as a leader and emulated it in many ways. In other words, the influence of a well-run town reaches beyond its borders. I travel to public hearings and town and county meetings throughout the region, and without fail I’ll hear these other leaders mention Waynesville’s successes.

Foy left his mark, and it’s one that will endure for some time in Western North Carolina.

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

Comment

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

— Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson believed in a strict code of ethics and morality that was Christian-like, and judged according to that belief. When I came across this quote the other day while reading the Washington Post online, it seemed relevant to our situation today.

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The truth is that, at the state level, no one is giving Pat Smathers a chance to win in his bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. The Canton mayor and attorney is trying to run a statewide race with low-budget campaign, and so the odds are stacked against him.

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Fair’s fair, so I’ll print an anonymous letter I received over the weekend. We usually don’t print anonymous submissions, but this one raises important issues. Don’t stop reading before the last paragraph.

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The healing power of forgiveness is at the top of the list of things in which I believe strongly. It’s the best drug on earth, doing more good for more people than anything a doctor ever learned in medical school.

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op fr“You know, this is really the only thing I know I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”

That was my daughter Hannah, a rising senior at Tuscola. She’s had a lifelong gift for coming up with sweeping, profound declarations that make Lori and I laugh first and then ponder later.

She’s talking about being a guide at Folkmoot, which she is this year for the first time. The guides get to spend the entire 12-day festival with their group, eating and sleeping at the Folkmoot Friendship Center, helping the groups make it on time to all their performances and making sure all their other needs are taken care of.

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op scottWe were nearing the end of our European summer vacation with three other families from Western North Carolina when we pulled into Interlaken, Switzerland on a Saturday evening. As I looked around at the neat mountain chalets on the outskirts of town, it seemed they were all dark, almost as if they were closed up for the season. The entire town, it seemed, was on dim.

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op frState senators from the mountain region — and we’re especially talking about those representing the southwest, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine — need to pull out all stops to save the colorful license plates that put money directly into their districts and benefit their constituents.

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You never know what subject in a column will incite readers and friends to open up and express their feelings. Last week’s piece about the madness that the end-of-year testing brings to public schools certainly led to an onslaught of opinions.

I was at the gym when a regular whose name I don’t know approached me and said he liked my column.

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Each spring as the school year winds down, I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry. As preparations for end-of-year, high-stakes testing get cranked up in our public schools, everything changes.

One day it’s a potentially life-changing test that has even good students stressed out. They are told to get plenty of sleep, eat good and don’t be nervous. Right. Next day it’s a marathon of absolute nothingness, a very “un-educational” experience which for one of my kids involved a three-movie school day. Three movies in one day! Next perhaps is field day or some kind of outdoors day.

My daughter at high school, on the other hand, only goes on test days these last few weeks. I tried to check her out for a dentist appointment the other day and they couldn’t use the intercom to call her. Too disruptive during testing, the logic goes. “Text her, if she’s not testing,” I’m told by front-office personnel.

So it goes without saying that the 180-day school year, to put it kindly, is a joke. And the last 15 days are the funniest of all.

And what kind of encore performance could get cooked up to top the multitude of wasted days and hours at the end of each and every school year? Lucky for us, the powers that be have given us a two-fer: we get to start school in early August  to make sure we get enough instructional days in; and two, the Republican-led legislature has decided that public school students should attend school for 185 days, so local school leaders next year get to figure out how to add another five days into a calendar that is already impossible.

My kids go to Haywood County Schools, but it’s the same throughout North Carolina and probably the entire country. Since standardized testing became the wonder drug of accountability for politicians — the measuring stick by which we differentiate good schools from bad schools, and in some cases the tool we use to determine bonuses for educators — we’ve been headed toward the kind of madness that now is the normal for every school year’s end.

How mad, you ask? Well, I’ve had teachers tell me that border-line second-graders are being failed because principals and teachers fear their third-grade end-of-grade test scores more than they value their second-grade results and effort. I remember one of my daughters getting taught the “tricks” to help bolster standardized test scores. You know, if you can narrow to two answers, then make a guess. Or, if you have “b” or “d” as choices, pick “d” because studies show that it is more likely to be the right answer based on an average of answers over the last several years (or some such nonsense). Really, this is how to teach elementary students?

The opposite is true for teachers. While students go from total waste to ever-important testing, teachers are trying to test, re-test, find proctors, finish grades, conference with parents, finish paperwork, and wind up a school year in which work days have been cut and planning time shortened.

The great irony in this end-of-year waste of time for students is how it has become the opposite at the beginning of each school year. We keep moving school start dates back toward July in order to get enough days into the school year. I’m all for tough standards to make sure graduating students are prepared for the road ahead, including making sure there is enough instructional time.

Somehow, though, putting students through a couple of wasted weeks at the end of each school year doesn’t jive with the move to start school earlier and earlier. I can’t reconcile the two extremes. I’m looking for answers, and would love to hear from parents, teachers or administrators on this subject.

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

Comment

Rising health care costs were the catalyst for two budget decisions by Haywood County commissioners, one that will hopefully save taxpayer money and the other a stopgap measure to keep up with employee health insurance.

Commissioners were forced this week to pay an additional $150,000 into the health insurance fund for retired employees who are under 65 — twice what was budgeted.

Commissioners seemed surprised over the increase.

“Should we be concerned about this?” asked Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “We have a liability, and it is going up. It is more than twice the budgeted amount.”

The rise is due mostly to an increase in the number of retired workers under 65. When the county down-sized its work force during the recession, it offered early retirement options to workers under 65, and so the number of former employees in this category has now risen. The county only pays a portion of the health insurance for employees who retire before 65.

Stamey said the cost for retired employee health insurance would almost certainly continue to rise, however. The county also had to pay an additional $27,000 into the fund for employees over 65.

He hopes switching to almost exclusively generic drugs — unless a brand name is prescribed for medical reasons — could provide huge savings and is working on implementing that change.

Commissioners also voted unanimously to enter into a contract with Southern Health Partners to provide medical care for inmates at the county jail.

This fiscal year, the county will spend an estimated $230,000 on medical care for inmates, from dental work to prescription meds to doctor’s check-ups. By contracting out the lion’s share of inmate health care to a private firm, the county hopes to knock about $25,000 off its costs.

The contract with SHP is $134,888 a year but doesn’t cover everything. In addition to doctor and nurse visits, it only covers the first $30,000 in hospital visits, pharmaceuticals and specialist care. After that amount runs out, the county will be on the hook for whatever additional costs are incurred in those areas.

In addition to the contract with SHP, the county is budgeting another $70,000 for inmate medical care.

Commissioners still hope the contract can save a few dollars.

Haywood’s detention facility averages about 75 inmates a night, and the county is legally obligated to provide medical care for inmates under its watch.

While the coming year’s projected savings are modest, commissioners say the contract should help.

“We all hope this will reduce inmate healthcare costs and provide a solution to overall rising costs,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger.

— By Scott McLeod

Comment

You’d be hard pressed to name a state-run entity more closely aligned with the region it serves than the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville. The work going on there is important for the agriculture economy and critical for the emerging crop of growers trying to specialize in exotic and specialty varieties. And researchers at the farm continue to provide direct help to farmers growing crops and livestock that have for years been the traditional mainstays of mountain agriculture.

Perhaps just as important, the Mountain Research Station promotes the lifestyle that will continue to make this region unique. More and more residents place a high value on rural areas and green space, and farms are just as much a part of this movement as wilderness areas. This means doing what we can to help small and large growers remain profitable.

The products from those growers are often going straight into homes. Many who live here are more than willing to pay a little extra for high-quality and tasty foods that come local farms, and many groups and organizations are promoting this lifestyle. As the grow-local, buy-local philosophy gains steam, it builds and strengthens the micro-economies in our rural communities.

It was just a few years ago (2008) that state lawmakers suggested closing the 410-acre research station. Regional supporters fought back hard. Joe Sam Queen, at that time a state senator and now running to return to Raleigh as a state representative, was among those who rallied for the research station.

“We have a diversified agricultural sector with small producers,” he said. The research station provides vital help to these growers, he argued. However, the much-larger farms in the eastern part of the state often carry more political clout.

The Mountain Research Station survived. Bill Skelton, director of the Haywood County Cooperative Extension Office, says the test farm does important work and does it well. He cited its work to improve the cattle herd in the region, while also touting its crop research.

“They put those questions in the ground and see if they can find answers,” said Skelton.

Current work “in the ground” —35 separate research projects — includes tests on what could be new crops in this region like broccoli, truffles and canola (for alternative fuels); continued work with Fraser firs (the first experimental Frasers in North Carolina were grown at the Waynesville farm in the 1970s) and heirloom tomatoes; a project to improve weed control for organic farmers; and continued research to help cattle producers.

“We are becoming more diverse. It’s important that we remain cutting edge. We need to be ahead of the game,” said Mountain Research Station Director Kaleb Rathbone.

The test farm is succeeding at doing just that — staying “ahead of the game.” Let’s hope this economic engine for WNC is here for another 100 years.

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

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“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” quipped the legendary Yogi Berra after watching Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back homers so often it became almost commonplace.

That’s the sentiment many in Swain County are feeling after the most recent twist in the long and tortuous North Shore Road battle. Another broken promise, like déjà vu all over again. But for those who have been involved in this fight, there is nothing funny about the federal government holding up payments it promised to residents in lieu of rebuilding the road. In fact, it’s imperative that this current impasse get settled, and quickly.

The North Shore Road saga is littered with bruised feelings and broken agreements. The $52 million cash settlement was agreed to in a 2010 memorandum of understanding that was signed at Swain County High School in a ceremony attended by 200 people. The payments were intended to resolve the decades-old dispute between Swain County and the federal government over a road flooded during the construction of Fontana Lake back in the 1940s. The government at that time promised to rebuild the road but never did.

But it wasn’t just the broken promise to build the road that has contributed to the emotional turmoil suffered by many in Swain County. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, senators and congressmen from North Carolina lined up on different sides of the issues, cajoling presidents and cabinet secretaries to either build the road or compensate Swain citizens for their loss. Many visited the area, promising to do what they could in Washington. It has been a decades-long seesaw, with momentum swinging wildly with the political winds.

Through all of this, it has been Swain County residents who suffered. Families have been divided and friendships strained. That’s why the 2010 memorandum of understanding was so important, because no matter what side of the issue one believed in — build the road or provide just compensation — there was finally an end in sight.

Now federal bureaucrats, hopefully just temporarily, are foiling that agreement. The short description of the current imbroglio goes something like this: an initial $12. 8 million payment was made in 2010. The 2011 payment of $4 million was lost to budget cutting. This year’s $4 million was included in the Park Service’s budget, but because there was not line-item description in the budget directing NPS bureaucrats to send the money to Swain, it can’t be released, they say.

We’ll call bull on that. The agreement has been signed, and Park Service bureaucrats should not be able to hold up payment on what is owed to Swain County. If Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville — who happens to be a Swain County native — can’t get this fixed pretty quick, then we’ll have to agree with those who have long insisted the feds had no intention of holding up their end of this deal. We hope the naysayers are mistaken.

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

Comment

The specialty license plates that have provided millions of dollars for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — and plenty of other needy organizations in this state — may disappear if legislative leaders don’t take action to repeal a measure approved in its last session.

The measure to do away with the full-color plates was originally passed in the last General Assembly session due to safety concerns that law enforcement officials could not read the numbers. However, a highway safety committee has now recommended modifications that will allow the plates to keep their “look.” The state Highway Patrol agrees.

We at The Smoky Mountain News are partial to the Friends of the Smokies plate. Not only have we long supported the work of the Friends and the importance of the park to this region, our Art Director Micah McClure worked long hours with former Friends of the Smokies Executive Director George Ivey to design the plate. We think it’s a beauty, and it works.

The point is that supporters of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park need to contact lawmakers and let them know these plates and the revenue they bring in are important. Supposedly the repeal is in the bag, but anyone who follows politics knows that things can change fast.

•••

This is a short story of two bands. It’s also a way of trying to make up. Corrections in our newspaper get Page 2 billing, but this one warrants a little more detail.

So it was in our April 25 edition on page 24, in the schedule of events for the Greening Up the Mountains festival in Sylva: “3-4 p.m.: Noonday Sun, a Seattle-based Christian pop/rock band.” They were to be the featured band at one of the festival’s stages.

And Noonday Sun is indeed a Seattle-based Christian pop/rock band. Google it and you can see for yourself. But that’s not the band that played at Greening Up the Mountains. That band is the Jackson County-based Noonday Sun, which describes itself on their Facebook page as purveyors of “Aggressive instrumental fusion.”

Let’s see, Christian pop/rock band or aggressive instrumental fusion band. Couldn’t be more different. Kind of like a serious newspaper being mistaken for a shopper.

We pride ourselves in knowing our communities. That means being knowledgeable on who is the county board chairman and what band is playing where. Both very important depending on who’s reading.

To top it off, Chris Cooper, one of the guitarists for Noonday Sun, wrote music reviews for this newspaper for a few years. So, our apologies. I didn’t even know it had happened until running into Adam Bigelow at City Lights, and he couldn’t resist a little ribbing.

More importantly, I keep hearing about the growing Sylva music scene. That’s good for all musicians in Jackson County. And I don’t think many of them play Christian pop/rock. Thank God.

•••

Sometimes the written word is powerful. A beautiful description, a humorous phrase, a concise metaphor or a moving line of poetry can inspire. Martin Dyckman’s letter in this edition (see below) ripping Mitt Romney’s judgment is memorable not for the partisan tone but for its last line. Dyckman has written several books and is a former journalist in Florida. He is talking about Romney, but the line could describe any leader who has done something that proves he has become too enamored of power: “… is to give cause for wonder as to whether any part of the candidate’s soul remains unsacrificed to his ambition.”

•••

The upcoming issue of Smoky Mountain Living magazine (www.smliv.com) is dedicated to mountain women. It hits newsstands and mailboxes the first week of June, but we’ve just wrapped up the writing, editing and design of the summer issue, and it’s worth a read. I’d recommend picking one up or going all in and getting a subscription.

I won’t give away any content, but I will offer up one line describing a mountain woman that came from one of our readers. It’s rich: “You can tell she’s a level-headed woman because she has snuff running out of both sides of her mouth.”

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

Comment

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..)

Comment

The revelation was at first surprising and then disappointing. So I’ll take a stab here at shedding some light on the surprising part, which hopefully will also mollify the disappointing part.

As anyone who reads The Smoky Mountain News knows, I like to write about media. My fascination with the press and how it reflects society and influences change steered me toward this career path in the first place. My obsession with the subject has been lifelong and unwavering.

For those who don’t know, the owners of this newspaper — with the help of another local investor — bought Smoky Mountain Living magazine exactly four years ago, in March 2008. Maggie Valley entrepreneurs Wade and Beth Reece started the magazine 12 years ago. After Wade passed away in 2006, Beth kept SML going strong for two more years before deciding to sell.

I had always liked the magazine and thought it had great potential to become an important venue for writing about the culture, arts and lifestyle of this region. Wade and Beth had assembled a talented stable of free lancers, and the magazine was good enough to get picked up for national distribution by a company that’s a subsidiary of Conde Nast and Hearst corporations.

CMG is the largest newsstand magazine distributor in the country, handling such titles as Newsweek, TV Guide and National Review, just to name a few. Because of CMG’s reach, SML can be purchased at bookstores, retail chains and even grocery stores throughout the country. We inherited that national distribution agreement when we purchased Smoky Mountain Living.

And that’s one of the cool things about the magazine. It takes our story of life in these mountains to the entire nation. That’s powerful.

But back to the surprise that led to this column. A month or so ago I was talking to someone active in the Western North Carolina community, a well-read man whom I admire. As our conversation weaved through several topics, I was surprised to learn that he had never heard of Smoky Mountain Living magazine. And that’s when the disappointment set in. For four years we’ve been slogging away at producing a quality magazine and still many local people have never heard of it

Hence this column. Smoky Mountain Living has subscribers and readers from all over the country, people who either have connections to this region or simply want to read about this place we call home. But in this region, it seems our competitors — good magazines like WNC and The Laurel — have done a better job of marketing themselves locally.

So the task I’ve put before our staff and myself over the next six months is to get Smoky Mountain Living in front of people in this region. Hopefully you’ll be seeing the magazine around retail shops and other businesses who have subscriptions. Perhaps you’ll hear about it on radio. If you want to buy a year’s subscription — six issues — for $25, call 828.452.2251 or visit our website at www.smliv.com.

Naturally, I think our magazine is a better read than what our competitors are producing. We work hard to incorporate stories that are meaningful, interesting and fun. The staff includes many of same people who work at SMN, along with a long list of the best free-lance writers in this region. Like our philosophy at SMN, we try to go a little deeper into subjects than our competitors tend to do.

Our editor, Sarah E. Kucharski, was raised in Jackson County and worked at SMN for years before taking over at the magazine. Here’s her description of what Smoky Mountain Living is all about: “This magazine is rooted in the mountains, and I never want to lose sight of that. Smoky Mountain Living is not just for those who claim residence in the mountains by address — many of our readers don’t live in the mountains at all. Rather, Smoky Mountain Living is for those who claim the mountains as part of their character, part of their soul. It’s my responsibility to respect and embrace that in a way that appeals to both those who are from here and those who visit here.”

So that’s our pitch. Give the magazine a read, buy a subscription. If you have a friend or family member who lives out of the area but wants to stay connected, send them a subscription. You won’t regret the investment.

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

Comment

Question: How does one come to the conclusion that the upcoming General Assembly short session will almost certainly be an extremely partisan, politically charged couple of months?

Answer: When the political claws come out even in the most benign of settings.

Rose Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, organized a legislative brunch for March 26 so that HCC leaders could discuss challenges and legislative priorities. The food was great and the room filled with about 35 to 40 people on a gorgeous spring morning, the kind of people who don’t live in the mountains can only dream about.

Johnson, who is leaving HCC this summer, has had a successful tenure at the school. She’s brought a steady, wizened leadership that has put the college and its students first.  And she has made a point of getting involved in the community and encouraging her staff to do the same. This brunch was a perfect example, an opportunity for HCC staff to provide elected leaders with information that could prove valuable once the rubber hits the road during budget negotiations.

After Johnson and the staff gave their presentations on specific points, the elected leaders were invited to speak. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, was first, and glancing at an iPad propped up in front him for reference, the man who lists his occupation as a statistician spoke knowledgeably about community colleges and their funding. He also said tax collections for the state were running ahead of budgetary projections by about $150 million. However, he added that it appears that this money would be eaten up by budget overruns in health and human services.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is one of my favorite all-time members of the General Assembly. I’ve been working at newspapers across North Carolina since 1988, and Rapp ranks up there with the smartest, hardest-working legislators I remember. Successful politicians need to know when to vote according to their conscience (party ideology be damned) and when to vote according to the will of the people. Rapp walks that tightrope better than most.

Rapp was second to speak, and he pointed out that in the last legislative session— after the GOP had gained control of the both houses — lawmakers had to make cuts that hurt education, eliminating jobs and opportunities for students. He pointed out that in the two previous years the recession had already forced painful cuts, but what was done last session was much worse.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, was next up, and he did not mince words. He squarely blamed the painful cuts to education on the GOP lawmakers and their decision to sunset a half-cent sales tax that would have brought in $1.4 billion. Haire said that, historically, government spending during recessions helps mitigate the pain from private sector reductions.

Haire has been a co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and, after seven terms, is not seeking re-election. He gave a strong denunciation of the job done by the GOP-led legislature. It was pointed and, for Haire, emotional.

Freshman Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, was next, and he said he could not let Haire’s comments pass. “I didn’t know we were giving stump speeches,” he said to begin his remarks.

Davis said that he and the GOP leadership inherited a fiscal disaster that had been created under Democratic leadership, and that  tough choices had to be made. He said they had promised that the sales tax would be ended — a promise made back when Democrats passed it, by the way — and that the GOP election win proved that citizens wanted it to expire. Davis also used a phrase I’ve heard him use before, that everyone is going to have to share the sacrifice to get the economy and the state’s fiscal situation back on track. He promised legislative leaders would look at education funding in the upcoming session, but he held out little hope for any measurable increases.

It was an unusual and enlightening meeting. HCC’s needs are great, as are those of other education institutions. This is a setting that is usually highlighted by polite talk with few specifics. But this time the swords came out. The political divide is sharp right now, and there is very little room in the middle. I sincerely hope North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges and university system don’t continue to suffer as this divide widens.

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

Comment

Haywood Community College leaders told a gathering of elected state leaders this week that students and the economy would suffer if funding cuts to the college continue.

While college leaders were making their points about funding, state legislators participated in their own partisan finger pointing about who was responsible for the state’s budget shortfalls.

HCC President Rose Johnson invited legislators to a brunch at the community college this week to give the college an opportunity to discuss budget priorities important to HCC specifically and the community college system as a whole.

High on the list for college leaders was the loss of state funding. HCC’s state funding cuts will amount to $2.3 million in four years: $297,000 in 2009-‘10, $396,900 in 2010-‘11, and $809,000 in 2011-‘12. The projected reduction for 2012-‘13 is $833,000.

Johnson implored legislators to restore this funding. However, if the budget passes with reduction included, Johnson asked legislators to continue to allow college to decide where the cuts would come from, as they have done in the past.

Democratic and Republican legislators in attendance publicly sparred over the state budget cuts, a harbinger of what will likely be a hot button political issue in the coming campaign season.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, placed blame for the community college cuts squarely on GOP leaders in the General Assembly. He said the decision to eliminate the half-cent sales tax last year cost the state almost $1.4 billion in revenue, more than enough to have fully funded education at past levels.

Sen. Jim Davis, a freshman Republican from Franklin, countered that the previous Democratic leadership had landed the state in a fiscal mess. Spending reductions were the only way to balance the budget, he said, admitting that the cuts were tough measures taken to address a tough situation.

HCC leaders also asked county commissioners to restore the allocation for capital building projects and maintenance to $500,000. Haywood commissioners reduced the college’s building and maintenance fund to $120,000 as part of general belt tightening driven by the recession.

County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger said commissioners knew they were obligated to protect taxpayers’ investments by maintaining buildings, and he hoped tax revenues would increase this year and more could be provided for HCC. The county is in the midst of budget workshops now, however, and Swanger said it was too early to make any commitment about potential funding increases.

Others attending included Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine; Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill; county commissioner Mike Sorrells; and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Kay Hagan, D., and Richard Burr, R.

Comment

We — this country, its leaders and all of us — are imperfect. We're human, and that means we get it wrong sometimes.

But this is about something we've collectively gotten right from the very beginning of this republic. It is embedded in the Constitution, is a cornerstone of our civic life and is why we remain a bastion of freedom. I'm talking open government, and this week the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon College is marking Sunshine Week. It's a celebration of the free flow of information and the people's right to know how its government operates. We will continue to argue about the scope and nuances of public records and open meetings laws, but in this country the government must do its business in the open. No other place in the world does it like us.

In this day of Twitter and the blogospere, an increasing number of everyday citizens are turning into reporters who shine a light on the inner workings of our government. We welcome them to join us as watchdogs of local government. We're all fighting for the same cause. And every one of those citizens has the same rights to information as members of the traditional media.

The N.C. Open Meetings Law has its shortcomings — particularly when it comes to personnel law — but it is also clear in its access to information. Here are a couple of points that citizen-journalists and readers might find interesting. The wording is taken directly from a pamphlet produced by the N.C. Attorney General's office:

• Who may inspect or get copies of public records?

Any person has the right to inspect, examine and get copies of public records. People requesting public records do not have to disclose their identity or their reason for requesting the information.

• Can the government require a person to tell why they want to see or obtain copies of public records?

No. The government may not require a person to give a reason for requesting to see public records. Access to public records should be permitted regardless of the intended use, even if a person's interest is business-driven or is based solely on idle speculation.

• Is there a specified procedure for requesting public records?

No. The law does not specify a procedure and there is no specific form for making requests. There is no requirement that requests be made in writing. There is no requirement that the person making the request refer specifically to the Public Records Law when making the request.

The government's responsibility to conduct its business openly also puts a responsibility on the press to report accurately and fairly. In last week's Smoky Mountain News, three letters criticized our reporting — on the meaning of freedom of religion, on political bias, and on the lottery. We believe one of the foundations of a free press is an obligation to offer our critics space to air their opinions. Good newspapers foster civic discourse on the important issues of the day, allowing all relevant sides to air their opinions.

When government tries to withhold information, we will call them out. That's also a part of our responsibility as a voice of the citizens who deserve to know what their government is up to. Western North Carolina is lucky to be served by a several very good newspapers that take this watchdog responsibility very seriously.

I could go into the details and argue that North Carolina still has progress to make on open meetings and public records. As a career journalist, I have run smack dab into the law's shortcomings. But this is Sunshine Week, so let's extol the virtues of a society built on open government, a way of life that sets this country apart from the rest of the world.

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

Comment

Government at all levels needs to spend money judiciously. It is, after all, our money. I’m not convinced either major political party is doing that very well right now. What we get is competing priorities, which is why voters need to make choices. That’s where things sometimes get complicated.

North Carolina House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell, a Winston-Salem Republican, makes a strong case for taking relatively drastic and perhaps painful steps to get the state’s fiscal house in order. In a talk he gave last week at a meeting of the North Carolina Press Association in Chapel Hill, the candidate for lieutenant governor revealed a policy wonk mentality and knowledge of issues that left me impressed.

Folwell is part of the new General Assembly leadership that took over in the last session and went right to work to make changes. I’ve criticized some of those moves, as have many other newspaper editors, and continue to disagree with many of them.

Folwell and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, however, both made the case that the moves taken by the new Republican leadership will help North Carolina. Whatever one’s political stripes, what happens in Raleigh is important, and Folwell did a good job of using statistical data to shed light on a few important issues that are flying under the radar of most voters.

Folwell was blunt and matter of fact. He proclaimed that there are “four ‘invisible costs’ that will drive all the legislative issues North Carolina faces through the next generation. Those invisible costs are state debt, public retiree health care costs, state employee pensions and unemployment.”

Without getting into all the numbers, Folwell’s presentation shows that North Carolina’s pension system has not met its investment goals. That means the system will not pay for itself and will need tax dollars to keep it solvent unless things improve dramatically. The state also has obligations toward the cost of retiree health benefits and a huge debt to the federal government for unemployment benefits sent our way during this recession.

Right now the state keeps 4.75 cents of the sales tax on every dollar. To meet the obligations outlined above, Folwell says the state would need to more than double the sales tax to 10 cents. Ouch.

These are obligations to teachers and other state employees that we have to keep. Neither party has yet laid out a plan to solve this problem. As we struggle during this recession to adequately fund current public services — education, health care for the poor and elderly, roads, public safety, economic development, etc. — there is a bit of a monkey on our backs. Better yet, a gorilla.

Elections are coming up. We voters better pay attention, or they’ll be hell to pay a few years down the road.

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

Comment

Do you have a muse?

At different times in my life that role has been filled by different entities. As a teen, I had a very close friend whose quiet yet intense lust for a unique life was a source of inspiration for years. Through late high school and college, I fell head over heels in love with writing and was constantly moving from one author to another for guidance. There have been others who kept me on track and provided inspiration who probably didn’t even realize their influence.

Today it seems the need for that kind of outside inspiration has faded a bit. I feel fortunate to have a relatively rich personal and professional life, and a family that dominates — in a positive way — my emotional life.

As a columnist, though, I’m constantly looking for a muse, or, to put it more realistically, for inspiration and topics for a good column. Over the last 20 years, the place that has helped me the most as deadlines hung over my head like a guillotine has been The Sun. It’s a magazine started in 1974 in Chapel Hill by a New York reporter who sought refuge from the inane stories that too often fill newspapers. As founder Sy Safransky says in his own words, he “wanted to start a magazine that would present courageous, honest writing and respect readers in a fundamental way.”

Today The Sun has 70,000 subscribers. In 1990, the publisher made the decision to quit selling advertising and to just rely on subscriptions. That’s as gutsy a move as any publisher ever made. But the magazine has continued to grow, respected for both its content and its attitude.

I can peruse the feature stories, the fiction or the poetry, the reader contributions or Safransky’s notebook and always come away with a better understanding of some important issue of the day or perhaps a better understanding of myself — and ideas to write about in The Smoky Mountain News. The magazine is truly an original gem in a world awash with so much media that a great majority of it is just not worth spending time with.

Here are a few nuggets from the current edition. This is from an interview with economist Richard Wolf, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose 2009 book was called Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It. He has an undergrad degree from Harvard, a master’s from Stanford and a doctorate from Yale:

 

So the current crisis really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped rising, but its effects were postponed for a generation by debt. By 2007, however, the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was unsustainable. People could not make the payments. They were exhausted: exhausted financially, exhausted physically by all that work, and exhausted psychologically because the family had been torn apart by everyone working.

Stay-at-home parents hold families together. When you move everyone into the workplace, tensions in the family become unmanageable. You can see evidence of this in popular culture. The sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families. Americans are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 65 percent of the world’s psychotropic drugs, tranquilizers, and mood enhancers. We are a people under unbelievable stress.

 

Or this thought, from Safransky’s notebook:

 

I NEED TO CUT more pages from my upcoming book, so I’m trying to keep in mind William Faulkner’s advice to writers: “You must kill all your darlings.” No more procrastinating over whether a particular Notebook entry deserves a berth or needs to walk the plank. It’s nothing personal, I tell a comely paragraph (110 words, perfect posture, not an ounce of fat) as I grab it by the collar and give a little push. You wanted to live forever, I say. Of course you did. Deathless prose, et cetera. Soon you’ll be a drop in the ocean of God’s love. Don’t ask if it’s dark. Don’t worry that it’s cold.

 

A section called Sunbeams is on the last page of every edition and is collected, I assume, by magazine’s staff. Here’s a great one by a name most will recognize:

 

In her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Barbara Tuchman writes about a peasant revolt in 1358 that began in the village of St. Leu and spread throughout the Oise Valley. At one estate, the serfs sacked the manor house, killed the knight, and roasted him on a spit in front of his wife and kids. Then, after ten or twelve peasants violated the lady, with the children still watching, they forced her to eat the roasted flesh of her dead husband and then killed her. That is class warfare. Arguing over the optimum marginal tax rate for the top 1 percent is not.

— Al Franken

 

If you’ve not read The Sun, give it a try. If you’re a regular, then you may already share my addiction. Good stuff.

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

Comment

No.

It’s the biggest word in politics, often setting off a firestorm when delivered at a crucial moment. Gov. Beverly Perdue’s “no” to a re-election bid started an avalanche across the state from which the fallout still hasn’t ended. Here in the mountain west, Rep. Heath Shuler delivered a second surprising “no” when he said he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Shuler’s decision was a gut check for mountain Democrats. The district had already been re-drawn by GOP leaders in Raleigh so that even the extremely conservative Shuler would have struggled to win against a viable Republican opponent. The newly re-drawn district would have only voted 40 percent for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. For the GOP, fielding a candidate who could have taken on the ex-NFL quarterback whose political star was still rising became a free-for-all even before Shuler’s announcement. I’ve lost count, but it’s somewhere around eight candidates who are saying they will run in the primary, which means second runoff primary is almost inevitable. The primary is May 8, and the filing period ends on Feb. 29.

Shuler’s chief of staff, Hayden Rogers, is gaining momentum as the heir apparent for Democrats, but one can only wonder how that will play with Democratic leaders in this district who have been chafing with Shuler as their congressman. There are many in leadership positions that never embraced Shuler’s conservative ideology. Name your position — abortion, health care, stimulus package, even gun control — many, if not most, Democratic leaders wanted a representative who was more in line with their positions. It is assumed that Rogers, a Robbinsville native and Princeton graduate, will embrace the same political centrist positions as Shuler. Some have whispered that Rogers may be more conservative than Shuler.

I don’t know Shuler personally but was able to observe first-hand his political transformation. Early in his first campaign, his speeches were not delivered well and lacked substance. He was not very good. Many doubted his abilities, including a lot of the regional press who covered him. I’ve watched as his political abilities grew and improved as he learned the job. Early in 2011, I saw him on a national cable television news show after his bid for the speakership. He was poised, thoughtful and able to discuss big issues with confidence.

If this is indeed Shuler’s political exit, his brief stint would have to be described as wildly successful. He beat a long-time, entrenched incumbent in Charles Taylor in a Republican district. He won three elections, made a symbolic bid for the House speakership, and emerged as a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House who fought hard to reduce the budget deficit. He was talked about as a possible Democratic nominee to run for governor.

But his “no” ends it all — for now.

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

Comment

In this country built on capitalism, it’s a constant source of antagonism among politicians and citizens. I’m talking about the intersection of government aid to private businesses, and when is too little and when is too much.

Jackson County has had a poor record of success in this arena. It has a revolving loan fund that lends money to private businesses that the county thinks can create valuable jobs. County leaders have helped nine businesses over the last 18 years, and seven of them are out of business. Five of those that went out of business still owe the county money, dollars that likely won’t be repaid. Two of those still doing business owe the county money, and two who went out of business had paid in full prior to closing their doors.

There are two loans pending: one to the prospective new owners of AM radio station WRGC and one to Jackson Paper.

Critics say the money was given out with too few parameters. Supporters, like Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan — the longest serving commissioner on the board — say the whole plan was job creation at any price.

“The whole purpose was to create jobs,” Cowan said. “Whether you made money, you didn’t, or even if you lost a little.”

Now Macon County is considering using taxpayer money to create its own revolving loan pool, wanting to help entrepreneurs gain footing in today’s tough economy. And so those leaders too — if they go this route — will face hard questions in deciding who to help, and why, and for how much. But what the heck, it’s a tough economy and businesses need help, right?

Today, everything is about the tough economy, or so it seems. Interstate 40 closed due to rockslide, how will it affect the economy? No snow in the mountains this winter, how will it affect the economy? New trail plan released by forest service, how will it affect the economy? Macon County considers land-use regulations, how will it affect the economy?

Last week I had an email dialogue with an old friend who has strong opinions about the automobile industry bailout and whether the government should have gotten involved or just them go through bankruptcy. Two weeks ago a Charlotte Observer article called into question training programs at North Carolina’s community colleges that are geared specifically for industries, industries who might just up and leave the state as their business fortunes change. Remember Dell Computers, which shut down five years after getting millions in tax breaks and incentives, including millions in worker training programs paid for by North Carolina taxpayers?

All governments are in the business of taking our money and spending it. Or, looked at from the other side of the coin, all of us are voluntary members of a society in which we agree — through who we elect — to hand over a certain amount of our earnings in order to receive certain benefits.

This is where political ideology gets into the mix. Wall Street bailout or auto industry bailout? Which suits your idea of where the government ought to get involved?

At the local level, it seems support for helping out the private sector cuts across party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans at the county level defend their revolving loan program even though on paper it seems a dismal failure.

It’s the entrepreneur in me that has a hard time swallowing government aid to businesses of any type, whether it’s a direct loan or a recruitment incentive. That’s because I can walk out my door, look up and down Church Street, and then take a few steps and do the same on Main Street and see dozens of small businesses who could easily take a low-interest $100,000 loan and turn it into several new jobs that would lead to increase revenues for that business.

That would increase local consumer spending, put money into the state and federal government pipeline through payroll taxes, and help those businesses succeed and thereby boost the local economy.

But those businesses up and down Main Stret won’t get that money. It will  go to some unproven entrepreneur who may or may not succeed. So I don’t support local government loans to small businesses. As Jackson’s track record shows, these leaders aren’t equipped to determine who should get these loans, and in the end the process just smacks of favoritism.

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

Comment

“[I] discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it ….

— Novelist William Faulkner


What makes a good newspaper? That’s a complicated and subjective question, one that an increasing number of people don’t care much about as they switch to digital sources for their news. But one trait, it seems to me, remains important for news sources no matter whether it’s online or in print: the sense of place.

When you are surrounded by writers, editors, designers and computer geeks — and yes, sales people and administrative types —who like working in a creative and dynamic setting, advice is never in short supply. In an idea business, everyone has plenty to say about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad, what needs to happen and how someone else screwed up. The trick is to get good at latching on to those ideas that work and let others fall by the wayside.

My former publisher at The Mountaineer had one of those axioms that I grabbed hold of and still value. He used to tell me that people in this mountain region are fiercely proud of their culture, perhaps more so than in any place he had lived. He said it was the newspaper’s job to reflect and embrace that truth.

I’m paraphrasing, but the challenge went something like this: you should be able to obliterate the name of the paper and the city in which it is published from the masthead, and still know from reading the stories that you are in the Smoky Mountain region. In today’s world, that would also mean you should be able to happen upon our website and have the same thing happen.

That’s more difficult than you might imagine. In covering politics or county board meetings, courts, law enforcement, and education, stories have similar content no matter whether you are in Montana, Maine or Florida. The stories that reflect the history, culture and values of a region are usually more difficult to find and to write. It’s relatively easy to go to a county board meeting and regurgitate what happened, but much more time-consuming and intellectually challenging for reporters to interview a local personality and turn that into a readable story that reflects the sense of place to which I’ve been referring.

It was last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News that drove this point home. Every now and then you get it right, and even less often do you hit a home run. If there was a press award for capturing a sense of place, last week’s paper would have won first place. Our editors, reporters, designers and everyone else involved in the production of the paper got it right.

Here’s a list of some of the stories that made it into last week’s paper: Caitlin Bowling’s cover story about Bob Plott’s family and the Plott hound breed (the state dog), and the publication of his new book called Colorful Characters of the Smoky Mountains; guest columnist Brent Martin’s opinion piece about bills before Congress that would threaten protection of valuable natural resources; Quintin Ellison’s feature on Anne Lough, a prominent traditional musician who led a shape-note singing program at Lake Junaluska; and another story by Caitlin marking the 10th anniversary of the Balsam Mountain Trust, which puts on educational programs and runs a nature center in the upscale Balsam Mountain Preserve development.

Add to that list of quality stories about the Smoky Mountains the regular, weekly contributions of columnist Quintin Ellison, book reviewer and columnist Gary Carden, naturalist Don Hendershot and Back Then contributor George Ellison.

With the digital age of news upon us, the scope of place that large news outlets cover has never been larger. Newspapers like the N.Y. Times and USA Today, along with national or international websites, are vital to our knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live.

But small, regional outlets like The Smoky Mountain News still take great satisfaction in putting out a product that illuminates that little “postage stamp” that Faulkner so ably describes. And every now and then we do it pretty damn well.

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

Comment

Western North Carolina residents will be well served by the merger of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

The merger undoubtedly makes sense from an administrative and fund-raising perspective, something employees and board members emphasized in an article in last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News. It will give the LTLT (the new organization will retain that name) added resources as it expands its scope in the six westernmost counties, particularly in the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee watersheds.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the merger is a manifestation of the progressive approach to conservation that leaders of these two organizations have helped promote during the last several decades.

“We already had plans to broaden our scope and the areas we touch,” said Ken Murphy, board chairman of the LTLT. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”

That concept — that protecting land in turns help protect the water resources — sounds like common sense. Making it happen in the real world, however, isn’t so easy. LTLT and LTWA volunteers and employees have put together an admirable record of achievement over the years. By researching and providing data on the unique characteristics of the Little Tennessee watershed, these organizations convinced government officials, granting agencies and private entities that protecting the Little Tennessee River watershed was worthwhile.

When I first started covering this region as a reporter and editor, two people who have played a critical role in the LTLT and LTWA became trusted sources and ultimately friends. Paul Carlson and Bill McLarney helped me to understand that in today’s world, conservation isn’t just about locking up land in it wilderness state. The idea that there can be multiple and varied uses and therefore creative ways to preserve land and water was new to me. That approach has made these two organizations more successful than most at bridging political differences and building coalitions.

The LTWA and LTLT aren’t out there alone, that’s for sure. There are many land trusts, environmental groups, watershed associations and individuals who have done yeoman’s work to protect land and water in this region. Ten years ago when development pressures had many of us fearful that much of the rural and wilderness land remaining in the mountains would soon by lost, these voices were often drowned out.

It’s important that the new Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the other environmental groups succeed in adapting to the changing fiscal and political landscape. That’s the only way these organizations will survive and thrive in the decades to come, and their continued success is necessary to preserve the way of life we cherish in Western North Carolina.

Comment

It was pouring last Wednesday as I drove home, the cold rain  painting the winter landscape a dull grey. Standing on the sidewalk outside the Haywood County Courthouse was a single peace protester, his raincoat losing the battle against the forces of nature. The lone sentinel was from a group that has stood watch each Wednesday at the courthouse for years, I believe since a short time after the Iraq invasion in March 2003. I think on this day it was Doug Wingeier, a peace activist who has penned letters and guest columns in this paper and others, a man who has traveled the world to promote peace and understanding, a person whom I’ve admired from afar for years.

I usually honk in solidarity with the protesters. It would be incorrect to label myself a pacifist, but I certainly identify with those who advocate an end to war and the settling of political divisions that send too many people to early graves from bombs, bullets, starvation or sickness. I also tap on my horn as a symbol of support for these individuals themselves, who with their stoic, multi-year vigil are a living example of standing up for one’s ideals.

On this day, however, I almost missed Doug and therefore did not get to acknowledge his efforts. I also didn’t have time to read his sign, so I don’t know what it may have said. I could see the magic marker running down the cardboard, though, reminding me of a mother’s tear-streaked eye make-up.

It was the news on the radio that had my attention. U.S. Marines had been videotaped pissing on the bodies of insurgents they (presumably) had killed in Afghanistan. The news had just broke, so condemnation was pouring in from U.S. government and foreign leaders. Inhumane. Disgraceful. Deplorable. I had watched the video prior to leaving the office, and it was painful to watch the smirking young soldiers do the deed.

I won’t talk about how idiotic these soldiers were for taking part in this episode and then for letting it be filmed. They deserve to be reprimanded, perhaps court-martialed. We can rest assured the military will take stern measures.

Most Americans know nothing of war, don’t even know what it’s like as civilians to make sacrifices for a war effort. The latter is, in its own way, shameful. We can read books and watch video footage and get the idea, but that’s not real. When it’s your life or the guy in the bunker across the valley, or when a friend is in mortal danger, things happen.  You act, and what you do may not leave a sense of pride, but you just do it. I grew up in a military town as Vietnam was ending, and I had many very good friends with fathers who were just never right after that war. They had lost something, and many of those men are reaching the end of their lives still trying to get it back.

Wars are promulgated by leaders in nice suits sitting in soft chairs in Kabul and Washington, by warlords in the Middle East fighting for a way of life in a place where most have never experienced what Americans know as freedom. They are the ones who put those young Marines out in the desert where all they can do is try to survive and find their way home, where mistakes will be made, and we would do well to remember that before throwing out blanket condemnations.

War is inhumane, disgraceful, deplorable. Those peace activists standing out there in front of the Haywood County Courthouse every Wednesday trying to get our politicians to end these wars have been trying to tell us that for all these years.  

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

Comment

When the state House voted to override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto and stop letting teachers use payroll deductions to pay dues to the N.C. Association of Educators, a cry went up across the state. The vote came late in the night when the legislature was supposed to be considering another measure; the vote was retribution against the teachers group from Republicans who control the General Assembly because its political contributions went overwhelmingly to Democrats; and it was a further erosion of workers’ rights, a move by the GOP nationwide to weaken workers associations and unions.

All of the above are true. It would be hard to argue otherwise.

By my estimation, though, what’s particularly troubling about this move orchestrated by the General Assembly Republican leadership is that it is potentially just a first step toward what could be an orchestrated evisceration of the state’s public schools. I’m a product of North Carolina public schools, a system that as a whole has never been considered great. Only in the last decade have we increased teacher salaries to a respectable level. Student achievement still has ground to make up with counterparts around the nation. Many counties have put together quality programs that send students on to college prepared for what lies ahead, but others are lacking.

So why take a direct punch at the N.C. Association of Educators? To me that’s like taking a shot at working class people, a charge that the GOP is already having to fight off.

I should point out that my wife is a teacher. Though not active in the NCAE, she was as perturbed as one might expect when I shared the news stories about the vote in the General Assembly. It has to be hard for those who slog away daily in classrooms to think much of legislators who make a career of criticizing public schools and turning teachers into scapegoats for many of society’s ills.

In this case, many conservatives who voted for this measure are arguing that the NCAE isn’t really supportive of better schools, that its leaders are merely about padding their own pockets. That line — that worker groups are more about padding the pockets of its leaders than supporting its front-line workers — is almost always a ludicrous charge.

You know, GOP leaders in the General Assembly are right. Teachers have traditionally supported Democrats. The reason is pretty straightforward: Democrats in North Carolina have led the way as teacher salaries have gone up to a respectable level, as classroom sizes have become manageable, as teacher assistants have become mandatory in the younger grades, as resources have gone toward other early remediation measures designed to get students early intervention to shore up basic skills. When you work to improve the lives and the working environment for a particular group of workers, you earn their loyalty.

By over-riding the governor’s veto, the GOP has only reinforced the belief among teachers that their party doesn’t support our public school system. In this state, the NCAE does not have union-type power. It can’t engage in collective bargaining to demand better conditions for teachers. It can and does hire lobbyists to argue for particular issues.

We have been through a worst-in-a-generation recession, and only now is there a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. In this environment, cuts to state programs and to education are painfully necessary. Teachers don’t like the cuts, and they complained about them and used NCAE money to support candidates who vowed to protect public schools.

It’s one thing for elected leaders to get mad about a lack of support from teachers. It’s an entirely different matter for lawmakers to make a political point by punishing an organization for promoting public education. This one was a mistake.

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

Comment

I’ve put my keyboard-soft finger on what is probably the most common flaw of the human species: the unnerving tendency to quit doing what we know is good for us. Or, put another way, to make destructive or unwise choices.

As I contemplate the new year and my family, as I watch my children mature and begin to make decisions that will affect their entire adult lives, I couldn’t help pondering my own adolescence and early adulthood. I made some very, ummm, questionable choices. They should have cost me more than they did. I was lucky.

You’ve probably already figured out that I haven’t discovered anything new here. I remember first studying the ancient philosophers as an undergraduate. A playful professor pointed out Aristotle’s views on what the Greeks called “akrasia.” Excuse the layman’s definition, but it’s basically a theory that expounded on a human’s tendency to do what we know isn’t good for us. This particular professor used Aristotle’s point to poke a little fun at incessant partying, lack of sleep, students coming to class not having read assignments, and other aspects of college life that did not contribute positively to the future we all supposedly were preparing for.

Akrasia. The word works. Smokers know smoking is bad, yet they persist. Watching seven hours of TV a day, not good. Drinking too much alcohol, same thing. Breaking a promise, lying, wasting time, you name it. Every religion addresses this weakness, this impefection in the human condition.

All this self-absorbed introspection as 2012 dawned led to one very simple pledge, and that’s simply to start writing regularly in the pages of The Smoky Mountain News.

When we started this newspaper in June 1999, we did it on a shoestring. We had one salesperson, one designer, and one writer. I was the writer, so I wrote. In those days that was a whole bunch of news stories every week plus columns and editorials. It took a tremendous amount of energy, and I loved it.

Over the years, other responsibilities have steered me away from putting fingers to keyboard and collecting my thoughts in essays and columns. Family commitments, a larger business, and community endeavors all conspired to take valuable time. But like so many entrepreneurs who get sidetracked as their business grows, I still find the greatest satisfaction in the labor of love that led me here in the first place.

I said earlier that I was lucky in that some unwise decisions didn’t hurt me too much. In the same way, I was relatively lucky in choosing a career path from an early age. From the time I took my first journalism class as a high school freshman, I pretty much knew where it was going to lead. I worked at The Fayetteville Observer-Times as a high school student, reporting on regional high school sporting events as teletype machines spewing out AP and UPI news reports from around the country provided a constant background beat.

Once in college, I wrote for the college paper and was further encouraged by a few university professors who complimented my writing skills and stoked a desire to stick with the profession. After a satisfying few years as a carpenter and a bit of traveling, I found myself back in journalism. Five newspapers stints later, we started The Smoky Mountain News.

Which brings me to the here and now. One of my co-workers recently sat in my office and talked about her need to write more, to finally get to work on that novel. That happened a day after I had told my wife about my desire to get back to writing. That’s good timing, and perhaps another little nugget of luck.

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

Comment

There’s more than just a little irony the official Small Business Saturday promotion that encourages people to spend their money with small, independently owned businesses on Nov. 26 rather than only with big box retailers. Irony or no irony, though, the message is still relevant — small businesses are the engine of our economy, particularly in areas such as Western North Carolina. Let’s hope consumers remember that truth throughout the entire holiday shopping season, not just on this big kickoff weekend.

Now to the irony. The Small Business Saturday promotion was started by American Express, the huge credit card company that controls almost 25 percent of the credit card market in the U.S. That said, let’s give the company kudos for getting on a bandwagon that many of us have been riding on for years.

Whether it’s this Saturday, Black Friday or anytime between now and Christmas, dedicate a portion of your holiday shopping to local, independently-owned small businesses. These businesses generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years and employ just over half of all private sector employees, according to the Small Business Administration.

When you spend money with these businesses, a higher percentage of those dollars stays in the community. Those business owners and their employees are your friends and neighbors.

During the recent Waynesville election, this issue of local vs. big box was a campaign issue. Some argued that the town’s land-use policies inhibit economic development by making it hard for standard big-boxes or chain stores to build. Alderman Leroy Roberson captured my sentiments exactly when interviewed by our newspaper. Here’s an excerpt from that story from last month:

“Cracker Barrel is not my main concern. We are getting lots of good restaurants without Cracker Barrel,” Roberson said. “I want to create a climate that provides for small business. The big chains can take care of themselves. They have millions of dollars they can invest.”

Roberson said it is appropriate to ask chain stores to respect the towns they come in to.

“They should at least try to become a part of the community, in terms of ‘OK, this is the appearance you have, how can I fit into this?’ Not ‘This is the way we do it everywhere else and if you don’t like, we are not coming,’” Roberson said.

Roberson’s philosophy fits nicely with the argument I feel compelled to make every holiday season. It’s the local businesses — whether art galleries, auto parts stores, restaurants, and local and regional retailers — that make our mountain communities such special places to live. Keep that in mind as you make your spending decisions during the holiday season and throughout the year.

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

Comment

The clock is ticking on what will be a rigorous and thorough process to replace long-time Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway.

A series of meetings was held in Waynesville Nov. 16-17 by the firm hired to steer the town through the process, Developmental Associates. The firm’s Stephen Straus met with aldermen, town staff, the business community and the public to gauge their perception of challenges facing Waynesville and important traits for a new manager.

“I can tell you there will be a lot of interest in this job. The town of Waynesville is in an enviable position,” Straus told about 20 community members attending one of the public sessions.

Straus said Galloway’s long tenure in Waynesville and his leadership role in state local government associations means a lot of potential managers are aware of the town and its reputation.

“We have contacted some people who are in this profession, and there are others who just know. There is lots of interest,” Straus said.

At one of the public sessions, there was universal praise for the job Galloway has done in Waynesville. Former Mayor Henry Foy touted the town manager’s demeanor in handling problems, wondering how Developmental Associates’ process will find a similar personality.

“You never see anyone come into Lee’s office who leaves mad,” Foy said. “How do you evaluate that kind of professionalism?”

Straus said perhaps the most important tool he has in finding someone who possesses similar traits to Galloway is Galloway himself.

“Quite often a community or a board does not want a departing manager’s input, but that’s not the case here. Lee has already helped me get names, and he will help look at credentials,” said Straus.

Some of the challenges facing Waynesville, according to those attending the meeting, are: aging infrastructure; continuity of land-use planning; maintaining the emphasis on walkable communities and smart growth; economic development; and realizing that Waynesville is a tourist town.

According to Straus, the town board is still working out what the salary range will be for the new manager. He hopes to post the employment ad in newspapers and professional journals after Thanksgiving and run it the entire month of December.

Following that, the plan is to start screening candidates by Jan. 9, and narrow the pool to about eight candidates. At the end of the process, Straus said the town board will likely ask up to four candidates it thinks are capable of doing the job to visit Waynesville. The board’s challenge, he said, will be to determine which of those is best suited for Waynesville.

Galloway started working as Waynesville’s town manager in March 1994 and will retire in June 2012.

Comment

I don’t know Duke Energy CEO James Rogers and don’t have anything against him. But it’s not very hard not to imagine he and the giant utility he runs as the symbolic poster children for much of the discontent brewing in this country right now.

In a recent series of public hearings across North Carolina (including one in Franklin and one in Marion) about Duke Energy’s request for a rate hike, the company’s profits and the pay to its top executives have been mentioned by working-class folks who don’t want to see a 17 percent hike in their power bill. Duke has asked the state Utilities Commission to approve the increase, which would take effect in February 2012 if approved.

According to corporate filings and several news stories, Rogers earned $8.8 million in salary last year and received stock work about $1.35 million. Several other top Duke executives made millions. Also shown by recent corporate filings was a profit rate of 12.5 percent of earnings. Duke had an operating margin of 19.1 percent, which is a pretty good lick in this era. Most of those small businesses who will feel this rate hike would be ecstatic about those profits and that operating margin.

Rogers’ salary and compensation are at a level that puts him in elite company. His compensation is 200 times the salary of someone who makes $50,000 a year. The disparity is jaw dropping.

In addition to Rogers’ huge salary, Duke spent $1.73 million lobbying the federal government in the second quarter of this year. Multiply that out and one would guess that Duke spends somewhere close to $7 million a year trying to influence the votes of the men and woman who are going to make decisions about pollution controls, nuclear energy safeguards, etc.

According to Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group, 115 of the 170 state legislators elected in 2010 got a donation from either Duke or Progress Energy. The PACs of Progress Energy and Duke Energy gave $540,000 to General Assembly candidates in the 2010 election alone. That was more than any other PAC. The two companies are on their way toward a merger that will likely be approved.

And here’s a kicker that might raise some hackles. According to Democracy NC, “The companies are also lobbying the N.C. legislature for an unusual law that would allow them to raise rates automatically to recover the millions spent on developing and building new nuclear or other power plants, even if the construction project is ultimately abandoned. The proposal would make ratepayers, rather than investors, bear the financial risk of expansion operations.”

This is not meant as an anti Duke diatribe. Duke Energy is a popular corporate citizen that gives some of its profits back to the communities it serves. Its executives and employees take part in hundreds of community service organization throughout North Carolina.

But the timing of this request is what is so galling. Duke is reaping huge profits, pays its executives exorbitant salaries, and spend millions lobbying lawmakers who make the rules it has to follow, while at the same it wants the poor, the elderly, the unemployed and struggling small businesses to pay more for power.

The reports about of income disparity and poverty are raining down on us like a tropical storm: largest income disparity in U.S. history between top 1 percent and everyone else; elderly rate of poverty highest it has ever been; income gap between young adults and their parents at highest level ever; student debt at record levels; and more and more.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is lobbying the state Utilities Commission to deny the request. The N.C. Public Staff, which represents the public in these rate hike requests, wants the proposed increase cut by almost two-thirds. Obviously, the opinion of the state’s citizens has been overwhelmingly against the rate hike.

Duke wants more than just the rate increase and the ability to let ratepayers take the risk for its expansion. It also wants the Utilities Commission to up its allowable profit margin to 11.5 percent, up from the 10.7 it is now allowed. The Public Staff recommended a return of 9.25 percent. Most U.S. utilities have been allowed returns of 10 to 10.5 percent in the past five years, according to the  industry trade group Edison Electric Institute.

Taken as a package, this sounds like a big corporation trying to stick it to its customers during an economic recession. Duke’s political clout, however, means it will in all likelihood get at least part of the increase. That’s my bet. Any takers?

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

Comment

I followed the Janet Moore controversy from the beginning to its conclusion, which was all of three days. The former vice president of marketing for Mission Hospital made a mistake — a mistake that became very public — and paid a high price by losing a job she had held since 1991.

What seems obvious is that Moore was a casualty in a war that involves politics and medical market share, and that the war is far from over. She got caught in the crossfire.

This controversy, however, is also about cultural understanding and the words we use and knowing that what is acceptable in one conversation may be totally out of line in another place at another time. Moore crossed a line, and it cost her a career. In many instances, however, that line is not so clearly marked.

 

Wrangling over market share

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a short version. An audio recording of Moore speaking at a medical marketing conference earlier this year became fodder in the raging debate among healthcare institutions in Western North Carolina about Mission’s operating agreement with the state.

An excerpt from her comments at that conference was played at a public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 20. She countered that her comments about Mission’s market share were taken out of context. So Park Ridge Hospital officials, who released the earlier, edited version, put her entire conference presentation up on a website. She resigned on Friday, Oct. 21. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported the story on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Here’s what led to Moore’s resignation. At that conference, she told an anecdote about visiting a woman way up in a holler in Haywood County. Here’s how an article by Jon Ostendorff and John Boyle of the Asheville Citizen-Times on Oct. 22 described what she told that audience:

In the recording from the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing Development conference in September, Moore told an anecdote about taking her elderly parents to a remote part of Haywood County.

Moore said they encountered a woman at her trailer “that had in front of it some used appliances and old cars, which is not an unusual sight in our part of the country.”

Moore’s father wanted to know what some pens were in the backyard. At this point, Moore mimicked the woman living there with her “best Haywood County accent,” saying the pens held fighting roosters and curly horned sheep.

“My father said, ‘Lady, what do you do with these things?’ And she said, ‘I sell them on the Internet,’” Moore said. “True story. So here you have this woman in a holler in Haywood County — clearly not investing in dental care, I can tell you — and she is doing e-business. With illegal animals, I might add.”

In the audio recording (which can be found at www.wncchoice.com/, go down to picture of Janet Moore and then click on “full presentation” button, and then go about 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the audio to get to the controversial part), Moore’s portrayal of the Haywood County’s accent and her reference to “not investing in dental” care are in poor taste. The ACT story quoted both the chairman of the Haywood County commissioners and the head of the Tourism Development Authority criticizing Moore’s use of stereotypes to describe county residents.

Moore made a mistake. In the audio, she follows up her negative comments by saying that you can’t stereotype rural mountain people, that these folks way back up in the woods are Internet savvy.

Unfortunately, in this case it became clear very quickly that the end did not justify the means.

 

It is what it is

But what about the comments? Anyone completely outraged about the description? Where do we draw the line when talking about groups of people?

First, of course, is the fact that Moore was in a position where she is paid to say the right things. If you’re a spokesperson or marketing person, a slip of the tongue can be expensive for the company you represent.

In my private life, seldom does a day go by that I don’t hear similar derogatory comments — jokes, by another name — about Yankees and Floridians, or the “left-coasters” in California. As a Southerner who has done a bit of traveling, I’m used to snide or trying-to-be-funny insults coming my way (still happens everyday in television and in movies) about being from the South and living in the Appalachians.

Is it OK for someone here to talk about rude, sarcastic New Yorkers with Yankee accents but not hillbillies with bad teeth and a mountain twang? I guess it’s all about context and timing. Moore’s remarks became a firebomb in the political battle about Mission’s market share. At a different meeting in a less contentious situation, they might have been shrugged off as just being in poor taste.

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

Comment

The Occupy Wall Street movement is leaderless, somewhat vague and lacking vision. Still, people are joining in growing numbers around the world in spite of the fact that the movement is flawed in so many very fundamental ways.

And I love it. I’m a sucker for rebels, malcontents, subversives and nonconformists. Always have been and always will be. Makes for challenging parenting. It’s a delicate proposition to encourage one’s children to break the rules and challenge authority while also encouraging them to follow most of the rules and respect teachers, coaches and other adults.

I found my first literary hero in middle school. It was Henry David Thoreau and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which argues that one’s conscience is the moral compass one should follow, not the rules imposed by a state or national government (or, for me during those teen years, silly school rules that wouldn’t let me forego classes on a beautiful late summer day to hang out at the lake with the other malcontents).

It’s a collective moral compass that’s driving this growing movement, telling people that something is fundamentally wrong. In one sense it is a very simple reaction to the country’s problems, such as the fact that the disparity between CEO compensation and average worker pay has doubled in the last decade. Or that political leaders and parties vote against issues they once supported and that might help the country simply because that vote might benefit the opponent or the opposition party.

This all sounds simple, but as one writer has said of the protestors, sometimes simplicity can be very complicated.

Reacting against Wall Street greed, in general, is very easy. Then it gets complicated when we are forced to admit that Wall Street only does what government allows it to do (most of the time). The crash followed years of de-regulation and laissez-faire enforcement from both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Then there are the Occupy Wall Street attacks on capitalism. Capitalism can be very, well, dog-eat-dog, rewarding the most successful with untold riches. But it has helped us  create a very large, very important social safety net. It also encourages entrepreneurship and individualism and invention, which have become synonymous with the American identity and has been the catalyst for making us the leader of the free world.

What these protests lack in intensity and message they make up for in inclusion. All are welcome, whether it’s aging hippies or college students, union supporters and anti-war pacifists, the unemployed and the stay-at-home dad. The shared values are frustration, anger, helplessness and — optimism. The belief that knitting together people from varied backgrounds and beliefs can make a difference in government and in the economy is refreshing. This a big-net, wild-eyed kind of optimism.

And while it shares the belief in the power of democracy that is touted by the Tea Party, it is radically different. Tea Partiers talk about taking America back, but it’s not quite clear who we would be taking it back from; they talk about stopping “them” from spending our money or taking our jobs, but again, it’s not quite clear who “them” is.

A colleague of mine said the Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street supporters — both with their passion and their belief that people can wield influence in a democracy — may end up eventually backing into each other and finding common ground.

Perhaps. That would be called compromise, and I think these new protestors and their open-armed inclusion are symbolic of the kind of compromise we need to solve some very big problems. This movement may very well fizzle, but its fundamental philosophy is admirable.

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

Comment

The news media in this country is abuzz with talk about North Carolina. Unfortunately, it’s not flattering. What they’re saying is that we are being controlled by an oligarchy of sorts that begins and ends with multimillionaire Art Pope, the discount store heir who has effectively bought control of state politics.

The magazine story that has lit the national fire starts right here in Western North Carolina, detailing the tight 2010 legislative race in which Franklin orthodontist Jim Davis beat former judge and senator John Snow of Murphy for a state Senate seat.

The piece in the Oct. 10 issue of the New Yorker is titled “State for Sale, a conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds” www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/10/111010fa_fact_mayer.

The reporter, Jane Mayer, was already well known for reporting on billionaires Charles and David Koch and their political influence. In the week since this more recent article was published, Mayer has been on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC cable news show. Here are a couple of excerpts from Mayer’s article:

 

That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis — an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party — had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reelected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.

“…. After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow — a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the ‘Go fish!’ ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s ‘pork projects.’ The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each — the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.

 

Back during the last General Assembly election, I kept reading about Pope and his influence. While the New Yorker will get credit for nationalizing this story, the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham-based nonprofit that professes to be a “nonpartisan media, research and education center,” did the first real reporting. Way back in 2010 it, in conjunction with the newspaper The Independent, was reporting on Pope’s growing political clout (the institute’s Facing South online magazine is one of the best currently reporting on issues facing North Carolina and the South).

This Mayer story turns on three interesting points.

One is the tie to Western North Carolina. Not only does Mayer use the Snow-Davis race as an example of how Pope and his allies smeared candidates to influence elections, she also quotes Asheville’s Martin Nesbitt, the leading Democrat remaining in the state Senate after the Republican takeover of 2010. Further, Pope’s wealthy parents sent him to the Asheville School. Here’s a description of him from the New Yorker article, an aside from when Mayer was interviewing Pope in his office:

 

He is now fifty-five years old and bespectacled, but the energy with which he darted from one file to the next suggested why his classmates at the Asheville School, an elite preparatory academy, had nicknamed him the Flea. He was on the school’s basketball team, and had such a strong tendency to spin and bounce off his opponents that he was often given personal fouls.

 

The second — and perhaps most important — point in the New Yorker piece and the Facing South stories is how much control Pope is indeed wielding in our state. He doesn’t only contribute to campaigns, but he is the primary benefactor for organizations such as the John Locke Institute. That conservative think tank’s writers are regular contributors to newspapers and talk shows and helps set the state’s political agenda. So Pope is savvy enough — and rich enough — to push his message through the media and by influencing campaigns.  

Three groups for which Pope’s foundation and family are the primary benefactors — Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC and Americans for Prosperity — contributed 75 percent of the $2.6 million spent on the state’s 2010 legislative races by independent, nonparty groups. All of that went to Republicans who won a historic majority in both houses of the state legislature. According to Facing South, Pope’s support helped influence 18 GOP victories in those 2010 legislative races. That’s a lot of power for one person, regardless of his political alignment.

Finally, according to Mayer, it’s important to look at the potential for Pope’s influence on national politics. Republicans are now in control of the General Assembly for congressional redistricting. As expected, the new maps will favor Republicans (as they would have favored Democrats if they had been in power — such is the system). North Carolina went to Obama in 2008, and is considered a swing state. The new GOP clout will certainly influence the 2012 presidential race. If he helps hand North Carolina to the Republicans in 2012, Pope has set himself up to become a powerbroker on the national stage.

Times are changing. A recent Supreme Court decision opened the door for corporations to spend more on politics, and so we will see the super-rich who have millions to spend doing just that. And it’s all legal. All voters can do is try to stay informed and keep tabs on who is pulling the levers behind the curtain. In North Carolina, it’s Art Pope who’s playing Oz.

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

Comment

Voices from the American Land — along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, the Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore — presented the Every Breath Sings Mountains event at the Jackson County Public Library on Sept. 23.

The speakers, music and readings drew a packed house to the new library. The entire event was also recorded, and the video is both entertaining and thoughtful.

For those who couldn’t make it, organizers videotaped the entire event. Here are the links, in the proper chronological order.


Part 1: Music by Ian Moore Song and Dance Bluegrass Ensemble, introductions, speaker Matt Tooni
Part 2: Music, speakers George Frizell and William Shelton
Part 3: Thomas Raine Crowe reads from new book; Barbara Duncan speaks and sings; Brent Martin speaks
Part 4: Robert Johnson speaks; Panel Discussion begins with Keith Flynn, George Ellison, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, Charles Frazier
Part 5: Panel Discussion continues
Part 6: Panel Discussion is completed; Music by Ian Moore & Co.; Credits

 

Here is some information about some of the writers and community members who took part in and organized the event:

• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.

Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.

Comment

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a resilient, independent spirit. When the U.S. government forced the majority of the tribe to head west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, those who remained were the defiant ones, and it is their offspring who now form the nucleus of the tribe. It is these Native Americans who are using the profits from what was originally a controversial casino to help rediscover their cultural identity.

Prior the construction of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Eastern Band were a poor tribe with little influence. Tribal members who lived in Cherokee struggled to make a living in a tourism-dominated economy. Because there was little industry and because the region was so isolated, the area around Cherokee, Swain and Graham counties perennially topped the state in unemployment, averaging around 25 percent for many years when the state first started keeping statistics.

Much of that changed with the coming of casino profits. The tribe found itself with a newfound wealth and power. What’s noteworthy in this transformation is how that money has been used to invest in Cherokee and its people, when it could have gone to line the pockets of only the most powerful.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation might be the most notable symbol of this transformation. The Foundation was created as part of the second gaming compact with the state in 2000, and it has funneled millions of dollars into cultural, historical and economic development projects on the Qualla Boundary and surrounding region. Those investments include the Cherokee language immersion program, a Native American art institute, helping restore rivercane for traditional basketmaking, investing in traditional Cherokee arts such as metalsmiths, making broadband more available in rural Western North Carolina and dozens of other worthwhile projects.

The tribe itself has built a new school that uses green technology and celebrates tribal traditions, invested in health care and public safety, and is teaching its youth how to wisely manage the per capita payments they receive from casino profits. It also helps each of its high school graduates pay for college. Men and women who work for the tribe earn good wages and benefits.

In other words, the tribe is investing in itself, its people and its traditions. When you talk to members of the tribe today, the pride in what is happening in Cherokee is obvious.

There are still problems in Cherokee, just as there are everywhere in this country. But over the past decade those of us who live here have witnessed a resurgence among the Eastern Band that surpasses what most thought possible when gambling was first approved. They’ve used the casino profits wisely, to say the least. That’s a credit to the Eastern Band members and its leadership.

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

Comment

Once you hit the Haywood County line after heading west on Interstate 40 out of Asheville, Western Carolina University is the acknowledged cultural focal point for all the remaining seven counties in this southwestern corner of our great state. We expect vision and smarts from university leaders, the professors and the students it graduates. We expect those same leaders to value the culture and history of this region, and to help us preserve, protect and brag about our assets.

That’s why it is refreshing to see new Chancellor David Belcher re-start a strategic planning process that he hopes will help steer the university as it deals with the new realities of state budget cuts and other financial challenges.

Many in this region take for granted the gem that we have in WCU. All it takes, though, is a roll call in our public schools and community colleges, small businesses, financial institutions, arts communities and the local governments to see the impact of this university. Its graduates are our leaders, particularly in the seven western counties. WCU and this region are inseparable.

I think the university recognizes this special relationship, though some of its leaders have placed a higher value on it than others. As long as these ties remain strong and grow even deeper, both the university and the region will be better off.

•••

Town Public Works Director Fred Baker. Town Planner Paul Benson. Planning board member Ron Reid. Concerned citizens like Bicycle Haywood’s Cecil Yount. Realtor Brian Noland.

That’s a short list of those who think the state Department of Transportation’s initial plan for Waynesville’s South Main Street does not fit what Waynesville needs. We offer our wholehearted support to those who want something better than a four-lane road with a raised median.

By the time this edition of The Smoky Mountain News hits the streets, a community brainstorming session to gather ideas for the road will be in the history books (it was held Sept. 20). But that doesn’t mean those who want something better shouldn’t continue to let those in charge know exactly how they feel.

Those who want to maintain the character of Waynesville while still allowing Wal-Marts and Best Buys are asking for a smaller road — three lanes at most — with roundabouts instead of traffic lights, bike lanes, and trees between the road and the sidewalks. This is the vision laid out in the Waynesville’s comprehensive land-use plan, and it’s one I believe a majority of citizens want.

Many of us who argue for smart growth have been in this situation too many times: disagreeing with DOT and seeking a compromise that is about more than just moving cars quickly from one spot to another. In this case Waynesville has had to spend its own money to hire a traffic consultant in hopes it can convince the state bureaucracy that it knows what is best for its own community. It’s frustrating to be in the same position again and again.

But it’s a good fight, one worth all the time and energy we can give it. When roads are done wrong — Russ Avenue in Waynesville, N.C. 107 in Sylva — the problems linger for many, many years. Getting it right on the front end is critical.

•••

Our cover story last week on Macon County’s Phil Drake and his business success (“Seizing Opportunity,” www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/5066) ran at a time when there is great controversy in this country about how best to nurture the economy and shake the lingering recession.

Drake is a local example of someone taking a small family business and growing it exponentially, taking some lumps along with way but finding his way through problems. Just as important as his business success, though, is the commitment to Macon County and Western North Carolina shown by Drake, his family, and his network of businesses.

The global economy has brought riches to many people and lifted many from poverty to the middle class. At the same, however, it has robbed many communities of the ability to control their own destinies. Decisions made in boardrooms thousands of miles away take jobs from thousands, leaving families and communities to pick up the pieces.

The “buy local, shop local, do business locally” concept can only go so far, but we in this region can help lift ourselves up by pushing it to its limits. It’s easy to shop with the big boys and to buy stuff over the internet, but in most cases it doesn’t do as much to help your neighbor.

Phil Drake is proving that doing business locally when possible can lead to great successes. Whether you’re a consumer or a businessperson, there’s never been a more important time to take that lesson to heart.

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

Comment

I don’t listen to local radio so much anymore, but the story in last week’s edition about the demise of WRGC in Sylva still struck and emotional chord somewhere inside.

When I say I don’t listen to local radio regularly, I mean the very small, very local AM and FM stations like WRGC in Sylva or WPTL in Canton or similar stations in Franklin and Bryson City. Almost every small town has one or two. When I’m in my car I tune them in, but that’s not a lot of listening. I do love nothing better during night driving in the mountains than to see what kind of AM signals I can pick up by just scanning through the dial, and that method leaves me listening to local stations as well as radio personalities from far-off cities in the Midwest.

No, those super-local stations have become, in many ways, irrelevant. I listen to four radio stations here in the mountains, and in this order — WNCW 88.7, WCQS at 95.3 (a very close second), and 104.9, and on rare occasions the WCU station — 90.5 —when I can pick it up.

We even did business with WRGC a few years back. We were the new kid in town then, and our newspaper was trying to gain an audience in Jackson County. We would sponsor the newscasts of local events, hoping to familiarize its listeners with what we were doing.

Perhaps the closing of another business shouldn’t resonate so heavily. But I’m in the media business. When local radio — or local media of any kind — dies a death related to an unsustainable business model, I start sniffing around for clues to survival. Secondly, I’m a small business owner. Anytime someone else shutters their doors I feel some of their pain, and questions about the recession and what it will take to ride out this storm come front and center.

My description earlier, of these stations being super-local, was in all likelihood wrong. These stations used to be hyperlocal. But to keep costs down, the companies that own many of these little stations program national talk shows and no live disc jockey segments where some engineer in some faraway place is keeping an eye on things. This model takes away the local part of a local radio station.

That’s the first step on the path to irrelevance — trying to do the same thing the satellite and internet stations are doing. That’s exactly what happened to newspapers during their great demise in the 1980s and 1990s. Big corporations bought them all up, and so they quit focusing on their local communities and instead focused on profits. The quality of the product suffered, and much of their news was and remains wire copy, the same stories we get from a dozen different places these days.  

And it happened at the same time some very passionate internet bloggers and news sites started, which allowed them to gain a foothold. This sent many good newspapers to their grave, and rendered many others irrelevant.

But there’s a glimmer of hope. We small guys are reporting stories no one else reports. We’re figuring out the internet and even social media, finding ways to grab pieces of those advertising pies. It’s a struggle, but show me companies in any industry — not just media — that aren’t struggling these days.

Here in Western North Carolina, I think we’ll also benefit from the growing realization that it is important to support the local economy. Whether it’s at the farmers market, the local pottery studio, the insurance guy down the street or the dentist you see at the coffee shop, there’s a growing acceptance that if we send our dollars out of the community we are sapping our community’s strength and vibrancy. This only works, though, if the local business produces a quality product. Otherwise, the local side of the equation doesn’t hold up.

We work and live and play in a very unique place. The vacuum created by WRGC’s demise will be filled, and there is a lot of commotion going on right now in Jackson County surrounding the issue of local radio. But we are all better off when there are many media sources doing good work and competing and complementing each other. Well-done local radio can still work. Here’s hoping WRGC finds its way back on the air and into the media mix.

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

Comment

Been to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino? Even if you don’t gamble, I’d encourage a walk through. My bet is you’d be absolutely astounded at what is happening in Cherokee.

I took a media tour a couple of weeks ago and, honestly, couldn’t believe what I saw. The reality that there is something that huge, that glitzy and that busy juxtaposed so near secluded mountains, vast wilderness areas and all of our very quaint, very small downtowns at first take seems a little odd.

What’s not odd, though, is how Harrah’s has changed the fortunes of the tribe — and the region — for the better. In fact, as this recession lingers, it’s painful to imagine how Cherokee, Swain and Jackson counties would be faring without the casino revenue.

The casino, in what is admittedly an understatement, has blossomed. It now employs more than 2,000, and that will go up to 2,400 once the current expansion project is done. It attracts about 3.6 million gamers annually, making it the state’s largest tourist attraction.

And now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants approval, to use a poker term, to go all in: it wants dealers instead of video machines, a move that it estimates would add at least another 400 jobs. Along with those dealers, say gambling industry insiders, would come tens of thousands of more patrons.

The governor and the tribe are both playing hardball in the dealer negotiations, and reportedly the two are not very close to a deal. The state wants an agreement with the tribe for a percentage of casino revenue for its coffers before allowing dealers. While we agree that the state should gets its fair share, we also hope state leaders take into account what Harrah’s provides for a region that has little industry, few large corporations, and traditionally doesn’t get the attention that is lavished on the coast or the urban centers in the Piedmont. I suspect every leader in this part of the state wants the casino to continue to prosper.

Here’s what leaders in Raleigh need to understand: the casino is the right kind of tourist attraction for the mountain region. It doesn’t pollute like a traditional factory (and thereby spoil the attraction of the mountains), doesn’t add to urban sprawl, doesn’t strain infrastructure, and its patrons come for a few days, spend their money and leave.

The state spends millions on tax breaks to attract jobs in other parts of the state, and yet it could shackle the next planned casino expansion because it wants more revenue than the tribe has so far been willing to relinquish.

It’s been more than a decade since the state let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to gambling. Not only did leaders roll out the welcome mat for the casino, it has since set up a lottery. So there’s no moral or ethical argument for delaying approval of the tribe’s attempt to win approval for dealers. It’s all about the money.

The governor, state leaders and the tribe need to get a deal done so Western North Carolina’s lead economic engine can reach its full potential.

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

Comment

Many people who lead exceptional lives never break an arm trying to pat themselves on their own back. They just do good things, usually for others and most of the time just because they know it’s the right thing to do. When these people pass away, the memories they leave are markers on the timeline that is our life, a place where meaningful moments and fond recollections pile up and keep us smiling, crying or maybe just thinking.

An old journalism book I hold onto touts a crusty editor’s adage, and I paraphrase, that “everyone has a story, but some are just better than others. Your job is to get good at making that distinction.” In the last couple of weeks two unassuming men who were giants in their respective communities passed away, and their stories have been told in numerous newspaper articles. Here are a couple of more thoughts to add to those well-deserved epitaphs.

•••

I was out of the country when I heard that Keith Wyatt had passed away. Keith was a former teacher and principal in Haywood County. A teacher who worked for years with Keith is a close friend of mine, and she has always put him on a pedestal. She says he was a great principal and a leader who was able to make hard decisions with a twinkle in his eye and with humor.

I met Keith in the 1990s when, as editor of The Mountaineer, we were producing a series of stories on a school bond referendum in Haywood County. He was principal at the old Hazelwood Elementary School (now the Folkmoot Friendship Center), and school leaders thought he would be a great choice to demonstrate to the newspaper how badly the bond money was needed.

And he did. The school was literally falling down around the students and teachers. It was drafty, moldy, cold, paint was peeling, the power supply was inadequate, it was unsafe, and the rooms were too small. In short, it was a dump.

There was great irony, though, in the choice of Keith to demonstrate the need for the referendum. He certainly pointed out the problems, and there were plenty. But he also left me with the impression that he and his teachers would get their jobs done if you put them in a barn without electricity. I left impressed with his commitment to his teachers and his students.

I didn’t really get to know Wyatt, though, until a few years later when I was asked to join the Folkmoot USA Board of Directors. Keith was president of the board at that time, and at my very first meeting he made a point of coming up to me afterward and personally welcoming me to the board. During his presidency and afterwards we worked together a lot.

Years later, I sat in the same seat Keith had occupied as president of that board. And like so many others who have spoken up in the past few days, his quiet, steady influence in my early days with that organization had a lot to do with the years of dedication. He was an exemplary leader.

•••

Sen. Bob Carpenter from Franklin recently passed away. I didn’t know Carpenter personally, but what I do fondly remember about him is a style of politicking that is fast fading but worth emulating.

Sen. Bob and I disagreed on many fundamental issues. Those disagreements, though, never got in the way of a very cordial and respectful relationship. When I was at The Mountaineer and later at The Smoky Mountain News, the eight-term senator would often just stop by the office when returning from Raleigh after a legislative week or when passing through.

Almost always those visits were unannounced and short. But they were very informative. Today lawmakers send out email blasts about what took place during the week in Congress or at the General Assembly. This was before email had become so ubiquitous, and in five or 10 minutes he would go over the week’s happenings.

Sometimes he wanted to tell me how he disagreed with something we had written in a news story or I had written in an editorial, but it was always done very politely and warmly. We could agree to disagree and be respectful of each other’s positions. With Sen. Bob’s passing, we lose another link to an era not so long ago when political differences didn’t turn people into enemies.

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

Comment

From the hotel window in Durban, South Africa, I can see the Indian Ocean. Freighters line the horizon like parapets on a castle wall, waiting their turn to berth at the busiest container port in the entire continent of Africa. The ocean breeze makes the water warm enough to swim even as winter here turns to spring, and we did just that today, splashing in the ocean after a run along the sand.

And we weren’t alone. The beach was packed with vacationers and locals, all enjoying a gorgeous Sunday after a rare cold, rainy spell late last week. One of the locals I was talking to said getting the sun back was a welcome occurrence. “Cape Town is supposed to get the rain in winter, we’re not supposed to get rain. Now things are right.”

It’s easy to get lulled into a sort of stupor in a place like this. I am removed from South Africa’s many problems as we work on press releases high atop the Durban Hilton. But even in this tourist district, I move from place to place among a mix of humanity so diverse it is staggering.

I’ve done a bit of traveling, and nowhere is there a mix of humans so colorful in skin color and dress. It’s a human bazaar, and as we strolled along the promenade along the beach I was as wide-eyed as a kid.

Even here, I am reminded of the politicians in Washington and the last few weeks of debate on the debt ceiling and the country’s future. CNN’s worldwide news service is here to remind me. As this is published on Wednesday, Aug. 3, I expect a deal will have been struck to meet a deadline that, if missed, could have sent our country into the first stages of default.

We should all be frustrated at the way this has played out, as politics has trumped the nation’s best interests. “Like spoiled children,” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as I watched and listened and then moaned and groaned. Each day one side or the other sounded more petulant and immature.

I’m in Durban with Ken Howle, a friend who works at Lake Junaluska who asked me if I’d accompany him to the World Methodist Conference to help with media. Ken was asked by the WMC General Secretary George Freeman to handle all the communications at the conference, and so here we are with a couple of thousand Methodists from all over the world. Ken and I are trying to mix fun and work, taking in the local flavor — including the great beach, a brutal rugby match, and some of the local seafood — while we also prepare for the work of communicating what happens here to Methodists around the world.

I was talking to a woman here from the U.S., one who has traveled the world extensively with her husband, and the debt ceiling debate came up. She seemed frustrated, and reminded us: “Yes, they say when we hiccup, the rest of the world gets a cold; when we get the flu, the rest of the world dies.”

The South African paper today (Sunday, July 31), bemoaned the potential fallout to this troubled country if the U.S. does not get its act together. This is a place that suffers from 25 percent official unemployment, where young and old alike beg on the streets to gather enough money to feed themselves and family members.

Ken spoke with a woman waiting in line with us at a restaurant. She had just returned from America, nine months as a CNA at a Mississippi rest home. She told him she would have never come back but her visa expired. Bongie, a local newspaper editor who’s helping us, said the problems in her native Zimbabwe are much worse than here, and that she came to South Africa to find opportunity.

While our own country and the rest of the world suffers, we can’t find leaders who really care. The problem with America isn’t that we’re prosperous. We should be proud of our successes, developing an economy and a standard of living much of the world still envies.

The problem is that we seem to have forgotten how to lead, how to use our great wealth to fix problems in our country or anywhere else.

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

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