Post-Black etiquette: Don't mention ex-speaker

Staff WritersFebruary 20, 2007 

— At 6:16 p.m. Monday, janitor Antonio Diaz switched off the lights, shut the door and rolled a trash bin away from Room 2207.

It held the last, papery remains of former House Speaker Jim Black's Legislative Building office.

On the House floor, a clerk wheeled Black's cushy chair from his desk, leaving his space empty.

Within an hour, Gov. Mike Easley stood on the House floor, near the very spot from which Black ruled for eight years, and talked about the state of his state, an address televised across North Carolina.

With the gathered rulers of government watching, Easley made no mention of Black or the case that filled front pages and newscasts and dominated the political scene for five days.

Last week Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, admitted taking chiropractors' cash while pushing their bills, the latest revelation in two years of turmoil around him. It is North Carolina's biggest political scandal in years.

Few Democrats in the House, Senate and beyond on Monday wanted Easley to discuss Black's admission that he is a felon.

"Time to move on," said Rep. Drew Saunders, a Mecklenburg Democrat and ally of Black.

"Address that when we're talking about the future of the state?" asked State Treasurer Richard Moore, a Democrat.

"I'm not going to tell the governor how to do his job," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat.

Republicans couldn't say enough.

They were angry that Easley didn't use the moment to speak out after one of the state's most powerful figures confessed to selling his office for cash.

"This guy was the point man down here for the governor for the past six years," said Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican who has been pushing for tougher ethics laws and trying to spread legislative power.

"He's resigned in disgrace," Blust said. "And here the governor comes and barely touches on the changes we need here."

Republican leader Paul Stam of Apex said Easley said nothing: "Absolutely nothing."

"I think the one issue front and center on everybody's mind in state government and around the state is what happened last week in federal court," said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. "What does he [Easley] think about that issue and what does he think needs to be done?"

Toward the end of a 35-minute speech, Easley made a passing reference to the need for ethics and campaign changes.

"We must be mindful that democracy only works when people participate," the governor said, "and people only participate when they have confidence in the integrity of the political process. So I urge you to continue to improve and refine the good work that you've started until it fully reflects the character and integrity of the people of North Carolina."

Applause.

Within moments, the governor was headed out, all the way deflecting questions from reporters. He stepped in an elevator, the doors closed and he was gone.

Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss can be reached at 829-4840 or acurliss@newsobserver.com.

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