A contentious year to remember: Our investigative reporter looks back at five big stories

A contentious year to remember: Our investigative reporter looks back at five big stories

#1 – Opioid crisis hits Wilmington area hard; lack of public resources hinders response

This summer the N.C. General Assembly passed a state budget that included about half of what was called for in the bipartisan Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act.

Shortly thereafter, I got out of Raleigh to take a long, hard look at the consequences of policy coming out of the capital on people outside the Triangle. I spent a few days in Wilmington, which by some estimates is the worst city in the nation for opioid abuse.

What I found, through speaking with people dealing with addiction from various racial and income groups, is that the city – like many others across the country – has been awakened to the severity of the addiction problem because its victims are no longer simply poor minorities.

From the story:

These days, from well-to-do Market Street lined with live elms to the dilapidated and garbage strewn Houston Moore and Hillcrest housing projects, addiction is uniting the city. Acknowledging that has been a long time coming.

‘There’s been a bad drug problem here for a lot of years,’ says Joe Stanley. ‘But people are just beginning to really pay attention to it because you’re seeing that other demographic affected – middle class white people, rich people, people who are into prescribed pills and don’t start out with heroin. Now they’re seeing it can happen to anybody. Addiction can come for anyone.'”

#2 – Law enforcement officers voice concern as NC House considers allowing concealed guns without permits

Once again this year, the North Carolina General Assembly narrowly avoided passing a bill that would have dramatically transformed the state’s gun laws in a way that brought condemnations from law enforcement.

House Bill 746 would have, with a few exceptions, removed the state’s requirement for a concealed carry permit, allowing anyone 18 or older who legally owns a handgun to carry to conceal it except where expressly prohibited. The bill would have also done away with a requirement for state approved safety courses required by sheriffs’ offices, which issue concealed carry permits under the current law.

While the Republican majority in the General Assembly is usually closely allied with law enforcement, there is a faction of GOP lawmakers who have for years been pushing for loosening gun laws to a degree that appalls the state’s top law enforcement officials.

Some of the state’s most popular, most conservative and longest-serving sheriffs came out against this bill – as did the North Carolina Association of Police Chiefs.

This legislation will be back in another form, its backers promised. Given their success at slowly getting concessions that peel away gun restrictions over the last few years, you can take that to the bank.

#3 – Conservative lawmakers move to curtail Cooper’s powers in additional special session

Last December’s special legislative session was, for a number of reasons, one for the books.

On a personal level, it marked my first ever arrest after I refused to leave the public gallery of the N.C. House, where I was reporting on an ongoing legislative session that had drawn massive protests.

But much more importantly, the special session draw international headlines as Republican lawmakers stripped incoming Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, of many of the powers enjoyed by his GOP predecessor, Pat McCrory.

The move came after a long, expensive and bruising gubernatorial race that saw McCrory unseated. McCrory refused to concede for more than a month and fought the result at every possible level, alleging massive voter fraud and incompetence by the elections boards across the state controlled by his own party, including his own appointees.

The GOP majority in the General Assembly were not subtle about the political power grab enacted by House Bill 17.

From the story:

House Bill 17, filed late Wednesday during a special session called without warning to Democratic lawmakers, is the widest ranging example.

The bill would strip the incoming governor of his ability to appoint members to the boards University of North Carolina system schools.

It would also reduce the number of state employees he can hire or fire from 1,500 to 300 – a number the legislature actually expanded under GOP governor Pat McCrory.

In a move never discussed during McCrory’s term as governor, the bill would also make each of Cooper’s cabinet appointments confirmable by the N.C. Senate, with its Republican majority.

In a separate move, the assembly changed the rules of the special session to allow confirmation of two Special Superior Court judges appointed by McCrory before he leaves office. The appointees are conservative Charlotte attorney Adam Conrad and Andrew Heath, who now serves as McCrory’s budget director.

Rep. David Lewis , chairman of the House Rules Committee, telegraphed the intention of the bill – and a number of others filed Wednesday – in comments to reporters Wednesday afternoon.

‘You will see the General Assembly look to reassert its constitutional authority in areas that may have been previously delegated to the executive branch,’ Lewis said.

Lewis said the GOP intended to communicate that ‘we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing this state.’”

#4 – In one of NC’s bleakest food deserts, hope is on the horizon

The issue of food insecurity is hardly a new one in the state, but for years there has been precious little good news in the state’s vast food deserts.

This story took a look at a rare bright spot in my own home city of Greensboro.

While many in the GOP dominated legislature continue to ignore or even mock the issue, local governments and community organizations are working hard to actually address it. Telling those stories is one of the most rewarding parts of working for N.C. Policy Watch.

From the story:

A new sign went up this week at the once-abandoned shopping center on Phillips Avenue in East Greensboro.

That’s rare enough in one of the city’s poorest areas and itself cause for celebration.

But what the sign represents is much larger.

‘Renaissance Community Co-Op,’ it reads in bright red and green. ‘Healthy, Affordable, Community Owned.’

When it officially opens Nov. 5, it will be the area’s first real grocery store since 1998.

‘No one would come, the stores just gave up on us,’ said co-op President John Jones Wednesday. ‘But the community wanted it. They believed and they organized and it’s happening now.’

North Carolina is 9th in the nation in food insecurity according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which collects data on where people have the least access to fresh, healthy food.

Greensboro and High Point are, as a metropolitan area, one of the worst in the nation for food insecurity.

The USDA has a term for areas like Phillips Avenue. They call them food deserts – low income areas where at least 33 percent of the people are more than a mile away from a real grocery store or supermarket.

There are 24 food deserts in Guilford County – 17 in Greensboro and 7 in High Point.

More than 35,000 people in Guilford County have poor access to healthful food, according to USDA statistics. More than 18,000 of those are low-income.

Guilford’s food deserts are mostly in well-known low-income areas: south of Kivett Drive in High Point, most of east Greensboro and a large rural area near the outskirts of McLeansville.

For many in Greensboro, a city that has for years been trumpeting its economic recovery and the renaissance of its downtown, those numbers are a shock. Those people don’t spend a lot of time on Phillips Avenue.”

#5 – HB2 injunction reveals state’s anti-LGBT position and its controversial allies

The fight over HB2 introduced many Americans to transgender issues for the first time. Through the court fight over the issue in North Carolina, it also exposed some of the ideological company being kept by GOP lawmakers in Raleigh.

Policy Watch endeavored to go beyond the blow-by-blow of the legislative and legal fights to tell the stories of transgender people in North Carolina. We also worked to examine the scientific arguments around the issue and their provenance.

What we discovered was that the findings of the openly ideologically driven “experts” relied upon by the state had been roundly rejected by mainstream scientists. Those who work with transgender patients regularly – including those running a specialized clinic at Duke University Hospital – had very different views.

From the story:

With the issue now before the court, the state has revealed its official position: There are no transgender people – just delusional, mentally ill people who shouldn’t be encouraged.

The norm for human development is for one’s thoughts to align with physical reality, and for one’s gender identity to align with one’s biologic sex,’ wrote the state’s expert, Dr. Quentin L. Van Meter. ‘Gender identity that does not match natal sex is a mental disorder, previously called Gender Identity Disorder.’

The term ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ was changed to ‘Gender Dysphoria’ in 2012, when the American Psychiatric Association stopped considering it a mental disorder.

Instead, the association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now describes dysphoria as the distress that comes from ‘incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.’

The APA also released guidelines for treatment of transgender patients that includes affirming rather than trying to change their gender identity and a statement affirming transgender care and civil rights.

But ignoring the APA’s official position – and the consensus of the scientific community on any number of important issues – isn’t an anomaly for Van Meter. It’s a calling.

Van Meter is vice president of the American College of Pediatricians, a group of a few hundred conservative doctors who split from the much larger and more widely respected American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002. That’s when the AAP issued a statement in support of gay and lesbian parents being able to legally adopt children, prompting an insurrection among its more socially conservative members.

It’s now legal for same-sex couples to marry and adopt in all 50 states – societal changes that were opposed by Van Meter’s group. The group has also promoted ‘reparative therapy’ programs designed to make lesbian, gay and bisexual people heterosexual. Those are now widely rejected by mainstream science.

In their crusades the group has repeatedly been criticized by scientists, including the National Institute of Health, who say the group distorts and misrepresents their work toward its own political ends.

The group regularly goes far afield of its claimed scientific expertise to make the sort of nakedly political arguments most scientific groups avoid.

In a brief in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, which would lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the group argued it was concerned for ‘the stability of families, the safety of children and our constitutional republic.’

The well-being of our constitutional republic is generally considered outside the purview of pediatricians.

The group has been designated an ‘anti-LGBT hate group’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of a number of organizations which helps the FBI identify groups that “attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”