NC JUSTICE NEWS: Meet the Staff: Chris Fitzsimon + Renew Unemployment Benefits + "Home to Me"

January 10, 2013

MEET THE STAFF: Chris Fitzsimon, NC Policy Watch

To say Chris Fitzsimon knows North Carolina politics would be a massive understatement.

A mainstay of the media, politics, and think tank world for more than 20 years, the Director of NC Policy Watch got his start as a political reporter for WRAL-TV. After three years with the station, Chris found himself contemplating where his career might take him next when he received an auspicious phone call from former House Speaker Sen. Dan Blue. Soon Chris found himself in the belly of the beast, working as Blue’s Director of Policy and Communications.

“It was a chance to work for a progressive, bright speaker, and I thought it would be fascinating and would have a lot of impact on peoples’ lives,” Chris said. Eventually however, he realized he was better suited to “work outside the system and try to influence it than working from the inside out.”

He left politics in 1994 to start the Common Sense Foundation, a precursor to NC Policy Watch, which Chris founded in 2004 as an organization aimed at holding policymakers accountable and trying to change how the public debated policy issues. Originally part of the AJ Fletcher Foundation, NC Policy Watch merged with the NC Justice Center in 2007, and the rest, as they say, is policy history. NC Policy Watch celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year, and it has come a long way during its early days when Chris was its only employee. Now the operation has staff in charge of policy, communications, and new media, and three reporters.

“I’m most proud of our reporting,” Chris said, citing investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska’s stories tackling the Department of Health and Human Services and former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque, and Lindsay Wagner's leading coverage of the voucher program and charter school expansion. Sharon McCloskey is the only full-time reporter writing about North Carolina courts, Chris said.

“I don’t think anyone expected that the problems of the mainstream media would be so pronounced and that there would be such a need for progressive writing,” Chris said. “Journalism is the area that I like the most so even though I’m not doing full reporting it feels like it all came full circle.”

Web traffic on NC Policy Watch has exploded beyond Chris’ expectations, as well as the site’s presence in social media, newspapers, radio and TV stations across North Carolina and the country, offering various ways to communicate with North Carolinians on the big issues.

“North Carolina is headed in a dangerous direction. I still believe the battle is making sure people understand what’s happening,” Chris says. “I don’t think the majority of people in North Carolina are happy with the direction the state is going. How do we communicate that to enough people to help change in an era when big money and political ads frame peoples’ opinions?”

Yet Chris is encouraged that the response to these changes has been so dramatic and broad. The 10-year anniversary of NC Policy Watch is certainly something to celebrate and demonstrates that there are still people engaged in the conversation, perhaps more than ever before.

You can help Chris continue his work by making a donation to the North Carolina Justice Center or NC Policy Watch. Click here to make a contribution today.

FEDERAL UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE: Tell NC lawmakers to act today

Although North Carolina's unemployment rate has fallen since last January, unemployment remains high due the state's anemic job creation and a contracting labor force. Many unemployed North Carolinians are still waiting for a jobs recovery to actually happen. Worse yet, many workers are facing further hardship due to looming cuts to unemployment benefits.

More than 1.3 million Americans were abruptly cut off of their federal unemployment benefits last week after attempts to renew the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program were blocked in both the House and Senate. Another 72,000 unemployed jobseekers lost access to those federal benefits this past week, and an additional 72,000 will lose unemployment insurance this week and every week until the program is restored and lost benefits are paid retroactively.

A bi-partisan 3-month reauthorization of federal EUC benefits is set to be the Senate's first order of business. It is co-sponsored by Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Senator Dean Heller (R-Nevada) and would give Congress time to craft the provisions of a full-year renewal. There has never been a more crucial time to reach out to North Carolina's own Senators, Sen. Burr and Sen. Hagan, and ask them to renew federal unemployment insurance and restore this vital lifeline for more than 1.3 million Americans.

The Senate must do the right thing and act responsibly on behalf of the American people and their unemployed constituents who are still waiting on that North Carolina economic comeback touted by lawmakers. Many unemployed North Carolinians and their families will swiftly slide into poverty and homelessness unless these benefits are restored and EUC is renewed.

SCHOOL VOUCHERS: New lawsuit challenges constitutionality of law

Twenty-five plaintiffs from across the state filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court in December, challenging the constitutionality of the school voucher law passed by the General Assembly last session. The lawsuit states private schools that will receive vouchers under the law are not held to the same standards as public schools, and that the state constitution reads public funds "shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools."

The large and diverse group of plaintiffs who joined in the lawsuit, sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and the North Carolina Justice Center, reflects North Carolinians' growing alarm at the legislature's attacks on public education. The plaintiffs include educational leaders such as former Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward and former Shaw University president John Lucas, as well as parents, teachers, members of the clergy, and other community leaders.

Click here to watch a video from the lawsuit press conference, featuring Alice Hart, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who worked for more than 36 years in the North Carolina public schools as a teacher, principal, and administrator.

Hart quoted education reformer John Dewey, saying, "'What the wisest and best parent wants for their child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal is unlovely. Acted upon, it destroys our democracy.' Public schools of this nation, of this state, are the lifeblood of a democracy. The citizens of this state have a moral imperative to fund our schools, to support our teachers, to keep our children at the center of everything we do."

HOME TO ME: New video series highlights the lives of NC immigrants

Too often, immigrant stories are told by others, whether in the media, legislature, history books, or in our common imagination. “Home to Me: Immigrant Stories from NC” is a new multimedia series based on the belief that stories told by immigrants, in their own words, have the power to change our assumptions about who immigrants are and deepen our understanding of the migration experience.

Every month, the NC Justice Center's Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project will release a new story from an individual or family. The series will explore the challenges some immigrants face as North Carolina residents, the importance of immigration reform at the national level as well as fair and reasonable policies locally and statewide, and how North Carolina has become home to thousands of people from all over the world.

The first video features Valeria Sotelo, a student at Salem College. Born in Mexico, Valeria’s DREAMer documentation allows her to be here legally for two more years but she isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to find work once she’s done with school. Valeria wants lawmakers to consider the individuals who call North Carolina their home and have worked tirelessly to achieve their dreams, both for themselves and their families.

LOOKING BACK AT 2013: What are your hopes for North Carolina this year?

We are only a week into 2014 but already new challenges and opportunities are coming into focus, both in Raleigh at the General Assembly and across the state. As we move forward to make North Carolina a better place for all individuals and families, it's important to look back on what transpired in 2013 and how we can, and must, do better for the Tar Heel state. Here's a brief look at some of the year's most significant numbers, images, policies, and battles:

The new year is also a time for resolutions, and we'd like to hear yours. There is much work to be done in 2014 to get North Carolina back on the path to shared prosperity. Take a moment to share your New Year's Resolution for North Carolina and let us know how you would like to engage in our work, whether it is through educating your community about how policy affects our daily lives or contacting a state legislator to urge them to make smart economic choices.

DEFENDERS OF JUSTICE AWARDS: Make your nomination today

The Defenders of Justice (DOJ) Awards are given by the Justice Center to honor individuals or organizations that are making significant contributions in the following areas: Litigation; Research and Policy Development; Public Policy Advocacy and Grassroots Empowerment. Recipients will be honored at our annual event in the spring.

Eligible nominees must be based in North Carolina. If you would like to nominate an individual or organization in one of the following categories, please complete this nomination form and return to Melissa Wiggins at no later than February 1, 2013:

  • Litigation – Representing clients in high-impact cases that protect and expand the rights of low-income groups and individuals.
  • Policy Research and Advocacy - Conducting and disseminating research and development alternatives to existing policy.
  • Legislative Advocacy – Working with traditionally underrepresented populations to define and shape public policies.
  • Grassroots Empowerment - Developing programs designed to help community based organizations or individuals be leaders within their own communities. These organizations or individuals will have examples of programs that have been successful.

Stay tuned for more details on the Defenders of Justice Awards over the next few months.

Research & Publications: