Insert April Fool’s Joke Here

Durham man vs. 15,000 pounds of metal + Biden vs. NIMBYs + Mark Robinson vs. the NCAE + Josh Stein vs. racial justice + Rayford Burke vs. the Racial Justice Act + Florida Man vs. Gaetzgate

Thurs., April 1, 2021

Happy Thursday, friends. Buckle up for the internet’s stupidest day of the year, when all of your favorite Brands™ do clever marketing things like change their names to “Voltswagen” for the clicks and LOLs. Wake me when it’s over.

  • Weather: Cloudy this morning, rain possible, partly cloudy this afternoon; high in the mid-50s.


Today’s Number: 15,000

Weight, in pounds, of this 18-foot, 5-inch sculpture, made by my pals at Cricket Forge in Durham, and getting shipped up to Ohio on Monday.

As Cricket Forge’s Aaron Earley told me:

  • The company was commissioned to build the sculpture out of 5/8-inch stainless steel sheet for a park in Akron, Ohio, where it will sit atop a four-foot concrete plinth.

  • They generally get one of these large-scale commissions a year—a few years ago, they put together a 15-foot sculpture for Lebron James’s I Promise School in Akron, but this one’s the largest.

  • They’ve been working on this for about six months. There have been pandemic- and economic-related setbacks, but apparently, working with stainless steel just takes a very long time.


+TODAY’S TOP 4

1. Biden’s Coming for You, NIMBYs

There’s a lot of stuff in the president’s $2 trillion-plus infrastructure and climate plan, which he formally unveiled yesterday in Pittsburgh: trains, roads, bridges, electric grids, public transit, broadband, R&D, collective bargaining, etc. So you’d be forgiven for missing this urban-planning game-changer:

This is so, so, so, so good. Let the Urban Institute explain why:

From the beginning, zoning laws in the United States have been used to exclude Black people and other people of color, immigrants, and lower-income families from neighborhoods with high-quality schools and opportunity-enhancing amenities. In the early 20th century, many zoning laws explicitly segregated neighborhoods by race. After such laws were outlawed by federal statutes and court decisions, local governments turned to subtler methods. Zoning restrictions that limited density and excluded multifamily housing replaced overtly racist laws, and these tactics proved remarkably effective. More than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act prohibited racial discrimination in housing and lending, racial segregation continues to shape urban and suburban neighborhoods across the United States, contributing to widening disparities between white children and Black and Latino children across a range of life outcomes.

Today, both fiscal pressures and racial exclusion shape local land-use decisions and lead to policies that limit development. Often these dynamics are intertwined at the community level, where incumbent homeowners successfully press for strict caps on development and oppose projects that include affordable rental units. Recent research has shown how greatly such opponents outnumber supporters at local zoning and planning board meetings and how whiter and older homeowners exert outsize influence on local zoning decisions. Some states create additional hurdles for the development of new affordable housing, requiring special approvals from voters, zoning boards, or elected officials for projects with public subsidies.

The end result is that many regions and localities undersupply housing, especially low-cost housing that is affordable to most low- and moderate-income families. Worse, restrictions are most pronounced in areas where jobs and economic opportunities are growing the fastest, and this artificially constrains labor mobility across regions and suppresses economic productivity and growth. Restrictive zoning can also contribute to sprawl and a spatial mismatch between where low-wage workers live and where jobs are centered within regions, increasing commute times and transportation costs.

The exclusionary zoning plank, which was part of the Biden campaign’s housing platform, won’t make or break the overall bill, of course. That will ultimately depend on whether Democrats (read: Joe Manchin) are willing to forgo Republican support and pass the thing along party lines.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a hard no: “It's called infrastructure, but inside the Trojan horse it's going to be more borrowed money, and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy.”

  • To translate: Infrastructure—the thing Trump talked about so much it became a running joke—is fine so long as Biden neither raises taxes nor increases the deficit to pay for it. We seem to have arrived at a catch-22, Mitch.

  • The left thinks Biden’s bill isn’t near big enough—AOC thinks $10 billion should be the floor—which is both correct from a policy perspective and the best pushback he could ask for, as it makes his proposal look moderate.

  • McConnell can carp about the deficit, but this thing is very, very popular: 54% of Americans back a $3 trillion infrastructure plan funded by taxing the rich and corporations; 27% back it without any taxes. What’s more, every provision tested wins majority support—save for making tuition at HBCUs free, sigh.

  • The $1.9 trillion COVID bill Democrats just passed clocks in at 72% approval, including 44% of Republicans, and Biden is riding at 62% approval—including 22% from Republicans and 56% from independents.

▶️ OTHER NATIONAL NEWS

  • The Manhattan DA has subpoenaed records from a Trump Organization executive, a sign that the investigation into the ex-president’s banking activities is becoming intensifying. (NYT)

  • However bad your day was yesterday, someone at Emergent BioSolutions had it worse: Due to human error at Emergent’s Baltimore plant, about 15 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses were ruined. (NYT)


2. Mark Robinson Wants His Own Teachers Association

This isn’t an April Fool’s joke, just something you’ll read about today and never again. With Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson’s help, conservatives are trying to fashion a “patriotic” (read: lily-white) alternative to the North Carolina Association of Educators that won’t bother with any “social justice” stuff. Meet the Carolina Teachers Alliance, a totally real thing that will definitely still be around this time next year.

  • “Amy Marshall, the alliance’s president, says her group is needed because ‘20% of our teachers are represented by groups who want to use children to forward their radical agendas.’ She says her group will represent teachers who are ‘focused on traditional education.’”

  • “‘We support America, we support patriotism and we want protection for the teachers who want to focus on academic content,’ Marshall said in an interview Tuesday with The News & Observer. ‘If a teacher is harassed for not teaching something political or (for not teaching) critical race theory, we want to support the teacher.’”

  • You get the idea, right?

Robinson, of course, has been on an anti-indoctrination kick since taking office. Two weeks ago, on March 15, he announced a “task force” to collect complaints from parents clutching their pearls because their kids learned about the Trail of Tears or whatever.

  • Storytime: I noticed that on the complaint form, Robinson promised complainers they could remain anonymous, which I was pretty sure did not conform to public records laws.

  • On March 19, I submitted a public records request asking for the submitted complaints. (Seeing as how it had only been a week, I figured there wouldn’t be many.) I specifically asked for the complainers’ names and asked them to cite statutory exemptions if any part of my request was denied.

  • I received this reply from general counsel Brian P. LiVecchi: “I will be compiling, reviewing, and processing the records in our office’s possession which are responsive to your request, and will be doing so as promptly as possible. As I’m sure you are aware, the Lt Gov’s office has a small staff and, therefore, processing public records requests such as yours can take some time.  Feel free to check in periodically, but be assured that I am diligently working on it.”

  • That was 13 days ago. I’ve received nothing yet. (Maybe there are none and it’s kinda embarrassing?) I “checked in” yesterday and didn’t hear back.

  • Oh, and if you go to the complaint form now, the anonymity promise is gone.

▶️ OTHER SCHOOL NEWS

  • Lawyers for two former male student-athletes at Cape Fear Christian Academy say the school’s CFO, Tammy Moran, who has been charged with felony sexual abuse, abused other students too. (N&O)


3. Activists to Josh Stein: Actions > Words

The Durham group Emancipate NC sent Attorney General Josh Stein an open letter on Tuesday calling him a “disappointment” to racial justice advocates.

  • “For much of Stein’s first term … he either remained silent or, worse, was on the wrong side of some of the most critical civil rights and criminal justice issues facing North Carolina.”

  • “Whether it was racial discrimination in jury selection or application of the death penalty; protecting medically-vulnerable people in prison during the pandemic; the withholding by police and prosecutors of exculpatory evidence; racial profiling by law enforcement; or the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole—on these issues and more, Stein’s office either slowed or was an obstacle to justice.” 

A Stein spokesperson told the N&O he is “working with policymakers, advocates, and other stakeholders to implement the many recommendations of the [Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice] throughout the criminal justice system. And he is committed to pursuing justice for all in his work as Attorney General.”

On that note, The Intercept came out with a story this week on Rayford Burke, who has spent the last 28 years on North Carolina’s death row. Last June, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that he and more than 100 others were eligible for a hearing under the Racial Justice Act, the 2009 law that the General Assembly overruled once Republicans took over in 2013.

  • Under the RJA, Burke’s death sentence will automatically be commuted to life if can he show that race played a significant role in the jury’s decision. The prosecutor in his case referred to him as a “big Black bull” to the all-white jury, so, you know, he’s got a shot.

  • Guess whose office will argue against commuting those 100-plus death sentences? Josh Stein’s.

  • According to The Intercept, Burke is less interested in his RJA claim than in getting a new trial based on what’s called a Batson claim—a challenge, never upheld by the Supreme Court, arguing that a prosecutor illegally struck a juror because of their race. (If that fails, he wants his attorney to introduce what he believes to be exculpatory evidence.)

▶️ OTHER STATE NEWS

  • McClatchy, the N&O’s hedge-fund-owned parent company, took $10 million from the Paycheck Protection Program but never announced it. (Charlotte Ledger)


4. Gaetzgate, Day 2

I don’t want to care about the 38-year-old man-child congressman who (allegedly) slept with a high school girl, but this thing is getting too strange to ignore.

  • So yesterday, we left off with Florida Man Matt Gaetz—a U.S. congressman and, predictably enough, unaccomplished son of a very, very rich Florida politician—reportedly under federal investigation for human trafficking.

  • Then he started talking about some extortion scheme, and bragged about how he showered his lovers (totally 18 and up, according to absolutely legit IDs!) with gifts and hotels. It was all gross.

Day 2: The “extortion” scheme.

  • Two men, a former Air Force intelligence officer named Bob Kent somehow learned of the FBI investigation into Gaetz’s dalliance and allegedly approached Gaetz’s daddy—not Gaetz himself, which is funny and humiliating by itself—with a plan.

  • If Gaetz’s daddy would contribute $25 million toward an effort to recover Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent captured in Iran in 2007, and if the plan succeeded, Gaetz would be such a hero that President Biden would give him a pardon or tell the DOJ to back off.

  • Kent was buddies with a Florida lawyer named David McGee, a former federal prosecutor who repped Levinson’s family.

  • The U.S. government once had a $25 million reward for info leading to Levinson’s return, but as of last year, both the government and Levinson’s family were pretty sure he was dead.

OK, ready for things to get weird?

  • First of all, even under Gaetz’s telling, Kent and McGee might not have committed a crime: “Substantiating criminal charges in the extortion probe could be difficult, people familiar with the matter said, noting that, when the two men—who have not been identified—first contacted Don Gaetz, they did not explicitly threaten to expose the congressman unless they were paid.” (WaPo

  • Forgot to mention: Neither of the men who initially approached Gaetz’s father was Kent or McGee. In fact, McGee says Don Gaetz called him: “In an interview Tuesday night, he said Don Gaetz ‘called me and asked to talk to me,’ though would only say of their talk, ‘It is a pleasant conversation of a dad concerned about his son, and the trouble his son was in.’”

  • But that appears to be contradicted by the text-message screenshots Gaetz provided to the conservative Washington Examiner.

  • McGee also allegedly gave Gaetz this document, which says a grand jury has been empaneled to investigate him and indicates that a girl has already testified that he paid her for sex. Extortion or not, if true, this would obviously be very bad for our friend Matt.

  • Gaetz told the Examiner he was working with the FBI to expose the “extortion” scheme—though, again, this might not qualify as a threat—and the Times report came just before he was to get instructions on wiring the first part of the money.

  • He also says the 17-year-old doesn’t exist.

  • Of course, the fact that someone learned about the DOJ investigation and tried to get money out of Gaetz doesn’t mean he didn’t have sex with a 17-year-old.