To stay or leave LEAF

Staff WriterNovember 21, 2002 

John Merritt, a senior aide to Gov. Mike Easley, is usually the first to admit that his "shoot first, ask questions later" style has earned him plenty of detractors in a long career in North Carolina politics.

Merritt can add state Sen. Marc Basnight to the list, according to administration and Senate officials.

Basnight, the Democratic Senate leader from Manteo and longtime Easley supporter, is considering kicking Merritt off the Golden LEAF Foundation, those officials say.

Basnight appointed Merritt to Golden LEAF, the powerful panel that makes grants and investments from half of the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, before Merritt joined the Easley team last year.

But Merritt has been a vocal foundation member and has attracted controversy with his support for a deal to place $30 million with a new venture-capital company associated with a major donor and fund-raiser for Easley.

Basnight's relations with the Easley administration also were strained by the governor's recent veto of an obscure but politically significant appointments bill that was stacked with dozens of Basnight selections for influential boards and commissions. That might actually protect Merritt, at least in the short term: If Basnight removes him from Golden LEAF now, it could look like payback for the veto.

Amy Fulk, a spokeswoman for Basnight, said her boss has not asked Merritt to resign, and she wouldn't confirm that he is considering it.

"You hear rumors around here all the time," she said.

A Reiff return?

Jay Reiff, Easley's campaign manager in 2000, was not victorious south of the border this year, where he led South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges' unsuccessful re-election campaign.

But already, Reiff is being courted for jobs in Raleigh -- either with the Easley administration or with the Senate Democrats, who employed Reiff in the mid-'90s.

Reiff said he has made no firm plans and has had no direct conversations with the governor or with Basnight about returning. But "North Carolina is my home," he added.

And Reiff made a point of praising North Carolina's Senate Democrats for doing "an amazing job" in the election by retaining their majority.

"They were handed a Republican map. Hats off to them," he said. "It was one of the bright spots in North Carolina on election night."

If Reiff does return, North Carolinians can expect him to receive the type of sweet arrangement he got four years ago, when he joined then-Attorney General Easley's staff at the Justice Department for $7,000 a month, switching over to the campaign six months later.

It is a pattern Reiff repeated when he moved to South Carolina last year, first as Hodges' $96,000-a-year communications director and then on to his campaign.

Reiff recently returned to his old job in the Hodges administration, he said. He intends to stay there for the time being -- and plans to take his time deciding what comes next.

"I ran a marathon, which was totally therapeutic," he said. "I think I may need a little beach-walking time."

By staff writer Amy Gardner, who can be reached at 829-8902 or agardner@newsobserver.com.

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