My Call 2012

Stepping out of news-director mode for a moment. Who wants prognostications? Here are five predictions for this year’s election. (Not necessarily reflective of how I want it to go.)


1.      It’s going to be 2004 all over again, in reverse. History tends to repeat itself—and for a while there in 2009 and 2010, I was convinced the 2012 election would be a rerun of 1984, except this time with the Democrat rolling to victory. All the pieces were falling into place. The economy was in the tank, but recessions don’t last forever; I figured by 2012 things would be improving—just in time for Obama to pull out the same “Morning In America” message Ronald Reagan used when his economy was recovering from ’82. Meanwhile, the other side would find itself so devoid of qualified candidates that it would have to fall back on the last-ditch option: the losing VP candidate from the previous election. In 1984, it was Walter Mondale; in 2012, it would have been…well, you know.

So I figured, hey, easy Obama landslide. But no. Sure, the economy’s in recovery, but not in a “morning in America” way—more of a “gosh, I think Duke might actually have a decent football team this year” way. And She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named flamed out before she even had a chance to be a last-ditch nominee, so the Republicans went and found someone else—not a great candidate either, but so much for my Mondale parallel.
So 1984’s out, then. But what’s happening instead seems to be a rerun of 2004: a fairly close election, won narrowly by an incumbent who’s just popular enough to squeak by a weak opponent. That opponent, incidentally, is Mitt Romney, a man who violates the single most important, A-number-one, John Kerry rule of presidential politics: Don’t nominate the awkward white guy from Massachusetts.
(Seriously, you’d think after seeing Michael Dukakis riding in a tank, the party bosses wouldn’t keep doing this to themselves.)
Romney’s really not a bad candidate; he probably wouldn’t be a terrible president—but politically he’s weak in all the same ways Kerry and Dukakis were weak: he’s a flip-flopper to the point of absurdity, he comes off as so privileged he’s lost all sense of perspective, and frankly his base doesn’t like him very much. Conventional wisdom says if you’re going to win a presidential election you have to nominate someone who appeals to the center—but there’s scholarly research showing that Karl Rove actually had it right: you can’t win unless you appeal to the base. Nominating the “electable” candidate is a dead end. It’s counterintuitive, but the GOP might have given themselves a better shot if they’d gone with Rick Santorum. (Try getting that image out of your dreams tonight.)
Which isn’t to say that Romney can’t win. Obama is beatable, after all, just as George W. Bush was beatable in ’04. But the polls are suggesting another narrow win for the incumbent, by about the same margin as eight years ago—and if Obama does win, it will have been a missed opportunity for the GOP, just as it was for the Dems in ’04.
(Incidentally, the Kerry Rule only applies to awkward white guys from Massachusetts; the JFK Corollary proves that attractive white guys from Massachusetts can still win. The right shoulda gone with Scott Brown.)
2.      Mitt Romney will win North Carolina. Forget the polls, just look at the early-voting numbers. Sure, they look great for Obama—until you compare them with the early-voting numbers from 2008, which looked a heck of a lot better for Obama, and then reflect on the fact that Obama won here in ’08 by about eight votes. Any shift to the right is going to result in a Romney victory, and the early-voting totals are indicating a pretty clear shift to the right. Evidence: more people voted early in NC this year, but fewer people voted early in Orange County; the percentage of early voters who were Democrats was down slightly this year versus four years ago, both here in Orange and across the state; and the average age of early voters was up by a couple years. (Seniors? Not Obama fans. Let’s not speculate why.)
Result: Romney to win NC by 2-3 points. But hey, maybe the Obama camp knows something I don’t: a couple weeks ago they started pulling their people out of NC, but suddenly in the few days before the election, they sent Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton our way. (And we didn’t call Joe Biden to set up an interview—his people called us.) Obviously they think they can win here—or else they’re so sure they’ve got the election locked up everywhere else that they’re just trying to make it more of an ’08-style landslide. I doubt it, but we’ll see.
3.      Somewhere, voters are going to legalize gay marriage by ballot referendum for the first time, and we’ll have North Carolina to thank. Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington are all voting on the same-sex marriage issue this week. Minnesotans are voting on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man/one woman, same as we did here in May—so even if they vote it down, the state still won’t recognize same-sex marriages. But the stakes are even higher in the other three states, where a vote in favor of same-sex marriage is actually a vote in favor of same-sex marriage: if voters in Maine or Maryland or Washington give the go-ahead, that state will begin (or continue) recognizing same-sex marriages (with all the rights and privileges befalling thereunto).
Any of those four votes could be historic. The thing about ballot referendums is that they’re not particularly kind to minority groups—statistically, voters at the polls are more likely to vote against minority rights and interests than legislators in the state house. (Which is what happens when you put minority rights up to a majority vote. The Progressive movement clearly didn’t read their Federalist Papers.) And so it has gone with the LGBT community: thirty states have put same-sex marriage before the voters, and voters in all thirty states have said no. (In Arizona it took two tries. That’s as good as it’s gotten so far.)
But this time, this year, it’s going to be different. In all four states, according to polls, the pro-gay marriage side is winning. In all four states! It may not work out that way—Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling warns that undecided voters historically break against same-sex marriage in the end—but it’s almost a sure thing that at least one state, and probably more, will vote in favor.
If that happens—when that happens—we’ll be able to look back on the Amendment 1 vote back in May as a turning point. (One of many, of course.) 2012 is the year when the same-sex marriage debate turned the corner—when the pros became the majority and the antis were the ones on the defensive; when it became more controversial to say “I’m against” than it was to say “I’m in favor” (hence Chick-Fil-A); when the President actually had the guts to come out and say what we all knew he was thinking anyway. And that had a lot to do with the fight in North Carolina this spring—where a vote on gay marriage actually came down to the wire (sort of), in the middle of the Bible Belt of all places. Obama came out as a supporter the very next day—and here we are. For same-sex marriage supporters, the Amendment 1 vote was a defeat—but it was a defeat that showed the weakness of the other side, a defeat that signaled a shifting of the winds. When the history of the same-sex marriage debate is written, 2012 will be the most important year—and the Amendment 1 fight in North Carolina may loom as large in that history as the Proposition 8 debate in California.
So, hey. Next time you see Mark Kleinschmidt, shake his hand.
4.      Democrats will probably maintain their local monopoly, but expect at least one close vote. The GOP presence in Orange County is growing stronger, but it’s always going to be a minority voice: there’s a reason Jesse Helms said all those nasty things about Chapel Hill, after all. The Republicans have a relatively strong slate of candidates in the local races this year, but for the most part they’re running against opponents who are simply too well-known and too well-liked to lose. It’s possible to overcome a big name-recognition gap, but only if you’re running alongside a rolling tide of anti-incumbent dissatisfaction, and that’s not really the case in Orange County this year. (If the May primary’s any indication, there’s some dissatisfaction with the Board of County Commissioners—but it’s coming from the left more than the right, so not as much help for Mary Carter.)
But it’s not impossible for Republicans to win here—all it’ll take is the right set of circumstances. Take a tide of dissatisfaction, maybe an economic downturn, and add a strong, socially liberal GOP candidate with crossover appeal (smart, youthful, pro-gay, pro-environment, pro-social justice, pro-business, anti-tax) running against a weaker or lesser-known Democrat. Dave Carter will put up numbers that’ll surprise some people this year; I don’t imagine he’ll beat Ellie Kinnaird, but against a different opponent—maybe. (And he’ll keep it closer than usual: 54 percent of early voters in NC Senate District 23 were Democrats; compare to 59-60 percent in 2008 and 2010.)
But Dave Carter isn’t my dark horse. Watch the race in NC House 50—which comprises all of Orange County’s rural, more conservative precincts and leaves out most of the more progressive urban center. That makes things more interesting—Bill Faison faced a semi-close race in 2010, and Valerie Foushee doesn’t have the incumbency advantage on her side. Foushee still has the edge over Republican pastor Rod Chaney, but only a slight edge: dollars to donuts this ends up being the closest local race, and if any Republican has a chance to win in Orange County this year, it’s Chaney. Here’s the number worth noting: only 52 percent of early voters in NC House 50 were Democrats. To put that into perspective, Democrats made up 58 percent of early voters in the district in 2010, and Faison ended up winning 56 percent of the total vote. So watch that one closely.
5.      The transit tax? Who knows. This debate feels an awful lot like the debate on the quarter-cent sales tax back in 2010, when it narrowly failed. But then again—voters in Durham County voted for the half-cent transit tax and the quarter-cent economic development/education tax simultaneously last year, and they actually supported the transit proposal by a wider margin. If Orange voters are the same way—more comfortable with a half-cent for transit than a quarter-cent for development—then the transit tax should pass, at least by a little bit. (Opponents of the tax in Orange County point out that Durham gets more of the proposed light-rail line than Orange would—so presumably Durham voters would have been keener on it—but still, that light-rail line wouldn’t run anywhere near northern or eastern/southeastern Durham, and voters there approved it anyway.) Regardless, though, this and NC House 50 will be the two closest local votes.
So there you have it. Polls close at 7:30 tonight, and if I’m wrong—well, then I’ll just be in the same company as every other pundit in America.

It’s "Political" Science!

Elections are big deals in political science and there’s nothing that political scientist love more than using elections to test their theories.  Thinking about this primary season that we are now in however, reminds me more of natural science.  I’ll leave the scientific explanations to my colleague Jeff Danner, but I can’t help but see Newton’s “action – reaction” thing at work here.  The mind is a little fuzzy all these years later about all of the details, and I guess I could do the scholarly thing and look it up on that definitive source Wikipedia, but let’s just keep it simple: this primary season has races that really fit the “action – reaction” law.  Moreover, there are some other science things at work in this election too.

On February 29th (it was leap day, and I’ll not even attempt to explain the scientific reason why we have it!), filing for the May 8th party primaries closed, so we knew who was running.  Earlier, when the Board of Elections opened fillings on February 13th, there was a lot of excitement and even anxiety because of the political shocker of the year: on January 26th, Governor Beverly Perdue announced that she would not run for a second term.  And goodness, were there reactions!  Naturally, the common question was, “Who would file?”  Since another scientific truth is that nature abhors a vacuum, we could put our money on the fact that there would be people who would rush in.

So here’s how it went.  On the first day of filing, Bill Faison, to the surprise of only a few, signed up to run for governor.  By doing that, his House District 50 seat, which includes part of Chapel Hill and moves north through Orange County, was now an open seat.  Since we already know about that vacuum thing, Valarie Foushee filed to run to fill that seat the very same day.  As Valarie currently holds a seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners, her decision not to run again (Valarie was first elected in 2004) created an open seat in Commissioner District 1.

Two people will be elected to represent District 1, and incumbent Pam Hemminger filed on February 13th to run for her second term.  The next day, Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich also filed to run, and on February 20th, former Carrboro Board of Alderman member Mark Dorosin entered the race too.  Now here’s another scientific fact: three people competing for two seats means one can’t have the seat, so this will be what politicians call a real horse race.  Of course, we have to wonder if the usual incumbent’s advantage will work in this race, or could the sitting commissioner lose her seat.

If Ms. Rich wins, she would have to resign from the Chapel Hill Town Council, since we don’t allow people to hold two elected offices simultaneously (not that anyone is crazy enough to want to do it, are they?).  Her resignation would cause the other eight members to choose a new ninth member to serve for a year, and we all know from prior experience how much fun that “filling the vacancy” scientific process is.  If she doesn’t win, she would continue to serve the final year of her Council term.

The other reaction to note is that this many seats, whether held by incumbents or open, tend to draw other candidates.  Hence, you can go to the State Board of election website and see all of the people running for the various federal and state offices.  You can also go to the Orange County Board of Elections website to see who’s running in our State Senate, State House, County Commissioner, and Orange County Board of Education races.  What’s interesting this year is that, in some of our races, winning the Democratic primary will not be tantamount to being elected, as there are seats where the winning Democrat will face the winning Republican in the general election.  In contrast, the four incumbent District Court judges on our ballot are all running for the nonpartisan bench seats without opposition.

As the campaign season heats up and we experience the familiar process of campaign forums, meet and greets, letters to the editor, mailers, and campaign signs, we need to pay attention.  The national and statewide campaigns will spend tons on television and radio ads, but our local campaigns tend to be more direct.  This primary will also have increased attention and maybe participation because of Amendment 1 being on the ballot.  You can read the official explanation of the it by visiting this page.  People on both sides of the issue will spend small fortunes to get people out to vote for or against the constitutional amendment, and voter participation is a good thing.

It’s later than you think, so get familiar with the issues and with the candidates and their positions because on April 19th “One-Stop Voting” begins, and it ends on Saturday May 5th at 1 p.m.  Election Day is Tuesday May 8th.  Polls will open 6:30 a.m. and won’t close until 7:30 p.m. 

After the election, someone will claim they didn’t vote because they didn’t know anything about the candidates, or they were simply unaware of the election, or their one vote really didn’t matter, or tell you that it’s just a primary.  And folks, sad though it is, it’s as true as night follows day and as sure as the sun rising in the east.  And those are both scientific facts!

Opening ever so slightly

It is the kind of surprise for which every ambitious politician must be prepared: the unexpected decision by an incumbent elected official to retire.

It is, my friend Jay Rivers told me, the kind of window of opportunity that opens ever so slightly and rarely. Be ready to decide quickly and pounce on the unexpected opportunity, before the window closes as a result of others’ decisive action.

John Spratt, the former South Carolina congressman, once told me about his first campaign. It started when his congressman dropped the bombshell that he would not run for reelection. Many other ambitious politicians would have loved to go to Congress, but all were surprised and unprepared to gear up a campaign. Spratt, though surprised, was ready. Sometime earlier he had made a telephone list of key people in his district. Before the day was over, he called everybody on the list.

First, he asked for their support. He tried to get them to make a solid endorsement. When seasoned political leaders make such early commitments, most try to keep them. There are exceptions, but whatever their failings, such leaders like to have a reputation for keeping their word.

Politicians, like the rest of us, have a hard time turning down a request for support from a friend. Although the people on Spratt’s list had other friends who might have wanted to run, Spratt got their commitments because he was first to ask.

Some on the Spratt’s list would be more cautious, saying something like, “I am not ready to commit.” Spratt would try to get them to promise not to support anyone else until the dust settled and “we’ve had a chance to visit again.”

Others might tell Spratt that they liked him but that he would not be their first choice, saying, “I really hope Joe Blow will decide to run, and, if he does, I will have to support him.”

Then Spratt might ask, “If Joe doesn’t run, can I count on your support?”

All this early work garnered Spratt important supporters, some of whom might have gone to other candidates if he had not asked first.

Spratt’s first campaign was 30 years ago, but being first to make the calls is still critical.
Today, however, there is something even more important: Being ready, willing, and able to raise or give the multimillion dollars necessary to conduct the campaign.

When today’s political candidate makes these early calls for support, the first questions from many people will be, “Where is your money going to come from? Do you have enough personal money to put in the pot? Where are you going to get the millions and millions it takes to win?”

After Governor Beverly Perdue’s announcement that she will not run this year, Lt. Governor Walter Dalton and state Representative Bill Faison were ready. They have the advantage of being first to make the public request for support.

But as they are making calls and asking for commitments, they have to respond to the money questions. Faison has some personal wealth, but he will have to persuade prospective supporters that he has enough money and is willing to spend it. Dalton has shown he can raise funds to win a statewide race, but he will have to convince people that he can step up the fundraising to a much higher level.

Both are getting some cautious responses from people who think Erskine Bowles would be the strongest Democratic candidate or those loyal to one of the many other possible candidates.

But there is something nobody can take away from Dalton and Faison. They were ready. They are out there, making early calls. And they have a better chance to win than if they had waited until that window of opportunity started to close.

A Business Owner's Return to his Roots

As your Savvy Spender, I plan to report on new businesses sprouting up in our midst and also those that close.  There’s another category of interest also: when an established business changes hands.

I recently sat down to chat with the new owner of one such business.  Though he’s new neither to Chapel Hill nor to the type of business he now owns.    

Kevin McManus is a Chapel Hill native who recently purchased the women’s health club in Ram’s Plaza.  Previously known as Ladies Fitness & Wellness; he has renamed it Women’s Only Workout.  As Kevin admits, this allowed him to use the acronym WOW.

Kevin grew up in Chapel Hill and returned a few years ago to help his ailing mother.  He had owned a women’s gym in Durham years before but had left that business and moved away, saying he’d “never again” own his own business. 

Well, apparently you can go home again because McManus has not only returned to his hometown, but also returned to being a small business owner.  His personal reasons explain the former so I asked him to explain the rest.    He had been working for a multi-state health club company and found he learned a lot about his (in)tolerance of the politics of a big company and that he can “work better for myself than I do for other people”.

Kevin had been back in town a few years, working in Raleigh when he heard the gym in Ram’s Plaza was for sale.  It seemed like a good fit: his hometown, his industry, a niche (women only) that he’d run before.  And so, here he is, back with more experience, more knowledge but facing the new challenge of our soft economy. 

He says he feels somewhat insulated because of the relative health of Chapel Hill’s economy, the fact that the club has been in the same location for 25 years, his experience in clubs both big and small, his gender-based niche. 

Beyond these strong starting points, Kevin has more plans, some already in place:

  • Increasing marketing of various types (including a booth at Hog Day)
  • Engaging new members by offering them a menu of complimentary “tastes” of all the clubs services
  • Adding a small day spa and carrying an exclusive skin care product line
  • Carving out an area specifically for Pilates equipment
  • Launching a dietician-backed weight loss clinic
  • Offering focused programs including a boot camp and martial arts
  • Increasing personal training options and availability

My time with Kevin showed him to be particularly proud of the hiring he’s done, bringing back some favorites from his Durham days and one new hire in particular: 5th degree black belt and former Hollywood stuntwoman Courtney Faison.  Courtney will build the martial arts program and offer personal training.  I talked with her a bit also and she’s awfully pleasant… but I bet she could make even me do an extra hundred sit-ups!  She has hometown ties also, as the daughter of NC State Legislator Bill Faison.

One big change possibly coming for WOW is the much-discussed redevelopment plan that would include Ram’s Plaza and Eastgate shopping centers.  As that moves forward, morphs or fades, I’ll check back with Kevin and his neighboring business owners in a future column.

I wrote about the Buy Local campaign last week and this profile is part of we savvy spenders knowing from whom we are buying.   Nice to meet you, Kevin, and welcome home!

Business owners please email me at if you have any news to announce.  Customers, if you’ve noticed an opening or closing and haven’t yet seen it here, please send it along.  On that note, does anyone know if the delicious Chocolaterie Stam is gone for good?