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An interesting article in today's newspaper

Harry Thetford: Meet a man who joined the Army at 17 to be an airborne soldier — but didn’t get into jump school until he was 57. Page B8

'Politics will be hard to ignore': High-stakes election year opens next week

CHARLOTTE — Never has North Carolina faced an election season like the one that begins Monday.

With the start of candidate filing, the state will hurtle into a whirlwind year marked by big changes, crowded races and its earliest primaries ever.

March 3 primaries mean absentee ballots go out in mid-January — three weeks before Iowa voters hold their first-in-the-nation presidential contest.

“About the time people are taking down the Christmas trees is about the time politics will become part of their daily lives,” said political-scientist Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University. “Politics will be hard to ignore.”

All this could take place against not only the backdrop of a Democratic presidential primary but a U.S. Senate impeachment trial of Republican President Donald Trump. For voters, it may seem like a political fire hose.

“It’s going to be extremely busy,” said Gerry Cohen, who served as a legislative official for more than 35 years.

Just consider:

  • Millions of North Carolinians will find themselves in new voting districts for the General Assembly and Congress.

Legislators redrew the districts after judges ruled them partisan gerrymanders. Legislative districts are final. A panel of three N.C. Superior Court judges is scheduled to meet Monday to consider whether to approve the redrawn congressional districts or ask an expert to draw a new ones. That will delay filing for the seats — and could delay congressional primaries.

A court challenge also could delay filing for Mecklenburg County’s District Court judges.

For the first time, North Carolina voters will need to show a valid photo ID in order to cast a ballot. A list of acceptable IDs is available from the State Board of Elections (www.ncsbe.gov/voter-id). In another change, voters

  • in more than 20 counties, including Guilford, will be using new voting machines.

Presidential candidates will have more incentive to come to North Carolina for Super Tuesday. May primaries often made the state an after-thought in presidential campaigns. TV viewers in parts of the state will see ads designed to reach voters in South Carolina, which votes Feb. 29.

  • Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is defending his seat in a race that, along with the contest for the governorship, tops a long ballot. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is running for re-election. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest faces Republican Holly Grange in the GOP primary for governor. At least 13 candidates are running for lieutenant governor. The ballot also includes other statewide races and ones for local judges and county commissioners.
  • The Green and Constitution parties are on the ballot for the first time, offering the prospect of even more primaries.
  • Congressional bellwether

    North Carolina is again expected to be a presidential battleground. The Cook Political Report ranks it among only five true toss-ups. Along with next summer’s Republican National Convention in Charlotte, that’s certain to draw attention from candidates, and money from those trying to have them elected.

    North Carolina also could play a pivotal role in who controls Congress. Democrats have to pick up three seats to control the U.S. Senate. They hope to flip the Senate seat held by Tillis, who faces a primary against at least two GOP opponents. Three Democrats are also running. One, Cal Cunningham, has a big financial advantage and the backing of the national party even though state Sen. Erica Smith led a recent Fox News poll and half of the respondents were undecided.

    North Carolina could help Democrats maintain control of the U.S. House. Analysts say the new map that state legislators approved would likely elect eight Republicans and five Democrats. The GOP now holds a 10-3 margin. A court decision could end up making districts more favorable to Democrats.

    “North Carolina will host a series of important races that will impact not only the executive branch but the legislative branch as well,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of the Washington-based Inside Elections, a nonpartisan political newsletter. “On election night if you told me who wins North Carolina for president and who wins the North Carolina Senate race, I think we will know a lot about the direction of the rest of the country.”

    Trump effectTwo years after breaking Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly, Democrats will try to win at least one chamber in 2020.

    They need a net gain of five seats to take over the Senate and six to win control of the House.

    Legislators elected next year will redraw legislative and congressional districts in 2021 that could be in effect for 10 years.

    David McLennan, a political-science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh said that with most urban areas leaning Democratic and rural areas Republican, legislative control could swing on races in smaller towns such as Goldsboro or Sanford.

    “The maps that were redrawn make it a little more favorable to Democrats,” McLennan said. “But for Democrats to take back the Senate or the House it would need to be a pretty big Democratic wave.”

    In counties such as Mecklenburg, Republicans will try to regain suburban seats they lost in 2018 when Democrats won all but one of the county’s legislative races.

    In congressional races, two incumbents — Republican U.S. Reps. Mark Walker of Greensboro in the 6th District and George Holding in the 2nd District — could find themselves in new and unfavorable districts, depending on what redrawn map is approved. Wherever the new congressional districts turn out to be, challengers who expected to run in one district may find themselves in another.

    ‘Perfectly balanced’

    John Davis of Raleigh, a nonpartisan political analyst who has studied North Carolina politics for decades, calls the state “the most perfectly balanced swing state in the nation.”

    In 2016, for example, the winners in half the 10 Council of State races got 50% of the vote or less. He expects that to continue, at least for a while.

    “We’re still a swing state,” Davis said, “and susceptible to the things we can’t control in North Carolina, like outside money and the presidential race.”

    One outside factor: The presidential impeachment process. That could play out well into North Carolina’s primary season, occupying voters’ attention and perhaps driving turnout.

    “It’s going to be Trump front-and-center to everything going on,” McClennan said. “It looks like it’s equally energizing both sides.”

    In Greensboro, there's a greenway where the highway was supposed to be

    GREENSBORO — A segment of the Downtown Greenway now under construction along Murrow Boulevard will add another great link for walkers, runners and bike riders.

    But it’s also taking something away — a “what if” piece of Greensboro’s transportation past, when planners envisioned a high-speed freeway zooming right through town.

    Today’s Murrow Boulevard was designed in an earlier time as part of a “controlled-access freeway,” said Chris Spencer, Greensboro’s interim transportation director.

    Greenway construction has erased one of the more tangible pieces of the freeway that never panned out. That would be the northern half of what was to be an interchange at Gate City Boulevard, then known as East Lee Street.

    Construction crews building the greenway on Murrow’s eastern side already have supplanted the intersection’s former on-and-off ramps in favor of a standard, perpendicular crossroad regulated by a stop light.

    When complete, the current project will be a major addition to the greenway that someday will make a 4-mile circuit around the center city.

    Most people think of the work now under way between Gate City Boulevard and West Fisher Avenue as strictly a “bi-ped” project for bike riders and pedestrians.

    “Really, it’s also a large roadway project,” Spencer said. “It’s a rebuild of much of Murrow Boulevard.”

    The aim is to bring Murrow’s design for motorists more in line with the traffic it actually carries these days, which is not at the interstate levels once envisioned.

    In a community that has benefited from decades of astute transportation planning (think Bryan Boulevard and the Greensboro Urban Loop), it’s an example of, “What in the dickens were they thinking?”

    Two words help explain how the bottom fell out of the city’s initial plan that officials began putting into effect in the 1960s: Bragg Street.

    “It’s hard to understand how Murrow became what it is or was prior to the current project without understanding the concept for continuing the roadway westward via Bragg Street,” said Tyler Meyer, the Greensboro Department of Transportation’s planning manager.

    As early as 1953, city officials began eyeing Bragg Street as a major artery that could relieve congestion on the much busier Lee Street a block or so to the north.

    Greensboro’s thoroughfare plan envisioned Bragg Street extending from the abortive Murrow interchange, along part of existing East Bragg Street’s current route and then through the Glenwood neighborhood to the area near the Greensboro Coliseum.

    The plan gained momentum through the early 1970s. Murrow Boulevard eventually was built in the form that the greenway is now altering. Other sections of this proposed network that did get built include Fisher Avenue and Smith Street

    The city bought 48 houses and businesses between Murrow and Elm Street with an eye toward building the first, western leg of the expressway.

    In August 1972 the News & Record’s predecessor, the Greensboro Daily News, reported that the city’s proposed, $13.9 million Bragg Street Expressway was poised for consideration by state highway officials.

    “Bragg Expressway’s Plans Near Approval,” the Daily News headline proclaimed.

    But residents of the Glenwood neighborhood strongly protested the project’s path through that part of town, citing estimates that suggested a total of 170 houses and 17 businesses would be displaced.

    “Local officials and citizens were concerned with the impacts to the Glenwood neighborhood and by 1976” the project was scaled back somewhat, city planners said in a 2006 report titled, “Bragg Street: Its Concept and Demise.”

    In 1985, the report notes, “GTCC was granted permission to construct a driveway to the old J.C. Price campus in what was the right of way” for extending Bragg Street toward the Murrow interchange.

    Local officials finally asked the state Department of Transportation to give back control over the right-of-way for that part of the project in 2001. During the previous decade, Greensboro leaders had revised the city’s thoroughfare plan several times to reduce the project’s scope.

    “By 2003, all of proposed Bragg Boulevard had been removed from the thoroughfare plan,” city planners said in their report.

    Already waiting in the wings was the Downtown Greenway that currently follows a small part of the old Bragg Street Expressway’s proposed pathway between Freeman Mill Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

    Supporters had introduced the greenway concept in 2001 as part of a new center-city master plan. Five year later, city leaders included the greenway in a new “Bi-Ped Plan” that made it the centerpiece of a far-reaching network of trails.

    The eastern section of the Downtown Greenway now under construction along Murrow Boulevard will continue to Fisher Avenue and North Greene Street, where it will connect with the current open section. That eastern section of the greenway is expected to be finished in October 2020.

    City government and other project supporters recently announced that they had purchased land on the other side of downtown to complete the rest of the greenway. Construction of that final, western leg is expected to begin next year.

    From snowflakes to a big tree, Christmas is a group effort in downtown Greensboro

    GREENSBORO — Zack Matheny had a $500 jug of chemical snow sitting in the corner of his office.

    Matheny , the ever-upbeat chief executive officer of Downtown Greensboro Inc., was excitedly talking about how he’ll use the liquid in a machine to blow fake dry flakes into the air near the economic development group’s office on South Elm Street and at a couple of other spots during the holidays.

    “I went to the North Pole to see Santa, and he gave me a bucket of snow,” he said.

    Matheny said he hopes the expensive potion will last through the holiday and also supply snow for the usually-popular skating rink that was recently opened for the season in LeBauer Park.

    Whatever the temperature, that snow will give atmosphere to a downtown that is coming alive with holiday decorations with the help of the city and Matheny’s agency.

    Chuck Burch, the general manager of the Greensboro Ice House, who also manages the open-air rink downtown, said the snow machines have “999” different settings, according to the manual. He was planning before Thanksgiving to install one of the snow blowers on top of a shed adjacent to the rink.

    On a warm day in early November, Matheny drove around Greensboro to a couple of out-of-the-way storage units that hold much of the city’s Christmas cheer in the offseason.

    In one unit off Gate City Boulevard, Matheny showed what looks like a hoarder’s room full of holidays. You’ll find stacks of banners for the city’s Fun Fourth celebration in one corner. On the floor, large bows that help decorate downtown are stacked near a 4-foot Christmas ball beside one of the fans that helps blow the fake snow.

    In the center of the room, Matheny showed off the “switch” that lights the city’s Christmas tree in Center City Park during the Dec. 6 Festival of Lights. It’s really an oversize wooden, plastic and metal switch painted red and designed for a child to use to simulate turning on power to light the tree.

    Earlier in November, city workers assembled the 36-foot-tall tree in Center City Park, which is located north of East Friendly Avenue, between North Elm and Davie streets.

    The tree cost $35,000, which was donated by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation. City workers hauled it to the location in a 52-foot trailer and built the frame and attached light panels to it during a recent cold snap that brought holiday temperatures to town a little early. With the star on top, it stands 42 feet tall, Matheny said.

    In and around another storage container at the city’s Hugh Medford Operations Center, downtown city coordinator Brian Vernon inspected some of the roughly 4-foot lighted snowflakes before they were installed on utility poles throughout downtown.

    The lighted snowflakes recently received an upgrade.

    Matheny said that 100 of the 125 snowflakes have been switched over the past two years to units with LED lighting. The upgrade cost a total of $20,000 in city funds to brighten the holidays.

    City spokesman Jake Keys said the city spent a one-time total of $36,400 on upgraded items this year, installation and removal.

    Matheny said his group has also bought 50 red bows that were installed at the Hamburger Square overpass at South Davie Street and down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive into the Southside neighborhood.

    Keys said the city has also installed 20 mesh balls, 25 lighted garlands, 38 lighted wreaths and 20 red bows.

    Take a close look at the grassy area to the north of the overpass and you’ll see an arch by noted local artist Jim Gallucci. Every season it gets a new theme, and the Christmas decorations have recently replaced the autumn leaves on the arch.

    But keep an eye out for popup snow machines, Matheny said. They will be spreading the illusion of winter weather even when there is none.

    “We’ll do it randomly,” Matheny said.

    “And I’ll do it on Fridays. We’ll move it around.”