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N.C. Democrats Must Again Overcome Corruption Rap

Monday, 25 Jan 2010 09:40 AM

 

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For the past decade, North Carolina Democrats in charge of state government have been successful persuading the public they're unlike fellow party colleagues who've ended up behind bars.

Democrats have remained in power in the Legislature and at the Executive Mansion despite the news of illegal activities that sent then-House Speaker Jim Black, Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and Rep. Thomas Wright to prison.

They've done so while passing tougher ethics and campaign finance laws, and even expelling Wright from the Legislature. At the same time, they've had political advantages to get their message out, such as outraising Republicans on campaign dollars, pushing education initiatives and presiding during a span largely marked by growth and prosperity in the state.

Last week's indictment of corruption charges against Ruffin Poole, a close aide to former Gov. Mike Easley, however, comes when Democrats lack the advantages of recent years.

The state is struggling with 11 percent unemployment during a deep recession that caused Democratic lawmakers to approve higher taxes. Their campaign fundraising advantage is threatened by departures and retirements of prolific state Senate fundraisers.

Add last week's GOP victory in the U.S. Senate race in liberal Massachusetts and angst over the health care overhaul in Washington and it may prove more difficult for Democrats leading into the 2010 elections to counter any perceptions that they're associated with another federal investigation that could unearth more indictments.

"This could be a scenario where you have the megastorm, where you have just a terrible economy, you have unrest and anger with the electorate and then you have (corruption) on top of it," said Brad Crone, a longtime Democratic consultant in Raleigh. "It's been a constant drumbeat ... there will be a price to pay for it."

Poole is accused of 51 counts, including bribery, racketeering, money laundering and extortion during his years as Easley's personal assistant and special counsel.

The indictment describes Poole, 37, as the "go-to guy" to get things done in Easley's office, with people calling him "the little governor" because of Easley's reliance on him to assist political supporters.

Poole took trips on the checkbook of a Wilmington investor and Easley political supporter while helping expedite projects in which the financier and others had invested, according to the indictment. He also made returns of at least 25 percent by investing his money in some of those same coastal developments, prosecutors allege.

"Never before have you seen an allegation of corruption going that close to the governor's office in modern history," Crone said.

Republicans jumped on the charges, with state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer calling it part of the "culture of corruption that has risen out of a century of one-party dominance in state government."

Democrats have sat in the Executive Mansion since 1993 and held almost continuously the power in the Legislature since the late 1890s. Party leaders say they're disgusted by the charges, if true, but argue they've been leading on ethics issues for years.

"We have changed the culture in the Legislature," said House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, adding they'll consider other restrictions when lawmakers reconvene in May, if necessary. "I'm a citizen of North Carolina. I want it to be cleaned up."

The Legislature passed sweeping new rules essentially banning gifts to lawmakers and top executive branch leaders in 2006 and expelled Wright for unethical behavior.

Gov. Beverly Perdue also has demanded tougher gift bans in the wake of investigations of free meals from vendors to some state employees and local ABC boards.

Perdue feels the indictment "is a sorry distraction for the people of North Carolina, and we are all tired of it," said Chrissy Pearson, her spokeswoman.

Some Republicans have gotten in trouble with the law, too, although the largest headlines have been left for the Democrats because of their majority status in government.

In previous election years, the corruption associated with Black and Wright didn't bleed over into other legislative districts by hurting the prospects of other Democratic incumbents just by association. It shouldn't happen this year, either, Hackney said.

"I don't see how Ruffin Poole's indictment affects somebody running for a House seat in eastern North Carolina if there's no direct connection," said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategists who used to work with former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt.

Hackney and other Democrats are hopeful the economy will turn around by the November elections so they'll have some more positive things to talk about with voters.

Easley wasn't accused of wrongdoing in the indictment and his attorney said he wasn't aware of Poole's alleged conduct.

Activities surrounding Easley while he was governor have been the subject of federal and state investigations in the year since he left office in January 2009. Neither probe is complete.

A lot will depend on whether Easley is charged with crimes. Democratic legislative candidates statewide would have to respond against more than just the "little governor," but the public face of the state party for eight years.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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