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Another chapter ends as 2015 begins

2014_1ThomTILLIS_ RS

Thom Tillis is N.C.’s new senator. He unseated Sen. Kay Hagan, as the GOP seized the U.S. Senate 54-46. Tillis is shown campaigning in Hendersonville.

GOP election triumph, North Korean cyber hack attack among 2014 events that will shape the New Year

The GOP went from U.S. Senate minority party to a 54-46 majority by winning nine seats in the mid-term election November, expanded its hold on the House, and won several governor seats. In a marquee match, State House Speaker Thom Tillis unseated Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). Newly-elected Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is the chamber’s first female combat vet. She related her castrating hogs as a farm youth to restraining big spenders in D.C. — “let’s make them squeal.”

Locally, many incumbents were reelected. Voters put in Bill Lapsley in place of more conservative Larry Young, via the commissioners’ GOP primary.

Since mid-terms, Democrat Pres. Barack Obama unleashed executive orders exceeding the usual executive operations in scope, on immigration and other policies. He allowed about 4 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers to legally remain in the U.S., if they pay taxes and have lived here year-round for the last five years. Supposedly they cannot join the Affordable Care Act.

Seventeen states sued him over the constitutionality of such orders. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said such unilateral actions “poison the will” of bi-partisan cooperation and separation of powers. Another possible shutdown looms, over such issues as national health care and immigration.

Obama also normalized diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba after a 53-year lapse, by reopening the embassy there. Congress’ approval is needed to officially restore full relations. Impact of economic sanctions on Cuba are debated. Few freedoms for Cubans resulted. But many Cuban-Americans say removing sanctions legitimizes the Castro brothers’ tyranny.

The American economy generally improved, by year’s end. Locally, Sierra Nevada just announced it will expand craft beer production in the new year.

Nationally, those dedicating money to invest in the stock market largely flourished. The Standard & Poor 500 index set all-time highs more than 50 times, tripling over a five-year recovery and rising 13 percent in this year. Risk-reward appeals, with most savings interest a fraction of a percent. The 30-company Dow topped 18,000 this month.

Unemployment dipped, though largely from many giving up on seeking jobs or better ones. The deadly ebola virus was apparently contained in the U.S.

Race relations strained over a few police cases this summer. More than one evidently sparked after a large suspect initiated violence with white officers, such as the spotlit case of teen Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. Police claim Brown attacked an officer in his car and tried to take the cop’s gun, forcing self-defense.

Eric Garner on Staten Island, N.Y. was unarmed, but allegedly resisted arrest. That facet was eclipsed by the tragic aftermath — police subduing him with a choke hold that may have triggered his fatal heart attack. Garner’s last words “I Can’t Breathe!” was the title of a revolt that swelled nationwide, and was paraded by some black pro athletes. Then on Dec. 20, Ismaaiyl Brinsley murdered two New York City policemen (one Latino, the other Asian) — allegedly in part due to his anti-police fury.

News was great for motorists and consumers this year. Gasoline prices dropped a full dollar from 2013 to $2.32 a gallon nationally, according to AAA. This was as crude oil value dropped in half from its peak this year. The Saudis boosted the supply, in a suspected try to stymie competitors. This cut price, along with less demand from struggling European and Asian. New auto sales rebounded in the U.S. Low oil prices gutted income for such U.S. adversaries as Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and ISIS terrorists who smuggled oil across Iraqi borders.

The Cold War re-chilled as expansionist Russian leader Vladimir Putin had Crimea annexed in March. The peninsula off the Black Sea in southern Ukraine was switched from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, by Nikita Khrushchev, and still is heavily Russian in ethnicity. This year Crimean voters approved secession from Ukraine, but amidst pressure from Russian tanks and troops. Russian-backed separatists mobilized in eastern Ukraine.

Terrorism emerged in two forms. The militant jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) broadcasts its beheadings. This highly-armed and trained force formed in Syria, surged into much of Iraq in 2014 and captured millions in gold to buy more weapons. “They have rampaged across cities and villages — killing innocent, unarmed civilians,” Pres. Obama declared. ISIS is an extreme splinter of al-Qaeda. It features Sunnis upset that rival Shiites dominated Iraq’s coalition government after the U.S. withdrew forces.

Another rising threat is from cyber-terrorism. Ukrainian-based hackers accessed consumer credit card accounts in the U.S. Early this year, several Chinese military officials were charged by the Justice Department of hacking into companies in the U.S. This is blamed for Chinese manufacturers stealing product plans, and duplicating them cheaper.

Now, North Koreans are implicated as hackers who wiped out Sony hard drives, posted Sony’s strategic plans, and exposed workers’ medical records. These cyber-terrorists “caused a lot of damage,” Pres. Obama said in a press conference. He vowed “we will respond proportionately.”

This was as new group Guardians of Peace demanded Sony pull “The Interview” comedy that reportedly infuriated North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The plot is about two bumbling civilian reporters (played by Seth Rogen and James Franco) recruited to kill the leader they are to interview.

After the cyber-attacks and threats of killing movie-goers in cinemas, many movie chains backed down and Sony delayed the release. Pres. Obama chastised, “Do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”

Sony relented. Now, some smaller movie chains and online outlets are showing the movie. But it lacks wide cinematic release.

Mexico was a thorn, in imprisoning Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi for seven months on apparently bogus weapons charges until pressured to release him. A local twist was when HonorAir founder Jeff Miller hosted the marine’s mother, Jill Tahmooressi, in an area stop to raise money for the legal defense.

Park, Upward Road; Sports

Meanwhile, locally, there is a new look to the East Flat Rock-Flat Rock area. The Park at Flat Rock’s 1.36-mile fitness trail opened this spring. The 66-acre park was Highland Lake Golf Club. The Village of Flat Rock bought it, after Henderson County backed out following opposition to a soccer complex. After surveying its residents, the village prioritized trails. Its strict park rules, unveiled days ago, aim to keep the park quiet for users and unobtrusive for neighbors.

The nearby Upward Road Corridor by I-26 leads to the park. It was widened, from two to four lanes with a median. The interstate bridge was expanded. The four-year, 2.8-mile project was finished in July. Some motorists and adjacent business owners were frustrated over limits on turns and direct access, but thankful for turnaround lanes and freer-flowing traffic.

In downtown, Team ECCO Ocean Center and Aquarium opened a 100-gallon “touch tank” in March. Carolina Village celebrated its 40th year, its new therapy pool and other amenities.

In local sports, Hendersonville (HHS) Lady Bearcats repeated as state volleyball champs. In football, West Henderson advanced furthest (three rounds) into state playoffs among the four local squads. HHS have the county’s first black head football coach since desegregation, in Eric Gash. The “Aircats” lit it up. Junior Michael Schmidt threw for nearly 3,000 yards — with a WNC-seasonal record 1,818 to senior Cole Cleary (24 ypc.). Cleary was among national prep leaders in reception yards.

In pro sports, the Carolina Panthers on Sunday smashed Atlanta 34-3 on the road to win the NFC South. The Panthers host Arizona, in a playoff game Saturday, Jan. 3 at 4:35 p.m.

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