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Appeals Court Says North Carolina Ultrasound Abortion Provision Unconstitutional

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (TNS)

RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal appeals court on Monday ruled North Carolina’s requirement that women seeking abortions be shown ultrasound images of the fetus is unconstitutional.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia was written by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. The ruling strongly described the requirement as forced government speech.

“Transforming the physician into the mouthpiece of the state undermines the trust that is necessary for facilitating healthy doctor-patient relationships and, through them, successful treatment outcomes,” Wilkinson wrote.

The judge said North Carolina’s law was almost unprecedented in its inference with doctors’ free speech, while threatening to harm women’s psychological health.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed the law in 2011, including a provision that required women be shown an ultrasound image at least four hours before an abortion, and that a medical provider describe the image to them. That requirement has never gone into effect, because it was immediately challenged in a lawsuit filed by several doctors and abortion clinic owners.

“We’re thrilled that the appellate court rejected this unconscionable attempt to intrude on the doctor-patient relationship,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “Exam rooms are no place for propaganda and doctors should never be forced to serve as mouthpieces for politicians who wish to shame and demean women.”

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, issued this statement:

“Abortion is a life-altering decision for a woman and a life-ending decision for her unborn child. The truth is that more than 70 percent of women change their minds about abortion once they see their child on an ultrasound screen. The abortion industry wants to keep women from receiving this scientific information, so they can keep lying to women about the fact that abortion kills their unborn child. The 4th Circuit’s decision has placed profit above truth and science.”

Chief Judge William B. Traxler Jr. and Judge Allyson K. Duncan were also on the panel.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles ruled in January that the provision of the “Women’s Right To Know Act” was overly broad and a violation of free speech.

Photo: Mr T in DC via Flickr

Aiken Maintains Lead; Is Official Democratic Nominee For Congress

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Clay Aiken will be the Democratic nominee facing Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

The final canvassing of votes — a tally of Election Day plus absentee and provisional ballots in nine counties — came the day after runner-up Keith Crisco died in a fall at his home in Asheboro.

If Tuesday’s canvass had narrowed the difference between Aiken and Crisco to no more than 1 percent of the total votes cast or brought Aiken’s total to under 40 percent, Crisco could have called for a recount had he lived.

The margin didn’t narrow. In fact, Aiken gained 21 votes on Crisco and received 40.86 percent of the vote.

But Crisco’s death made the final outcome irrelevant.

State elections officials said the situation was highly unusual. The law is clear on what happens if a candidate dies between filing for office and the primary election; and it covers what happens if a candidate dies after the primary but before the general election.

But this narrow area where the deceased candidate was in between is something state law doesn’t directly address. The law requires the runner-up to call for a recount, which would not have been possible in this case.

Crisco had realized the outstanding ballots were not going to change the outcome of the election, and he planned on conceding to Aiken on Tuesday morning, before canvassing began.

The state Board of Elections will certify the results of the election on May 22.

Photo: UNICEF up close via Flickr

Outcome Of North Carolina Primary Between Crisco, Aiken May Not Be Known For Days

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Keith Crisco and Clay Aiken kept low profiles Wednesday, the day after the would-be Democratic nominees for a congressional seat from North Carolina were stuck in a contest too close to call.

The outcome is on hold until provisional and absentee ballots can be counted. It could be a week or more before the final results are in.

At the end of Tuesday’s voting, Aiken had received 369 votes more than Crisco in the 2nd Congressional District primary. With 276 outstanding ballots — 190 absentee and 86 provisional — that won’t change Aiken’s position. But it could be enough to trigger a recount.

As a result, even though he is trailing, Crisco says he isn’t giving up.

“This election is still very tight,” Crisco said in a statement his campaign released. “I want the elections officials to have an opportunity to tally the votes and provide a report on their canvass activities to allow all the campaigns a chance to see the final numbers. This has been a great campaign and I am very appreciative of my supporters and the hard work that the county boards of elections are doing at this time.”

Aiken’s campaign also released a statement thanking supporters and expressing optimism that he would be the party’s nominee in the general election.

“This was a very close contest, and as we continue to count the votes, we are more and more excited about our campaign’s ability to move forward and be victorious in November,” Aiken said in the statement.

The victor will face U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers in the general election in November. She defeated GOP challenger Frank Roche by taking nearly 59 percent of the vote.

The election results are not final until each county has canvassed its results and certified them to the state. Then, if the difference between the votes the two candidates received is no more than 1 percent, Crisco could demand a recount. The margin now is slightly more than 1 percent.

If the margin narrows sufficiently, Crisco would have until 5 p.m. on the first business day after canvassing to demand a recount, which would be next Wednesday.

Crisco’s staffers said they will be checking in with county elections boards to see if there are any concerns. A spokesman for Crisco said the campaign knew of one report of a precinct that had equipment problems.

There are a number of approaching deadlines: Thursday is the cutoff point to file a formal protest alleging problems with how the voting was conducted. Friday is the deadline for civilian absentee ballots to arrive by mail, and Monday is the deadline for military and overseas ballots. Canvassing takes place on Tuesday.

The final count in Cumberland County, home to Fort Bragg and Pope Army Airfield, could be affected by military ballots. Aiken had just a 56-vote edge over Crisco in that county. Third-place finisher Toni Morris trailed Aiken by 591 votes in Cumberland. There were 6,367 votes cast in that county in the Democratic primary.

Recounts do not generally change the outcome of elections.

A recent recount occurred in 2012, when U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre held a 507-vote lead in the general election over then-state Sen. David Rouzer. A count of provisional ballots increased McIntyre’s lead, which then only diminished by one vote in the recount.

There were nearly 337,000 votes cast in that election. McIntyre didn’t run for re-election this year, and on Tuesday, Rouzer won the GOP primary for the seat, which stretches from Johnston County to the coast.

In Tuesday’s 2nd Congressional District primary, 28,492 votes have been counted. Aiken took about 41 percent of that; Crisco, 40 percent; and Morris, 20 percent.

Late Tuesday night, Aiken addressed supporters at a golf club in Holly Springs, telling them he was optimistic. But he stopped short of declaring victory.

“We are feeling incredibly comfortable tonight,” Aiken said. “We are comfortable not only with the results we’ve seen this evening, we are not only comfortable with how we’ll feel tomorrow morning, but more than anything we’re comfortable with the way this campaign was run.”

He then introduced what he said would be the theme song taking his campaign into the November election against Ellmers: An aide played a recording of the 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee.”

The 2nd Congressional District was shaped to favor Republican candidates, and Ellmers, who is in her second term, is considered to have a firm hold on the seat. The district includes all or parts of nine counties, looping from Randolph County in the west down to Cumberland County and up into Wake County.

Ellmers had the strongest support in Tuesday’s voting in Harnett, Lee, Chatham and Cumberland counties. Crisco performed strongest in Randolph County, where he lives, and also won over Alamance, Moore, Lee and Harnett counties. Aiken’s strongest showing was in Wake County, and he drew a lot of support in Chatham and Cumberland.

Morris, who also ran for the seat in 2010 when there was a lot less interest in the race, was more of a factor than anticipated. She almost drew enough votes to keep Aiken below the 40 percent threshold, which would have forced a runoff in July. If the final count ends up giving Morris many more votes, it’s possible, but not likely, that could force a runoff between Aiken and Crisco.

Morris won Hoke County, although that only brought her 631 votes. Aiken’s success in the heavier-populated Wake and Cumberland helped push him into the lead.

Crisco spent more than three times what Aiken did, more than $750,000 — most of which he loaned to his own campaign. The money bought TV ads, mailers and yard signs — far more than what Aiken employed. Aiken’s strategists said they were banking on the former “American Idol” runner-up’s name recognition, and Aiken has said he intended to save his money for the general election.

Photo via Flickr

Outcome Of Clay Aiken Primary Race May Be A Ways Off

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

RALEIGH, NC — The outcome of the Democratic primary contest between Keith Crisco and Clay Aiken may not be known until next week or later.

The results of Tuesday night’s count show Aiken received 369 more votes than Crisco in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District race.

Wednesday morning, Crisco said he wasn’t giving up.

Provisional and absentee ballots received by the deadline have not been counted. And the election results are not final until each county has canvassed their results and certified them to the state. Canvassing begins Tuesday.

“This election is still very tight,” Crisco said in the statement. “I want the elections’ officials to have an opportunity to tally the votes and provide a report on their canvass activities to allow all the campaigns a chance to see the final numbers.

“This has been a great campaign and I am very appreciative of my supporters and the hard work that the county boards of elections are doing at this time.”

Crisco’s staffers will be monitoring county elections boards and monitoring the canvassing.

Crisco cannot call for a recount until all votes are certified and the difference between his and Aiken’s votes is no more than 1 percent. Currently, Aiken’s margin stands at 1.29 percent — barely too much for a recount.

Recounts do not generally change the outcome of elections.

A recent recount occurred in 2012, when U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre held a 507-vote lead in the general election over then state Sen. David Rouzer. A count of provisional ballots increased McIntyre’s lead, which then only diminished by one vote in the recount.

There were nearly 337,000 votes cast in that election. McIntyre didn’t run for re-election this year, and on Tuesday Rouzer won the GOP primary for the seat, which stretches from Johnston County to the coast.

In Tuesday’s 2nd Congressional District primary, 28,492 votes have been counted. Aiken took about 41 percent of that, Crisco 40 percent and Toni Morris received 20 percent.

At an election night event at an Asheboro wine and beer shop on Tuesday, Crisco declared the contest too close to call and went home for the night. Problems with the state Board of Elections web-posted results made the outcome of the race uncertain until very late.

Aiken waited until around 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday to tell supporters gathered at a golf club in Holly Springs, broadcast on television, that he was optimistic — although he stopped short of declaring victory.

“We are feeling incredibly comfortable tonight,” Aiken said. “We are comfortable not only with the results we’ve seen this evening, we are not only comfortable with how we’ll feel tomorrow morning, but more than anything we’re comfortable with the way this campaign was run.”

He then introduced what he said would be the theme song taking his campaign into the November election against U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers: An aide played a recording of the 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee.”

Photo: UNICEF up close via Flickr

Duke Energy Cited For Illegally Pumping Coal-Ash Water Into Cape Fear River

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Duke Energy’s pumping of two coal-ash ponds for maintenance work at its Chatham County plant — discovered last week by environmentalists and regulators — illegally put 61 million gallons of wastewater into the Cape Fear River over the past several months.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Thursday notified the utility the pumping violated its wastewater permit, which subjects it to fines of up to $25,000 a day.

More bad news came from the closed Cape Fear Steam Station before the day was over: Late in the afternoon, Duke Energy reported finding a crack in the earthen dam on one of the site’s coal ash lagoons. State dam safety inspectors headed to the plant Thursday evening, but said initial reports indicated it wasn’t in imminent danger of failing.

Meanwhile, a Wake County Superior Court judge denied Duke Energy’s request to postpone a ruling that would require the utility to immediately get rid of the toxins leaking from its coal ash plants in North Carolina.

DENR says it has notified downstream cities of the illegal discharge from the pumping into the Cape Fear River, but so far has not heard of any problems with water quality. The river provides drinking water for Sanford, Dunn, Fayetteville and other communities.

The 61 million gallons, pumped into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, is more than twice the size of the Feb. 2 Dan River spill, but it happened over several months instead of days, and it didn’t include the 39,000 tons of coal-ash sludge that accompanied the disaster in Rockingham County.

The Cape Fear plant in Moncure, which is the coal-ash facility closest to the Triangle, operated for 89 years until it was closed in 2012. It has five lagoons where it stores the ash, which is a byproduct of coal burned for electricity, mixed with water.

On March 10, the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance flew a plane over the site and spotted two pumps at two of the ponds. The next day four inspectors from the state Division of Water Resources visited the plant as part of a week set aside to conduct in-depth inspections of all the state’s coal ash sites, and found the pumps inactive.

A spokeswoman for Duke Energy told The News & Observer on Monday that the company informed DENR in August that it would begin lowering water levels for maintenance that began last fall. On Thursday, DENR said a company official had called in August to inform it of the routine work.

But the pumping “far exceeded what would reasonably be considered routine maintenance,” Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, said in a statement announcing the violation.

The company had lowered the water level to work on risers, which are vertical spillway pipes. But workers bypassed the risers and diverted the wastewater into a canal, accelerating the draw-down of the water. That prevented the water from being treated as it came out too fast for the heavier ash to settle at the bottom of the pond.

An inspector was last at the plant in December and noticed parts of disconnected pumping equipment next to one of the ponds. A Duke employee told the inspector about the planned maintenance but didn’t mention pumping had already been going on for months. Regulators have now inspected the company’s pumping logs and found that one pond was periodically pumped during the last four months of 2013, and the other pond every month this year.

Duke Energy didn’t comment on Thursday’s developments. It has 30 days to respond to the notice of violation by answering detailed questions DENR submitted in writing.

Donna Lisenby from Waterkeepers Alliance said Thursday she was glad DENR charged the utility with violations, but she remains convinced environmentalists’ monitoring of the Cape Fear plant is what prodded regulators to act.

“Duke thought no one would catch them or challenge them,” Lisenby said. “Well, they didn’t realize that Waterkeeper Alliance and the Cape Fear Riverkeeper were watching, and we aren’t afraid to hold them accountable to the law.”

The crack in the earthen dam at one of the ponds discovered on Thursday comes after Waterkeeper Alliance earlier this month pointed out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year rated the five lagoons’ structures as “poor.” DENR reported to the EPA in September that the dams were not in bad enough shape to warrant repairs.

No homes or roads are near the dam, which sits about 760 feet from a canal that eventually flows into the Cape Fear River.

Thursday night North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory stepped up his criticism of his former employer.

“This is the latest in a series of troubling incidents at Duke Energy facilities over the past few months, and it’s time for Duke Energy to come out of the shadows and to publicly address this growing problem,” McCrory said.

“Initial reports show that the dam does not appear to be in imminent danger of failure. We are going to continue to enforce the law and take appropriate action to address this situation. We need an explanation from Duke Energy as soon as possible — not only to us, but to the people of North Carolina.”

Photo via Wikimedia

Clay Aiken Makes It Official: He Will Run For Congress

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Singer Clay Aiken will officially announce his campaign for Congress on Wednesday, injecting a nationally known personality into what has been a quiet Democratic primary to produce a challenger to U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers.

Aiken’s decision has already reshaped the field. Houston Barnes, a young attorney who lives in Durham, plans to announce Wednesday that he is withdrawing from the race and supporting Aiken.

That leaves former state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco of Asheboro and licensed professional counselor Toni Morris of Fayetteville as Aiken’s primary opponents.

In a video that will be posted online Wednesday, and in an interview with The News & Observer on Tuesday in Raleigh, Aiken portrays himself as someone who is not a politician. He emphasizes his personal story — growing up in a home torn apart by domestic violence — and says it inspired him to be a voice for the powerless.

Aiken graduated from the University of North Carolina Charlotte in 2003 with a degree in special education.

He began on that path by teaching special education students in Wake County and — after a detour in the entertainment world — working with UNICEF. After months of exploring a congressional bid, he recently decided to put his entertainment career on hold and run.

“I saw this as the best place I could serve because I think Washington, in general, is dysfunctional,” Aiken said. “I think it’s high time we put people in Congress who were not beholden to their party and not beholden to anything but the people who they live around and grew up around, in my case.”

Aiken, 35, said jobs and the economy will be important campaign themes; specifically, emphasizing education as a way to get people back to work, including through adult job retraining programs.

He said he would press Ellmers to explain her voting record that cut funding for military families.

“She didn’t have to run on her record last time,” Aiken said. “I plan on changing that. I want her to have to talk about and defend some of the things she’s done to people in this district.”

Aiken said he planned to raise “the vast majority” of his campaign funds from supporters but said he might have to use some of his own money. He still retains a fanatical fan base — known as Claymates — which in recent weeks has promoted his candidacy through an online petition.

A little more than a decade ago, Aiken, who grew up in Wake County, was quietly working on a college degree in special education and working at a YMCA in North Raleigh, with a singing hobby on the side. That changed dramatically in 2003, when he became a contestant on the TV show “American Idol.”

That led to several best-selling albums, other TV appearances and a role in the Broadway play “Spamalot.” He lives in a $2 million home he had built in a rural corner of the 2nd Congressional District near the Wake, Durham and Chatham county lines.

His entertainment career has made him wealthy, but he has also used the money to establish a $2 million foundation to help children with disabilities.

Over the years, he has weighed in on a number of controversial local issues, ranging from the Wake County school board’s opposition to busing for diversity to North Carolina’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Aiken in 2008 publicly declared that he was gay; he has a partner, and they have a young son who was born through in-vitro fertilization.

Aiken said Tuesday that he doesn’t think being gay will be an issue with voters.

“People care about jobs, they care about the economy, they care about being able to pay for college,” he said. “That (his sexuality) is an issue that doesn’t affect many people in this district or this state.”

But it has already become an issue in the election. Ellmers’ campaign staff on Tuesday sized up the potential Democratic field this way:

“It speaks volumes to the state of the N.C. Democratic Party that the primary is shaping up to be a choice between the failed Perdue Administration’s Keith Crisco, a lawyer who doesn’t even live in the district, an activist who’s (sic) own party rejected her in the last democrat primary —– and Aiken, a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford,” spokeswoman Jessica Wood wrote in an email. “Renee best represents the values of the voters in the 2nd District and remains focused on fighting for their families.”

Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said Aiken will have a hard time winning in the conservative district, and because of that, some Democrats think he’s the wrong candidate.

“He’s going to have to pass the test of people asking him, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you serious? Are you really invested in this area?’ Those questions are going to have to be answered,” Taylor said.

The district, which has been redrawn since Ellmers’ election, may be conservative, but it is evenly split along party lines, according to the latest analysis from the State Board of Elections: 36 percent Democratic, 36 percent Republican but with 28 percent unaffiliated. Unaffiliated voters choose which primary to vote in.

But Barnes, who is dropping out of the race, says that Ellmers is vulnerable and that Aiken is the best Democrat for the job.

Barnes, 31, said Tuesday that Aiken’s campaign consultants approached him a few weeks ago and convinced him the party’s best shot was to try to avoid a bruising primary and marshal forces against Ellmers. He said he would appear with Aiken in the coming weeks.

Neither Crisco nor Morris could be reached for comment on what Aiken’s entry into the race would mean for them.

Ellmers faces her own opposition in the primary, from investor and radio talk show host Frank Roche of Cary, who is challenging her commitment to the right. He accuses her of being part of the establishment.

Roche also says Ellmers is vulnerable and told an audience in Pinehurst last month that’s why so many Democrats have jumped into the race. When a man in the audience asked Roche if he could beat Aiken, the question drew laughs, but Roche said he considered Aiken a serious-minded person with a real shot at winning the primary.

“My suspicion is if he gets in the race, he’s going to win that primary,” Roche said. “He’ll spend a lot of money, and name recognition is critical.”

Roche added that he was confident he could, in fact, beat Aiken in the general election.

Aiken and Ellmers have already tangled. Earlier this week, reacting to news that Aiken was considering entering the race, Ellmers told a Washington radio station, “Apparently his performing career isn’t going so well, and he’s bored.” She then added that he was only the runner-up on “American Idol.”

Aiken, asked about her remarks, said he has spent the past decade not responding to criticism. But on Tuesday, he couldn’t resist.

“I will say it’s pretty sad that I didn’t even get a chance to get into the race before the mud started being thrown around,” Aiken said. “That’s not the kind of campaign I’m going to run. Maybe I should be flattered that she’s worried enough she thinks she needs to stomp me down.”

Photo: UNICEF up close via Flickr