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19
Is there something in the water in Chapel Hill that keeps University big shots from giving straight answers? The same lockjaw that keeps the UNC-CH athletic-academic scandal on the front pages has now spread to the Board of Governors.
 
The board’s non-speak/double-speak non-explanation of why Tom Ross was forced out leaves only one logical inference: It was politics. The chairman might as well have said, “To the victors go the spoils. We’re Republicans, he’s a Democrat, so we pushed him out.”
 
Ross’ forced departure has been rumored for months, if not years, along with the accompanying rumor that Art Pope replace him. The BOG chair said that wouldn’t happen; Pope left the door open. If it does happen after a year-long, national search, the university community may take up pitchforks and torches.
 
You could tell from his statement and from photos that Ross wasn’t happy and wasn’t ready to go. A rumor sprang up immediately that he may run for U.S. Senate. But that’s not likely if he stays in the job another year. And the qualities that make great university presidents do not necessarily make great politicians. See: Erskine Bowles.
 
As a candidate or not, Ross has the network to make an impact in 2016. If he sounds the trumpet, he can mobilize a lot of money behind the candidate or super PAC of his choice.

 

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16
The mystery isn’t how he died; it’s the Department of Prisons’ silence.
 
Michael Kerr was in and out of trouble with the law for a decade – he was a thief, assaulted a woman and tried to outrun a policeman in a patrol car – then two crimes committed against him left him on the edge of madness: First his son Anthony was murdered then, a year later, his second son Gabriel was murdered then, three months after that, Kerr fired nine shots into a house trailer (where the second murderer’s cousin lived) and, holding the empty pistol, called out “this isn’t over” before he drove away.  
 
His sister says he suffered three nervous breakdowns in the local jail waiting for trial and after he arrived in prison the doctors there diagnosed him with schizophrenia but no one bothered to ask if madness meant his thirty one year prison sentence was a mistake. Three years later he was found dead in the back of a prison van.
 
An autopsy the next morning revealed he’d died for an unexpected reason: Thirst. But an autopsy couldn’t explain how a man in a prison cell with a sink couldn’t get a drink of water so the Medical Examiner, Susan Venuti, asked for Kerr’s prison records but the Prisons Department told her, No.
 
Months later, reporters digging through court filings and letters (including a letter from the prisoner in the cell next to Kerr) pieced together part of the story.
 
The doctors at Kerr’s prison had put him on medications which worked fine until the morning three years later when he stopped taking the drugs; three months after that he landed in solitary confinement and four days after that a prison Captain reported he was just sitting on the floor in his cell in his own urine.
 
After Kerr clogged up his sink and flooded his cell four times they shut off his water; when a guard, afraid he was becoming dehydrated, handed him a cup of water he took a couple swallows, poured the rest on the cell floor and looked back at the guard and said, “Come on in the water’s fine.”
 
Kerr’d spent seventeen days in solitary when the prisoner in the next cell began keeping a notebook: On March 6 he wrote Kerr “used the bathroom on hisself” then added he’d heard the guard and a sergeant talking saying “his pants is halfway down, his butt is out, look at his crusty feet.”
 
The prisoner wrote Kerr “ate nothing” the next day and “they called a Code Blue because he was unresponsive” – a guard and a captain went into Kerr’s cell and put him in leg irons and handcuffs then a nurse entered the cell and examined him – after she left the guard removed the leg irons, walked out of the cell, turned, and told Kerr to come to the door so he could remove his handcuffs but Kerr didn’t move.
 
Two days later the inmate in the next cell wrote “third straight day in handcuff pants still half way off and urine and feces all over cell.”
 
On the twenty-first day Kerr was still lying on his cot and the guards, along with a nurse, went into his cell and “asked did he want his vitals taken he didn’t respond so they said are you refusing to have your vitals taken he didn’t say nothing so they say okay you refusing and left.”
 
The next morning a prison psychologist called Kerr’s sister and told her, Your prayers have been answered, they’re moving him to the hospital at Central Prison.
 
When the guards went to move Kerr he was lying on his cot, pants and underwear around his ankles, in excrement and urine, and when they tried to unlock the handcuffs they were clogged with dried feces.
 
When they rolled him out the cell door in a wheelchair the prisoner in the next cell saw “his eyes wide open but seeing nothing and he had something white coming out of his mouth.”
 
The guards drove Kerr not to the local hospital but to Central Prison Hospital three hours away and between one prison and another the evils he’d done and the evils done to him consummated in dry squalor inside the back of the prison van – a prison official called his sister that afternoon to tell her he was dead when he arrived in Raleigh. 
 
***
 
There was no confession. Or contrition. Instead a veil of silence descended over the Department of Prisons. They told the Medical Examiner, No, then had a committee write a report then did an ‘internal’ investigation then, a month later, an under Secretary – David Guice – called for the SBI to investigate but the minute an SBI agent asked for Kerr’s records the Prison Department told him, No, too.  
 
The silence stretched on for five months then the Prisons Department cracked the door a fraction, giving the Medical Examiner not Kerr’s medical records or prison records but the report written by its internal committee; after that the Medical Examiner gave up asking and released her autopsy report and said without Kerr’s records she couldn’t determine whether Kerr’s death was suicide, homicide or accident.
 
A week later the U.S. Attorney in Raleigh began a grand jury investigation and Kerr’s story landed in the newspapers and the scramble began in the Prisons Department: The Secretary of Public Safety, Frank Perry, announced his Department had conducted not just a “thorough” but a “transparent” investigation and that the Department had disciplined 40 employees – including nine who’d been fired – then added, “We have been righteous with our investigation and dismissals.”
 
The press then asked Perry why a “transparent” investigation hadn’t included giving Kerr’s records to the Medical Examiner and Perry announced that was for “a righteous reason like privacy or respect for HIPAA” then a reporter, getting down to brass tacks, asked if Perry knew of even one Medical Examiner who’d ever before been denied a dead man’s prison records because of HIPAA laws and Perry said he didn’t know.
 
Broken politics is more than just Congressmen pointing fingers and screaming.
 
There may have been a dozen reasons why silence descended on the Department of Prisons: Frank Perry may have been worried about a lawsuit – he may be working to avoid a lawsuit by negotiating a settlement, right now, and he may figure the less known about what went on in Michael Kerr’s prison cell the less his Department will have to pay. Or there could be other reasons.
 
But Frank Perry holds his office as a public trust and when he buries the truth that’s a breach of trust which, in a democracy, is like plague: Secretary Perry, speak no more of righteousness until you tell how Michael Kerr died of thirst in solitary confinement.  

 


 

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15
On their first day in session, legislative leaders sent a message to Governor McCrory: We’re back, and we’re in charge.
 
McCrory has talked about three things in recent weeks: He wants more money for economic incentives, he may want to expand Medicaid and he wants a Dix deal with Raleigh (not Charlotte).
 
In their opening-day news conference, Senator Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore said flatly that they’re not going to expand Medicaid. Senator Berger said he would wait to hear more about what the Governor wants on incentives. And, while McCrory proclaimed the Dix deal he negotiated “good news” for the city and the state, some legislators act like he handed them a skunk.
 
Three strikeouts would not be a good way to start the year.

 

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14
Two headlines this week tell why even President Obama’s fans despair sometimes.
 
First, while Obama and his staff focused on rolling out his free-community college proposal, they neglected to send anybody to the biggest story in the world: the Paris rally against terror. Second, while the President was giving a speech on cybersecurity, our military’s social media sites got hacked.
 
Mere symbolism, you might sniff. But Obama’s greatest failing as a leader is not understanding the importance of symbols like these. It’s not enough to get the policies right. It’s just as important, or more important, to show presidential and national strength.
 
Democrats didn’t lose in November because voters dislike Democratic policies nor like Republican policies. They lost because Obama looks like a weak President, not strong enough to fix the economy and keep American safe and strong.
 
For all the talk about a comeback in his last two years – “Obama being Obama” – the President’s problem isn’t fixable. His image is fixed, and Americans are turning to what they want in the next President.
 
Here’s betting they’ll want a man, or a woman, who is least like what they like least about Obama. They’ll look for a strong President to replace one who looks overwhelmed and over his head.

 

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13
Has Rep. Paul Tine found the promised land – or no man’s land?
 
Tine, who was elected twice as a Democrat, says he can help his district by switching to unaffiliated and caucusing with House Republicans.
 
But will it help him or hurt him in 2016?
 
Voters clearly have no love for either party. More and more of them register unaffiliated. So Tine’s move may look smart.
 
But will it work in the real world of politics? What if both a Democrat and a Republican run against him in 2016? Will he cruise down the middle to reelection – or get slaughtered in a crossfire?
 
If he becomes a Republican, will he face a primary challenger who attacks him as too liberal on issues like abortion?
 
This is uncharted territory, and Tine is on a path that could lead to either paradise or perdition.

 

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12

 

Obama stands on a stage in Tennessee and promises nine million people he’ll give them $3,800 a year each (on average) and the press coos he’s made a “dramatic announcement” then a skeptic asks how Obama’ll come up with the money and Obama has the White House staff tell him, ‘That’s beside the point.’
 
As cynical politics it’s breathtaking.
 
In our modern world of five second sound bites, promising something for nothing is more powerful than magic: The President says he hasn’t given much thought to whether he’ll borrow, raise taxes, or cut spending to make every Community College (from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters) free and instead of saying, This fellow’s pulling the wool over our eyes promising us something for nothing – a five second sound bite puts Obama back on top of the world, riding the crest of a PR wave.


 

 

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12
Here’s an idea for Democratic legislators, one that could be good politics and good for North Carolina: Help Governor McCrory pass his plan for Medicaid expansion.
 
After meeting with President Obama at the White House last week, McCrory said he argued for flexibility to develop a “North Carolina plan.” But, as Carter noted during our appearance on WRAL’s “On the Record,” the Governor has to get his idea past not only Obama, but also Phil Berger and Tim Moore.
 
Here’s where Democrats come in. They can support McCrory’s request to the White House, and enlist our depleted congressional delegation. They can also give McCrory a healthy start on the votes to get expansion through the legislature.
 
That would present House and Senate leaders with a bipartisan plan. Pass it, and they look reasonable. Kill it, and they start this session just like the last one. McCrory, in contrast, would be doing some deft triangulation that plays well for him in 2016.
 
Now, McCrory’s idea is apparently to tie Medicaid expansion to some kind of work requirement. Democrats would want to know if that’s unreasonable or onerous. But if they can work out something with McCrory, both he and they come out ahead – as will half a million North Carolinians who need health insurance and millions more of us who are paying their bills now.

 

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09
David Crabtree and Mark Binker of WRAL hosted Carter and me for this weekend’s “On the Record” show. We talked about the new Congress, the political landscape, Richard Burr’s reelection race, Governor McCrory and Medicaid, Paul Tine’s switcheroo and Jeb Bush.
 
The show airs Saturday at 7 pm, or whenever basketball ends. It will be online Saturday afternoon at WRAL.com. 

 

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08
At 76, the California governor is still young at heart, bold of vision and quick of wit.
 
Brown was sworn into his fourth term this week, and he’s off with a bang. He wants to attack global warming by reducing California’s energy consumption over the next 15 years, slashing gas consumption by cars and trucks by as much as 50 percent and having 50 percent of California’s electricity come from renewable sources.
 
Then he got up a head of steam about his proposed 520-mile high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles (price tag: $67 billion).
 
To critics and skeptics, he said: “People do get pusillanimous. I wanted to use that word because that’s the adjective I’m going to affix to all the critics. You can look it up on your cellphone right now. Pusillanimous. It means weak of spirit.”
 
He gave the best argument ever for trains "There's no anti-texting rule on the trains. You can use your iPhone. And you can have a martini or whatever you people drink."
 
Also, "There's also a really big barrier that puts a limit on how many cars—that's called congestion. You can only have so many lanes. You can't keep paving over prime agricultural land. You can't take property off the tax rolls any more than you have to."
 
The SF-LA line wouldn’t be running until 2030, but Brown is not pusillanimous about that, either: “I’ll be 92 in 2030. I’m working and pumping iron and eating vegetables. I want to be around.”

 

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08
A poor boy of seventeen Jomah joined ISIS for money then landed in a class to train children to be soldiers; the morning he received his first lesson teachers holding not guns but knives led in three captured soldiers and after the lesson the circle of boys passed around the severed heads.
 
Ismail, also seventeen, joined ISIS for his own ancient vice: Hatred. Of Bashar al-Assad. When ISIS captured an enemy tribe in Northern Syria he was ordered to help behead every male between fourteen and forty-five – and balked.  His ten year old brother stepped up without a qualm to take his place.
 
Greed, hatred and beheading – it’s like a clock rolled backwards a thousand years then a gate in Hell opened setting Mammon and Moloch and a legion of devils lose in the Levant to torment children while, watching safely behind electronic walls on computer screens, believing we have created a mechanical cure powerful enough to banish the heart of darkness, we stopped debating gay marriage long enough to push a button to send a drone to drop a bomb.

 

 

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Carter & Gary
 
Carter Wrenn
 
 
Gary Pearce
 
 
The Charlotte Observer says: “Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But they both love North Carolina and know its politics inside and out.”
 
Carter is a Republican. 
Gary is a Democrat.
 
They met in 1984, during the epic U.S. Senate battle between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt. Carter worked for Helms and Gary, for Hunt.
 
Years later, they became friends. They even worked together on some nonpolitical clients.
 
They enjoy talking about politics. So they started this blog in 2005. 
 
They’re still talking. And they invite you to join the conversation.
 
 
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