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Legislators to meet for long session
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HIGH POINT — Money and maps.

Those are the two issues expected to dominate the 2021 session of the N.C. General Assembly as legislators convene this week.

Representatives and senators will contend with the possible constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic on the state budget and craft new legislative and congressional districts that will guide elections through the decade.

The 120 members of the House and 50 members of the Senate will convene for the new session at noon Wednesday at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh. The outcomes of last fall’s general election left the political landscape the same — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will negotiate with a General Assembly in which both chambers are controlled by Republicans.

One overriding issue during what’s called the long session of the legislature focuses on the pandemic possibly sapping state revenues at the same time that countering COVID-19 brings greater demand for resources.

“The budget will dominate the main legislative session this year,” said John Dinan, professor of political science at Wake Forest University.

Legislators face a July 1 deadline to pass a balanced budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year.

So far, North Carolina revenues remain relatively stable compared to the decline in other states, Dinan told The High Point Enterprise.

“Still, North Carolina legislators will be aware of the continuing fiscal challenges posed by COVID,” he said.

The governor and legislative leaders also will keep pressing Congress and the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden to continue pandemic relief to state governments, the professor said.

Another key issue with the budget is whether the second-term Democratic governor and GOP legislative leaders can find common ground on a spending plan.

“The main issue preventing a state budget from being passed two years ago — there were other issues such as the amount of teacher salary increases and increased spending on school construction — was the governor’s insistence that the budget include plans for expanding Medicaid and legislative leaders’ strong opposition to Medicaid expansion, especially in the Senate,” Dinan said. “Governor Cooper took his case to voters in 2020 and won reelection. But Republican legislators also took their case to voters in 2020 and gained four seats in the House and lost only one seat in the Senate.”

However, GOP legislators still lack the so-called “super-majorities” in both chambers to override vetoes of the governor on a strict party-line vote, the professor said.

“If Medicaid expansion were separated from the budget debate, it is highly likely that a budget deal could be reached this year, by splitting the difference between the parties on issues such as teacher pay and school construction funding,” Dinan said. “But as long as Medicaid expansion remains part of the budget debate, we may be in for still another two years without seeing a budget passed.”

Another critical issue for the General Assembly centers on redistricting, which will involve redrawing state legislative and congressional district lines for elections starting in 2022 and lasting through the decade. The lines will be drawn based on the results of the 2020 census, and political observers say North Carolina’s population growth during the last 10 years means there’s a good chance the state will pick up a 14th U.S. House district.

Republican legislative leaders will have broad authority on the maps since redistricting plans aren’t subject to the governor’s veto. But Republicans are coming off a previous decade where numerous plans they crafted for the General Assembly and Congress were invalidated by state and federal courts for gerrymandering or racial bias.

Dinan told The Enterprise it’s virtually certain that legal challenges will be made against the new legislative and congressional maps.

Legislators will try to take steps to avoid their work being overturned by the courts, the professor said. The GOP General Assembly leadership is likely to tout “the transparency of the process” and set “clear criteria for how the maps are drawn,” Dinan said.

Another key issue related to the pandemic that could emerge during the long session involves the authority over emergency orders that the governor has issued since the outset of the crisis this past March.

“There is almost certain to be a lot of discussion and a number of bills introduced about the emergency management act and the relative power of the governor, Council of State and legislature in decision-making during emergencies,” Dinan told The Enterprise. “The governor is almost certain to veto any bills that would try to limit gubernatorial power during emergencies. But there will be a lot of discussion this year in North Carolina, as in other states, about what is the proper balance of power between the governor and other branches in extended emergency situations such as this one.”

pjohnson@hpenews.com | 336-888-3528 | @HPEpaul

Key city positions to remain interim
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HIGH POINT — City officials don’t plan to appoint permanent leaders for key departments such as police and economic development until a new chief executive is on board.

The city began 2021 with one vacancy and three interim members of its executive team, including Randy McCaslin, who has held the city manager position on a temporary basis since May 2020.

He plans to retire after the City Council hires his successor, presumably at some point this year.

McCaslin said the city is close to naming a permanent director for one department — Engineering Services — but he’ll defer to the next manager to select a police chief and economic development director.

He praised the interim heads of both departments — Travis Stroud and Sandy Dunbeck, respectively — but said he felt it was appropriate to give the new manager an opportunity to evaluate both positions.

“I told council early on that I felt like the police chief was one of those positions that the permanent manager should (appoint),” McCaslin said. “Travis and I discussed that and he was in agreement, and council was in agreement.”

McCaslin appointed Stroud, a 25-year veteran of the High Point Police Department, as interim chief following Ken Shultz’s retirement Aug. 1.

“He’s doing a tremendous job,” McCaslin said of Stroud. “I’m very happy that he was available to take over the interim position and very happy with his performance thus far.”

He named Dunbeck interim director of the High Point Economic Development Corp., replacing longtime EDC President Loren Hill, who retired Jan. 1.

Dunbeck has been with the EDC for 14 years, most recently as executive vice president.

“More than likely, that will remain an interim position until the new manager is on board,” McCaslin said. “Sandy has been here, she knows the operation. We fully expect things to continue as normal out of that department. They do a tremendous job and have had great successes, and we expect that to continue.”

Council members said they support McCaslin’s approach with both jobs.

“While I believe both of them are excellent and deserve the opportunity to apply for the job if they wish, I think it’s a good decision for (McCaslin) to allow the new manager to come in and have the option of continuing with (Stroud and Dunbeck) or going in a different direction,” said Councilman Michael Holmes. “It would be similar to a new head coach coming on and being able to bring their coaching staff along with them.”

Councilman Victor Jones pointed out that, under High Point’s charter, it’s the job of the manager — not the council — to hire most senior staff.

“I wouldn’t be against it if Randy said, ‘Here’s our new economic developer and our new police chief,’ but that’s not my call; that’s his call,” Jones said. “We just select the city manager, the attorney and the clerk. So ultimately, I’ve got to defer to (McCaslin), who’s been working in public service for 40 years.”

McCaslin said Friday that the city has completed interviews for the Engineering Services Department director position, and that an offer is being made to a preferred candidate.

“We hope to have someone hired the first part of (this) week,” he said.

The department has been without a permanent director since the July 2019 retirement of Keith Pugh. Terry Kuneff served as interim director from then until he retired Jan. 1.

The council is using executive search firm The Mercer Group to identify candidates for city manager.

Holmes said the consultant is gathering information from council members about the qualities they’re looking for in a manager before going nationwide with the search.

He said he believes the council should take as long as necessary to find the right person and he does not have a goal in mind as to when this should be.

“I would love to see someone who has a progressive mindset on how to grow a city and who has a background in people development,” he said.

pkimbrough@hpenews.com | 336-888-3531

Gunshot killed his lover, but was it really an accident?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story in a two-part High Point Confidential series.


It ended with a kiss

The newspapers from 60-plus years ago don’t tell us much about the complicated relationship between James Andrew Baker and his lover, Viola Lankford Parker, but we know it ended with a kiss.

Well, a kiss and a shotgun blast through the heart — that’s why the young couple’s tragic love story was in the papers to begin with. But how did it happen? And why?

The year was 1959, and Baker and Parker had been living together as man and wife in rural Davidson County, though they weren’t actually married. Baker, a 27-year-old sawmill worker and former Thomasville taxi driver, was estranged from his wife, who had left him and was seeking a divorce. He had an illegitimate son with another woman.

Parker, Baker’s 24-year-old paramour, who was also from Thomasville, had left her husband, who happened to be more than 30 years her senior. Furthermore, Parker was the mother of a young son — from a previous marriage, before she became a Parker.

Hey, we told you it was complicated.

The affair came to its bloody end on Aug. 31, 1959, a rainy Monday when Baker skipped work because of the weather. Instead, he and his sweetheart went frog-hunting at a woodland pond a few miles north of Denton, taking along a .22-caliber rifle Baker had borrowed from an acquaintance.

Unfortunately, the frogs wouldn’t be the only victims that day. Shortly after 12:30 that afternoon, Viola Parker died when a bullet from that .22 rifle pierced her heart, and Baker was left holding the smoking gun.

So what happened? Had Baker murdered his young lover, or was this a tragic accident? Well, that depends on whose version of the story you believe.

For his part, a highly distraught Baker told sheriff’s deputies an admittedly dubious story that went something like this:

He and his girlfriend had gone frog-hunting that morning around 10. When they took a break, Baker sat down on a tree stump and had the rifle lying across his knees. Parker sat against a tree about three feet away. We don’t know if they were conversing or sitting quietly.

After a few minutes, when a hawk flew overhead and perched in a nearby tree, Baker reached for the rifle to try and shoot it. At that very moment, Parker leaned over to kiss her boyfriend, unaware that he was reaching for the gun. Just as she wrapped her arms around Baker to kiss him, the rifle accidentally discharged, firing a bullet into her chest and straight through her heart. She weakly spoke her boyfriend’s name, then collapsed and died.

Baker, horrified by what he’d done, tried to carry the young woman out of the woods to the house where they’d been living with a relative — about half a mile away — but he couldn’t make it more than a few yards. So he placed Parker’s body back on the ground, ran to the house, and drove frantically to Denton to report what had happened. Denton police, in turn, called the Davidson’s County Sheriff’s Department, and deputies met Baker back at the house, where he led them to the scene and repeated his story.

“I loved her, and I didn’t mean to do it, but I shot her,” Baker tearfully confessed to the deputies.

As you can imagine, Baker’s juicy tale titillated the press with its sordid details of illicit love, an errant gunshot — or was it? — and that final fateful kiss. Newspapers across the state, including The High Point Enterprise, couldn’t resist referring to the case as the “kiss of death” slaying.

As suspicious as Baker’s story sounded, it was little surprise when he was locked up in the Lexington Jail, charged with first-degree murder. Despite his tears, neither the Davidson County sheriff nor the district attorney had believed him.

But the question was, would a jury?

jtomlin@hpenews.com | 336-888-3579

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part two of “The Kiss of Death” will be published in Tuesday’s High Point Enterprise.