Campaign announcement coming soon

I’ve decided to throw my hat into a bigger ring. Announcement coming soon.

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Defending the American Dream

(I delivered the following speech in Asheville, March 15, 2011.)

Oscar Wilde famously observed, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

By that measure, I’m certain that many of our elected officials in Washington and Raleigh are deeply cynical. They have taken to measuring our lives and our communities in dollars. And the dollars that seem to matter most to them are those in the hands of the very rich.


It’s long past time to quit mincing words.

We are in the midst of a class war, and we the working people of the United States, are losing.

The things that we value are being systematically dismantled in the name of balancing budgets, while the big money is flowing to our ruling class. In 2007 alone, the 150 highest paid investment fund managers made an average of $588 million apiece in annual compensation- that’s 19,000 times the average worker salary. And they don’t make anything of value, they simply bet on prices going up or down.

Let’s not forget it was the economic crash caused by Wall Street greed and massive tax breaks for the rich that collapsed state budgets, not firefighters’ pensions or teachers’ health insurance. In 2010, Congress made a half-way attempt to reign in those corporate crooks with the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reforms. Those reforms were a modest attempt to curb Wall Street piracy.

Tomorrow, Wednesday. Congressional Republicans plan to introduce their first outright challenge to Dodd-Frank reforms with a fistful of bills favoring private equity firms, derivatives end-users and corporate CEOs.

They realized that they haven’t stolen all of our money yet, so the GOP wants to give them the keys to the bank, to our homes, and to our cars. The rich don’t use our schools, our stores, our hospitals, our health care, or our transportation systems. And  some corporations don’t think they need educated workers here these days, they can find them in India or China or Taiwan or Brazil.

I remember a conversation I had back in 2002, with Cynthia Brown who was a candidate for U.S. Senate here in North Carolina. Cynthia asked me, “Do the rich all believe they can just trash the planet and then go somewhere else?” I told her, “I don’t know, but they sure do think they can trash this country.”

They’ve done it. Our future is on the line.

Now conservative governors have stepped in to help the super-rich steal more. They are placing the burden of deficit reduction on the backs of their state’s public employees, students, and middle-class taxpayers, while enacting corporate tax cuts and giveaways. Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Jan Brewer in Arizona are all on that bandwagon.

Sadly, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has joined that race to the bottom, and wants to cut the state corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent – among the highest in the Southeast – to 4.9 percent – among the lowest in the nation.

Both Republicans and Gov. Perdue also want to end a pair of temporary income tax increases set to expire this year. Cutting taxes when the state is facing a massive shortfall in funds is wildly irresponsible. I can only surmise that Perdue is afraid that the same voters who stampeded to the GOP last fall will threaten her reelection in 2012. Frankly, I prefer elected leaders who don’t worry about reelection but instead make the tough choices that build real value.

The spending decisions being made in Washington are going to have sweeping effects on the national and state and local economies. Unfortunately, both sides seem to be stuck in their assumptions. The Republicans seem intent on keeping the economy wrecked through the 2012 Presidential election, so they can blame Barack Obama and beat him at the polls. Their spending cuts will guarantee a long continuation of the Great Recession, and their claims of concern about the National Debt ring hollow, as they continue to push for tax benefits for the wealthy.

The Democrats aren’t doing much better. What they seem to want is a return to the bubble economic model that Wall Street has used to drain the wealth from America’s middle class. Most of their leadership simply can’t understand that the crony capitalism that has prevailed in this country for the past 30 years is the problem, not the solution.

We need to embrace a new economic model that prevents corporations from externalizing their costs to the rest of us, that demands corporate accountability, that ends corporate personhood, that removes corporations from political campaign funding, and that returns economic power to the people. Bailing out Wall Street doesn’t trickle down, it squirts up.

Meanwhile, our state’s Republican leaders are using the usual tactic of fanning the flames of hot button social issues in order to keep people distracted while they rewrite rules to steal our money and rig elections. They have raised the issues of gay marriage and immigration and even arming District Attorneys to keep us from paying attention to their real agenda. Our future is on the line.

They’re determined to put a constitutional amendment about marriage on next November’s ballot. They’ve introduced an Arizona-style bill that will turn all law enforcement officers in our state into immigration agents and make you a criminal if you give a ride to someone without proper papers. And they claim our courts will be safer if prosecutors are packing heat.

Republican legislators have introduced a photo ID bill that the Institute for Southern Studies estimates will cost taxpayers more than $20 million. So much for saving money. They claim we need to prevent “voter fraud” — even though in 2008 North Carolina election authorities reported only 40 voting irregularities out of 4.3 million votes cast. The real targets of the bill are our state’s elderly, disabled, minority and college-aged citizens. The goal is to shut out likely Democratic and progressive voters. Our future is on the line.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the General Assembly are working to prohibit cities from providing wireless internet service. The bill was designed to please Time Warner and its cable lobbyists who would rather keep rural North Carolina unconnected than allow for any competition. Net neutrality and freedom of speech on the internet is a key piece in empowering the modern working class. No wonder the GOP is trying to shut it down in North Carolina and across the nation. Our future is on the line.

Some of us are not cynics. We know that our community has a value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that access to quality health care has a value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that pre-natal health care and family planning have value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that the safety of our food and medicine has a value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that educating our children has a value beyond calculation.

We need to use the current crisis to reshape the American economy, to place our values first, to put Wall Street in its proper place, to put our communities, our families and our children first, to Defend the American Dream.

Our future is on the line.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A year on Council

This week marks one-year since I took office on Asheville’s City Council, and it has proved to be educational, surprising, torturous and fun—not necessarily in that order. As a citizen and then a candidate for office, there were and are issues that matter deeply to me, that comprise the reasons I chose to seek the job. A year later, some have been addressed, some are pending and some new ones have popped up on my expanding horizon.

Perhaps the hardest lesson has been the discovery that when push comes to shove, and a vote must be cast up or down, two strongly held beliefs can be in direct conflict. (Thanks to Councilman Gordon Smith for compiling the voting stats listed below.)

The Ugly (The two hardest votes I’ve cast this year concerned development and annexation.)

• Sustainability Bonus: We approved a plan to permit builders up to a doubling of zoning density in areas within 1/8 mile of designated transit corridors, if they met certain green building and/or affordable housing guidelines. To make this a “use by right” we had to eliminate public hearings on such projects. This pitted my overall green agenda against my insistence on transparency and accountability in government. In the end, I voted “yes,” increasing density along transit routes and incentivizing green projects won out over the public input argument. (5-2, Bellamy and Davis against)

• Annexation: NC law and specific restrictions on Asheville (alone among cities in the state) make voluntary annexation almost non-existent here—unless a development project wants to sell liquor, or unless the developer receives significant near-term tax incentives. (We are forced to provide water outside city limits at the same rate as inside, so why would anyone want to pay city taxes if they could choose not to?)

Asheville is consequently the slowest growing city in the state, and has the largest day/night population change in the state due to commuting. We 80,000 city dwellers provide infrastructure and services to 40,000 non-taxpayers every day (not including tourists). So involuntary annexation of residential areas that meet certain density levels is allowed by state law, and is the only way to achieve tax equity. But one big annexation proposed this year, Royal Pines, includes a large proportion of working-class/affordable homes and rentals. I was faced with the question of raising costs for people currently in affordable housing at the same time that Council was offering developer incentives to create affordable housing. I ended up voting against the annexation, but am not at all sure I made the right choice. (5-2, Newman and Smith voting yes).

****************

The Good and the Bad: Easier votes, varied outcomes

Development

• I proposed that Asheville enact an ordinance to require new development to pay the full infrastructure cost to the city. Studies elsewhere have shown that fees and permits come nowhere near to covering the actual cost to taxpayers of subsidizing new development. The 2010-2011 Budget  includes full cost for fees and permits, but not for the wider costs imposed on the community as a whole.

• Density along transit routes: As noted above, I’m in favor of this, and the Larchmont project was a case in point. We approved a zoning change for an affordable-housing project. While some nearby residents opposed the change, the building will be smaller and the population density no greater than could have been built under the previous zoning. (7-0 vote)

• Downtown Master Plan —I challenged the original DTMP guidelines that would have put the tallest buildings in the highest parts of town, and the plan we passed did impose nominal limits. We approved new form-based code guidelines (Good, 7-0 vote) and raised thresholds or eliminated rules on height and size (Bad, 6-1 vote). Developers can go up to 195* feet tall or 175,000 s.f. in the downtown business district without Council approval. (Basically a 14-15 story building, or a very large footprint.) In the greater downtown area (Tunnel to Smoky Park Bridge, I-240 to the hospital district) Council relinquished all responsibility, permitting any building whatsoever, up to 315* feet tall, that met approval with Planning & Zoning, only reserving “site plan review”—a meaningless exercise. (I proposed and Councilman Davis seconded an amendment to extend Council oversight to the greater downtown, it failed 5-2).

*I am still trying to make clear sense of the height rules, which are not at all clear. It seems Council can grant variances in both areas, meaning that there are not actual height limits.

• Accountability for development: One urgent improvement proposed by Councilman Smith and which I supported, is that all future P&Z appointees will be interviewed in full Council session, permitting public input and observation of the process. Given Council’s abdication of oversight over most development downtown, the makeup of P&Z (historically dominated by developers) is now critical. (7-0 vote)

• Subsidy for non-green, non-affordable Montford Commons project. I continue to oppose taxpayer subsidy of all projects that do not further clearly stated City goals `(and am leery of most forms of goverment subsidy of development—governments often get burned). A five-year tax rebate for Montford Commons was approved 4-3, myself, Russell and Smith opposed.

Transit and parking

• I remain opposed to public financing of parking decks. In cities where the cost of parking is allowed to rise to meet the market, private companies build decks. When a city subsidizes parking, it drives private companies out of the market and encourages auto traffic, while diminishing demand for transit. There is nothing “green” about such municipal subsidies. I was the lone dissenting vote on continuation of a deal approved by the previous Council, that will put ALL of our parking/transit money, for at least 10 years, into a single parking deck project downtown. (And a diminishing percentage out to 25 years.)

• I have proposed that we use the often-empty McCormick Field parking area when large events downtown create overflow, together with a shuttle to the Civic Center, Orange Peel or downtown. Unfortunately, given Council’s approval of the above, there is no money left for a shuttle.

• I-26: I continue to oppose 8-laning of I-26 and support the broad outlines of the Asheville Design Center proposals. Fortunately, under Gov. Perdue, the state has attempted to depoliticize road construction by ranking highway proposals based on an objective scoring system and I-26 is so far down the list that we may well have 20 years in which to re-evaluate traffic and watch the effect of post-peak oil on transportation. We may well be able to stick with 4 lanes through town.

• Sidewalks: Part of enhancing multi-modal transit is to use all the pedestrian facilities we already have. Together with Asheville PARC, I initiated Z-Link, a volunteer sidewalk recovery effort that has cleared more than 1.5 miles of obstructed pedestrian routes. Council voted to strengthen the existing law concerning property owner maintenance of sidewalks, including fines. (7-0 vote)

• Opening the Hillcrest pedestrian bridge—another piece of existing infrastructure that has been unused for over a decade, we have reopened the bridge and are working on plans for enhancement of the surrounds. (see below concerning a potential Mountain Bike Skills Park.) (6-1, Davis against)

Campaign Finance

• I continue to push for public financing of Council elections. This year we voted to ask the legislature for permission to implement such a plan here (5-2, Russell and Davis opposed) (Chapel Hill was the first NC city to do so in 2009) The legislation passed in the General Assembly and I will advocate adoption of such a plan during 2011.

Citizens

During the campaign I argued against the City and County practice of calling citizens “customers.” Citizens are owners, not customers of government. Thanks perhaps to my insistence, and very much thanks to City Manager Gary Jackson, the pendulum has swung our way. More and more staff documents refer to we, the people, as “citizens.”

I have long made it clear that all of us in the middle and lower classes owe a tremendous debt to the labor movement: minimum wage laws; 40 hour weeks; weekends; unemployment insurance; health coverage (to the extent that it exists); banning child labor; Social Security; Medicare; parental leave and more. Not that any of those things are universal, and surely many are under attack both by ideologues and the recession. But unions raised many people into the middle class. The North Carolina League of Cities (of which Asheville is a member), and the Chamber of Commerce (ditto), are anti-labor. I have and will continue to challenge those bodies on this and other anti-worker positions they routinely embrace.

Pending proposals (either from my campaign or initiated this year)

Minimum housing code—I’ve consulted with experts including reps from Pisgah Legal Services and find that the need to reimpose the minimum code is more urgent than I thought last year. Will press for this again in 2011.

• Three-strikes law—to prevent the City from doing business with any company that has been thrice convicted of fraud, tax evasion, labor or civil rights violations.

• Civil Liberties—I’ve worked all year with lawyers, community groups, the Asheville Buncombe Community Relations Council, the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (Washington, DC) and area churches to create a resolution which I’ll introduce early next year.

New Proposals

• I have asked the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce to withdraw from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce following the national body’s huge participation in the recent elections. (It spent upward of $100 million, largely supporting Republican candidates.) If the Asheville Chamber does not withdraw, I will attempt to convince Council to withdraw all financial participation with the local Chamber on the grounds that it is diverting taxpayer money to partisan elections. (I would hold this position regardless of which party the national had supported.)

• Tree-topping ordinance—my liaison position with the Tree Commission has convinced me that Asheville must enact a tree-topping ban. Arborists have been outspoken in the need to protect our trees from a practice which deforms and kills shade trees.

• Bike skills park—I’ve been meeting with local cyclists, neighborhood reps and transit experts as well as consulting with White House staffers to create a mountain bike park adjacent to the recently opened Hillcrest pedestrian bridge, and under the Smoky Park Bridge. Seattle has built a wildly popular facility in a similar location.

• Increase availability of ESL classes for adults. Assimilation of immigrants has been a hot-button issue in America since Ben Franklin railed against the threat posed by Germans, yet immigrants have always been an irreplaceable source of labor, innovation and economic growth. Learning the language is the shortest route to inclusion for the benefit of all.

• Raise parking rates—Asheville parking is unreasonably cheap, particularly given the high number of commuters. I’d like to see garage rates doubled, while retaining “first hour free” and then give City residents a steep discount. That way, we’d help offset the tax burden placed on City taxpayers by the ban on differential water rates.

Other Activities

International Code Conference—I was one of Asheville’s delegates to the international building code summit on energy efficiency (held every three years). The international code is the model for state codes. The 2012 rules we adopted will increase building efficiency by 30 percent, generating energy savings for a century (buildings last a long time.) State codes lag behind, but are modeled on the international rules. This was a huge step forward that had been blocked by commercial interests at the 2007 meeting.

• National League of Cities Congress—I was Asheville’s representative at the annual NLC Congress of Cities, a venue for education, seminars and exchange of ideas about best practices. I came home with numerous ideas and solutions that I have already begun to explore. (The English language courses and a path to federal funding for our Mountain Bike Skills Park are just two of many.)

Diane Sawyer to air segment on humanist billboards

The NC “indivisible” billboard story will be covered on ABC Evening News with Diane Sawyer, Tuesday, July 20, or Wednesday, July 21.
The ABC news team flew into Asheville to interview Rev. Ralph Sexton (founder of “We Still Pray” which is running “Under God” electronic billboards around the state to protest the humanist effort), and, needing a non-theist to balance their coverage, they tapped me.
The addition of those two words renders the pledge meaningless, since they were and are intended to divide us. Some folks, naturally enough, just don’t get it.

Here’s a story about the story from the Asheville Citizen-Times.

ACLU lawsuit in the news

I was asked to participate as a plaintiff in a legal action by the ACLU regarding a pending dispute between Amazon.com and the State of North Carolina. The State sought to get the records of Amazon customers from North Carolina, including titles of books or full details about other products (Amazon sells all manner of stuff). While the ACLU takes no position on the tax issue (which is the initial reason for the records request), revelation of what private persons are purchasing is a huge violation of their privacy. It can act as a real restraint of trade if people are afraid to make purchases because they might be exposed to public attention.

Here are some links to the stories:

Asheville Citizen-Times

ACLU

Tax Policy Blog

Debate with Nesbitt, on this weekend

My chat with Chad about immigration policy for local law enforcement agencies is slated for today and tomorrow. Whale Falls: An examination of belief and its consequences, now available from Brave Ulysses Books.

Newsradio 570 WWNC-AM – Saturday 7:30 AM
880 The Revolution WPEK-AM – Saturday 6:00 PM
99.9 KISS Country WKSF-FM – Sunday 7:00 AM
Star 104.3 WQNQ-FM – Sunday 7:30 AM
…Rock 104.9 WQNS-FM – Sunday 7:00 AM

Driving while striving

This is Strive Not To Drive Week in Asheville, and I’ve been doing my best, with mixed success. Too many appointments in too many disparate places with too many tools to easily bike, and impossible to use transit to any advantage.

Monday, May 17
Excuses, excuses.
Morning construction work in the depths of Kenilworth. Could have taken bus at 7 a.m. to Transit Center, transfer to bus south, past the hospital, and walked seven blocks carrying construction tools and materials. Would have arrived at work at about 9 a.m.
Need to be on Talmadge in West Asheville, 11:45 a.m.. Could have worked an hour and a quarter and caught bus about 10:40 a.m. to Transit Center, transfer to west-bound bus, land somewhere on Brevard Road and walk about eight blocks.
Tree Commission meeting at Taj Ma Garaj, Charlotte St., noon. The only bus back to downtown in time for this meeting is the same bus I would have taken out of downtown to make my 11:45 date.
Medical appointment near Claxton Elementary, 1:30 p.m.. No way to make noon meeting AND get to doctor visit via public transit or bike.
2:45 p.m. repair job in Weaverville – impossible via public transit/bike
3:20 p.m. repair job West of Weaverville – impossible via public transit/bike
4:00 p.m. Drive like mad to return to town, jump on bike to participate in Strive Not to Drive Leadership Ride event in Downtown Asheville.

Tuesday, May 18
Morning construction work downtown in easy reach via bicycle, but vehicle maintenance slated for my car at 8 a.m. So I drop off the car and walk to work.
Tutor at Hall-Fletcher Elementary 11:50 a.m. In order to not drive I would have to leave downtown at 11 a.m. so would have maybe two hours of work. After tutoring might catch 2:40 bus back downtown, but have to work in Kenilworth, so car makes more sense all around. Then must go north on Merrimon for more paint. Ach. Finally jumped on bicycle for evening errand.

Wednesday, May 19
Morning work in Kenilworth, need tools and paint which could probably be achieved via bus, but must be at Chamber of Commerce at noon for Blue Zone meeting. To make Chamber at noon, would need to be at Transit Center at 11, means walking seven blocks to catch bus on Biltmore by about 10:30 – essentially cutting two hours out of morning’s work. Instead take car to work, back home, take truck to Chamber, thence to building supply for materials, back to Kenilworth, unload. Home, ride bike to meeting downtown, discover meeting canceled, ride home. Intended to ride bike to interview on WCQS, but interview canceled due to technical hiccups at radio station.

Thursday, May 20
Headed off with too many tools to carry in both hands, to work in Kenilworth this morning. Car only realistic option.