2023 has been a doozy in Washington and North Carolina, if not so much in Asheville itself.
In January, Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives, following a squeaker election a year ago which was predicted to be a Republican “wave” election but turned into a trickle. With a bare majority, they devised a program that only a huge mandate from the public would support.
Their first order of business was to elect a Speaker. That took a record 15 votes—and set the standard for their legislative accomplishments (i.e., none) for the rest of the year.
In Raleigh, Roy Cooper entered his final two years as governor with a Republican majority in the state House that was one vote short of the ability to override his vetoes. Like their counterparts in DC, they wrote bill after bill designed to constrain the freedom and minimize the rights of Tar Heels. At first, fortunately, Cooper’s veto held them off.
Far worse for the people of the state was the takeover of the NC Supreme Court by judges who flipped the court from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican one. In several unprecedented moves, the all-powerful GOP members decided to rehear decisions that had been handed down by their predecessors.
February, the Shortest Month
The world observed the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and applauded as the small republic, under the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, held off the invaders and began to make ground in taking back territory from the Russians.
In Washington, President Biden held Congress’s feet to the fire during a memorable State of the Union address during which he forced Republican senators and representatives, under the new leadership of Kevin McCarthy, to promise that they would not cut funding for any of the major programs Americans rely on, like Social Security and Medicare. He also presented a list of legislative goals that ultimately would be accepted by both houses of Congress—and lead to McCarthy’s downfall many months later.
On Groundhog Day, appropriately enough, NC Supreme Court justices heard arguments in Community Success Initiative v. Moore, with Republican justices insisting that ex-felons could only earn back their voting rights as prescribed by an old 1970s law—a law that critics maintain was based on the intent to disenfranchise African Americans from their voting rights and should be deemed unconstitutional. A ruling is expected on that back-to-the-future case soon. They also heard arguments on whether prosecutors can use race to eliminate Black prospective jurors from capital cases where Blacks are the defendants, in an effort to convict with an all-white jury.
NC Central University Law Professor Irving Joyner said at the time, “The new high court is about to turn the clock back. . . . Efforts to protect political rights will be more difficult than it has been since 1900 when ‘Jim Crow’ forces seized control of all branches of the North Carolina government.”
Justice Anita Earls agreed. “The majority’s order fails to acknowledge the radical break with 205 years of history. . . . It has long been the practice of the North Carolina Supreme Court to respect precedent and the principle that once the court has ruled, that ruling will not be disturbed merely because of a change in the Court’s composition.” State Supreme Court data show that since January 1993, 214 petitions for rehearings were filed, but rehearing was allowed in only two cases.
In Asheville, a report presented to the Buncombe County Commission showed that “profound racial disparities persist between African American and white students in both academic performance and disciplinary action taken against them.” Among students in third through eighth grades in Asheville schools, only 13% of Black students were grade-proficient in end-of year reading tests, compared to 75% of white students—a 62% gap—and in mathematics, with a 55% gap: 11% of Black city students compared to 66% of white students.
Buncombe County students in those same age groups showed slightly less severe gaps of 36% in reading and 40% in math.
While the numbers are appalling, no plan was put forth to address these achievement and disciplinary disparities.
The Winds of March
The biggest news story was the indictment of Donald Trump on 34 criminal charges of “falsifying business records in the first degree.” It was the first time ever that a former US president has been indicted—but only the first of four indictments he would face during the year.
“Yes” to Medicaid, “No” to Black history
After more than a decade of delaying the program, Republican legislative leadership finally agreed on a deal to expand Medicaid for NC residents. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger announced a “deal” on March 2; it’s estimated that 600,000 state citizens would begin to receive medical coverage, including 14,000 veterans; approximately 37,000 new jobs will be created, and—with the federal government paying 90% of the cost and a hospital tax covering the rest—expansion will cost the state nothing.
It took over 10 years for Republicans to say “Yes!” to something so important to so many of our citizens. But expansion was not immediate; it would not start until a new state budget went into effect—which, it turned out, would be this month: December.
Simultaneously, the same leadership passed, over Gov. Cooper’s veto, a new bill, to prohibit the study of Black history. HB 187 was “…an act to demonstrate the General Assembly’s intent that students, teachers and administrators and other school employees recognize the equality and rights of all persons and to prohibit public school units from promoting certain concepts that are contrary to that intent.” In other words, not just “critical race theory,” but any history of the US that explained slavery, the Civil War, civil rights, or the Voting Rights Act as a racial history that oppressed Black people and has continued to be one of the failures of the “more perfect union” the founders envisioned.
April, the Cruelest Month?
In April the FDIC released its rules for the Overdraft Protection Act that had passed in August 2022. The new law amended the Truth in Lending Act to strengthen fair and transparent bank practices, requiring “reasonable and proportional” fees, expanded customer notifications, and providing customers the opportunity to cancel a transaction before incurring a fee. The new rules prohibit unfair or deceptive acts in connection with overdraft coverage; require advance disclosure of overdraft fees; limit the number of overdraft fees a consumer may be charged each month and year; and provide other forms of protection from big banks and lenders’ unfair practices.
The worst North Carolina news of the year came on April 5, when Democratic Representative Tricia Cotham became Republican Representative Tricia Cotham. Five months earlier, she had been re-elected from Mecklenburg County on a progressive platform of raising the minimum wage, protecting voting rights, supporting LGBTQ rights, and enshrining and protecting women’s right to choose. She had even voted for abortion rights legislation, and had previously announced on the floor of the House that she herself had had an abortion—but five months after her election as a strong defender of abortion rights, she voted to deny that right to all other women in the state.
Cotham’s switch gave the Republican party a veto-proof majority in the state House, joining the Senate and leaving Governor Cooper in a much-weakened position during the remainder of his term in office.
While Over in the Volunteer State . . .
The same week, across the border in Tennessee, three Tennessee House members—Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson—had protested on the House floor when they were not allowed to speak in favor of gun control. The two young Black men were expelled from the body, while Johnson, their older white colleague, was not. The Justins were soon reappointed to the state house by their local colleagues.
Trump, again. Not (yet) indicted again, but he was found guilty of sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll and defaming her, by a unanimous jury which then awarded her a total of $5 million in damages from Trump.
Legislators in Raleigh voted to take more public tax money and give it to unregulated private schools instead of the public school system that was once the pride of NC. The “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future” bill would increase the giveaway from $95 million in 2022-23 to $520 million annually within 10 years—and remove the cap on income eligibility, so even the richest Tar Heels will have their children’s private education subsidized at the expense of the rest of us.
The NC Constitution says, “The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools . . . wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” The legislature has ignored this obligation for decades; now, instead of adding money to public schools, they’ll be taking half a billion per year out of it.
The Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA), which operates more than 1,800 public housing units in the city, appointed Monique Pierre as its new President and CEO in May. Ms. Pierre has spent over twenty-five years as a housing and community development professional, Alabama to Pennsylvania to California. HACA is responsible for creating and overseeing safe, decent, affordable, and attainable housing for all those in need.
The same month Asheville native Libby Kyles was named the new Executive Director of Tzedek, a social justice fund that supports vital social justice organizations and leaders in the areas of LGBTQ Justice, Racial Justice, and Dismantling Antisemitism. Tzedek’s board noted that, with over 20 years of education, nonprofit, and advocacy experience, Kyles’s dedication to community and passion for service embody Tzedek’s values of justice, equitable giving, repairing the world through social action, and leadership.
In Washington, Republicans tried to cut $3.6 trillion—yes, TRILLION—from programs for childcare, healthcare, food assistance, veterans’ healthcare, medical research, and schools, over the next ten years—and to limit the IRS’s ability to go after wealthy tax cheats and prohibit future Congresses from closing tax loopholes. They failed. Not only was their budget dead on arrival, but President Biden forced them to agree to leave nearly all spending at the levels he had previously negotiated. Aware that massive budget cuts would plunge the US into a recession, the nation—and even many Republicans—breathed a sigh of relief.
And Trump was indicted again, this time in Florida, on 40 more felony counts for mishandling sensitive (classified) documents and conspiracy to obstruct the government in retrieving them from his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The NC legislature passed a “voter bill” that further infringes on the voting rights of North Carolina citizens, while helping cement the Republicans’ grip on power for decades. The League of Women Voters highlighted some of its provisions: A) eliminate the three-day mail-in grace period for absentee ballots, and require two-factor authentication for them; B) expand the right of political operatives to challenge and target voters they don’t like [read: Black, elderly, college students, etc.]; C) require that boards of elections use Signature Verification Software for absentee ballots; D) make all same-day voting & registration ballots provisional; E) require the SBI—not local district attorneys—to prosecute election-related felony offenses; and F) (thanks to the new GOP state Supreme Court) require a photo ID to vote.
On June 8, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer issued a proclamation acknowledging Juneteenth as a day of celebration for Black Americans. The City celebrated for a full week, with events including a youth poster contest, lunch-and-learn sessions on the History of Black Asheville, a series of African Americans in film, and Black and Brown Artist Tours.
In a major blow to justice, Tulsa, Oklahoma District Court Judge Caroline Wall dismissed the lawsuit seeking reparations for the last three known survivors of the Greenwood Massacre—a race riot led by white citizens against the prosperous African American community known as Black Wall Street. The attorney for Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, Viola Fletcher (109), and her brother Hughes Van Ellis (102)—announced they would appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The defendants—the state of Oklahoma, the city of Tulsa, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Tulsa sheriff’s office—were named because the race-based rampage, according to reports, included the active participation of members of the sheriff’s department and the Tulsa police. Defendants argued that compensating those three survivors for Greenwood’s destruction would be “a significant burden on the government’s financial stability,” and that the three plaintiffs did not suffer “individual, adverse effects” from the massacre—despite losing their families’ homes and having to flee for their lives.
In Raleigh, the legislature also forged ahead with a book-banning bill but missed its statutory deadline for its main job: passing a budget. Nothing new to see here, folks.
Another month, more Trump indictments. He earned four felony charges in the Washington, DC, District Court for “conspiring to defraud the government and disenfranchise voters, and corruptly obstructing an official proceeding,” by trying to overturn the 2020 election and inciting an insurrection to invade the US Capitol and keep Congress from certifying President Biden’s win. In Georgia, Trump and 18 co-conspirators faced 13 criminal charges related to alleged attempts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in that state.
Covid returns! Along with seasonal flu and RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus), respiratory infections gave NC residents a warning that the fall and winter could see a return to a higher level of illness. Increases were seen in hospital admissions, emergency department visits, and in the early warning wastewater monitoring system.
Young children, seniors, and people with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems could be at higher risk. Fortunately, safe and effective vaccines are available to protect people 60 years and older along with a new medication available to help prevent RSV infections,
Also in August, the Asheville-Buncombe County Reparations Commission heard from representatives of East End/Valley Street, Heart of Chestnut Hills, Shiloh, Stumptown, and Southside United, as well as HACA, whose residents make up the commission.
The legislature finally passed a budget, which Gov. Cooper did not veto because it provided for Medicaid expansion. The budget also included some of the most corrupting provisions ever passed into law in any state. One provision reads that each legislator is now the custodian of all “documents, supporting documents, drafting requests, and information requests made or received by that legislator while a legislator.” Further, while in office, legislators “shall not be required to reveal or to consent to reveal any document, supporting document, drafting request, or information request made or received by that legislator while a legislator.”
The bill exempts the General Assembly from the public records law that applies to other branches of government. “Notwithstanding any other provision of this section or order, rules, or regulations promulgated or adopted thereunder, the custodian of any General Assembly record [each legislator] shall determine … whether a record is a public record and whether to … retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of, such records.”
Thus the Republicans in the state legislature slammed the door to public access to public documents—documents dealing with public business, developed within public properties, and paid for entirely by the public’s taxes. And they can even sell them for a profit! Where this will end up in lawsuits remains to be seen.
The militant Hamas movement and government of Gaza attacked Israel on Oct. 7 in a surprise uprising that would soon engulf the region in war. By early December more than 18,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis had been killed, as the war ground on into its third month.
The Biden Administration’s two-year pause on student loan repayments ended, forcing millions of students who had been able to postpone paybacks while the economy recovered from the Covid pandemic to start forking over large chunks of their earnings to banks and other lenders.
In Black Mountain, the incarcerated workers who died during construction of the mountain division of the Western North Carolina Railroad were remembered and honored by a memorial plaque unveiled on Oct. 22. The plaque is attached to a granite boulder like those that were blasted away to create the railway route.
Thousands of mostly Black prisoners laid track and cut tunnels through the mountains from Old Fort to Ridgecrest in the late 1870s. Many of them had been arrested and charged as felons under Jim Crow laws, in an extension of slavery across the South, for such “felonious infractions” as jaywalking or not having a job (being “a burden” on the state).
Those laws were designed to evade the requirement of the 14th Amendment that “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Incarcerated laborers were then contracted to corporations that paid the state pennies for their work, and paid the prisoners nothing, returning them to the status of enslaved people once again.
November began with a pair of mass shootings, the first in Lewiston, ME, that killed 18 people, followed by one in Thousand Oaks, CA, that killed another dozen Americans. As of the end of November, 38 mass shootings—three per month—had killed almost 200 people, not counting the shooters. Yet Congress still refuses to do anything to bring guns under control.
But Republicans, after more than a month of fumbling, chose Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson to be the new Speaker of the House.
In good news, gymnast Simone Biles placed first in the World Championships. What a wonderful symbol of, and representative for, the best of the United States!
Also, the first four co-defendants of Trump—including former Asheville resident Sidney Powell—pleaded guilty in the Georgia case. “The arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice!” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Retired NC Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor with a social media ad. He will run against NC A.G. Josh Stein, so 2024 will offer two highly qualified, capable candidates in the spring primaries. Whichever candidate wins the Democratic primary is sure to make North Carolina a better place for all our people.
In newly released Republican-drawn Congressional maps (allowed under a ruling by the Republican state Supreme Court), districts are likely to elect 10 or 11 Republicans versus three or four Democrats. In 2022, under fair maps drawn by a nonpartisan master, each party gained seven Congressional seats.
Some districts—including in the rural Black counties of the northeast corner of the state—are drawn to eliminate any possibility of a Democrat, especially a Black Democrat, winning a seat. Lawsuits have already been filed to challenge the maps.
The NC Department of Health and Human Services announced the first reported flu-related deaths of the 2023-24 flu season. Pay attention to your health, get vaccinated, and ask your doctor (or the state DHHS) about any symptoms that might lead to serious illness.
Judge Calvin Hill, Chief Judge of WNC’s 28th Judicial District since 2011, announced that he will not seek reelection as the highest district magistrate after his current term ends. He has been a fair, honest, and highly respected jurist for many years; the western NC region will miss him on the bench.
Forward into 2024!
Happy Holidays to all, whether you observe Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Twelfth Night, Winter Solstice, or all of the above. And especially a happy, hard-working New Year! Please, participate in this Democracy and register to VOTE!