Rebuilding trust in N.C.'s elections
Plus: StarMed plans next chapter; CMS resurrects podcast; Big housing plans for Pineville; Ledger members invited for beers on Wednesday; Kings Mountain casino under scrutiny
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Carter Center launches bipartisan effort to restore confidence in democracy; warns N.C. might be at ‘elevated risk of violence’ in polarizing election season
by Jim Morrill
For three decades, the Carter Center has worked to ensure free and fair elections in budding and fragile democracies around the globe. Now it’s trying to do the same in another potential trouble spot: North Carolina.
The Center has organized a bipartisan effort in the state to restore trust in an American election system questioned by large parts of the electorate.
“I’m tremendously worried,” says Bob Orr, a former Republican justice of the state Supreme Court. “Huge numbers of people — more Republicans than Democrats but Democrats and Unaffiliateds, too — don’t trust the election system.”
Orr is co-leader of the Carter Center’s N.C. effort along with former Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat. North Carolina is part of a pilot program with similar efforts being mounted in Arizona, Florida and Georgia.
Why North Carolina?
“Because of its strategic importance as a swing state, North Carolina may be at elevated risk of violence during the upcoming election season, or other disruptions to the electoral process,” the Center warned in explaining its decision.
The Atlanta-based Carter Center, started by former President Jimmy Carter, has nurtured democracies and helped resolve conflicts around the world. That it has turned its attention to the U.S. is a statement on the current state of domestic politics.
“It’s no secret that Americans are quite polarized,” said Nathan Stock, associate director of the Center’s Conflict Resolution Program. “The Carter Center saw risk factors in our own country going back at least to the summer of 2020 that prompted us to launch this new stream of U.S.-focused democracy and conflict resolution work.”
An ABC News/Ipsos poll earlier this year found that only 20% of respondents said they were “very confident” in the integrity of the election system (30% of Democrats, 13% of Republicans).
What the program will do: The Carter Center is taking concrete steps in an effort to restore trust.
It’s asking candidates to agree to a set of principles — “integrity, nonviolence, security, oversight and the peaceful transfer of power” — that might once have been taken for granted.
To promote that, it’s assembled a state advisory council. That includes two former governors, Democrat Jim Hunt and Republican Jim Martin, as well as four dozen other past and current elected officials, academics and political activists.
And starting later this month, it will begin what organizers call a “Trusted Elections Tour.” The tour, which will stop in each of the state’s 14 congressional districts, will feature panels of election security experts, local election officials and lawyers from both major parties who will explain legal ways to resolve any questions or disputes.
“You don’t go home and get a mob and some weapons,” Orr said.
The tour includes stops in Charlotte on Sept. 13 and Belmont on the 14th.
“We appreciate this bipartisan effort, which will help educate the public on the nuts and bolts of election administration at a time when it’s critically needed,” Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the State Board of Elections, said in a statement. “The state board and county boards of elections are always available to answer questions … to ensure public confidence is not further tainted by mis-, dis- or mal-information.”
Or, as Roberts said, “The best way to dispel misinformation and disinformation is to get the real facts out there coming from a trusted source.”
Jan. 6 aftermath raised concerns: The recent January 6 committee hearings have convinced many people how fragile democracy can be, even in the United States. Orr said the Center’s involvement reflects that.
“They’ve dealt with countries around the world that have no democratic infrastructure,” Orr said, “And for the Carter Center to say we’re seeing some of the same problems in the U.S. that we’re seeing in Third World countries has got to raise everybody’s concerns about what’s happening in this country and the threat to our basic democratic institutions.”
Stock sees in the Jan. 6 hearings a cause for both concern and optimism.
“That shows that there are Americans from low-level 26-year-old staffers to the former attorney general who are willing to stand up to these basic standards around our democracy,” Stock said.
Compared with other countries, America has advantages, Stock said: “Compared to a lot of those places, we’ve gotten a lot going for us that frankly does put us in a stronger position than some of the other places the Carter Center works.”
Jim Morrill covered politics for the Charlotte Observer for more than 30 years before retiring in 2021. He now co-hosts WFAE's Inside Politics: 2022 Election podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @jimmorrill.
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Up next for StarMed: fast-moving medical teams that deploy to hurricanes and wildfires. And more health clinics.
Remember during the pandemic how StarMed Healthcare was everywhere around town, with Covid testing and vaccination spots? The company came seemingly out of nowhere to meet the surge of need.
Now, with the demand for Covid lab testing and vaccinations on the decline, StarMed is shifting to apply what it learned about quickly bulking up medical services to a national stage.
The Charlotte company — which has its roots in chiropractic clinics then medical clinics and Covid-related services — is forming a division that can deploy on short notice to provide medical services at disaster scenes, founder Michael Estramonte tells The Ledger.
“We sat down and said, ‘What is our organization good at?’ We can solve problems really quickly. We can mobilize quickly,” Estramonte said. “It’s exciting. I think we were meant for this type of stuff. There are a lot of companies that do this, but not a lot of companies who can do it well.”
He envisions the new subsidiary — North Rapid Response Co. — shipping out to spots hit by hurricanes and wildfires, drawing on expertise gained during the pandemic on staffing up and navigating healthcare laws. The company also has about 20-30 vehicles acquired during Covid that it can put to use, and it’s using some of the money it banked from testing and vaccine reimbursements to fund the new venture.
During the pandemic, StarMed went from 100 workers to 2,000 in less than two years. It now has about 500-600, Estramonte estimates, but it’s always a moving number. (“I could be totally off,” he says.)
Michael Estramonte, pictured here in a January 2022 photo, says his company that’s known for its Covid response will now move into responding to natural disasters.
Unlike other businesses that meticulously detail their financial projections and jump only at those with a huge upside, Estramonte seems to take more of a swashbuckling approach akin to that of a tech company — move quickly, and figure it out later. Asked to outline the business case for jumping into rapid response medical services, Estramonte said: “What I’ve learned is primary and urgent care, they’re not significantly remunerative. If we can do it and figure out a way to do it a little better than break even, everything just seems to work out.”
StarMed is also adding medical clinics in underserved areas. Along with its three current clinics, it expects to open four more in the next two years, in Gastonia, South Boulevard (Starmount), Sugar Creek and Jacksonville, N.C.
Estramonte has also brought in his older brother, Jim Estramonte, to serve as CEO. Jim Estramonte is a 29-year Coast Guard veteran who rose to the rank of captain and who has an MBA.
With Covid mostly behind them, StarMed is evolving. Michael Estramonte said: “I have a saying: ‘Our future has to be bigger than our past.’ We want to look for ways to be relevant to the community.” —TM
Related Ledger article:
“How StarMed became a Covid services juggernaut” (🔒, Jan. 22)
CMS dusts off ‘Hello CMS’ podcast; focus on the end of universal free lunch
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools just re-launched its “Hello CMS” podcast that had lapsed since last November, and the new host is CMS spokeswoman Cassie Fambro, a former broadcast and print journalist who joined the district’s communications department last spring.
The first episode, which went live in English and Spanish last week, focuses on the end of the federal universal free lunch program that had given all students free breakfast and lunch since Covid.
This school year, students who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch because of their household income will have to pay for lunch. Pre-K students will pay $2.50; K-8 will pay $2.75 and students in grades 9-12 will pay $3 per lunch. Breakfast will remain free for all students in CMS.
In the podcast, Annette González from CMS Nutrition Services said that students in 64 CMS Community Eligibility Provision schools, which have higher numbers of students in poverty, will all receive free lunch and don’t need to apply for the service. Families who are not in CEP schools and want to apply for free and reduced lunch can apply on the CMS website.
The “Hello CMS” podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible and other podcast platforms. —CB
Kings Mountain casino under scrutiny; shares of slot machine company given to family members of politicians, report says
An eyebrow-raising article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend says that high-profile political figures and family members of politicians received ownership stakes in a slot machine company that benefits from the new Kings Mountain casino — as the casino sought federal approval of the project.
The Journal says that the shares went to John B. Clyburn, brother of Democratic U.S. Rep. James Clyburn; Michael Haley, husband of former Republican S.C. Gov. and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley; and Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic political operative who helped manage Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
The ownership shares “gave each of the recipients a slice of a slot-machine leasing company called Kings Mountain Equipment Supply LLC, whose major shareholders include financial backers of the Catawba Two Kings Casino” or their associates, the Journal reported, citing documents connected to the project.
The article continues: “Ethics lawyers say the arrangement raises questions about the propriety of those seeking help from the government giving financial incentives to the relatives of officials in a position to make or influence policy.”
After a decade-long push to win approval from the federal government, the casino opened a temporary facility in July 2021 in Kings Mountain, 35 miles west of Charlotte. The groundbreaking on the permanent facility “has been held up in part by National Indian Gaming Commission regulators, who have raised concerns that outside backers are in line for too much of the casino’s financial benefit,” the Journal said, citing unnamed sources.
The family members receiving shares said they were consultants on the project, and the political figures denied any improper role in helping push the casino approval forward.
$14M sale of 114 acres in Pineville will lead to 340 new homes
A rare 114-acre tract of undeveloped land in Pineville sold last week for $14M to a homebuilder, who is planning 340 houses on the site.
Property records show that Maryland-based DRB Group bought a portion of a parcel on N.C. 51 at the South Carolina line last week.
DRB Group division president Scott Widner told The Ledger over the weekend that the site will contain 340 homes — a mix of single-family detached and attached townhomes — and include an amenity center. The company plans to start grading the site in a few months. In Charlotte, developments with 340 units are a dime a dozen, but that’s a big one for Pineville (population 11,000).
Records from the town of Pineville indicate the town rezoned the land in June. The company told town officials in January that prices in the development, known as Miller Farms, would be about $325,000 to the low $400,000s for townhouses and the low $500,000s for single-family units. —TM
Calling all Ledger members: ‘Beers with the Editors’ 🍺 on Wednesday
We sent out details yesterday to paying Ledger members about a special event we’re holding this Wednesday, Aug. 3, in the Ballantyne area — an informal “Beers with the Editors” gathering.
We’ll buy a round or two and socialize. It’s an informal drop-in. Come hang out with fellow Ledger readers, Ledger editors Tony Mecia and Cristina Bolling and our newest team member, staff reporter Lindsey Banks. The last time we held one of these gatherings, last fall in SouthPark, about 60 Charlotte Ledger members showed up. People who attended included leaders in fields such as banking, the arts, media, law and real estate. Good times!
Can’t make it this time? No worries — we’ll schedule another in a month or so, at a location closer to uptown.
Not a Ledger member? You’re welcome to become one, then attend on Wednesday.
Check out the details in this post (🔒). Cheers!
Will BofA shell out to keep name on stadium? The 20-year naming rights deal for Bank of America Stadium expires in January 2024, and experts say it’s worth more than the $7M a year that Bank of America pays to Tepper Sports & Entertainment. If the bank and Tepper Sports don’t agree to extend the deal, the stadium could have a new name. Neither side is talking publicly. (Biz Journal, subscriber-only)
Covid level rises: Mecklenburg County says Covid numbers now indicate a high level of community transmission, and it is advising residents to get tested before gatherings, to meet outdoors when possible and to wear masks indoors. The latest variant is thought to be more transmissible but less severe. (Observer)
Judges worry about safety: Judges in Mecklenburg County are calling on the state legislature to help protect them from threats. Judge Kimberly Best says she has had a car keyed after making a judicial decision and that she worries about “death, harm to our family, death to our family members, our children as a result of doing our job.” Judges say they’d like more security and for the state to consider a law blocking their personal information from public records. (WSOC)
‘No Fuchs Given’ beer can approved: The N.C. ABC Commission on Friday approved an application from Resident Culture Brewing for a “No Fuchs Given” lager, a commission spokesman told The Ledger. It’s named after Charlotte FC veteran Christian Fuchs. Our Fútbol Friday newsletter reported last week that the brewery announced the beer would be sold at future home games but that state alcohol regulators had not yet approved it.
New fire hydrants praised: A new kind of fire hydrant is being used in Union County, with firefighters praising it as “life-saving.” Known as a “dry hydrant,” it connects to a lake or other body of water instead of relying on pressurized water connections, which can be scarce in rural areas. It allows fire trucks to suck water from a lake and use it at a fire instead of awaiting a tanker truck. (Union County Weekly)
Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Staff writer: Lindsey Banks; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Contributing photographer/videographer: Kevin Young, The 5 and 2 Project