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Swinging away / June 12, 2019
There’s a fantastic NBA Finals series going on between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors, especially if you’re one of those basketball fans who can’t get enough even when play stretches into June. (Hand goes up.) But let’s be real, this is baseball season — bunts, singles, home runs and strikeouts, that sort of thing. Very similar to the column-writing experience. You take your swings, and hope not to miss:

» This week, the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (a.k.a. the Virginia Tobacco Commission) approved a student loan forgiveness program that aims to draw young professionals to Southside and Southwest communities that are steadily losing population. Under the Talent Attraction Program, individuals working in hard-to-fill jobs in K-12 education, health care, engineering and manufacturing can receive up to $24,000 in debt forgiveness over two years, or $48,000 over four years, as long as recipients agree to reside in the tobacco region footprint. The $3 million budget has room for some 200 newcomers.

Setting aside the question of whether program beneficiaries should be required to commit to the area for a longer period of time (I would have been happy to see the two-year residency option shelved altogether, and the four-year option extended), the Talent Attraction Program is a welcome departure from the Tobacco Commission’s usual approach to economic development — invariably, the strategy has been to gin up job growth by shoving money at would-be employers, usually in the form of expensive infrastructure that offers little or no benefit to the broader public. (Among other problems with this approach, many would-be targets of the Tobacco Commission paid little attention to the largesse.) For years, the commission resisted the idea of spending money on education, other than in the areas of job credentialing and workforce training. Nothing against these priorities — they’re important, and we need more of both, not less — but the greater challenge facing Southside and Southwest is overcoming the regions’ historic, chronic underinvestment in education at every level, K-12 most of all. That the Tobacco Commission ignored this reality for all too long as its politico-members chased after new industry photo opps and ribbon-cuttings is one of the group’s greatest failures, then and now.

The Talent Attraction Program is a useful course correction to this lamentable history. (Too bad the initiative comes as the commission embarks on its third decade, after more than a billion dollars spent, and with the money starting to run low.) The commission has done a much better job in recent years focusing on development of human capital, a gauzy term to describe investments in things such as the Southern Virginia Higher Education in South Boston, the Lake Country Advanced Knowledge Center in South Hill, and training programs in career fields from welding to information technology. It would be great to see more involvement at the high school and middle school levels — the Tobacco Commission has funded some secondary education programs, in contrast to the old days when K-12 spending of any kind was verboten — but at least there’s some rethinking going on with a strategy to turn around (or at least stabilize) the economies of rural Southside and Southwest. Even if part of the plan calls for paying for imported talent, in the hope that today’s rentals will become tomorrow’s lasting residents.

» I suppose this counts as a subtraction of talent (at least of a certain kind): On Sunday, one of Virginia’s more flamboyant lawyers, “Magic Mike” Morchower of Richmond, died at age 79 after years of declining health. Many longtime courtroom observers in Southside Virginia had the pleasure of seeing Morchower in his prime as the big-city defense attorney who would take on seemingly any client, no matter how sleazy or vile. Notably, Morchower served as counsel for the defense in possibly Mecklenburg County’s most notorious murder case, the 1994 trial of Stuart Duke, who was convicted of viciously stabbing a man 131 times and sinking the body, bound to heavy wooden railroad ties, in Lake Gaston. (The remains eventually floated to the surface.) I covered Duke’s trial in Circuit Court for The Sun and got to witness the full Morchower effect: the flashy suits, the courtroom histrionics, the I’m-smarter-than-anyone-here attitude — and I gotta say, none of it really landed at the time.

There was a reason for this: The defendant, Stuart Duke — easily the creepiest human being I’ve ever encountered — had apparently taken notice of our crime coverage in the newspaper, so next thing you know, I started getting notes from him from jail. The messages were conspiratorial if not overtly threatening, but believe me, for once, the attention from a reader was unwelcome and extremely unsettling. Apparently I wasn’t the only person that received unsolicited notes from Duke during his time behind bars; suffice it to say, Morchower’s over-the-top lawyering didn’t stand a chance of rising to the top of this reporter’s thoughts after many nights spent wide awake wondering what might happen if, God forbid, Duke actually walked free on the murder charge.

As it turned out, Duke was found guilty and sent away to serve two life sentences for the death of Kenneth Via, the victim he encountered on a summer night at the Tailrace Park below Kerr Dam. It was widely suspected that Duke was responsible for a second, unsolved murder on Lake Gaston, which surely had something to do with his penchant for bizarre behavior — many residents may remember that Duke stalked the area wearing survivalist garb and armed with long knives, not exactly a get-up meant to tamp down on public attention. Anyway, back to the subject of Michael Morchower: Dramatic flourishes aside, he honored the law profession’s obligation to defend all clients, no matter how odious, even if he possessed a special talent for keeping the spotlight on himself. RIP, Magic Mike.

» HITS & MISSES: Thanks to the invaluable SCOTUSblog, which tracks developments at the U.S. Supreme Court, we see where Virginia Uranium v. Warren, the lawsuit by the Pittsylvania-based company to overturn Virginia’s ban on uranium mining, is now the second-oldest undecided case on the court’s docket. (Justices have issued opinions in all but three of the cases heard in late 2018. Oral arguments in Virginia Uranium v. Warren were held back in early November.) There are only two days left on the court calendar in which opinions are set to be released: both Mondays, June 17 and 24. People who know a lot more about the court’s workings advise against reading anything into long waits for a decision, but I dunno: It seems weird we haven’t heard anything yet from the Supremes. There are some hugely important cases left on the docket to be decided, and I can’t help but wonder if the Virginia Uranium case isn’t being dumped into an end-of-session batch of controversial rulings involving more nationally-prominent, headline-grabbing cases. We shall see.

Meantime, the news out of Washington is stupider than usual, especially on the trade and tariff front. (I haven’t written anything about impeachment lately, but here’s a simple question for everyone: If Donald Trump doesn’t deserve to be impeached, then what president ever would be?) This week, Trump announced a deal to drop tariffs against Mexico; the tariffs were supposed to force Mexico into doing more to stem the flow of illegal immigration across the southern border, but it turns out Mexico agreed to take the measures in question many months ago. In other words, the story is a Category 5 hurricane of blowhard-ism.

Meantime, China has once again cut purchases of U.S. soybeans to zero in response to threats from President Art of the Deal.

Are we winning yet?

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