Wineka column: Bitzer is all politics, all the time
SALISBURY — Dr. J. Michael Bitzer welcomes visitors to his “ivory tower,” the third-floor office in the stone tower of Catawba College’s Hedrick Administration Building.
Layers of neatly spaced term papers are on his desk, waiting to be read and graded. The whole wall behind him is filled with books on politics, history, sports and law — virtually all of which he has read.
He constantly checks his laptop, posting an update on Twitter, sharing something on Facebook, polishing up his next blog or searching for one of the latest political polls.
Bitzer looks the part of a Southern professor at a small liberal arts college. He’s 6-1, bespectacled and wearing one of his three seersucker suits and one of his 300 bow ties.
Bitzer says he and fellow professor Dr. Gary Freeze are the two Southern Bubbas on the faculty.
While Bitzer often finds himself sequestered in the classrooms down the hall or in this ivory tower, he seems ubiquitous to others, especially if you follow politics in North Carolina.
He moderates political forums, appears in panel discussions and speaks to groups about politics. He frequently gives election analysis on all the Charlotte television stations, either in quick interviews or as part of their political shows.
“I’m a free agent,” Bitzer laughs.
Bitzer writes a political blog for WFAE, 90.7 FM, and sometimes appears as a guest on the station’s “Charlotte Talks.”
Reporters for the Associated Press and local newspapers see Bitzer as one of their go-to guys for a quote on national, state and local issues. He feels comfortable commenting on them all.
This past Wednesday, after administering a late-morning final exam at Catawba College, Bitzer traveled to WSOC-TV in Charlotte to lead the station’s political coverage team through some of the key races for Tuesday’s N.C. primary.
“We asked him about the potential surprises, upsets and predictions,” WSOC anchor Blair Miller says. “Viewers see the 10-second sound bytes or the analysis in the studio. They don’t see him answering our very detailed questions along the way.”
Bitzer will be spending most of the week of this year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte working for WSOC-TV.
“I’ve worked with a bunch of political experts,” Miller says, “but none have been more consistent and unbiased. I value that, and I’m sure our viewers do, too.”
It’s what you keep hearing about Bitzer from students, reporters and colleagues — his ability to analyze what’s happening in politics without a partisan bent.
“He approaches it from the exact middle of the road,” says former student Ryan Dayvault, now a Kannapolis city councilman.
Bitzer is a registered independent who won’t even tell his wife, attorney Andrea Anders, how he’s voting in an election. And he’s a true political junkie.
“You could definitely describe him as that,” Anders says. “He enjoys looking at it from all angles.”
Bitzer, 44, chairs the three-person history and politics department at Catawba College, where he has been an associate professor for 10 years.
He loves the job and all it entails.
“This is my calling,” he says.
Bitzer grew up in Clemson, S.C., but his parents did not work for the university — as everyone usually assumes. His father owned a marina on Lake Hartwell. His mother served as the Clemson city clerk.
Bitzer spent his boyhood fishing, swimming, kayaking and skiing on the waters of the lake. He pumped gas into the boats at his father’s marina, and he assumed everybody went to college football games on Saturday afternoons in the fall.
On many Monday nights, Bitzer’s father did the cooking because his mother was taking minutes for the Clemson town council.
Bitzer thinks his mother’s apolitical role in town government — the issuing of business licenses, the writing of town ordinances and resolutions and working closely with nonpartisan community leaders — left an impression with him, even if subconsciously.
Bitzer also was close to his grandmother, Evelyn Bitzer, who lived and remained vibrantly active until she was 99. Born in 1912, “she had this amazing ring-side seat” on a whole century, Anders says, and she thinks Evelyn’s vivid recollections of history as it happened to her strongly influenced Michael.
Evelyn Bitzer was, for example, a 17-year-old secretary in New York the day the stock market crashed in 1929. Michael Bitzer relished all of her stories.
The late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, once a staunch segregationist in South Carolina yet the first Southern senator to hire a black staff member, played a role, too, in shaping Bitzer’s career path toward history and politics.
As a high school junior, Bitzer earned a coveted internship allowing him to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., as part of Thurmond’s staff.
He and the handful of other interns would have their high school studies from 5-8 a.m. each day at the Library of Congress before heading off to Thurmond’s office.
At the time, Thurmond already was in his 80s but still serving as president pro tem of the Senate. “You literally had to run to keep up with him,” Bitzer says. The major piece of legislation before Congress that year was the bill to make a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite his segregationist past, Thurmond came to be a politician that both white and black voters came to respect, Bitzer says.
Bitzer earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Erskine College, considered law school but decided instead to head for Cocoa Beach Fla., where he worked as a reporter/photographer for a weekly newspaper.
But he missed upstate South Carolina, moved back and became the first person in his family actually to work for Clemson University. For 10 years, he was a public affairs officer in the engineering and science department, writing press releases, editing the alumni magazine and helping with fundraising duties.
Meanwhile, Bitzer spent lunch hours working on a master’s degree in history. It was in his first class — a history course on Nazi Germany — when Bitzer decided he wanted to be a college professor.
“He had a way of telling a story,” Bitzer says of his instructor, “and it just hit me at that moment how good teachers can relate things in a variety of ways.”
Bitzer’s master’s thesis touched on the political history of South Carolina in the 1960s, and he looked specifically at the dynamics shaping the state’s Republican Party. Thurmond was central to that theme.
His master’s degree in hand, Bitzer moved on to doctorate studies in political science at the University of Georgia. He had his first teaching experience there as a graduate assistant.
“I can still see that first classroom,” he says, recalling how he overprepared.
Bitzer did his dissertation on state legislatures and whether they tended to make laws to enhance bureaucracies or restrain them.
He became the envy of all his friends in the graduate student lounge at Georgia when the first position he applied for — an opening at Catawba College — was offered to him.
Retired Dr. Sandy Silverburg hired Bitzer, who preferred a small college. He still cherished the faculty at Erskine and how it had provided important mentors for him.
Bitzer intentionally follows an academic, not partisan, line in his classrooms. ”It’s better to be a devil’s advocate than promote one’s political viewpoint over the other,” he says, adding it’s also the only way to be fair to students.
Dayvault, the young Kannapolis councilman, says Bitzer helped students grow their own sets of beliefs and approach to government. “He allowed me to be able to more clearly see and understand that there are two sides to everything,” Dayvault says, “and that there are good points and concepts on both sides that you should be able to develop from.”
Bitzer says his teaching style has evolved into more of a seminar approach with discussion. Dayvault says the professor was “very thorough and very detailed.”
“You don’t take his classes if you want an easy ‘A,’ ” Dayvault adds. “You better be prepared and do good work while in his class.”
Bitzer has embraced the technology and social networking that his students weave into their daily lives.
Maybe no one “tweets” and “retweets” more than Bitzer about things political.
Ben McNeely, senior web producer for News 14 Carolina and former online editor for the Independent Tribune in Concord, says he got to know Bitzer through Twitter.
“I followed him because his tweets were incredibly informative and entertaining,” McNeely says. “And if a college professor can use social media to reach beyond the classroom, then they are doing something right.
“The grand irony: I don’t think we’ve actually met in person, yet we carry on like colleagues through Twitter, not only about politics, but ACC sports as well, and often use the hashtag ‘#bowtiecaucus’ to extoll our preference of neck wear.”
Anders likes her husband’s addiction to bow ties and considers it one of the few ways a man can accessorize.
“I think they are a fun, stylistic comment,” she says.
Bitzer tends to use his bow ties as quiet commentaries, too. If Clemson wins a big football game, he’s likely to be wearing an orange and purple bow tie the following Monday.
“Books and bow ties are my weak spots,” he says.
Bitzer says Twitter has become a fascinating third party in political activity, as he tracks tweets of journalists and political operatives from both sides. Because of Twitter, he adds, the impression of what breaking news is has changed because it compresses the news cycle dramatically.
“It’s a powerful tool, but wow …” he says.
McNeely says Twitter is an arena where politics is fought 24 hours. “Bitzer has become the go-to political analyst in the Charlotte region and statewide because of his steely-eyed view of North Carolina politics,” he says. “His analysis is grounded in data and good, old-fashioned political horse sense. But the reason why he’s popular with the media and politicos is, I think, because he is on Twitter.”
Bitzer doesn’t hesitate in giving his opinions, no matter how Republicans or Democrats might take the message.
His recent political blogs for WFAE have touched on Republican Mitt Romney’s chances in North Carolina, today’s political polarization, how strong the young vote might be for President Obama, what Southerners think of Romney, N.C. evangelical voters and Amendment One’s chances in the state.
Bitzer definitely likes the horse races that come with elections, but he has never — and never will, he says — considered running for political office himself. He doesn’t like the limelight, the business of raising money or the potential effects on family life.
When he was up for a scholarship once, an interviewer asked the young Bitzer whether he would like to be president of the United States some day. He said no, which was a bad response, given it was a leadership scholarship he was applying for.
But Bitzer’s answer that he would rather have a cabinet position, such as secretary of state, must have swayed the committee. He received the scholarship.
In today’s world, it was something to tweet about.
The Bitzer file
Name: Dr. J. Michael Bitzer
Current position: associate professor of history and politics, department chairman, Catawba College.
Voter registration: unaffiliated.
Past jobs: reporter for weekly newspaper in Cocoa Beach, Fla.; public affairs officer to dean of engineering and science, Clemson University; graduate teaching assistant at University of Georgia.
Education: bachelor’s degree, English, Erskine College; master’s degree, history, Clemson University; doctorate, political science, University of Georgia.
Blog: The Party Line (wwwthepartyline.org), for WFAE, 90.7 FM.
You may have seen or heard him as: political forum moderator, contributing political analyst for Salisbury Post; political expert on WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks,” WCNC, WSOC, WBTV and News Channel 14.
Passions: Clemson University sports, bow ties, Twitter, fishing, cooking, photography.
Family: Married to Andrea Anders; son, Drew, 7.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.
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