Workers carrying banana peppers at Kenda Farms 2003 (PBP)Not surprisingly, it was Gene Nichol’s regular contribution to Raleigh’s News & Observer in which he shines a light on the General Assembly’s cold and shoddy decision to punish poor people by slashing the state’s already inadequate Legal Aid budget.

As is so often the case with conservative attacks on Legal Aid, this year’s budget cut was pretty clearly driven by agribusiness, which can’t abide the idea of farmworkers occasionally winning cases against growers who treat them like, well, dirt. Here’s Nichol:

“Sen. Brent Jackson of Autryville, one of the powerful appropriation chairs, led the charge to end funding. Jackson is the Senate’s only mega-farmer. Having benefited mightily from agribusiness contributions, he has quickly become their standard bearer. Jackson carries no affection for LANC. A couple of its lawyers have had the gall to win cases on behalf of poor farmworkers in Eastern North Carolina. So Jackson saw the rare opportunity, in a single stroke, to both line the pockets of rich Tar Heels and restrict the effective rights of those working in the fields. A win-win if ever there were one.

As a result, Hausen has been forced in recent weeks to lay off 48 lawyers and paralegals – from a staff of about 350. If cuts passed by the U.S. House become law later this year, he’ll have to eliminate 50 more. Legal aid lawyers carry famously high caseloads and enjoy famously low salaries. One of the most efficient anti-poverty programs in North Carolina is, as we speak, being markedly decimated.

This is hardly an auspicious time to gut legal services.

Given the explosion of poverty that has occurred here since 2008, now 23 percent of Tar Heels, over 2.2 million, qualify for legal services under federal guidelines. The marker is set at 125 percent of the poverty threshold – or about $29,000 for a family of four. Half of legal aid clients make less than $15,000 a year.”

But, of course, such numbers mean little to elected officials who’ve been ignoring similar figures for years. As Nichol puts it:

“We have also said, repeatedly, that we won’t allow important rights to be lost without providing a meaningful hearing, at a meaningful time, in a meaningful manner. But, for poor North Carolinians, when we say that, we lie.”

It’s getting to be a habit for state leaders.



Gene NicholWhen it comes to eloquently assailing North Carolina’s far right political leadership for its shortsighted and mean-spirited policies, no one does it better than Gene Nichol. The UNC law professor is on his game this morning with an op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer entitled “An NC tax plan that’s an exercise in villainy.”

As Nichol notes, the decision to further shift the responsibility for funding government from the rich to the poor by raising sales taxes and cutting income taxes is as blatant as it is outrageous.

This section stands out in particular:

“I’ll be the first to concede that the governor and the General Assembly mean to do a lot. They want to make it harder for black people to vote. They want to stop women from controlling their bodies. They want to shame and stigmatize lesbians and gay men. They want to disparage and marginalize immigrants. They want to dismantle the public schools. They want to eliminate environmental regulation. They want to foster purchased elections. They want to lay low their political opponents. The list is long. They’re ambitious sorts.

But their true sweet spot, their principal raison d’etre, the campaign to which they return enthusiastically in each succeeding session, is taking money and benefits from the impoverished in order to give more to, and to demand less from, the wealthy. They seemingly believe the main thing wrong with North Carolina is that those at the bottom have too much and those at the top don’t have enough. They have converted our government to an exercise in villainy….

And this part too:

The McCrory era will be adjudged a dark and shameful chapter in North Carolina history – a last gasp effort to cling to legacies of privilege and subordination, to deny the promises of democracy and dignity.”

Click here to read the entire essay.


There were two new and great editorial page “must reads” this past weekend on the state’s education wars.

Number One was Gene Nichol’s fine essay in Raleigh’s News & Observer on the public school teachers who continue to fight for their children and profession despite the ongoing assault by state lawmakers.

“I think [teachers NaShonsda] Cooke, [Angela] Scioli and [Brendan] Fetters knew what they were signing up for. This path has never been strewn with rose petals. I know they didn’t expect, however, to be officially derided for their efforts. ‘The elephant in the room,’ Fetters explains, ‘is the constant claim that we are failing our students.’

The politicians who accuse them, of course, never go to their schools, never talk to the teachers. They do, though, ‘take away our teaching assistants, run good teachers off to other states, give us bigger classes, cut our budgets and disparage our schools,’ Cooke says.

It’s not lost on teachers of high-poverty children that all the current political energy is directed toward vouchers and charter schools, draining already inadequate resources. They “evaluate us on matters outside of our control,” Cooke says, “pronounce us broken, and then make it tougher to do our work.”

Cooke’s own daughter attends one of the high-poverty Durham schools receiving an F on the state’s new scorecard. ‘I know the greatness of what they do in that school. I’d never move her,’ Cooke says. She gets angry when her daughter’s teachers are maligned by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

It’s one thing, I suppose, to wage war on public education. It’s another to shamelessly defame in the process.”

You can read the rest by clicking here.

Essay #2 comes from the Greensboro News & Record and it takes down the absurd an inappropriate partisanship that marked the firing of UNC President Tom Ross (which has been confirmed recently in emails released to N.C. Policy Watch and other news outlets). As the N&R Notes:

“The indication of misguided and unfair partisan attitudes toward Ross raises concerns about the next president. The Board of Governors won’t serve the people of the state well if it limits its choices to only Republican candidates. Read More

UNC law professor Gene Nichol

UNC law professor Gene Nichol

The University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, in order to comply with a February decision by the university’s system governing board, shut its doors last week.

The privately-funded center based out of the Chapel Hill law school, UNC Board of Governor Chairman John Fennebresque explained in an editorial, “was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty.”

But many had trouble believing that reasoning, speculating that the center’s closing was an attempt to censor Gene Nichol, the tenured law professor who heads the poverty center and a vocal critic of policies passed by the Republican-led legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The UNC Board of Governors gets its appointments from the state legislature, and its ranks include several major contributors to the political campaigns of state Republicans.

But the work at the poverty center isn’t finished, Nichol wrote in the Institute for Southern Studies last week.

Funding for the center’s work has continued, and even increased, after the controversial closing of the center, and Nichol will now head the N.C. Poverty Research Fund.

From Nichol, in the Institute for Southern Studies:

I’ve been blessed with a long and varied academic career. But none of my efforts has approached the extraordinary honor of working, side by side for the past seven years, with North Carolina low-income communities and the dedicated students, professors, advocates and providers who seek to serve them. Together, we have sought to focus a meaningful light on the challenges of poverty and to push back against policies that foster economic injustice. Those efforts, as you know, have led the UNC Board of Governors to close the Poverty Center. But poverty is the enemy in North Carolina. Not a tiny, privately-funded Poverty Center.  Heather Hunt and I have no words to match the gratitude we feel for the astonishing support the Poverty Center has received, in recent months, from thousands across North Carolina and the nation.

As the Poverty Center closes, the Law School now launches the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund. Thanks to the generosity of North Carolina foundations, and engaged and committed citizens from across the country, the new Fund will allow us to hire student, faculty and post-doctorate scholars to assist us in probing the causes of, and solutions to, economic injustice – and to publish, extensively, the fruits of our research. Donors have indicated repeatedly that they are unwilling to see the crucial work of the Poverty Center driven from the halls of the university. The Fund will assure that it continues, and that it continues in Chapel Hill. Censorship has poor track record. It won’t prevail here either.

Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, 18 percent of us live in wrenching poverty. Twenty-five percent of our kids. Forty percent of our children of color. We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates. A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest rate among the states. Now we’re 10th, speeding past the competition. Greensboro, the federal government tells us, is the hungriest city in America. Charlotte has the nation’s worst economic mobility. Over the last decade, North Carolina experienced the country’s steepest rise in concentrated poverty. Poverty, amidst plenty, stains the life of this storied commonwealth. Even if our leaders choose to ignore it.

You can read the rest of Nichol’s comments here.

Gene Nichol

Prof. Gene Nichol

John Drescher, the executive editor of Raleigh’s News & Observer, had an odd and flawed column over the weekend regarding UNC Law School professor Gene Nichol entitled “Gene Nichol doesn’t regret column about Pat McCrory.” (Full disclosure: Nichol used to serve on the Board of the NC Justice Center, NC Policy Watch’s parent organization).

It was odd because it awkwardly combined what was, by all appearances, a brief news report/interview with Nichol along with Drescher’s own take on Nichol’s falling out with the state powers that be  — some of which stemmed from some columns Nichol has authored for the N&O. Drescher quoted Nichol as saying he had no regrets in likening Governor McCrory to reactionary conservative governors from the Civil Rights era. As Nichol told Drescher:

“I said he was a successor to them.I do think it’s fair. I think it’s accurate. I’m not saying he’s exactly the same.”

But then Drescher went on to tack a commentary of his own into the last few sentences of the column in which he rejected Nichol’s explanation. According to Drescher:

“By going after McCrory in a personal way, Nichol made it easy for his opponents to focus on Nichol and ignore his broader, more significant message.

Professors ought to be able to write in The N&O (or anywhere else) without fear of retribution from politicians or their appointees. But they should inform us through research and lead us though debate at a high level that is focused on ideas and aspirations. In that regard, Nichol came up short.”

Hmm – let me get this straight, John. Are you really saying that “professors” should never issue “personal” barbs and only “inform us through research”? Really? Why? Indeed, what the heck does that even mean? And how do you define “research”? What was Nichol supposed to do — insert footnotes in his columns? Read More