Dropped Acorns

DROPPED ACORNS

In December 2020 / January 2021, Feature Stories by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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It’s been a hell of a year, Raleigh. Fires, floods and pestilence across the globe had it looking like the end of times, not to mention peaceful racial justice protests and subsequent rioting, and a #MeToo reckoning, that took place right here at home. Meanwhile, our government at all levels was plagued with corruption and scandal. We hope this is the last year we’ll ever have to see grown men brandishing military grade weapons in our local Subway sandwich shops and we hope in 2021, we’ll see the back of COVID-19. Until then, wear a mask, wash your hands and help us bid adieu to 2020—from a socially distanced six feet away, of course. When the acorn drops, the auld acquaintance will be forgot, and so will this miserable year.

Restaurant Reckoning

Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana had everything: Good food and beer; a moving origin story and a charismatic owner; a beautifully curated, socially conscious Instagram feed and cachet with Raleigh’s political, business and media glitterati. The restaurants were the city’s crown jewels, places we pointed to proudly to show that Raleigh was growing into a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, vibrant metropolis, a far cry from our farm town days of yore. Then, one former Brewery Bhavana employee took to social media to air her grievances; others followed her lead, and the restaurant’s carefully cultivated, tastefully minimalist facade came crashing down. Harassment and abuse ran rampant, it was alleged. The businesses harbored sex offenders and sex pests, maligned women and nonwhite workers and had no avenues for accountability. Employees were drawn in by a seemingly cult-like vibe and stayed because the money was good, and, when issues were raised, they were swept under the rug by management, handled poorly or outright ignored. It was a sad situation all around, for the survivors especially, and for a community that was already reeling from the effects of the COVID pandemic. It also opened the floodgates to more stories of harassment and abuse in Raleigh’s restaurant scene, including at Neomonde, Poole’s Diner and other bars and clubs all over town. Bhavana and Bida Manda, which stayed closed for much of the year due to the pandemic, recently reopened under new management. All of the company’s original owners have stepped away and the brands are working to chart a new course. Meanwhile, on social media, Raleigh’s overdue #MeToo movement rages on; whether there will be lasting change in the service industry locally remains to be seen.

MealTeamSix

The threat was non-existent, the streets, empty. With no enemy in sight or otherwise identified, a dozen armed demonstrators decided to descend upon Raleigh to defend us from…well, it’s not clear what, exactly, but the governor’s stay at home order is our best guess. There they were, frightening the neighborhood kids at the gates of Oakwood Cemetery. There they were again, congregated outside a downtown Subway shop, wavering between turkey and tuna, rocket launchers bobbing merrily in the sun. Were they Proud Boys? Boogaloos? Q Anons? What the hell is the difference between the three? We, like they, may never know what they stood for, or what points they were trying to make, but at least they looked absurd. And, let’s not forget, two of the crew were later arrested by federal agents for offering themselves up as assets to the Islamic militant group Hamas—which, all told, seems about right.

Politically Incorrect

Lies, sex, money. Federal, state and local. Vice, scandal and corruption weren’t bugs of North Carolina government in 2020, they were features. Here’s who’s on the NC politics naughty list.

Cal Cunningham

Historically Dumb
His sexting game was as mild as his suits were finely pressed, as his campaign platform was purposely vague and pleasingly uncontroversial. All Cal Cunningham had to do was ride that wave of goodwill, engendered by his corporal blandness and his opponent’s unprecedented unpopularity, to the U.S. Senate and relieve the constituency of one of its dreaded Thoms. The national balance of power was in his hands, and he was ahead in the polls—but his phone was in his hands, too, and he just may have blown it with his tasteful indiscretions. Truthfully, no one can say that if Cunningham hadn’t sent those sexts, he’d be on his way to Washington. As we all know, voter preferences in North Carolina are historically wacky. But the fact of the matter is he was senseless enough to try to pull a John Edwards when he was supposed to be pulling the Democrats’ Senate majority. A rookie mistake, bless his heart—but now, North Carolina’s stuck with Thom Tillis for what’s sure to feel like another century. Thanks for nothing, Cal.

Richard Burr

Insider Dumping
Richard Burr didn’t support Wall Street reform or increasing the federal minimum wage. He’s not on board with tax increases, ever, and has no use for consumer protection. But he does seem to support Senatorial protection, especially when a global pandemic threatens hundreds of thousands of dollars in his personal stock holdings. Back in February, North Carolina’s senior senator sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks, shortly after he would have learned, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Senate Health Committee, that the coronavirus pandemic was set to wreak havoc on international populations and markets. Burr said he dumped the stocks based on publicly available information at the time—presumably not President Trump’s very public assurances that the virus was “under control”—rather than on what he would have learned in confidential briefings. But the FBI found Burr’s timing suspicious enough to seize his cellphone and launch an investigation and he stepped down as Intelligence chairman. In any case, Burr will retire from the Senate in 2022, we’re guessing to return to Winston-Salem to spend more time with his money.

Red Flags
Saige Martin had never voted in a city election in Raleigh before he ran for, and won, a seat on its city council in 2019, becoming its youngest and one of its first openly gay members. He showed up on the civic scene quite out of nowhere, flush with cash from somewhere, claiming to have worked in various roles at the United Nations, on President Obama’s 2012 campaign and as a communications consultant for Hillary Clinton’s. Overstating a resume is one thing but causing real harm in your community is another; while Martin was supposed to be finishing up a master’s thesis in art at NC State’s College of Design, and working as a graduate teaching assistant, and running for council, Martin was also alleged to have been harassing and assaulting fellow students, according to four men who spoke to the News and Observer about what they described as incidents of Martin’s “predatory” behavior. He resigned immediately after the news broke this summer and skipped town, leaving the newish council with an empty seat to fill not even halfway through its term.

Dishonorable Mentions

State lawmakers, while not Raleigh residents per se but who spend enough time to here to at least partially qualify, were busy getting their hands dirty in 2020, too. Here’s what they got up to.

Phil Berger

Sen. Phil Berger
The government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina filed a complaint this summer about the Senate President Pro Tem’s double dipping as related to his housing expenses while he spends time in Raleigh away from his district. (That’s after he was outed last year for using campaign cash to pay the mortgage on a Raleigh townhouse he owns). Berger collected $50,000 from the General Assembly from 2016 to 2020 to pay for housing, and received $72,000 from his campaign committee to pay for the same housing over the same period. No word so far on whether he plans to pay the state its $50K back.

David Lewis

Rep. David Lewis
A high-ranking, long-serving state lawmaker and one of the architects of the state’s voter ID and redistricting laws, Lewis resigned abruptly in August after being charged with federal financial crimes. The Harnett County Republican allegedly used $65,000 in campaign donations to help his struggling farm; he will take a plea deal to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

Rick Gunn

Sen. Rick Gunn
The Burlington Republican was sued by the husband of his legislative assistant after it was revealed the two were having affair, a scandal so textbook it’s barely worth mentioning. Gunn did not run for reelection

Gary Pendleton

Gary Pendleton
While he no longer holds elected office, the former state representative from Wake, and former county commissioner, decided to serve the state in another capacity this year—as a Republican poll observer. But on the second day of early voting, Pendleton was cited and charged with misdemeanor assault and trespassing after allegedly pushing an election worker at a Wake Forest early voting site. In his defense, Pendleton compared the charge to “hunting without a hunting license.”

City of Raleigh Hits and Misses

From virtual meetings to emergency mandates, this year has felt like all COVID, all the time. But, for better or worse, Raleigh’s city council did get some things done, unrelated to the pandemic. Take a look back at city government’s 2020 hits and misses.

-4 Council abruptly abolished CACs without notifying the public
+3 Council established a police advisory board
-2 But it doesn’t have subpoena power
+1 Council loosened restrictions on Airbnb
+2 Council voted to install custom designed, bright red bus shelters at stops around town
-3 But they will cost $5.7 million
+1 Council chose a consultant to study ways to engage local communities after abolishing CACs
+3 Council established a Commission on Hispanic and Immigrant Affairs
-3 Mayor Baldwin took a job with Barnhill Contracting Company after it received a $6 million city contract
-5 RPD used tear gas on protestors during demonstrations downtown
+2 Council passed a budget for the 2021 fiscal year with no tax increase
+2 Council voted to allow building of ADUs (or backyard cottages) and cottage courts and eliminated minimum parking requirements in the city code
+2 Council allowed streets to close to traffic for bikers and pedestrians, as well as for bars and restaurants to expand their seating downtown
-3 City manager Ruffin Hall announced he’s retiring
+3 Council authorized an $80 million affordable housing bond referendum
-3 But critics say the bond proposal doesn’t do enough for very low income people
+1 Council allowed new contracts with micromobility (electric scooter) companies
+2 Council voted to install the Downtown North-South Greenway Connector
+2 Council approved plans for its members to participate in racial equity training
+1 Council approved a rezoning for a 40-story mixed use tower, the tallest in Raleigh, adjacent to Capital Boulevard
+1 Council approved the first design phase for a new Civic Campus
+3 Council endorsed the Southern Corridor Bus Rapid Transit Route along South Wilmington Street and authorized funds to help build commuter rail
+3 The affordable housing bond passed with 75 percent support
+2 Council voted to include renters in receiving mailed notices sent out by the city and will work on ways to get their input
+2 The city announced assistant city manager Marchell Adams-David will replace Ruffin Hall as city manager in 2021

Total: +13 points for one year of bad luck; here’s hoping for a better 2021

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