Thursday, October 23, 2014

Could toll-road protesters decide the fate of the US Senate?

Well, the honest answer to that question is “probably not”, and in the grand scheme of things we should all be glad that’s likely not the case.   With global crises like Ebola, ISIS, and a potentially sputtering world economy to put things in perspective, it is surely a good thing for the order of the cosmos that control of the upper chamber in the US Congress is not solely dependent on the outcome of what happens with 26 miles of interstate through the Lake Norman area.

As was mentioned here two weeks ago, events elsewhere in the country took this race off the critical path for the Republicans some time ago.  Even though the race between Tillis and Hagan has tightened in the past two weeks, North Carolina now looks like it will be a bonus seat if the Republicans take over the Senate rather than the critical linchpin it was at the beginning of this election cycle. 
None of that however changes the fact that the I77 HOT Lanes issue could still be critical in the outcome of the contest here in North Carolina.  In a contest like this where every vote counts, any issue that sways a few thousand votes one way or the other could be the difference.

In the case of the HOT Lanes, the credit (or blame) for making that difference goes to the WidenI77 activist group.  Led by Cornelius resident, Kurt Naas, along with several other dedicated volunteers, this group has been relentless in getting out their message about preventing tolls.  Recently, they have been cranking up the volume.  WidenI77.org signs have been popping up in North Mecklenburg at prominent intersections.  One was seen recently floating near the Exit 30 causeway on Lake Norman during Friday afternoon rush hour¸ and this past Saturday one of those signs along with about two dozen protesters were outside of a Thom Tillis campaign event at the Republican “victory center” on Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.

Two dozen protesters may not sound like much, but if that is what you focused on then you would be missing the point.  That small number of protesters held signs that said things like “honk if you oppose tolls”.  Standing there for a few minutes, one got a real sense for how this issue could impact this election.

The noise from those horns and the number of drivers honking them said all you need to know.
Over a five minute period that Saturday evening a good 40% - 50% of passing cars honked.  Some were a quick beep-beep.  Others gave a long angry blast.  Sometimes they came in flurries where every passing car laid on the horn.  At other moments it would be just one in a group.  There was also the person the scooter giving the protesters a fist pump as he rode by.   The most entertaining had to be the man on his bicycle in full cycling regalia giving the protesters a thumbs up as he pedaled past.
Assuming that not everyone who opposes tolls bothered to honk, it was pretty clear in this incredibly unscientific poll that tolls are incredibly unpopular.  That unpopularity could turn into consequences on election-day. 

Here’s why…

Mecklenburg and Iredell Counties have almost exactly 10% of the State’s registered Republicans.  They also happen to be the two counties where residents will be the most familiar with the tolling issue.  Anything that siphons off even a small percentage of those Republican votes from Thom Tillis could throw a monkey wrench into his campaign’s efforts to overtake Kay Hagan.
That siphon could come in the form of former North Mecklenburg legislator and conservative firebrand John Rhodes who is mounting a write-in campaign for the US Senate.  He is a familiar name in conservative circles and has garnered a respectable level of support among local tea party activists.  He is also opposed to tolls.

On the street last Saturday evening several of his supporters were seen holding those signs encouraging people to honk.  If enough of those honks turn into votes, it could spell trouble for Team Tillis.

This post was originally published in the Herald Weekly


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Anti-Toll Effort Gets Some National Attention

While the race between Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan has been getting plenty of national attention (it may eventually be the most expensive Senate race in history) there has not been much attention from national media on a subject that is raging here locally - tolls on I77.

That changed with this story in the Washington Times.

Thom Tillis Senate bid imperiled by tea party toll-road disdain -Washington Times


We first reported on this issue possibility impacting this national election over a year ago.


The anti-toll group WidenI77 has been ramping up their efforts lately sending out a fundraising letter for a possible legal challenge as well as becoming a more visible presence around the area with signs and protests.

More on this story here later this week.

As election day nears it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Community Outreach on Tolls: “Ministry of Truth-style"

One would be hard pressed to find a local issue in recent (or not so recent) memory that has caused more confusion, anxiety, and distrust of state and local government than the proposed HOT Lanes project for widening I77.  At the root of all that distrust has been the ineffective communication to the public all along the way.
In what would seem to be an effort to remedy this, last November NCDOT put out a job posting for a position called “Director of Outreach and Community Affairs” to cover the Charlotte region.  This past spring, former Charlotte City Councilman Warren Cooksey stepped into the job. 
The job title and hiring a local would seem to be a good thing, but reading the job posting may leave you with a different opinion.
“This position supports community relations and public affairs for all NC Department of Transportation activities in the Charlotte area, including highway, rail, transit, bike/pedestrian and aviation.  The position develops and implements communication strategies, programs, and initiatives designed to inform Congressional, State, and Local Elected Officials, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Rural Planning Organizations, Chambers of Commerce, transportation associations, the media, and various stakeholders on how innovative projects and techniques help achieve Departmental objectives.  The Liaison serves as a senior staff member and responds professionally to internal and external issues, helping make decisions on the appropriate organizational response to the public and news media.  The position provides communication expertise supporting project delivery by crafting marketing materials on promotions and time sensitive campaigns.”
Under the “Skills” and “Experience” sections it lists managing relations with government agencies, private and public interest groups, and members of the media.  The position also requires a “thorough understanding of the political process and experience in the intergovernmental relations arena.”
Unfortunately, judging by the description and job qualifications, this Director of Outreach and Community Affairs position sounds like it would fit in just fine at the “Ministry of Truth” from George Orwell’s 1984.  Rather than a position designed to ensure the public is informed adequately and in a timely manner, the position appears focused on managing the information flow to ensure NCDOT gets what it wants.
Former Commissioner Cooksey with his connections and experience is the perfect man for the job.
In recent months, Mr Cooksey has covered all the bases the job description requires.  He has met with the Lake Norman Chamber to promote the project, and last week he was back at Charlotte City Council on the other side of the dais fending off questions from councilmembers.  He recently debated Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy, a HOT Lanes opponent, at the Don Reid weekly breakfast in South Charlotte, and he is scheduled to debate members of WidenI77 at an upcoming meeting of the Bastiat Society on Public Private Partnerships.  These last two are interesting because they are conservative groups and some of the strongest opposition to the toll lanes and P3s has come from the political right. 
Mr Cooksey has also put his understanding of the political process and experience in intergovernmental relations to good use.
Emails show he was at the center of efforts to keep meetings closed to the public when HOT Lanes contractor Cintra came to town in August.  Mr Cooksey defended the use of a legal loop hole to do this – a loop hole that ensured no town board had a quorum of elected officials at any meeting.  On a separate occasion he offered to coach County Commission Chair Trevor Fuller on HOT lanes when Commissioner Fuller came to Davidson for a public forum.  Finally, this past week he oversaw the public open houses on the project – open houses scheduled well after NCDOT says there is nothing that can be done to stop the project.  The sessions were complete with the debut of a utopian video of the I77 HOT lanes in action with no mention of the real toll rates and no presence of any traffic on any lanes.
If all of this does not sound like “community outreach” to you, it gets even better.  One should not expect Mr Cooksey to be spending too much time on all those other transportation methods mentioned in his job description .
There is a reason why Charlotte is the only region in the state that actually has this position for NCDOT.  It was transferred to NCDOT’s Charlotte Division from the NCTA – the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.  The position is a toll road position transferred to the local NCDOT office because this is where the action is with the tolling – now and in the future.
George Orwell would be proud.
 
This post was first printed in the Opinion Section of this week's Weekly Herald.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Debate #2 for NC-98 This Thursday at River Run

Last Thursday saw Democrat Natasha Marcus and Republican John Bradford face off for the first time in the race to succeed Thom Tillis in the NC-98 House seat in the NCGA.

The next day an attack add from the Bradford Campaign hit mailboxes.  The mailer took an interesting approach by linking Ms Marcus to President Barack Obama.  That might seem like a tactic more fitting for a Federal race than one at the State level, but Ms Marcus did lead the local chapter of Organizing for Action in support of the Obama campaign.

Maybe there will be some fireworks as Ms Marcus pushes back?  Attend this Thursday to see in person.  The details are in the below press release.

========================

A ‘Meet the Candidates’ Forum scheduled in Davidson, NC on Thursday, October 16, 2014
Residents in Davidson, NC and surrounding communities are invited to participate in a ‘Meet the Candidates’ forum, Thursday evening, October 16, 2014 at 7:00 PM at the River Run Golf and Country Club Ballroom located at 19125 River Falls Drive, Davidson, NC, 28036. The event may cover Federal, State, and County races and many key issues, such as transportation, education, State and Federal budgets and economic development. This event will be held just seven days before early voting begins, so it could be an excellent way to hear from the candidates prior to casting a vote.

Come early and stay late to dialogue one-on-one with those willing to serve and represent you in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Washington, DC. This will be an excellent opportunity to hear from the candidates about their plans for the future. 

The format will include a moderator and time keeper so that each candidate has an opportunity to respond to participant’s questions. Prior to the 7:00 PM start, index cards will be provided to record questions by the participants and to allow the moderator an opportunity to plan and pose the questions to all candidates during the forum.

We encourage everyone to attend this event.

Sponsored by the River Run Property Owners Association, Government Affairs Committee. Questions: Jim Copio / jcopio@att.net / 704-892-7573


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Post 300 and a New Direction

Post 300...

In the nearly three year run for this blog, it has covered a lot of topics.  Good government and transparency top the list of things getting the most enthusiastic attention.  Elections and candidates have made for interesting subjects.  Then there have been the big infrastructure projects like the Red Line and the HOT lanes - projects that are by their very nature political.  I've also picked on some of our local media and their coverage of events.

By covering the minutia of how government works and how the media covers it, hopefully that has shown a little light on things for readers  It is often pretty clear when a post hits a nerve based on comments and emails it receives.  More subtly, every now and then, small positive changes can be seen in how local government works on topics covered here.  Seeing that makes the time spent well worth it.

But let me be really clear about one thing, what I do here is not "journalism".  I don't try to hide where I'm coming from on topics.   Rather than journalism, I would describe it as editorial mixed with bit of satire and a side of educated citizen activism.  It is not just journalists who have the right and responsibility to keep an eye on what our public officials are doing.  That is really the responsibility of all of us .

Some in our local media seem to be confused on that last point.

Some, but not all...

You may have noticed that the recent post on the NMRW meeting with Thom Tillis was in the latest Herald Weekly.  We hope that will be a regular occurrence going forward for the foreseeable future in the form of a weekly column on the subjects we normally cover here.

A big thanks goes out to the folks at the Herald for giving me the opportunity.  This should in no way change the topics we cover, but it may change the timing of when certain posts go up here.  It will be an interesting challenge, and I am definitely looking forward to it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Who is winning the I77 HOT lanes messaging competition?

This week saw NCDOT finally get around to hosting their public information forums on the HOT lanes project.   Dozens of staffers were on hand to answer questions.  There were several booths covering different topics and several rows of giant maps for attendees to traverse.  There was even this highly produced 5-minute video on the project playing on a constant loop. 



However, even with all this effort and expense one still had to wonder if once again the NCDOT had missed the mark in "communicating" with the public.

If you knew very little about the project, it's hard to see how a consistent message could be communicated with so many staffers milling about talking to people.   If you knew a lot about the project there was no new information presented, and what was presented was overly rosy.

Watch the video and you see what I mean.   There is no mention of Cintra - the foreign company behind the project - only their local subsidiary I77 Mobility Partners is mentioned.  There is no mention of total project costs or the 50-year contract to manage the lanes.  There is also nothing in the video that lets people know what the tolls will be - not even close.

To add to it, the narrator's voice kept making me think of some futuristic utopian movie like the Running Man or the Hunger Games.   It definitely had that "too good to be true" feeling where you just know something awful is lurking behind the scenes.

Compare that to the WidenI77.org/anti-toll actions this week. 

They had a meeting at the Lucky Dog Bark and Brew to discuss the real impacts to business along the corridor that will be negatively impacted (possibly fatally impacted) by the construction that's to come.  Also, some very effective signs that went up this week - one at the intersection of 73 and 21 in Huntersville and one spotted Friday afternoon on the side of a pontoon in Lake Norman near the .

Those signs alone probably reached 10 times the numbers of people at a fraction of the cost as NCDOTs 8 hours of open houses.

For the week, the "Community Outreach" edge goes to WidenI77.org

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NMRW Provides Safe Harbor for Thom Tillis

If you listen to the pundits and believe the polls, it would be hard to describe the past few weeks as "smooth sailing" for the Thom Tillis campaign trying to capture the North Carolina US Senate seat up for grabs this election cycle.  Tillis has been trailing Kay Hagan by a stubborn three to five percentage points in the RealClearPolitics.com polling average.  At the same time, while most national pundits recently started talking about a building Republican wave across the country, those same pundits invariably mention the North Carolina Senate race as the outlier or exception to that trend.

Against that backdrop, the Tillis campaign pulled into a safe harbor at last week’s North Mecklenburg Republican Women's Club annual "Pig Pickin and Politickin" event at the Peninsula Club on Lake Norman.  It was a homecoming of sorts for the local politician now shooting for one of the highest elected offices in the land.  The NMRW is the official Republican Party outlet here in North Mecklenburg, and Thom Tillis was one of the charter “associate members” when club formed in 2009.  He has been a regular guest speaker ever since.

To give you a sense of how much interest there is in this race, organizers turned away television outlets from as far away as Japan.  There was extra security on hand and club members were on the lookout for Hagan campaign "trackers" or unwelcome guerilla videographers trying to make their way into the private event - big-time preparations for a group more accustomed to events covering legislative updates and local town issues.

When it came time for Thom Tillis to take the stage you could sense the anticipation in the air.  Attendees wanted to see the fire and passion they know exists in the Republican candidate - their candidate.  It's a passion and a fight that some see missing from the Tillis campaign commercials airing in recent weeks.

Thom Tillis delivered!

In a speech lasting about 10 minutes, Tillis hit a number of the red meat topics for the roughly 150 party faithful in attendance.  He covered immigration by stating "we need to seal the border" - even going as far as saying Ronald Reagan "got it wrong" with his amnesty in the '80s.  He criticized President Obama for hiding from the issues with Obamacare by pushing back its implementation dates - ensuring voters get the next round of cancellation notices only after election-day.  Turning to foreign affairs, he took a strong stand in taking on the Islamic State (ISIS) and referenced the beheading of a British aid worker earlier that day.  Of course, he also pegged Kay Hagan for her part in supporting the President’s handling of all these issues.

When talking about the campaign itself, Tillis did not seem at all concerned.  He referenced his own internal polling showing the race knotted at 44% along with the expectation that undecided voters would break his way.  His take on the race so far was that he had withstood a massive amount of Democratic spending going all the way back to last November while his team had kept their powder dry until after Labor Day.  He said that when asked how he feels about this race, his answer is that he feels the same way he did at this point in 2010 when he was orchestrating a Republican takeover of the legislature.  In that election 16 House races were successfully targeted including a number where Democrats were expected to win.

In short, he displayed the confidence of someone who has done this before all across the state, someone who knows his electorate, and someone who understands what is coming over the next few weeks until election-day.  If that Thom Tillis comes through in the ads and debates between now and November 4th, the national pundits who have all but written off this contest could very well be in for a big surprise.

Look for this post and others in the Herald Weekly.