It’s Beasley’s Race to Lose

But she could lose it + Biden turns 100 (days) + NCGA Rs call in Lin Wood + Durham County’s perpetual fire continues to burn + Disaster Girl cashes in + cops think oversight is bad, obviously

Wed., April 28, 2021

Today’s newsletter = short, sweet, sexy. Today’s newsletter writer = average height, cranky, exhausted.

Weather: Partly cloudy, high of 86.

Correction: Yesterday’s newsletter said the state’s congressional delegation was 9 Republicans to 4 Dems; that’s wrong. It’s 8–5. My apologies.

Today’s Number: 100

Days of the Biden presidency, which he’ll mark with an address tonight.

Let’s take stock:

  • Bills signed into law: 11

  • Significant bills: 1, the American Rescue Plan

  • Executive orders: 42

  • Trump orders reversed: 62

  • Judicial nominations: 11

  • COVID doses administered: 214,219.709

  • % fully vaccinated: 28.9

  • % partially vaccinated: 42.5

  • Unemployment rate: 6.0%

  • Weekly new seasonally adjusted unemployment claims, 4/22: 547,000

  • Weekly new seasonally adjusted unemployment claims, 1/16: 886,000

Sources: NPR, CDC, BLS

Related: Just in time for the address, the CDC loosened mask recommendations. Fully vaccinated people no longer need to mask outside except in crowded spaces.

Today in No, I’m Not Making This Up

A smattering of backbench NCGA Republicans have invited conspiracy theorist/serial liar Lin Wood to call into a press conference to whine about being banned by almost every social media platform for spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation and, oh yeah, encouraging the execution of the vice president of the United States.

  • The bill they’re pushing would make it illegal for social media companies—private corporations—to boot people for hate speech, spreading dangerous disinformation, or encouraging violence. It has no chance of passing. Even if it did, it’s obviously unconstitutional.


1. Beasley’s In

To the surprise of no one, former Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley announced that she’s seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate race, and my Twitter timeline—which probably has too many politicians for my sanity—quickly filled with NC Democrats signaling their support.

Here’s Beasley’s announcement:

  • “Beasley, 55, narrowly lost her 2020 election for chief justice by 401 votes to fellow Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby. She has won two statewide judicial elections—for the court of appeals in 2008 and for the Supreme Court in 2014. In 2019, she was tapped to lead the court.”

  • “Beasley is the fifth known Democrat in the race, joining former state Sen. Erica Smith, state Sen. Jeff Jackson, virologist Richard Watkins and Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton in the field. Smith and Watkins are Black.” (N&O)

The state of play: This is a two-person race. Newton and Watkins need something beyond a miracle to become relevant.

  • Erica Smith, who is running hard to the left, is viewed skeptically within the party because a) she ran a poor campaign in 2020 and b) she has badmouthed fellow Democrats up the point of kinda-sorta endorsing Republicans.

  • More than that, her campaign this year was designed as an alternative to a mainstream milquetoast white dude (i.e., Jackson). Beasley complicates the messaging, especially since the former justice will outraise the state senator.

  • So we have Jackson, a white, center-left lawyer who is in the National Guard, a prodigious fundraiser and Twitter Dad with a campaigning wife, the very model of a modern NC Democrat who might not provoke as much suspicion ellicit from progressives if they’d never heard the name “Cal Cunningham”; versus Beasley, the first Black women to win a statewide election, a judge whose politics aren’t defined (and thus can be flexible while avoiding charges of hypocrisy)—her website has zero policy statements—and the Democrat who outperformed every losing Dem on last year’s ballot, Biden included.

It’s Beasley’s to lose. Don’t get me wrong. She could lose it. Running for Senate isn’t like running for a judicial seat. You have to stake out policy ground, and you have to defend those positions. That can get you into trouble.

  • But Beasley is widely respected in the party.

  • She’ll raise money. She has plenty of time to find her campaign sea legs.

  • And, other things being equal, Democrats will probably back a person of color.

Here’s the question: It’s unlikely Governor Cooper—who elevated Beasley to chief justice—will make a formal endorsement. But if he or his machine signals support in other, subtler ways, that will give Beasley a big leg up. Jackson isn’t one to run an insurgent campaign.

  • Check the next round of campaign finance reports.

2. Durham Commissioners Inch Closer to Vote on Manager’s Contract

I’m not going to write a lot about this. (Remember when I said I was working on a big, complicated feature? I’d rather not step on my own toes.) But at the very end of its meeting on Monday night, following what I’m going to guess was a contentious closed session, Durham County commissioners voted 3–2 to hire Raleigh attorney Denise Smith Cline “for the purpose of reviewing the Manager's contract.”

  • The review “will include separate consultations with each individual commissioner and to engage with the attorney in anything that flows out of that with regards to the contract.”

  • In favor: Wendy Jacobs, Heidi Carter, and Nida Allam.

  • Against: Nimasheena Burns, Brenda Howerton.

What it means: Details of this particular arrangement are sparse. Howerton objected on financial grounds, arguing that the county attorney’s office was able to handle the review. I don’t know for sure why commissioners sought outside help—they didn’t say so publicly—but I have a few educated guesses.

  • There’s no public timeline for the review. But county manager Wendell Davis’s contract is up on June 30. If the board takes no action by then, it automatically renews for one year.

  • Davis sparked a firestorm last year by accusing Carter of racism, which led to a series of investigations and unearthed a bunch of underlying hostilities.

  • The general consensus has two hard votes (Jacobs and Carter—the white commissioners) to not renew Davis’s contract and two hard votes (Howerton and Burns—the Black commissioners) to keep him.

  • Allam is the wild card. She sided with Jacobs and Carter on hiring an outside lawyer. She also sided with them on Howerton’s attempt to get Carter to recuse herself from votes on the manager’s contract.

  • That’s all I’m telling you. The full story will be in The Assembly in mid- to late May, depending on how much the editors/lawyers hate my first draft.

3. UNC “Disaster Girl” Cashes in on Meme

I’ve read at least 25 stories about non-fungible tokens, and for the life of me, they still make absolutely no sense. I suppose that makes me old, or maybe a luddite. For those of you who know less than me, here’s the important thing: NFTs are a means of selling digital art via cryptocurrency.

For Zoe Roth, a UNC student who, 16 years ago, was the star of this photograph …

…NFTs offered a way to finally profit off an image that has proliferated around the internet. Via an auction, she and her family netted $430,000 in cytocurrency a week ago—which I assume means it’s either worth $3 or $37 billion today.

Via UNC’s Media Hub, the N&O has details:

The now-viral meme was first taken in January 2005. Zoe, her parents and her brother lived two blocks away from a fire station in Mebane. Sirens were the soundtrack of her childhood. One day, the noise was especially close. Her mother stepped outside and saw billowing smoke. The fire department was putting out a controlled fire purposefully set on a nearby piece of property to clear the land.

For her father, Dave Roth, the burning house was the perfect background to test his new camera. Dave Roth, an amateur photographer, often uploaded his work to photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and eventually began entering photography contests. Three years later, Dave won JPG magazine’s “Emotion Capture” contest.

4. Cops Say Civilians Don’t Know Enough to Conduct Oversight

With the Andrew Brown Jr. boiling over, this headline from yesterday’s Washington Post caught my eye:

The Post’s story puts numbers on something those of us who’ve reported on and written about policing already understood: Cops hate civilian oversight—having cops police cops is much simpler. Politicians never want to be seen as weak on crime, and they never want the cops to campaign against them. Hence, civilian oversight boards are almost universally feckless.

  • “Police nationwide have frequently defied efforts to impose civilian oversight and, in turn, undermined the ability of communities to hold law enforcement accountable.”

  • “More than 160 municipalities and counties have implemented some form of civilian oversight through review boards, inspectors general, and independent monitors. Another 130 localities are trying to do so, according to officials from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE, though this represents a fraction of roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.”

  • “In Louisville, the civilian board had no standing to investigate [Breonna] Taylor’s death. In Minneapolis, the current and former civilian oversight entities had fielded 12 complaints of alleged misconduct about former officer Derek Chauvin before he killed Floyd by pressing a knee into his neck.”

In 2008, when I was reporting on cops in Orlando, I discovered by pouring through internal affairs records that the Orlando Police Department’s internal affairs division had not once in at least five years—and probably never—sustained an allegation of excessive use of force, even when the evidence was on video and, frankly, undeniable.

  • No one can do that kind of reporting in North Carolina. Not even civilian review boards can perform that level of oversight.

  • By state law, they are denied access to personnel files and disciplinary records, they can’t issue subpoenas or compel testimony, and they certainly can’t overrule internal affairs or mete out discipline.

Here—as in too many states—we have to trust the police to police their own. Police oversight is feckless by design, which is exactly the way cops want it to be.

  • “In many cities, such oversight efforts have been limited by strict collective bargaining agreements with police unions and, in 22 states, through laws known as officers’ bills of rights, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

  • “Police have generally argued that citizens do not need to investigate police because internal affairs units or other law enforcement agencies already do so.” (WaPo)

  • This would seem obvious, but if cops policing cops was going well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Some North Carolina Republicans have proposed a law making more police disciplinary records—as well as those of other state workers—public. It’s … a start.

  • “In North Carolina, if someone was demoted, that’s already a public record. However, if Senate Bill 355, the Government Transparency Act, becomes law, a general description of the reasons for demotion, dismissal, transfer or other change in position will be included in what’s public—as it already is for promotions.”

  • “John Midgette, executive director of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association, said the group is not opposed to the bill because of its efforts to be transparent. ‘No one hates a bad cop more than a good cop,’ Midgette told lawmakers in Tuesday’s Senate judiciary committee meeting. He asked for an amendment to the bill that would at least give police officers notice of records being released, saying that sometimes officers are disciplined ‘for matters of political expediency.’” (Your mileage may vary.)

  • The state employees association opposes it, of course. SEANC executive director Ardis Watkins says “it’s a far cry different to have your salary, your basic information, available to the world than to have even unfounded accusations in your file and passed around.” (N&O)

  • Yeah, but if you’ve been demoted or fired, then the accusation wasn’t unfounded, was it?

  • Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing a bill to force the release of body-cam footage within 48 hours of an incident unless there’s a court order to the contrary, which, yeah, that’s a good idea, too.

The bigger issue: So I said the GOP bill is a good start. Here’s what I mean: I value civil servants and the work they do. They should be paid well and treated fairly. But they work for us. Every county and city flow chart has “Citizens” at the top. Their salaries are paid by my taxes. In return, I should get accountability and transparency.

  • Employees’ personnel files should be open: performance evaluations, disciplinary records (even if the accusations weren’t sustained), the whole deal. The only redactions should be for things outside the scope of their public work—health conditions, home addresses, contact info, etc.

  • Few people are going to dig through thousands of personnel files at random. But, e.g., with police, we could see if there are patterns to some cops’ behaviors that internal affairs has ignored. We could see if top government officials are racking up grievances or score poorly on evaluations.

  • If a police officer has been accused of excessive force 15 times in the last five years, I have a right to know that—even if his department has “cleared” him each time. If a city’s department chief has a shelf full of sexual harassment grievances, I have a right to know that, especially if HR has looked the other way.

  • The problem with the GOP’s bill is that it starts by assuming that government agencies are effective at policing their own. Maybe they are. But we have absolutely no way to know that. And that, my friends, is the real problem.

Bonus reading: I wrote more about police transparency in my column this week.

Here’s what I learned from reporting on the police: Cops lieA lot. Not all of them, and not all the time. But enough that we shouldn’t treat the words “police say” like they were handed down from the mountain.

And they almost always get away with lying. Short of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary—and sometimeseven when there is—police statements are taken as gospel by the courts, by the media, by the public. Understand this: Most internal affairs divisions are a joke, state laws and union contracts protect psychopaths along with decent beat cops, and district attorneys usually only prosecute law enforcement when circumstances and politics afford them no other choice.

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