by Moe White –
Local, state, national, and international news made 2017 a year to remember—and one that many of us would rather forget.
Sadly, much of what we’d like to put behind us won’t let go, but will keep dogging our steps and impacting our lives for years or decades to come.
Politics first, since I’m a political junkie.
Asheville saw big changes to its City Council makeup. For the first time ever, racial diversity on Council has surpassed 40%, as voters elected an Indian-American, Vijay Kapoor, and a second African American, Sheneika Smith, to join incumbent Keith Young and four white colleagues.
This is the first time in thirty years that two African Americans have served on Asheville City Council together. Two-term Councilman Cecil Bothwell lost his reelection bid after eight years, while Vice-Mayor Gwen Wisler was reelected to a second term. Council now has a majority of four women—Mayor Esther Manheimer, who handily won reelection with 81% of the vote; Wisler, Smith, and Julie Mayfield, first elected in 2015—and three men: Kapoor, Young, and Brian Haynes (Young and Haynes elected in 2015).
In generations past, one black person and/or one woman served from time to time—Reuben Dailey, Dr. Otis Michael, Herbert “Watt Daddy” Watts, Gene Ellison, Barbara Field, Wilhelmina Streeter, Rev. O.T. Toms, Terry Bellamy—but there has never before been a council with such a diversity of voices. Especially in light of the #MeToo movement against sexual offenses against women, and the revitalization of white supremacy under the Trump administration, it will be interesting to see what issues rise to the top of Council’s agenda that might have been ignored just a few years ago.
Photographs of former mayors and councils show a stark contrast between Asheville’s recent diversification and the previous century. Throughout the 1900s—and doesn’t that sound long ago!—every mayor was a white male until Leni Sitnick’s election in 1997; today Haynes is the only white male on the entire Council. That very diversity terrifies the antediluvian white males who dominate the Republican Party.
State Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville, who represents a tiny sliver of Asheville in southern Buncombe County, has forced through legislation eliminating the current right of all Asheville citizens to vote for their own City Council. Instead of all citizens choosing half the Council every other year, each resident will be limited to voting once every four years for a single candidate, and once for mayor. Each of us currently has seven precious votes to cast in every cycle; under the new law, five of them will be taken away from us.
Edwards’s goal is two-fold: to maximize the chance for a Republican to get elected from the south Asheville area, and to minimize and disenfranchise city residents. When put to a vote, Asheville residents defeated his proposal by a three-to-one margin; but Republicans in the legislature voted almost unanimously to deny the citizens of Asheville their right to vote on their own government. Like most other GOP legislation of the past few years, this law will end up being litigated in the state court system.
Buncombe County generally doesn’t make political news in odd-numbered years, when no elections are held, but 2017 was an exception. County Manager Wanda Greene, in office for 20 years, retired July 1; weeks later U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose confirmed that Greene is under federal investigation. Though Rose was not specific about what potential crimes Greene may have committed, many financial shenanigans have come to light.
The Greene scandal put a shadow over the administrations of former Commission Chair David Gantt and current Chair Brownie Newman. Both men supported Greene throughout her tenure, and gave her far more authority and less accountability than she deserved. Yet it’s difficult to blame them except for lax oversight: during her years as manager the county’s fiscal condition held steady and even improved, despite recessions and long-term slashing of state and federal support. Public bond issues were passed whose spending is untainted by scandal; improvements to roads and infrastructure have proceeded on schedule, and the county’s bond rating is as high as it’s ever been.
With Democratic Governor Roy Cooper firmly in control of the executive branch, the NC legislature spent 2017 trying to figure out new, creative ways to thwart him at every turn. To some extent they have succeeded, but several of their schemes have been thrown out by the courts. The most recent tumult in Raleigh has to do, again, with redistricting.
Time after time the courts, both state and federal, have rejected the Republicans’ redistricting; time after time they have been “chastised” and forced to go back to the drawing board; time after time they have returned with yet another gerrymander designed to keep Democrats out of office; and time after time the courts have given them another chance.
This year, at last, a three-judge panel of the federal District Court in Greensboro had had enough. After several districts were found to be unconstitutionally drawn, after the Supreme Court affirmed their finding, after the District Court judges ordered the Republicans to redraw them, and after the GOP presented new “redrawn” districts last August … it seemed as if they’d done it again.
In response to a request by Anita Earls, executive director and lead attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is litigating the case, the judges appointed an independent, nonpartisan special master, Professor Nathaniel Persily of Stanford Law School, to help them determine if the most recently redrawn districts:
“… fail to remedy the identified constitutional violation or are otherwise legally unacceptable. In anticipation of the likely possibility of such a finding, in view of upcoming filing period for the 2018 election cycle, and upon consideration of the technical nature of determining an appropriate remedy when district lines are at issue, the Court finds exceptional circumstances and intends to appoint a Special Master.”
According to the order, Persily’s job will be to “assist the Court in further evaluating and, if necessary, redrawing the Subject Districts by developing an appropriate plan remedying the constitutional violations allegedly rendering the Subject Districts legally unacceptable.”
After almost a decade of living under election districts that have been found unconstitutional, and after the GOP failed to redraw them to the Court’s satisfaction, the people of North Carolina deserve to have fair, equitable voting districts from which to draw their legislative representatives.
How much difference new district lines will make is unclear: only two Senate districts and six House districts are under review in this latest order, and redrawing them will have an impact on only a few others. But even a few redrawn districts could create enough of a contest to end the party’s supermajorities in the state House and Senate, and allow for a more rational congressional delegation in future years (currently, 10 Republicans and three Democrats represent the state, though Democratic candidates got nearly 50% of the vote in 2016).
What does a columnist say about national news in 2017? When one looks at Washington politics and, especially, one-party rule, one sees scandal, vice, corruption, treason, failure, incompetence … and that’s just from the White House.
In ten months Donald Trump has done much of what Steve Bannon counselled and promoted: upended and overturned our democratic system of government, our political norms, our standing in the world. He has put foxes in charge of all the henhouses—racist autocrat Jeff Sessions in charge of the Department of Justice; privatization profiteer Betsy DeVos over Education; anti-environmentalist, pro-logging National Parks hater Ryan Zinke to head the Interior Department; Koch-and-coal ally Scott Pruitt as head of EPA; Rex Tillerson, personally awarded Vladimir Putin’s “Order of Friendship,” over the U.S. State Department; international bankster and suspected Cyprus money-launderer Wilbur Ross at Commerce … It’s America’s worst nightmare, compounded by the GOP’s takeover of both houses of Congress and the Kremlin’s takeover of the executive branch.
Fortunately, the Republicans in Washington are as incompetent as they are evil; they have so far delivered not one substantive piece of legislation (though the horrendous billionaire’s tax giveaway is pending). Instead, they have stood by as Mr. Trump has tried to delegitimize the Obama presidency; and if he can undo all the good that President Obama did, he will erase the black man’s legacy from the history books, just as he tried, unsuccessfully, to do through his birther conspiracy.
At press time, four of his top aides and close allies—Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, and George Papadopoulos—the latter two of whom have pleaded guilty—have been indicted for various crimes; Special Counsel Bob Mueller is daily closing in on people closer to Trump. The involvement of Wikileaks, several allies close to the Kremlin, and even the president’s son and son-in-law portend a rough road ahead for Mr. Trump. The swamp, it seems, is filling deeper and deeper with the slime that oozes over everything and everyone who comes within Mr. Trump’s reach; and the alligators and snakes are hungry.
And, that gives impetus to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s drive to get tax “reform” done before the end of the month: they know that with every day that passes, their reelection chances diminish, and the likelihood of the president’s fall from power increases.
The most recent headache for the Republican Party was the possible election of Roy Moore as a senator from Alabama. The Republicans threw their support behind him, or, at best, refused to oppose him; only one of the 52 senators, and not a single House member, came out for his opponent, Democrat Doug Jones.
Jones is an icon of moderate Democratic policies who successfully prosecuted the men who set off the bomb that killed four little black girls in Birmingham in 1963. Thus, given a choice between a man who jailed those who harmed children, and a man who allegedly harmed them, much of the Republican electorate preferred the latter. Fortunately for all of us, Jones won in an upset, to become the first Democratic senator from Alabama in a generation.
Like the last days of Rome, when the aristocracy didn’t even bother to hide its corruption and venality, today’s GOP and its backers—the billionaires, bankers, crooks, and liars of Wall Street and industry—openly gather with the president to tell him that the tax bill, which will give each of them at least a $1 million annual windfall and exempt their heirs forever from paying inheritance taxes, is not good enough. They want more. They want it all. As one Republican pusher of this tax giveaway, New York Rep. Chris Collins, put it: “My donors are basically saying: ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.” And the GOP bows down and says, “Yes.”
It will be up to us, the true patriots, to save and rebuild our nation, just as the Founders did in rebelling against British autocracy; as patriots did following the Civil War); and again after the Great Depression, caused by those who collectively ran the GOP and abused similar unbridled power during the roaring, catastrophic 1920s.
We must rebuild our nation, beginning with the election of 2018; again in 2020, and every year thereafter. We can do it; but it will take all of us working together for decades to come.