Monday, March 28, 2016

This is the face of poverty

Dorothy Wray Semans Clark

It is inconceivable that anyone could look at this face and see anything other than exuberance, trust and hope. And yet, that would be incorrect. It is the face of poverty that as a society we have come to shut out of our minds. Instead, many have replaced it with image of  "The Welfare Queen" hawked by the late Pres. Ronald Reagan when he planted the seed that has grown into a form of genocide - wipe out the poor by denying their existence and reality - withhold food, shelter, warmth, and medical care to millions while portraying them as free-loaders and rendering them invisible.

When she was six and I was 14, Dorothy decided that she had had enough of Snow White, Uncle Remus, and Hansel and Gretel at bedtime. She wanted a whole new story so she wouldn't know the end before I finished telling the tale. 

When I look at this picture, what pops into my mind is "The three little squirrels ran 'round and 'round and then went up the tree and down the tree..." 

She was so tired from playing hard all day that she would immediately fall asleep. Good thing because I had no idea what to do with those squirrels once they were back on the ground.

That story has never been completed but her life story has come to an end.

There was a memorial service for Dorothy Wray Semans Clark on April 2. It  was the last opportunity to say goodbye before her ashes are scattered in the Colorado mountains.

The service was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle that was her life. We know bits and pieces of other's lives, but it is not until all the pieces are sorted and put together that we really understand who they are.

I can't decide which is more correct - that she died in poverty or of poverty. I am certain that she - like all of us - wanted to depart this world  leaving something good behind. And I know that if by telling her story, others can be helped and/or enlightened, she would agree.

She grew up in a middle class family doing all the things that little girls do - gymnastics, dance classes, piano class - just one class because she hated it. She loved roller skating and often won competitions even though we kidded her about being so clumsy.

She wasn't an excellent student but was exceptionally outgoing so adapted well to each new school. Things at home were often chaotic so changing schools and dealing with family drama were the rule not the exception.

As she drifted into her teen years, she wasn't really connected to the realities around her. 

She spent a lot of money - primarily my Dad's. She would "borrow" a few hundred or max out one of his credit cards. It was a constant source of friction between her and Mom.

But they did have a common interest - daytime soap operas! Mom would tape them so that they could watch them together when Dorothy wasn't working. They had their favorite characters and there were ones they hoped would get killed off. 

She worked most of her life and paid taxes: property taxes on her homes, personal property taxes on her vehicles, sales taxes and income tax. Although most of the taxes were used to support projects that she didn't benefit from, she never complained about it. She was in a position to pay taxes and for that, she was grateful.

Health wise, things began unraveling for her when she reached her 30s. The first problem surfaced when she became jaundiced and didn't feel well. She was diagnosed with a rare syndrome found in women who have given birth. While pregnant, the body clots easier so that women don't bleed to death during delivery. In very rare cases, a clot forms in the artery leading to the liver and doesn't dissolve. It blocks off the blood flow and the liver begins dying. The fortunate part for her was that the doctor she was referred to had been trained in an experimental treatment that might prolong her life another five years by placing a stint in the artery and replacing it if the clot returned. She lived well beyond the prediction but only with regular check ups and new stints. Her liver continued to die and, if she had lived, a transplant would have been needed sooner rather than later.

She never whined about liver problems and was grateful that Dr. Mitchell Shiffman continued to give her excellent care for more than two decades that allowed her to continue to work until other illnesses took over.

She loved her job as a bus driver for the Virginia Beach schools and enjoyed the kids, many of whom were disabled.

One day, Mom received a call saying that Dorothy had started shaking and crying after she had let the last child off. She had been taken to the hospital where she was diagnosed as being bipolar which explained some of her behaviors - drastic mood swings, spending money without thought. She received psychiatric treatment for a short time and then was switched to medications which controlled her symptoms and allowed her to return to bus driving. She didn't complain and was grateful that there was something that helped and that she could continue to enjoy the children.

When she went on Medicare, she had to pay for the mental health drugs out of her almost empty pocket because Medicare doesn't cover mental health.

A couple of years later, Dorothy began dragging one foot instead of taking proper steps. This time the diagnosis was devastating.

She had cerebral palsy which explained the life-long clumsiness. The doctor said that now it was progressing faster and it would not get better. And, again, she didn't complain although it was becoming painful but, she was able to continue working and for that, she was grateful.

And then there was diabetes. The doctor told her that if she was careful, it could be controlled with diet. And again, she didn't moan "why me" and was grateful that she wouldn't have to take medications.

The cerebral palsy eventually made it unsafe for her to drive the bus. One leg was much weaker than the other so it was difficult to get on to and off the bus. 

She qualified for Social Security Disability and received a small retirement check and that became the family's only income. When she married her husband, he too, was on disability and they didn't know that by marrying, one would have to give up their benefits. This left the couple and her son from a former marriage living on less than $14,000 a year so they moved in with Dad.

(Later, after they moved to North Carolina, they were excited about the expansion of Medicaid for those who didn't qualify for other parts of the Affordable Care Act. It would have allowed her husband Kevin to get the medical treatment he needed for his untreated illnesses. But the state refused to accept the expansion and Kevin became one of almost a half-million people in the state left without resources to seek medical help.)

Her leg grew weaker and she tripped on the walkway and broke her ankle. Later, another fall would break the other one. And still another fractured a vertebrae. But, she didn't complain, she was grateful that she could still use laughter to get her through the progressively worse days.

She tried to stay active and avoid using a cane or walker but that came at a price. Walking through a store parking lot, she lost her balance and fell face down on a concrete barrier placed between parking rows. Miraculously, she didn't break any bones in her face but did knock out most of her teeth and those left were broken off near the gum. 

Shortly after that, our father died. The family couldn't afford the house payment so were forced to move. Dad left her a small insurance policy and she wanted to use it to buy a home so they wouldn't have to pay rent. She also wanted to leave Virginia Beach so I searched for foreclosures in North Carolina that might be within her reach.

We found one and before making an offer, had a contractor check out the condition because it was an old home and had been empty for a couple of years. The builder said that the house was structurally sound and needed just cosmetic work so she bought it.
The contractor had not looked close enough. The roof had to be replaced as did a ceiling in an upstairs bedroom. There were some electrical and plumbing issues and the inside needed paint. The price tag was higher than we expected but still managed to get the work done.

We were on a least until the water was turned on. The man from the water company called to tell me that when he went inside to wash his hands that his feet got wet. Someone had stolen all the copper out of the house so the plumber was called back.

Next came the HVAC system which used propane. The gas man filled the tank and tried to start the unit up, but the copper line from the tank to the heating/cooling system also was gone. After that was replaced, we found that the unit was completely unusable and would have to be replaced. 

There was no more money to sink into the house so I looked for programs that helped to correct such problems for those living below poverty level. There was an organization that had just received a very large amount of federal funding through the federal stimulus program and it was earmarked for weatherization and heating programs for those living on income below the poverty level. 

Dorothy quickly enrolled and then waited...and waited...and waited throughout an entire winter. Every week, there was another reason why the work hadn't started. Finally, a worker at the agency admitted that the holdup was because they weren't told how to administer the program so didn't know how to spend the funds. 

To try to get them through the winter with no central heat, I bought space heaters, blankets, warm clothing, thermal curtains, plastic to put over windows, fleece sheets - anything that I could think of to make the house bearable. When the temperatures went really low, they put the space heaters in their bedrooms where they could contain the heat and stayed in those rooms.

Finally, with the help of Sen. Marc Basnight, the work was done and they had heat...until the propane ran out. Prices were high and it was more than $600 for enough to last 3-4 weeks depending on the temperatures. That was more than half their monthly income so there was no way that they could pay for it. I paid for it and looked for a program that would help. 

The Low Income Energy Assistance Program, LIEAP, is available for one fill-up or utility bill per year. Social Services can pay once during the year but - at least according to her Social Services worker - only after the temperatures have dipped below 32 degrees two days in a row. If the temperatures hovered in the mid-30s or hit 32 but then went back up to 34, then too bad. But using the two programs provided about six to eight weeks of warmth in the winter and for that, she was grateful.

I helped when I could as did Kevin's brothers. Someone loaned them money for a partial fill-up and they were repaying it $25 per month but there were still times with no heat for a couple of weeks while we figured out how to solve the problem.

Her physical condition continued to deteriorate and she frequently fell so I found some used rugs to put on the hardwood floors in hopes that it could save her some pain. 

Medicare doesn't cover dental care so I continued to search for a program to get the broken teeth removed and, hopefully, dentures. I couldn't find anything and was thrilled when Missions of Mercy was coming to Dare County. But the excitement was short-lived. I found that patients seeking help started lining up the night before and stayed in the cold night air for several hours trying to make sure that they could be seen. 

She wasn't up to that. I continued searching and asked a friend if he knew of any programs that might assist. He couldn't believe that there was nothing out there so searched himself. He called the next day and admitted that he, too, ran into a brick wall. But, he said, he and another friend had a check waiting for me to use to get some of the work done. 

When I told Dorothy, she cried, not because of the amount of the check, but because someone - someone she had never met - cared enough to want to help. And for that she was grateful.

While all of this was happening, her son diligently searched for a job. He had two strikes against him: he was heavy and didn't have a GED. He found a GED class nearby and went night after night and passed a portion of the test but the tutor told him that she couldn't help with the next section which was math. There was another class 18 miles away but there was no money for the extra gas.

There is a stereotype that heavy people are either lazy or unreliable. He was neither. The longer he went without a job, the harder it would be for anyone to consider him for a position. He needed some kind of work record and I suggested that he volunteer on a refuge so that he could start building up references for a job application.

The refuge staff, realizing that the expense of gas to go back and forth was a problem for the family, paid him $20 a day to cover mileage. When Social Services found out about the reimbursement payments, they cut the family's food stamps because it was viewed as income.

Repeated attempts to explain what the $20 was for and even a call from the refuge manager didn't move the Social Services worker. It was costing the family more than the reimbursement so he stopped volunteering.

Dorothy occasionally became depressed not because she was bipolar but because her life was depressing. Repairs to the house were constantly put on hold because there was no money to do them nor program that could be found to help. I called government agencies, churches and other nonprofits but no help was coming. 

When she became too unsteady to stand in the shower stall, I mailed her an adjustable-height stool that would fit in the shower, but she never had the opportunity to use it. By the time it arrived, the cold water in the shower wouldn't turn off so plumbers were called again.

Two different companies said that the only way was to cut through the wall from the outside and the cost would be at least $1800 to fix it. Instead, they were paid $100 to cap off the faucet. There was another bathroom upstairs, but, she couldn't go up there so was relegated to taking GI baths. 

Windows that needed replaced because of rotting casings were covered with plywood and a much-needed wheelchair ramp didn't materialized. My sons were planning on surprising her with a visit this summer so that they could take care of all the repair work. 

She lost weight but the doctor didn't seemed concerned about shedding the 50 extra pounds. I had bought all her clothes for several years and it meant that everything had to be replaced. I shopped sales, thrift stores and garage sales but one item remained elusive - bras. We couldn't figure out what size she needed.

It would have been easier to give her money to shop at Walmart but she had stopped going anywhere except to see doctors and to come to my house a couple of times a year. I asked her why she wouldn't shop since they had motorized shopping vehicles for the disabled. I knew that she loved going into stores to see what they had even though she couldn't afford to buy much if anything.

She said that it hurt her feelings when people frowned at her when she pulled out food stamps and she thought that her toothless smile made them think less of her. She was trying to protect her feelings by simply not going out in public.

Her last trip to my house was two years ago. She didn't come back because she was afraid of our stairs even though I assured her that we could get a special seat from EMS to get her up them.

She enjoyed sitting on the sun porch and watching the birds, rabbits and other wildlife that roam around. And being in a place where there always is laughter and tales really seemed to lift her spirits.

I was determined to get her out of the house. I convinced her that we needed to take a day-long jaunt and that I could rent a wheelchair. An employee put it in my car so I had no idea how heavy and cumbersome it was. 

Our first stop was Island Farm because I knew she would enjoy seeing all the kids, barnyard animals and activities. But I couldn't budge the wheelchair. Luckily, a friend was leaving as we arrived. He wrestled the monster out and helped get her into it. He then pushed it through the grass to an area in front of the house where they were making candles.

He left to rejoin his family and Dorothy mentioned him throughout the day. "You have such nice friends - he was so kind." She was grateful for his help and friendliness and took both very personally.

We started to go to the cookhouse but the wheelchair wouldn't go forward in the grass. We headed for the car with me pulling it backwards and although there were adults all around, no one offered help. The day's outing was going to have to be from the car because the wheelchair idea wasn't going to work.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the house from "Nights in Rodanthe." called and we responded. We laughed about stupid stuff all day - the kind of humor that only sisters can share. Lunch was out of the question because if she had 'to go' there was no way to get her into a bathroom.

This day is burnt into my memory because it is the last time we had an adventure together. And it is the last time she felt part of the world.

The week before Christmas, I visited with her for a few days so that my brother-in-law could visit his family in Virginia. 

On the way there, I picked up Chinese food for our dinner and she was thrilled because she hadn't been in a restaurant for years so it was a treat. I spent the next few days taking care of some things around the house that needed tending. She spent most of the time in bed watching television because her back was really hurting. 

Their box springs and mattress were on the floor so I went shopping for a bed frame. When I told her that it was in the car, she said I should take it back. They didn't use a frame because if she was in the house alone and fell, it was easier for her to crawl back into the bed from the floor. There were towels piled up in the floor around the bed, but when I went to pick them up, she stopped me. Those were there so that if she fell, she wouldn't hurt herself so badly.

As I cleaned house, I realized that almost everything she had came either from our mother or from me. All that money that she had spent over the years had not gone toward buying things for herself - it was always for her friends. Loans that never got paid back, furniture, plane tickets for a family of five to go to the west coast - she was trying to make sure that she had friends. Of course all the recipients left the scene as soon as they got what they wanted. She just wanted a friend.

She was different but I couldn't put my finger on it until thinking about it on the way home. She never asked me for anything - not food, water, clean clothes - not anything. When I offered them to her she quickly said yes but she didn't ask for them. 

Dorothy had reached the point where she didn't think she had the right to want anything no matter how basic. 

Her hair was a tangled mess and when I handed her a brush, she raked it across the top of her head and asked if that was good enough for me. She didn't care anymore.

I was to go back this month and she agreed that she might want me to cut her hair so that it was manageable. 

Poverty had drained her of the blood of her soul like a vampire.

I talked to her a week before she died. I called and she said that she didn't feel good but would call me later in the week. It was our last conversation. Before we hung up, I said "I love you" and she responded, "Oh, and I love you."

The next time I spoke to her, she was unconscious - or at least I hope so - with wire and tubes going to various drips and machines. She had sepsis shock caused by an abscess in her lung. She was extremely ill and it didn't look hopeful that she would recover.

Although she had a do-not-resuscitate order, the decision was to put her on a ventilator and fly her to Pitt Memorial where it was hoped that doctors could operate to remove the abscess.

At Pitt, more bad news. Dorothy's primary physician had retired in November and her files were transferred to another physician at the clinic. Even though she was on Warfarin, the office had not scheduled her for an appointment for blood work since November. She had been scheduled for her first visit to the new doctor a few days before but had cancelled because she had diarrhea and was afraid of having an accident on the way.  I was stunned. I always asked about her appointments and didn't realize that when she said she was going during those months, that it was her pain management doctor who didn't screen for Warfarin use.

The Pitt doctors said that even if the antibiotics started reducing the infection, they couldn't operate because she wasn't able to clot at all so she would die. The abscess was the largest that they had ever witnessed and it took a long while for it to grow to the size it was - this wasn't something that just quickly happened.

Her heart beat wouldn't drop below 135; her blood pressure was barely there; and her oxygen levels were all over the place. They had paralyzed her to insert the ventilator so she laid there with her eyes unable to close and her body stiff. My prayer was that she didn't know what was going on because I couldn't stand the pain of what she would be feeling and thinking otherwise.

Visiting with my nephew and brother-in-law in the waiting room, I found out that they had not had heat in more than a week including the days when the cold snap brought the snow. They hadn't told me because they didn't want me to worry about it. They assured me that she stayed warm because they put all the heaters in the bedroom with her.

When I left the hospital late in the afternoon, I worked to replace the vision of her in the hospital with my favorite one of her as a child. If she had had proper care the outcome may have been different.

She died the next day. When I talked to my nephew, I found out that they had stayed at the hospital until about 11 and then he had gone to the job he had recently landed at 4:30 in the morning. His boss knew Dorothy was in the hospital and asked him why he was there. He didn't want to lose his job. 

They sent him home but before he could try to get more sleep, the hospital called them back in. That afternoon, God graciously took her out of her pain.

Many friends have asked if they could send flowers somewhere or donate to a charity in her name and I told them I would get back to them about how to recognize her passing.

And now, I'm back. 

Help me make her face the face of poverty so that the poor are no longer invisible. Her life was fraught with more challenges than most in poverty but some of the same things face them all. We must be better than this.

If someone posts a meme on Facebook that infers that some work so others can get "free stuff" - let them know that poverty comes with a high price tag  - often one's life.

Frequently, those who post such comments also send out memes that state: "Share if you love Jesus." Please let them know that isn't the kind of sharing that Christ was referring to.

If you can't educate them, then unfriend them.

The memorial service was special because her one friend in the entire world came -  Debbie, her childhood friend who has remained such for about 50 years - and her mother attended. And for that one friend, Dorothy was always grateful.

But she wasn't the only one to suffer from North Carolina's poverty crisis that legislators try to keep bottled up and out of sight.

To learn more about the state's worsening epidemic of hunger, illness and hopelessness, watch this video of a presentation recently given in Dare County by Gene Nichol, director of the Poverty Research Fund at UNC-Chapel Hill.  Attendees were so engaged and enraged at what he shared that they would still be asking questions if time wasn't finally called. It is long but well worth watching even in segments. Gene, a UNC law professor made it very clear that he was not speaking for the university.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

'If I had a hammer'

There's been much discussion about the apathy of young voters during the recent mid-term election. Many have moaned about their lack of interest in doing their part to strengthen our democracy by casting their ballots. Others have opined that they are so self-involved that they lack any interest in the world of politics that is shaping their future.

I was on the fence until recently  listening to a radio interview with Peter and Paul, the surviving members of the Peter, Paul and Mary folk trio who became popular in the early 1960s. Listening to the music prompted me to mentally go back into that time when we Baby Boomers were young.

In the '60s, some in my generation carried on with life just as their parents had - not questioning authority, not standing up for what they believed and not grabbing hold of an idea and working to make it reality. They just accepted that those in political power were working for the country's best interest.

And then there were the rest of us - the marchers, picketers, letter-writers - the rebels.

We began our growing up years right after the end of the war to end all wars - World War II. In the decade or so following the war, life for most was good. The economy was rolling, schools were crowded but adequate and there was plenty of time to play ball, skate and get into mischief.

I faintly remember when Dwight David Eisenhower was in office but my first clear recollection of presidential politics is of John F. Kennedy campaigning. My parents sat in front of the black and white television each night and watched one of the network news channels. That was a time when "cable news" wasn't in existence so the competition between the networks was based on reporting the news first and getting it right the first time.

The networks weren't trying to carve out niche audiences such as those prevalent today on the cable stations. Today's general cable focus is more about pandering to particular biases instead of just reporting the facts. It reinforces divisiveness and preconceived ideas instead of providing facts that viewers can decide whether to accept.

But even before cable, there were those who sought to influence more than inform. Kennedy was slandered daily because he was a Roman Catholic, and there had never been a president who wasn't Protestant. The presidential hopeful didn't take the criticism lying down and marched into the lion's den by addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, many of whom had disparaged him to their congregations. Kennedy spoke of the importance of religious freedom and the need to keep politics and religion separate.

His speech has become even more relevant today. To read his address in its entirety, click here.

The war in Vietnam was never a declared war but the imposed draft fed the monster for much of the '60s and '70s. Friends, brothers, neighbors often came back from the horrific battles in coffins or with both health and mental health problems that continue to affect many.

We had enough of trying to comfort their mothers. We marched, protested and voted.

Big chemical corporations, logging companies and polluters were ruining the environment so we said "enough" and once again let the politicians know that we were watching. Congress began passing environmental regulations to protect water and air quality and the natural environment.

But then as we became older, life got in the way of paying attention to what our government was doing. We were raising families, paying mortgages, getting our feet wet in the new computer age and becoming enamored by cable television. Life jumped into warp speed and while babies and money were being made, things got out of whack in the world around us..

Campaigns began being all about how negative one's opponent could be portrayed - and the light of truth began to dim.

And then came Sept. 11, 2001 - the day that broke our hearts and shut down our senses. The scenes from that day will remained burned into our memories - that is, those of us old enough to both remember the events and comprehend the numbness that it left us with.

When the towers were collapsed, many of the current generation - many are our grandchildren - were in elementary school. Their biggest fears were based on such things as getting a low grade or getting caught dipping into the cookie jar after being told not to.

But their lives changed that day and not in a good way. For years, as they watched television, threat alerts were streamed across the bottom of the screen. Traveling by air meant going through security, taking off shoes, being scanned and patted down, and even more if one happened to have an Arabic name or coloring.

Instead of being told that the terrorists being feared were a radicalized group that claimed to be Muslims, there has been a constant barrage of insinuations that all Muslims are terrorists. Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph proclaimed themselves to be Christians but not all Christians were held responsible.

"Cable news" fed the fear with outrageous claims often based on fabrications. Sites full of hate and misinformation popped up on the internet and their offerings were accepted as facts because...well, it was on the internet.

The country was mostly in support of going into Afghanistan in an effort to find Osama Ben Laden and his organization. Our troops were making progress and running the Taliban out of the county, thus allowing greater freedom for the people there. But then, based on claims of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, many of the troops were redeployed to Iraq. This left Afghanistan under-supported militarily and led to the loss of countless lives - both civilian and military.

Iraq was a mess. The country was destroyed and there was no stability when we pulled out - there also were no weapons of mass destruction found.

The Taliban re-entered and has taken control of many areas of Afghanistan and ISIS is claiming portions of Iraq as it sweeps through that region. Schools are being closed as children - particularly girls seeking an education - have been targeted. The entire region has become destabilized.

At home, there is a constant barrage of accusations hurled back and forth between the parties, and Congress has changed its focus from conducting the business of the nation to constantly castigating the opposing party in hopes of winning the next election. No work is being done.

Corporations and billionaires are deciding elections through the use of dummy nonprofits, PACs, and out and out bribes. I get just one vote - they are buying millions.

Wall Street and the banking industry, both of which have been so crooked and reckless that they almost put the country into a depression, have gone on unscathed while taxpayers bailed out the banks to keep them from closing. Although it is obvious that many laws were broken, no one has been prosecuted. Paying the price of bad behavior seems only fit for the common man, not millionaires or billionaires or corporations.

Congress has refused to lower interest rates on student loans but has passed laws to make it easier for banks to commit the same crimes again. Politicians have cast the poor, the old, and the sick as something less than what is worthy of our efforts and attention. They would rather give handouts to Wall Street than a hand up to their constituents.

On the front of newspapers and online publications, the torture committed while interrogating alleged terrorists is being reported, but no one is being held accountable. No one is being prosecuted.

And on the same pages, some decry normalizing relations with Cuba because, they say, Cuba is guilty of human rights violations. Do atrocities against human beings only deserve punishment when some other country commits them?

We have allowed big money, ideology and fear to take over this country. We - the Baby Boomers -  are handing down to our grandchildren a world and a country that seems out of control.

Now back to my original pondering - are the young people of today guilty of apathy or being self-centered?

No. They are suffering from lack of hope.

It's time that the Baby Boomers take the younger generation by the hand and show them how to take control. Teach them how to make their voices heard and their votes count. Teach them how to discern rhetoric from fact.

Teach them how to find their hammer, bell and song and then use it.

It's time for us to find ourselves again. You might want to start here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An uninformed voter is dangerous to democracy

Be an informed voter by finding out the facts about the state issues. Read DEMOCRACY MATTERS by clicking here.DEMOCRACY MATTERS

Friday, March 7, 2014

Protect what remains of separation of powers

The North Carolina Constitution's Section 6. calls for the separation of powers. The mandate is simple and to the point: "The legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from each other."

Nonpartisan judicial races are under attack by Art Pope and his friends. Although not elected to office, Pope, through the use of his vast fortune, controls the Governor’s Office and both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly. He dictated the redistricting plans, the State’s budget and much of the legislation that is hurting North Carolinians – many of the issues are being or will be challenged in the higher courts. But the good news is that Gov. McCrory is happy to be part of Pope's cabinet because it leaves him time to hand out cookies and try to clean the egg off his face.

The campaign finance laws meant to keep party politics and big-monied special interests from deciding judicial elections and influence court decisions were done away with or changed under his direction. He saw to it that the public campaign fund that helped level the judicial playing field was abolished. And he upped the cap on individual contributions to judicial candidates from $1,000 to $5,000. In other words, he set the stage for special interests to buy special favors. And now he is fundraising for his choice for the Appellate courts.

Ask most who they are casting their votes for in the judges' races and the question often will be met with a blank stare or a giggle and silly remark such as "everyone who has four letters in their first name."

Because judicial candidates are supposed to be nonpartisan and are forbidden to discuss pending or probable cases coming before their courts, it can be difficult to determine who to support. The outcomes in these elections often are determined by whim rather than reason. And now that the door has been opened to millions of dollars being used by outside interests - frequently from out of state - and used primarily for negative advertising, the winners can be those who are going to be beholden to others.

During the 2014 elections, three judges will be elected to the 15-member North Carolina Appeals and four justices will be elected to the seven-member North Carolina Supreme Court. The seats are for eight years and will have substantial impact on whether justice is served for the next several years.

The only way that I know to get a feel for whether a judge is sticking to basing opinions on statute, Constitution and case law is to look at their actions while serving as judges. And those who know me won't be surprised that I've done just that.

I've chosen to support three Appellate court candidates -  Appeals Court Judge Mark Davis is running to retain his seat; Appeals Court Judge Sam "Jimmy" Ervin IV  is seeking a seat on the NC Supreme Court; and Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley wishes to remain on the bench. 

Justice Beasley was the first black woman to win a state-wide race without being first appointed when she was elected to her former seat on the Court of Appeals. Previous to that, she served for nine years as a District Court judge. She stepped up to the Supreme Court upon appointment by Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Before being appointed to the Appeals Court, Judge Davis handled more than 65 appeals in the NC Court of Appeals, Supreme Court of North Carolina, and the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit so has the right experience to hear and decide cases.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice, when Judge Ervin ran for the NC Supreme Court in 2012, it became one of the most controversial and expensive judicial races in the country. Together, Art Pope and his friends in partisan organizations - both inside and outside the state - spent more than $2.5 million on negative advertising aimed at defeating Ervin. 

Whenever I see negative political campaign ads, I always have to wonder why - if the candidate they support is so excellent - why don't they spend the money promoting their favored candidate rather than attack the opposition. Can't they think of anything nice to say about their own candidate?. Every time you see a negative ad against anyone, you might want to ask yourself the same question. 

Hugh Morton showed us years ago how pennies can add up when he had school children collect change to use toward the purchase of the USS North Carolina so that it could avoid the wrecking ball and instead, find a permanent home in Wilmington. He launched the Save Our Ship Campaign and the result was that of the 1.1 million North Carolina schoolchildren, 700,000 gave at least a dime which totaled - in today's dollars - more than $2 million.

Campaign money is no different - whether $5, $25 or $5,000, if everyone gives what they can afford, it will add up and help tip the scales in the direction needed to have  free, unbiased and unbeholden courts. It will help balance the scales and put the blindfold back on Lady Justice.

I hope you will join me in supporting them. There is no doubt that a lot of cloudy money will be used to try to defeat these candidates. Few, if any, of us have the financial means to match the corrupt money pouring into races, but we have something better - our vote - and together, we can help make up the difference in campaign contributions.

Together, we can help save this last bastion of separation of powers continue to stay above politics. So brothers and sisters, can you spare a dime...a dollar...a grand?

Meet the candidates and enjoy a continental breakfast from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 21, at the Pier House at Hilton Gardens in Kitty Hawk. The limit on contributions to judicial candidates has been increased to $5,000 per election cycle. Checks should be written to each of the individual candidates. 

If stopping by the breakfast to meet the judges, please RSVP by email to

To learn more about the judges, go to their campaign websites at

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Humans are part of nature, too!

How did I become an environmentalist who doesn’t trust environmental agencies and organizations? It took a life time...

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s house in a small coal mining town in West Virginia. Marmet is a “company” town where much of the housing and employment are controlled by the mine owners. The other major employers are the chemical plants including the DuPont chemical plant in nearby Belle.

Trains carrying coal rumbled by daily and, although the tracks were off limits, I frequently made a mad dash to snatch a piece of coal that bounced out of the open train cars. There was a wealth of play potential in the black lumps. They were light, so I could throw them at a target or, even better, maybe at one of the many cousins who always seemed to be visiting. And the softer ones made a great alternative to chalk for writing and drawing on things.

One of the highlights of my day was when my grandmother would allow me to throw out the garbage all by myself.

The house was raised about five feet so that the creek that ran about three feet away wouldn’t flood it when the water was high. After it passed the house, the creek disappeared into a culvert and eventually made it into the Kanawha River.
Taking the trash out meant slinging the paper bag over the porch railing into the creek so that the waters could wash it away. Six decades ago, it was a common practice and didn’t carry with it the same problems found today. Most households generated little trash and garbage. Left-overs were eaten or fed to livestock; glass jars containing vegetables, jelly, pickles and the like were saved to use for next canning season; milk and soda bottles were glass and were returned to the store to collect the deposits. There was no plastic or excess packaging from already-prepared foods.

All the plumbing probably also drained into the creek.

The sky was always blue and that didn’t seem unusual until I was older and realized that the always-blue sky was my misunderstanding. It was the air that was blue. There were few, if any, environmental regulations in the 50s and the blue tinge was from the unregulated chemicals belched out of DuPont’s smokestacks. There also was a foul smell but, as with many odors, after a while, one ceases to smell it.

A couple of decades passed before I began to think about the importance of protecting the environment. Villager dresses, circle pins and loafers were replaced with mini-skirts and tall boots. When I finally became interested in nature and natural resources, I had graduated to long skirts, blue jeans, hiking boots and flannel shirts.

Like many, with three young children and a lot of work that came with living in the mountains of Colorado, I depended on environmental organizations for news about the environment. If they stated something as fact, initially, I never questioned it. But as my understanding of science and environmental politics expanded, I found myself fact-checking newsletters and releases to see if they were accurate – often they were misleading. But I gave them the benefit of the doubt – perhaps the writer had misunderstood the topic.

Because of my understanding environmental science and the related law, as a journalist, I often was assigned stories about environment and government agencies that are tasked with its protection.

One particular story showed how devoid of fact that some government environmental agencies’ statements are.

A large number of dead turtles washed up on Corolla’s beach and drew the attention of the National Marine Fisheries Service. A statement was issued that it was thought to be caused by commercial fishing vessels because one was seen in the vicinity the day before the turtles were discovered. Also noted was that the turtles were sent to the state vet school for further study.

The necropsy results showed many had died from a wasting disease. And a large number of them had hook and lines in their stomachs or wrapped around their bodies. I asked why NMFS had not corrected the earlier statement and was told that the hook-and-line deaths were probably caused while fishing from piers and inadvertently catching the turtles. The answer was a mind-blower – “Because they can’t help it and can only cut the line to get it off the pole.” They left the public with the impression that commercial fishermen were responsible for the deaths although they knew otherwise.

I took a break from journalism to work for the North Carolina Fisheries Association as vice president of communications at the beginning of the work on the State’s Fisheries Reform Act. Part of my job was to visit with commercial fishing groups along the coast to find out what was acceptable to them and tell them how to get their voices heard.  Because the fisheries varies along the coast, the ideas were broad – except for one item that was universal. They knew more regulations were coming and they wanted the biggest problems addressed – loss of habitat, wetlands and declining water quality.

For more than a year, all the environmental groups in the state agreed and vowed to back the request. It made environmental sense. After a lot of hard work by a lot of smart people, the draft legislation was sent to mark-up before being introduced in the General Assembly.

I represented the commercial industry at the mark up session. Lobbyists and/or directors of every major environmental group in the state were at the table. Together, we reviewed the bill’s language and there were no surprises until we got to the part about the creation and implementation of Coastal Habitat Protection Plans to address the loss of habitat, wetlands and water quality. As previously agreed, it was included in the draft legislation, but there was no effective date for the plans. It just noted that the plans were to be developed and implemented – at some point. Thinking it was just an error, I quickly noted that the “hammer” was missing. It was so open-ended that the state could wait a century before giving thought to it.

There was absolute silence for several minutes. Finally, Bill Holman, later the director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, simply said, “You’re right.” My impression was that Bill also was unhappy with the omission.

I didn’t stop arguing for it to be corrected but no one responded except for the attorney who drafted the bill. She said that if an effective date was added, the General Assembly wouldn’t approve it.

The combined members of all the organizations at the table had enough strength to get just about anything we collectively wanted. I finally realized that the environmental groups had traded “the hammer” for something else that they wanted and weren’t going to share just what that something was.

More than 10 years later when the Coastal Habitat Protection Plans finally became a reality, one of the environmental groups sent out a letter-to-the-editor taking credit for getting the plans. Of course, there was no mention of the fact that they had contributed to causing them  to be delayed by a decade.

Environmental groups can and have had positive influence but often misstate the facts, usually to create the impression of a looming crisis. As groups have grown larger and larger, much of the effort has shifted from the core mission of helping to protect the environment to fund-raising to obtain revenues needed to pay the tab for growing administration cost. An easily provable fact is that if there is not a perceived crisis, donations are lower.

An old newspaper adage that’s rarely said aloud anymore – although still frequently followed – is “If it bleeds, it leads. If it doesn’t bleed, cut it with a knife.”  The same can be attributed to some of the nonprofit environmental groups that go to extremes to make situations sound 10 times more critical than they are. And they refuse to accept that the fact that humans are part of nature.

Little more than a decade ago, King Cove, Alaska residents asked for permission to extend a dirt road through the wildlife refuge to Cold Bay. The refuge cuts off King Cove residents’ access to hospitals that can take care of critically ill or injured patients. The only options available to reach the hospitals was by boat or helicopter, both nonstarters when the weather is bad. Environmentalists, backed by former Vice President Al Gore, stopped a bill which would have allowed clearing the last seven miles needed to reach Cold Bay. The road was to be for emergency use only but the environmentalists argued that it would destroy habitat needed by wildlife.

The late Sen. Ted Stevens was so outraged that he managed to get millions in appropriations to add a clinic, a new airstrip and other improvements to try to help solve the problem. For a while, ferries were put into service but that ended a couple of years ago because of extremely high maintenance cost and because they also were shut down in bad weather.

King Cove’s population is about 1000, half of whom are indigenous Native Americans. Last year, they went back to Congress and again asked for permission to build the emergency-use-only road because there have been more than 10 deaths that could possibly have been prevented if they had had proper level of medical care. Again, because of the influence of environmental organizations, the answer has been no. I have to wonder how anyone who would fight to save a salamander couldn’t do the same for a human being.

The fight continues over replacing the Bonner Bridge and ensuring access to Hatteras Island. Whether the replacement should be beside the existing bridge or go into the sound has become a circuitous argument. But the continued suggestion that ferries should be the preferred option has been consistent for decades. If the groups don’t understand why that won’t work, they need only to look at their own handiwork in King Cove – Defenders of Wildlife has a hand in each. And to say that man shouldn’t be living on the island is about 400 years too late. He does and he is part of that environment. There can be solutions that take humans into consideration.

And the negative impacts from the Off Road Vehicle rules are not only ignored, they are the subject of many out and out lies. For the past few years, the increasing amount of occupancy tax collected has been used to try to say that shutting off miles of beach to vehicles and pedestrians has increased business on Hatteras Island. That is not true and the tax collected only reflects how much is charged. Increases in tax rates, increases in rental prices, IRS mandates to start taxing services such as bike rentals, linens and cribs and other such items are reflected in the taxes collected. The amount is not an indicator of how many visit the island.

I choose to live in an area surrounded by a National Wildlife Refuge because I love nature. I have a strong belief that everything around us is a gift from God and that we have a moral responsibility to take care of it, appreciate it and to ensure its viability.

Man can be and often is destructive if left to his own devices so while many are advocating that regulations be done away with, I know that we must rein in activities that destroy this gift. At the same time, God made man as part of this nature world and that, too, must be acknowledged. In many ways, it is difficult to decide which is worse – over reaching environmental groups or groups that think there should be no controls. They are both doing damage to nature that includes man.

There are solutions but to get to them, the rhetoric and self-serving power struggles have to be put to the side. There are solutions but it is going to take those of us in the middle to find them.

I would like to find a solution that would allow Marmet residents to continue to earn a living while being able to truly see blue sky instead of blue air and breathe clean air instead of coal dust.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A new definition of cornucopia

Hyde County residents have little to laugh about in what is one of the poorest counties in the state. But if you want to hear a huge belly-laugh, visit a local eatery at lunch and loudly announce "I'm the government and I'm here to help." Note: wear running shoes because when the laughter stops, you might have to run for your life.

To understand the impacts and importance of the latest controversy - shallow depths and salt water intrusion into Lake Mattamuskeet, the state's largest freshwater lake - one has to be able to place it in the context of the county's economic history and demographics.

The US Census estimates that between 2010 and 2012, there was less than one percent population growth; the North Carolina Department of Commerce predicts no growth in the next five years. There are few well paying jobs and prospects of a "job-creator" locating there are slim.

While 84.1 percent of the state's residents are high school grads, only 75.7 percent of Hyde County residents have completed high school. The state percentage of residents holding at least a bachelor's degree is 26.5; only 10.7 percent of Hyde residents have degrees in higher education.

The Hyde County school district is already one of the poorest in the state but due to actions in the General Assembly this past session, it will lose a half million dollars of state funding in each of the next two years. Many of the students who do graduate and attend college choose not to return to the county with their degrees because there are few opportunities for them..

Statewide, 16.1 percent of the residents are at or below poverty level; in Hyde County more than a quarter of the residents are in that slot on the economic scale. This current administration's cuts to food stamps, unemployment benefits and the state's refusal to accept Medicaid that would have given some access to health care is being exacerbated by the closing of the closest hospital in Belhaven. Hospitals were receiving federal funds to help offset the cost of treating those without financial means to pay but when the Medicaid expansion went into effect, the federal subsidies to hospitals ended and the state refused the Medicaid funds.

About 33 percent of the population is African-American and about another seven percent is comprised of other minority races; the population trends more toward the elderly than the young.

The cuts in unemployment benefits are particularly problematic on Ocracoke which has mostly a seasonal economy and thus many businesses close in the winter.

Cornucopia usually refers to a horn of plenty - a symbol of abundance and nourishment. But Hyde residents have long been treated to a cornucopia of government neglect and broken promises. And every step back on the mainland portion of the county is felt by residents and businesses in Ocracoke Village located on Ocracoke Island.

A large portion of the county's tax revenue is dependent on the tourism drawn to the village and the higher property values on the island. The 700-acre village is accessible only by ferry - about two hours from the mainland or 45 minutes from Hatteras Island. The mainland ferry has a tax of $15 each way. There is no tax on the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry - the village's only free access. But the state has been contemplating charging for the ferry - it was in the state budget but was pulled out and sent to a regional board to decide. If there is a tax added to it, Ocracoke Village will become the only community in the state whose residents and visitors will be taxed to enter and leave.

(At the time of this writing, the tax to ride the ferries to and from the mainland are temporarily waived due to the closure of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge because of safety concerns. The bridge was the only free access for those going across Hatteras and Pea islands to the northern beaches.)

Ocracoke Village's economy has already been hurt by government actions. The island is 16 miles long and ranges from a half-mile to three miles wide. Except for the small village, the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. For decades, the surrounding beaches drew visitors who wanted to fish on the beach, bird-watch, or just lay out in the sun. But that changed a few years back when the National Park Service which manages the property filed a plan to close off large portions of the beach to protect birds and turtles. To drive on the beach in the areas that are open, a permit is required - the cost of the permit ranges from $50 for a week to $120 for an annual pass. Most of the beaches are not reasonably accessible by foot and the closed areas also are mostly closed to pedestrians.

The businesses on the island have worked hard to minimize the economic impact but it is an ongoing struggle - it's difficult to make lemonade when the lemons are gone. It is still a beautiful place to vacation and that has been the village's saving grace.

The tax revenues generated by the tourism-based economy on the island is used support a large portion of the county's budget.  The mainland of Hyde is rural and depends primarily on commercial fishing and farming. The commercial fishing industry has been negatively impacted during the last decade by ever-increasing regulations as well as the frequent loss of safe passage through Oregon Inlet for those vessels that fish the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Frequently, seafood that would be landed in Engelhard or Swan Quarter is off loaded in other locales because of accessibility. This impacts local fish houses and reduces the number of employees used for off loading, packing, cleaning, etc.

Farming is periodically hit with woes caused by droughts or an over abundance of rain that saturate crops.

Off the beaten path, the county has never been able to attract job-creating industries that depend on good transportation corridors and skilled workers.

But a little more than a decade or so ago, there was a glimmer of hope of developing a different sort of tourism economy on the mainland. Bass fishermen and waterfowl hunters already flocked to Lake Mattamuskeet to enjoy the great fishing and unrivaled hunting opportunities.

The old lodge at the lake was opened for meetings, weddings, and as a place researchers could stay for a night or two while they collected data for various studies. In the late fall, local groups came together to produce the Swan Days Festival at the lodge and which attracted tourists, artists, photographers and locals. For what was probably the first time ever, there were reasons to go to Lake Mattamuskeet for things other than fishing and hunting. It was becoming a "destination" where hundreds of thousands of Tundra Swan and Snow Geese flew in each fall and winter and their presence created an unrivaled backdrop of beauty for any event or activity.

And then the plug was pulled out of this potential life boat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the lodge closed due to structural safety issues. Long-known repairs had gone without attention year after year because of federal budget cuts. With the closing, the mainland lost its little ray of hope to be able to grow its share of the economy through use of the lodge coupled with the existing use of the lake.

Years passed without any repairs to the lodge which drew the ire of former North Carolina Sen. Marc Basnight. He set out to try to give the county back its hope for a better future by wheeling and dealing until the federal government agreed to give the lodge portion of the refuge to the state. The state, in turn, made a commitment to restore the lodge with the ambition of jump-starting the mainland's economy again. The work was designed to be done in phases and the first was completed and the second was funded when the national economic downturn hit. Although the money was appropriated, the Council of State chose not to release it because of fears that it would be needed to balance the budget. As more years went by, the money slipped back into the state coffers and off legislators' radar.

Management of the federal portion of Lake Mattamuskeet has frequently changed over the years as managers stayed just long enough to find another slot.

There are no movie theaters or other entertainment venues and, because of high transportation costs, basic necessities such as groceries and gas are not competitively priced compared to surrounding counties.

Although the school system strives hard to offer a sound education, lack of resources often finds it wanting. These and other issues make the county a less than desirable place to live - particularly for young professionals. In fact, these same short-falls also make it difficult to attract education professionals to the schools on the mainland and on Ocracoke.

Because of the high turnover rate of refuge managers, the focus and the action plans often change before any plan can be completed. And each new refuge manager has brought with them a different objective and new priorities.

And that is the basis for the current controversy - the low water and salt water intrusion into the lake. Those upset about the condition of the lake have started a campaign to try to bring attention and resolution to the problem. Long before the area surrounding the lake became a waterfowl hunting mecca, it was widely known for its great bass fishing. And locals routinely subsistence fished the shoreline and the causeway to stretch their food meager food budgets by catching perch, catfish, crappie and bream.. But it seems that those species are being replaced with salt water species such as red drum and flounder.

The opponents of the current management plan say that allowing the depth to become so consistently shallow has led to fish kills and that wetlands are being drained. The latter issue, they say,  is allowing invasive species of grasses to flourish in some areas. And dredging work on canals leading from Pamlico Sound to the lake have added woes.

The basis of their concerns, they say, is that one of the few draws left to lure recreational fishermen to the area is being lost and that future generations won't be able to gain the potential economic benefit of having a well-maintained fresh water lake.

They also say that the changes at the lake are affecting a number of species of birds. Eagles and ospreys who often could be seen fishing the lake are becoming rarer. And although the total number of birds is up, that there are fewer swans and geese but more ducks.

Supporters of the current management include farmers who have lands bordering the lake. They say that the lower depths have allowed some of their property to drain and given them more land to farm.

If the lake's freshwater fisheries completely collapse and thus negatively affect recreational fishing, it will cost the mainland the lost potential revenues. And Ocracoke Village, the county's golden goose, may find itself being plucked even more in the future as the county tries to find revenues to support the functions of government.

A working group has been formed and they have a website with information at The motto of the group is written on signs placed around the county - "Save Mattamuskeet Lake".

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to have "Save Hyde County".