Celebrating our little corner of the world

“[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..)

New LTLT an important voice for the region

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.

A reminder of the inhumanity that is war

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..)

Vote on NCAE dues like a slap in the face to teachers

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..)

A good time to get back to the beginning

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..)

No more important time than now to keep it local

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..)

Awful timing for Duke’s rate hike request

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..)

Once you cross the line, there’s no going back

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..)

Optimism in the public sphere is always refreshing

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..)

Pope is pulling the strings in state politics

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..)

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.