Jenkins: Lanny Wilson Bridge goes the wrong way

jjenkins@newsobserver.comDecember 12, 2012 

If he has seen the online comments, Lanny Wilson must be having second thoughts about the high honor of a Wilmington bridge named for him. Wilson’s a former Board of Transportation member from the area who resigned in early 2010 as investigations closed in on a man for whom Wilson, a wealthy developer, had been a close political ally. That man was Mike Easley, the former Democratic governor who pleaded guilty to a felony count on campaign finance violations.

So here’s another chapter in North Carolina’s whimsical and misguided history of thinking the best way to reward someone for political clout is to name something like a highway or a bridge after them. It is a bad idea now, and it was a bad idea long before the Department of Transportation did this deal for Lanny Wilson. His friends say he’s a nice fellow, which I don’t doubt. And his remarks at the unveiling of the Lanny Wilson Bridge sign were gracious.

But the praise for this is not unanimous, judging by a few comments on the Wilmington Star-News online report. I felt bad for the guy. Because if North Carolina ceased this ridiculous custom, he wouldn’t have been held up to this kind of ridicule:

One reader posed a question as to whether next up would be the “John Edwards bridge” and another referenced a “Ted Kennedy bridge” and another reckoned the decision was “celebrating corruption” while someone else suggested the sign, “Corruption Crossing.”

And in noting his daughter’s expression in the family picture of Wilson, his wife and his little girl, another scribe wrote, “Kid looks bored.”

Oh, come on.

Gov. Beverly Perdue, who presumably signed off on the bridge, didn’t deserve to be criticized by Republican lawmakers as going along with a tribute to her “mentor,” Easley. Perdue had mentors during her long career in state politics, but I don’t recall that Easley was one of them. This was just a gratuitous shot by GOP leaders, who probably were entitled to a fair shot.

So now a bit of a tempest has erupted from a teapot that never should have been on the stove.

The governor did promise in her 2008 campaign to reform the Board of Transportation and road-making decisions, and establish strong ethics rules in government. She kept promises on those issues. But she should have ended the practice of naming concrete and asphalt after people, even people who’ve done their part for their regions, which Wilson apparently has.

Of course, there’s another possible explanation for the Republicans’ earnest objections: Could it be that with control of the legislature and now with the Governor’s Office in the grasp of fellow Republican Pat McCrory, the party leaders are afraid all the good roads are taken in the Good Roads State?

They certainly don’t want to have to pick out a two-lane blacktop for House Speaker Thom Tillis. How would that look in his 2014 campaign for the U.S. Senate? Nor would they want to settle for a traffic circle for former Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Road signs should be of some assistance in getting people where they’re going and that’s about it. One suspects that for tourists in Wilmington, “taking a left after the Lanny Wilson” would not be particularly helpful, any more than around here, it would help to tell folks to take the “Tom Bradshaw” instead of the southern Beltline (Bradshaw is a former state transportation secretary). No reflection there on him. He did his part and then some for North Carolina.

North Carolina has ways to recognize people without putting their names on highways. First among them is the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, oft noted as “the state’s highest civilian honor.” Granted, there’s a bulldog in the Long Leaf Pine (I have met him), some people have received it more than once, and a few governors have handed it out to most of their staff members. But it’s still an honor, and it’s enough.

A final note: There are going to be alert readers, eager to catch us in utter hypocrisy, who will write in and note that in advocating a change in the road-naming policy, we would be in effect criticizing the decision five or six years ago to name a stretch of highway in Surry County the “Andy Griffith Parkway.”

No. There should be no prohibition on naming any structure, be it a highway or a state office building or a skyscraper or a sheriff’s office, after Andy Griffith. In fact, when Republicans are ending the naming policy, they need to be sure to put that exemption in there. Even if he was a Democrat.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at

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