Thursday, February 15, 2007

Politics in North Carolina

The big political news in North Carolina is that the powerful former Democratic Speaker of the House, Jim Black, has stepped down and is preparing to go to jail for public corruption.
Former House Speaker Jim Black resigned his seat in the General Assembly on Wednesday, a day before he is expected to plead guilty to public corruption.

Black, six weeks into his 11th term in the House, did not appear there with colleagues. His front-row seat was empty. Instead, he sent a letter to new House Speaker Joe Hackney, Gov. Mike Easley and the clerk of the House, Denise Weeks.

In the letter, Black appeared to defend his decision to stay in office for the last 1 1/2 years, even after the State Board of Elections ruled that he broke campaign laws and while a federal grand jury heard testimony from his staff and closest political allies.

"It was important for me to help ensure a smooth transition during the last several months, which has occurred," the letter reads.

"Now it is time for me to move forward with my life and attend to the health and welfare of my family. With both sadness and anticipation, I hereby resign from the House of Representatives on Feb. 14, 2007."
Yup, he's going to take care of his family's welfare while he goes to prison.
Following a two-year state and federal investigation, Black is expected to plead guilty today in a Raleigh federal courtroom to one felony count of accepting illegal gratuities. Black's lawyer, Kenneth Bell of Charlotte, confirmed the expected plea Tuesday.

Black faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
This has been an ongoing outrage in the North Carolina legislature for almost two years. He was involved in a multitude of various corruption scandals. As John Hood concisely summarizes,
Today, an eight-year speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, Jim Black, will plead guilty to federal corruption charges and receive a prison sentence. It’s the latest in a series of guilty pleas related to a criminal conspiracy of lobbyists and public officials involving pay-for-play bribery deals, violations of lobbying and campaign-finance laws, regulation of the video poker industry, passage of a state-run lottery, and a general seediness in North Carolina state government. And other state lawmakers may yet be caught in the dragnet.

Black, a Democrat and optometrist, had used his fundraising prowess and bare-knuckle tactics to maintain power in a chamber that often featured close partisan divides. In 2003, he even wound up as speaker again despite the fact that Republicans had won a 61-59 majority in the 2002 elections. That’s one of the scandals, actually — he bribed a Republican lawmaker to switch parties, which paved the way for a rump ground of disgruntled GOP moderates to ally with Black to organize the chamber. Today’s plea bargain appears to involve other charges, however. State prosecutors will reportedly charge Black with additional crimes next week.
He's been denying all these charges for over a year and been blaming conservatives and the media for making a big deal out of nothing. Well, that nothing is now landing him in jail. John Hood points out that one of the lessons for this whole debacle is that there is a true danger when politicians decide that the ends justify the means and that their own beliefs are so noble that it doesn't matter what slimy maneuvers they make to maintain their own power.
First, the Jim Black affair demonstrates the temptation to conclude that the ends justify the means. Many, many politicians of all stripes truly believe their policy goals are so important that they must “play the game,” by which they mean break the law or transgress ethical boundaries in order to serve a greater good.

I think Black wasn’t just an arrogant power-tripper. I think he believed that Democratic control of the General Assembly was so important to the interests of the state, and his own position was so important to the interests of the Charlotte region and other urban communities, that it was worth negotiating pay-to-play deals with special-interest lobbies to generate sufficient campaign funds to maintain power.
This is, of course, true for national politics. Democrats should have learned that lesson in 1994 and national Republicans in Congress would do well to study this lesson if they're ever going to regain power. The ends do not justify the means no matter how noble you think you are in your own mind.