2016 – One for the Record Books

Whatever the past year has meant to each of us, 2016 has brought major changes to our local community, the state, and the nation.

As some mourn …

Locally the news was, in general, more positive than on the state and national stages, though tragedies undercut the sense of Asheville as a good place to live—a sense not shared by many who have historically been left out of its prosperity and progress.

In May single mother Candace Pickens was shot in a city park in North Asheville, and her 3-year-old son severely wounded. Several residents heard shots and called 911; a patrol car drove by but did not investigate, then left, while the victims lay in Jones Park just out of sight of the street. While Asheville Police Department protocol does not require an officer to exit the patrol car in such a case, the fact that the Ms. Pickens’s body was visible the following morning, where it lay only five feet from the sidewalk, disturbed many people. Her ex-boyfriend, Nathaniel Elijia Dixon, 24, has been charged with first-degree murder.

Then the July 2 shooting by Asheville police of Jai “Jerry” Williams ignited controversy that continues today. The questions of whether Mr. Williams was armed, whether he threatened the officer who shot him, whether, in fact, the entire confrontation could have been avoided, have divided the community. Neighbors at Deaverview Apartments have been joined by activists who differ with Police Chief Tammy Hooper and other law enforcement officials about the shooting. District Attorney Todd Williams (no relation to the victim) continues to pursue the evidence as to what, if any, charges are justified.

Asheville’s skyline has changed almost daily.

… others celebrate …

Many residents continue to deplore the disparities in how members of Asheville’s diverse communities are (or are perceived to be) treated, but the city at large continued on its century-long trajectory as a slow-moving boomtown. The skyline changed almost daily as old buildings were razed for new construction and shabbier areas of the city began to be spruced up. Cranes rose high above the cityscape on Coxe Avenue, Page Avenue, College Street, wherever new buildings rose from the rubble. On the Block, construction of long-planned, long-delayed new apartments finally began to move forward, after more than a year while legal and liability issues were addressed after the main concrete slab cracked in 2014.

None of the new economic development came without controversy. Especially as South Slope becomes the latest “nouveau chic” part of town, there will be massive dislocation of long-time businesses and the complete removal of the public housing complex at Lee Walker Heights.

… and others are passed over

While the city and Housing Authority have promised to rehouse Lee Walker tenants at other HACA locations and give them first preference on moving back to new, “mixed-income” housing, many are skeptical. Some believe they will be ignored, overlooked, or dismissed, as has happened many times in the past when the city or county used public funds to “improve” neighborhoods—by bringing in higher-income people.

Others lament the loss of a community that, despite high levels of poverty and crime and limited opportunity, is, nevertheless, a community of neighbors, friends, and families who know and care for each other. When the buildings are gone, and the people dispersed, even if some move back, many of the ties that have bound them together will be lost forever.

Money still talks … and won’t shut up

But economic development will win out in the end. High-tech business attracts creativity, openness to new ideas, ample reserves of start-up funding, and elected officials who envision the city as North Carolina’s answer to Silicon Valley. Luxury housing is a constant draw for outsiders coveting multi-million-dollar homes with mountain views and/or access to downtown; that sector, having endured the slump that began in 2008, is thriving once again.

That’s great news for realtors, construction workers, and designers, but a burden for families who struggle to buy an Oakley bungalow for $155,000 (West Asheville long having been priced out of reach), only to see their friends unable to buy the house next door because “flippers” will pay $200,000 and resell it for $300,000. And those rising prices will soon increase taxes for every other neighbor, too.

Elected officials left, right, center …

Meanwhile, the makeup of the county commission changed again and again, sometimes without voters’ input. In April, 1st-term Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl announced that she would not run, as planned, for Commission Chair—having just won a contested primary—and that she was stepping down from her 3rd District seat. Her resignation allowed the Republican Party to name former State Representative Tim Moffitt to fill in until the end of her term in December, and to choose another candidate, Chuck Archerd, for the chairmanship.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara

Meanwhile, Commissioner Holly Jones had already announced she would not run for reelection. City Councilman Gordon Smith, civil rights leader Isaac Coleman, and GLBT activist Jasmine Beach-Ferrara fought a close race for the primary nod to replace her, with Coleman vying to be the first black commissioner, Beach-Ferrara as the first openly gay one. Beach-Ferrara won, and Coleman tragically passed away a few months later of previously undiagnosed cancer.

Moffitt decided not to run for a full commission term, so Celebrity Hot Dogs owner Richard Pressley became the Republican candidate, while former Commissioner David King and former Asheville City Councilman Ed Hay ran challenged Pressley and incumbent Joe Belcher. Come November, the two Republicans defeated the two Democrats in the strongly conservative western and southern district.

In eastern Buncombe, meanwhile, Nancy Nels Nehlson beat three men for the right to challenge incumbent Commissioner Mike Fryar, who had fended off a challenge from Tea Party activist Jordan Burchette. Fryar won by 317 votes after a recount.

And diverse

Two-term Commission Chair David Gantt decided to retire, and Commissioner Brownie Newman was elected to succeed him. Thus, his seat was open to appointment by the Democratic Party (as DeBruhl’s had been for the Republicans). Four candidates put their hats in the ring, all of them African American: former Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, former city School Board chairs Jacquelyn Hallum and Al Whitesides, and current City Councilman Keith Young. Whitesides won (see Buncombe County Democrats Appoint First African American Commissioner), so Buncombe County now has its first commissioners who are African American and GLBT (Beach-Ferrara) in its 225-year history. When the Commission met the day after Whitesides’s selection, the first order of business was his swearing-in.

HB2 Protesters

The state of the state: Laws …

Our government and our politics influence not just laws and regulations but a broad range of nonpolitical aspects of our lives. So a state reaction to a local ordinance prohibiting discrimination in Charlotte can end up lowering wages for people in Asheville.

That was the main story in North Carolina in 2016: HB2, the Legislature’s response to Charlotte’s broadening of its nondiscrimination ordinance to include transsexual citizens. The Legislature, in a 12-hour special session, not only overturned Charlotte’s ordinance; they used the opportunity to prohibit all NC municipalities and counties from including nondiscrimination protection for LGBTQ people; from enacting minimum wage laws higher than the state’s; and eliminating the right of all North Carolina citizens to sue their employers for discriminating against them, on any basis. (That last provision was later repealed.)

The effect of HB2 was like using a SAM missile to swat a fly. Citing HB2, major corporations announced that they were withdrawing plans to locate or build new facilities in North Carolina. Performers of international acclaim cancelled concerts, and even major sports leagues withdrew events from the Tarheel State, asserting that they do not support discrimination of any sort. And while Pat McCrory hemmed and hawed and insisted that HB2 had not been a disaster for the state’s reputation as well as its pocketbook, he became the first sitting governor in North Carolina history to lose a reelection bid.

Lawsuits …

The state also lost numerous court challenges to voting laws passed by the Republican Legislature. Despite spending $10 million to hire private lawyers (Democratic Attorney General, now Governor-elect, Roy Cooper refused to defend what he called unconstitutional statutes), judges kept throwing out statutes that required voter ID, shortened early voting and same-day registration, and gerrymandered electoral districts. The most recent ruling required that the state hold new legislative elections next year—unheard of in electoral jurisprudence—to remedy the gerrymandering that denied African American voters the right to elect candidates of their choice.

… and weather from h*ll

Two other major stories riveted Tarheels in 2016: stories about environmental chaos related, indirectly or directly, to global climate change. The NC coast was devastated in October by Hurricane Matthew, which caused more than $1.5 billion in damages and took 22 North Carolinians’ lives, many due to massive flooding of area rivers. Then, in November, the mountain counties surrounding Asheville battled more than a dozen wildfires, some of them of an intensity, speed, and duration expected in Western states but unprecedented in the southern Appalachians.

Meteorologists and climatologists pointed out that the week-long downpours from Matthew were an indication of the type of storms that can be expected when rising global temperatures cause higher levels of moisture in the atmosphere and sometimes slow the storms’ speed. And long-term, global-warming-related drought conditions have made southeastern forests more susceptible to fires.

Fires, floods, and self-inflicted wounds: that’s the state of our state—offset by the election of African American jurist Michael Morgan as the new Justice of the NC Supreme Court. Morgan’s win changes the balance of the Court from 4-3 Republican to 4-3 Democratic, though the Legislature is rumored to be considering enacting a law directing outgoing Governor McCrory to name two additional justices. That change would re-establish a Republican majority of 5-4, despite the will of the voters. There’s no doubt the legislators have the legal right, and the arrogance, to do so; whether they have the hubris remains to be seen.

Donald Trump

Nationally

No Year in Review can ignore Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Did it really happen? Those are just three of the questions covered so extensively by every media outlet in the country—in the world—that commenting here would be redundant. What’s notable is that former Senator and Secretary of State Clinton won at least 2.5 million more votes than businessman Trump. The Electoral College—a relic of an era when “We the People” were not trusted to vote directly for our president, and when small, sparsely populated rural (and slaveholding) states demanded supremacy over northern urban and industrial states—was what gave Mr. Trump the keys to the White House. Because of the Electoral College, both of the most recent Republican presidents-elect, Trump and Bush 43, lost the popular vote by substantial margins to winning Democrats who will never serve.

What a Trump administration will do for, or to, the American people is yet to be known, though his cabinet choices are a strong indicator that he prefers billionaires and insiders to anyone interested in helping people who are poor, black, Hispanic, Muslim, elderly, young, GLBTQ, or female. And that he dislikes secular activists who promote equal rights, voting rights, freedom of the press, and an equitable tax burden. And that anyone counting on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or other affordable health, education, and retirement programs should be prepared to be on their own. We can only wait and see.

Muhammad Ali died in 2016, as did John Glenn. Both were truly great American patriots, and theirs is a loss worth mourning—as is that of Asheville’s own Isaac Coleman, a hero to all who care about true equality.

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