NC Gov-Elect Different Kind Of Tarheel Leader

By: - December 18, 2000 12:00 am

RALEIGH — For years, a staple of the annual Capital Press Corp’s legislative skits has been a send-up of an Eagles folk rock hit that spoofed Attorney General Mike Easley.

“Take It Easley” was more than a passing reference to the personable attorney general’s laid-back style of arriving at the office in mid-morning or of shunning the usual folderol that goes with the job of ribbon-clipping, baby-smooching and glad-handing with total strangers.

It was also a recognition that unlike the well-known and highly-public politicians who had occupied the governor’s mansion since the 1970s (Jim Hunt and Jim Martin), Mike Easley was something of an enigma a longtime public official who many legislators not only didn’t know well, but didn’t even know at all.

That was no accident. Perhaps more so than any other North Carolina governor since Republican Jim Holshouser won the office in 1972 in a stunning upset, Democrat Mike Easley won the election without the slavish devotion of his party’s electoral mechanism and to some extent without even seeking the blessing of the special interest groups who traditionally endorse in North Carolina governor’s campaigns.

During the 2000 campaign he avoided some public appearances that brought out his rivals on the Democratic and Republican ticket, and declined to meet with supplicants who wanted his ear. But that was nothing new; as a prosecutor in drug-infested southeastern North Carolina, the only way Easley could win election as district attorney was to avoid his party’s kingmakers and their election machinery.

“You tend to develop an independent streak that way,” Easley says, and it colors the way he ran for governor. He avoided entanglements for one reason: “The only way I wanted the office was to be free to do what I thought was in the best interests of the people.”At age 50, Gov.-elect Easley has come a long way from the tobacco fields of Eastern North Carolina, where he was reared as a Catholic in a region where Protestants dominate. He professes to have been something of a rascal in his youth, noted more for his ability to get into a scrape than for his affinity for the books. He attended tiny Belmont Abbey College the school where Al McGuire got his coaching start and transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after he proved he could make the grade. He boxed in an unsanctioned league and proved to be scrappy. “I broke more fingers than noses,” he reflects 28 years later.

He later attended law school at N.C. Central University in Durham, where his wife Mary, also a lawyer, teaches, before moving back to the state’s tidewater region to take a job as prosecutor. He earned a courtroom reputation for being tough on drug dealers, and taught his wife to shoot a pistol after one dealer made threats on his life.

In 1990 he ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ seat. Easley lost his party’s nomination to Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, but won the affection and loyalty of many Democrats by working hard for Gantt’s unsuccessful effort to unseat Helms that fall.

Two years later, when Easley ran for a vacant attorney general seat, he won the nomination and the general election and set about doing things in a different way. He clamped down on which of his aides could speak to the press and began exploring ways to settle some seemingly intractable problems including a state prison crowding problem that he first thought could be accomplished simply by cramming more prisoners in. He learned fast, however, and began seeking and crafting settlements on prison crowding and environmental problems, pumping up consumer protection efforts and quietly seeking a national tobacco settlement with the tobacco companies that have traditionally been the underpinning of the state’s agricultural sector. His willingness to tackle some risky issues in sharp contrast to highly popular but ever-cautious Jim Hunt caught the fancy of many voters, who had reelected him in 1996 and made him a favorite for the 2000 gubernatorial nomination.

By rights that nomination seemed to belong to Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, a carbon-copy, policywise, of Jim Hunt’s political stance. But Easley turned out to be a far better campaigner with far deeper support among the black community, which remembered Easley’s strong support for Gantt. He stunned the Wicker forces in the party primary in May of 2000, then also stunned confident Republicans who believed their nominee, former Charlotte mayor and Vietnam veteran Richard Vinroot, would win the govenrorship on Nov. 7.

Vinroot’s campaign had sought to belittle Easley’s candidacy through a series of negative ads. Carter Wrenn, who had directed several campaigns for Jesse Helms, devised a strategy that took Easley to task for using state funds from court-ordered settlements for a $1 million consumer protection campaign that often featured Easley himself. Instead of harming Easley’s image, the campaign may have backfired, reminding voters that Easley had looked out for their interests against unscrupulous operators and putting Vinroot in the unhappy position of complaining about it.

Having won the election easily (52% to Vinroot’s 46%), Easley has gone about putting his administration together in the same deliberate, at-his-own pace style that marked his two terms as attorney general. He has tapped former aide John McArthur, a GE lobbyist, to run his transition and relies on close aides like Hampton Dellinger, son of former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger. He has yet to announce any major appointments and says he may not announce cabinet appointees until after he is sworn in on Jan. 6.

“These agencies will be able to get along fine” until he’s ready to announce cabinet members, he says. “The governor’s office, the 30 to 50 people around the governor, have to be in place,” and that’s what he’s working on. “The hardest part is getting people to agree to stop what they are doing and do something else for a while,” he adds.

Shortly after the election, he told reporters he wasn’t sure he’d move into the Executive Mansion, the Queen Anne’s style residence of N.C. governors. He hadn’t thought about “public housing,” he said, but his wife and his teenage son Michael are ready to move in, he says.

Easley’s election preserves one long-standing North Carolina tradition. It keeps in power Eastern N.C. Democrats who have ruled the legislative and executive branches for much of the 20th century. His closest legislative allies run the state Senate Lt. Gov. (and presiding officer) Beverly Perdue, Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and perennial Senate power Tony Rand. He has fewer allies in the House, where a 62-59 split gives Democrats a bare working majority in the 2001-02 legislature.

A year ago Easley was launching his campaign on a platform proposing a state lottery to fund education programs, but since the primary he has soft-pedaled that issue no doubt because of lukewarm support in the state House and his reluctance to spend all his political capital on one controversial issue. “I didn’t want my campaign and my administration to be marked entirely by the lottery issue, as has happened with some governors,” he says.

Easley says his 2001 agenda begins with a call for bipartisan cooperation, much as President-elect George W. Bush has. But the key legislative and executive agenda will start where it always does for North Carolina governors with education. Easley wants to lower class sizes in elementary grades and promote pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk and other students.

He will have difficulty paying for these programs, given that the state budget next year will have a deficit variously estimated at between $200 million and $400 million. Easley says he hopes to pare down the existing budget, surmising that the current $14 billion biennial budget bears ample opportunity to carve out fat. “There are a lot of sacred (budget) cows that shouldn’t be, and that don’t serve the needs of the people in the best way possible,” he says.

He also proposes revising state environmental protection laws to provide more teeth for enforcement. He is pursuing a truth-in-penalties law “so that people know what the penalties are, and they know it’s going to be enforced.”

He also has ambitious plans to reduce toxic air emissions that bedevil Western and Piedmont North Carolina, and for a prescription drug program for senior citizens.

Four years from now, he says, “I want the people to be thinking of North Carolina as one state, with one economy and one educational system, so that every child has a chance to play in the winner’s circle and reach their full potential…. By accident of location or birth, the opportunities to do that are either limited or they are enhanced.”

On Saturday, Jan. 6, Easley can get started on making that happen.

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