Christensen

Mike Easley's loner style comes back to haunt him

Staff WriterMay 22, 2009 

— During his eight years as the state's chief executive, Mike Easley was more of a lone ranger than any North Carolina governor in recent memory.

He feuded with the barons of the Democratic legislature. He was barely on speaking terms with the Democratic Party chairman. His own Cabinet secretaries rarely saw him. And he was largely unresponsive to the press.

And now that Easley is in trouble, the former governor can probably identify with that old joke about when the Lone Ranger, surrounded by hostile Indians, turns to Tonto and says, "It looks like we're going to die."

To which Tonto replies, "What do you mean 'we,' kemo sabe?"

The latest evidence of Easley's isolation came Thursday, when former first lady Mary Easley jousted with UNC system President Erskine Bowles over whether she should keep her $170,000-a-year job at N.C. State University.

At a news conference, Mary Easley's lawyer said she was not giving up her five-year contract to run a speakers series and safety leadership center.

Earlier this month, Bowles, among others, suggested that Easley resign because of possible political influence in her hiring at the Raleigh campus. At the news conference, Easley's attorney responded by reading a letter from Bowles praising her.

That Bowles is willing to throw Mary Easley overboard gives some hint of the problems the Easleys face.

The saga includes many story lines. Did the Easleys use their position to get free cars, insider real estate deals, and cushy jobs? Were there built-in conflicts because Mary Easley was the first governor's wife with a professional career in a small state capital dominated by government and a university? Why does a former prosecutor, lawyer and law professor need another lawyer to do her talking?

One of the narrative threads is that the Democratic establishment is washing its hands of a leader for whom they never really cared.

Under the bus he goes

Bowles is a card-carrying member of that establishment. His father was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1972. He was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, and he twice was the Democratic nominee for the Senate while Easley was governor.

Nor is he the only big name Democrat abandoning the Easleys. Earlier, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan said she would delay recommending the replacement of Republican U.S. Attorney George Holding while investigations of Easley and former Sen. John Edwards continue. (Tar Heel Democrats don't have much love for Edwards either.)

When the White House changes parties, it is typical that patronage positions such as U.S. attorney also change. Holding, a protégé of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, has aggressively prosecuted public corruption -- mainly Democrats -- and his scalps include former House Speaker Jim Black, former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance and former state Rep. Thomas Wright.

Hagan might have taken flak from Republicans, but she would have been operating under normal protocol if she had recommended that the U.S. attorney be replaced. She chose to delay replacement, thereby ensuring that the Easleys would continue to get close scrutiny.

Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue opened the door to the current Easley controversies, when she granted requests from news organizations to make public Easley's travel records. Easley had refused to release the information when he was in office.

If there is an effort in the Democratic-controlled legislature to eliminate funding for Mary Easley's position, few Easley allies are left in the General Assembly to come to the Easleys' defense.

There have been no words of support for the Easleys coming out of the state Democratic Party. At the same time, the Republicans, who have not won a North Carolina governorship since the 1980s, are cheering the fall of one of their nemeses.

It has been 31 years since I've seen the North Carolina Democratic Party abandon one of its own. That was when then-Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, who had a reputation for erratic behavior, won the Democratic nomination for the Senate over banker Luther Hodges Jr. the favorite of the establishment. Much of the Democratic Party sat on its hands as its watched Republican Sen. Jesse Helms run over Ingram in the 1978 Senate race.

I imagine Easley could identify with the quote often attributed to Harry Truman: "If you want a friend in Washington -- get a dog."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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