Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How Roanoke went from Train City to Brain City

My latest installment for POLITICO Magazine's "What Works" series is on the remarkable and entirely homegrown transformation of Roanoke, Virginia, which has been getting a lot of attention this week. Here's a snippet:
How did a small city in a disadvantaged region four hours from a major metropolis—one that had seen its signature industries atrophy or depart, that lacked so much as a branch campus of a state university—transform itself from the forgotten stepsister of the Appalachians into a formidable rival to Asheville, North Carolina? The answer has lessons for small, out-of-the-way cities everywhere: Roanoke’s people did it largely by themselves, in small steps and with an eye to assets and alliances in the wider region around them. 
Roanoke, at least, has embraced the story. Today's editorial in the Roanoke Times praised the story for not patronizing the city, which I gather has been a problem with national media treatments in the recent past. "Sometimes we're too close to things to fully appreciate them," the Times writes. "The Politico story does an excellent job piecing together how Roanoke has turned itself around."

And, in a first for the "What Works" series, there was this produced news segment on the story from
one of the local television stations, NBC affiliate WSLS. Thanks, Roanokers, for the endorsements.

This is my seventh full-length "What Works" piece this year. The others were on how Des Moines went from dull to cool; how Manchester, New Hampshire turned its vast 19th century millyard to spinning high-tech gold; on how Denver built its game-changing light rail system, only to discover its most powerful effects were not what they'd expected; how Cincinnati transformed "America's most dangerous neighborhood"; how Philadelphia repurposed a 1200 acre former naval base; and how Milwaukee breathed life back into a legacy industrial district, creating the manufacturing park of the future. In addition -- on the occasion of the Republican National Convention -- I had this shorter story on how Cleveland revamped its long-neglected Public Square.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Talking about Milwaukee's reindustrialization with Wisconsin Public Radio

For August's installment of the POLITICO Magazine "What Works" series, I was in Milwaukee, writing about that city's "re-industrialziation" effort and, in particular, their remaking of a blighted industrial zone into a model for what a 21st century manufacturing park can look like. The Menomonee Valley -- once the sacrifice zone for everything the city didn't want anyplace else -- now combines manufacturing with nature trails, parks, trout fishing, New Urbanism-ish design standards, and a landscape that helps control stormwater runoff and flooding.

I was pleased to be the guest Friday on Wisconsin Public Radio's long format interview program, Central Time. Here's a link to the audio of that online.

I was last on WPR in March, talking about my new book, American Character.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pacific Standard asks: Can fact-checking defeat (LePage's) demagoguery?

A writer from Pacific Standard Magazine gave a call the other day asking about Governor Paul LePage, who is currently in the midst of the greatest of his long chain of self-inflicted scandals, this one over a chain of racist statements regarding drug dealer arrests, violent and profane threats against a lawmaker who called him out for these, and other sundries. The question at hand: can fact-checking -- by the media, or the ACLU or whomever -- put a demagogue in check?

My answer is probably not, at least in regards to such a person's supporters, and I say this from the experience not only of covering Paul LePage, but also of living and reporting in Viktor Orban's Hungary, Franjo Tudjman's Croatia, and the mess that was (and is) post-war Bosnia. Supporters back such people because they believe them to be on "their side" against a wicked internal enemy ("liberals," Serbs, what-have-you), not because the justifications the demagogue comes up with for their policies actually stand up to scrutiny. That's why they've been so dangerous throughout history: they lead people down a fact-free path of resentment, and in some times and places the more polite sectors of society are temperamentally unable to muster a vigorous enough response to the threat until it's too late.

Fortunately the stakes are relatively low in Maine, where the chief executive doesn't have an army, nuclear arsenal, or security state at his or her disposal. Not true of the Presidency of the United States, though, which is why our European allies -- who have far more firsthand experience with demagogues -- are so concerned about Donald Trump.

This long answer isn't in the article, but you can hear takes from the ACLU, Maine progressive activist Mike Tippng and conservative activist Lance Dutson.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Explaining Paul LePage to the wider world in The Guardian

This has been a particularly wild week in Maine politics on account of the cascading, racially-charged and occasionally violent outbursts of our governor, Paul Lepage. National networks have sent teams to the State House in Augusta, my Portland Press Herald colleagues have been interviewed by everyone from the Washington Post to MSNBC to the NBC Nightly News.

Everyone it seems wants to know who this LePage guy is and why he behaves as he does.

My contribution for the day was this explainer-meets-news update for The Guardian, which ran this morning. The paper's subhead: "Who is Governor Paul Lepage, the Donald Trump supporter mulling resignation after racist comments and an obscenity-laced voicemail to a legislator?"

If you're looking for more context, here's a piece I did for Politico in the wee hours after the 2014 election, explaining how he got re-elected; another Politico story from the summer of 2015, which will catch you up on the last time he seriously went off the rails and, for the real scholars out there, my two-part, 10,000-word biography of the governor, which ran in the Portland Phoenix in January 2012. (Thanks to the Fund for Investigative Journalism for supporting that project.)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

UK discovers Republic of Pirates

The media is a fickle beast, and most especially the British print variety, which suddenly last week decided they needed breaking news about Blackbeard, the infamous pirate who died 298 years ago. Thus, out of the blue, some of the revelations my nine year old biography of Blackbeard and his gang, The Republic of Pirates, have been making headlines there.

It started with the Bristol Post, the daily in the city that may have been Blackbeard's port of birth. Someone there discovered the two-year old U.K edition of the book and, therein, that Blackbeard's real name was actually Edward Thatch, rather than Edward Teach as is commonly thought. I had an enjoyable conversation with reporter Tristan Cork, who wrote this piece, "Bristol pirate Blackbeard's real name was NOT Edward Teach, American historian conforms." He includes my full email response to his question on this score, for those wanting the details.

The next day, an editor for, a news and PR site out of Bristol contacted me on behalf of the Daily Mail, which apparently outsources to them the troublesome task of actually reporting their stories. I had a thoughtful interview with one of their reporters about Blackbeard, which informed this Daily Mail story on Thursday. The Mail managed to get my name wrong and the erroneously state that I'm based in New York and the byline for the story is of someone I never spoke to. They go on to, ironically enough, report how "the guidebooks, plaques, posters, and history books have been getting [Blackbeard's] name wrong all this time." Fancy that.

But they do say I'm the "leading authority and writer on the golden age of piracy" and give some nice plugs for the book, so I'm not complaining. After all, "it's absolutely true because I read it in the Daily Mail."

The Sun, not to be left out, ran this story Friday which, umm, "borrows" all of its reporting from the Daily Mail story. The tabloid -- Britain's largest circulation paper -- is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

In any case, I'm pleased the pirates' story is getting attention in the country where many of them were born, and glad that my newspaper career has largely centered on this side of the Atlantic.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Worst year on record for puffin chicks at Gulf of Maine's largest colony

Atlantic puffins have been facing challenges as the Gulf of Maine has continued to warm in the past decade. The birds, which breed in several colonies off the Maine coast, must find fish to bring back to their chicks in their burrows. If the right food can't be found, the chicks will starve.

In yesterday's Portland Press Herald,  reported the sad news that the largest colony in the Gulf of Maine -- at Machias Seal Island -- this summer experienced the worst such food famine in the 31 years researchers have been tracking the birds there. The smaller colonies off midcoast Maine -- including Eastern Egg Rock -- fared better.

For broader context, we covered the puffins' problems in 2012-2015 in "Mayday", the Press Herald's six-part series on climate change in the Gulf of Maine, which was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Maine: Democrats have big fundraising advantage in battle for legislature

Here in Maine, the most important electoral issue to be resolved in November -- aside from who will be the President of the United States -- is which party will control the two houses of the state legislature. Currently Democrats control the House, while Republicans have the Senate and the governor's mansion.

There isn't any polling of state legislative races, so voters usually get to surprise everyone each election day. But for those who can't wait, one can always track the money race. In Saturday's Portland Press Herald I have this story on the fundraising situation for the two parties' primary legislative war chests.

Bottom line: Democrats currently have a roughly two-to-one advantage in this regard, mostly because they've received big contributions from the national party (and the Republicans have not.) Even more interesting for politicos is where the money comes from and, perhaps, who the respective parties owe one to.

I last wrote about Maine political finance last month, with this Press Herald story on the "leadership PACs" of Maine legislators and who gives to them.