Finding a silver lining

Finding a silver lining

- in Weekly Briefing

Five positive things about the Easley mess

Quick take: The recent disclosures and controversies surrounding former Governor Mike Easley and his wife Mary are a cause for concern and, at least, temporary discouragement to any thinking North Carolinian. A moment’s reflection, however, reminds us that these developments are also a sign of health for the cause of government reform and the broader progressive agenda.    

News headlines have been swirling in recent days with the latest developments in the evolving story surrounding former Governor Mike Easley, his wife, and the assorted benefits that appear to have been funneled their way over the years by various officials, friends and hangers on.

From what we’ve learned thus far, it’s a disheartening and all-too-familiar story of greed, stupidity and carelessness: The kind of situation in which basically well-intentioned public servants get blinded by their own power and notoriety and give in to sloth and temptation.

For some progressives (who generally tend to have more in common philosophically with Democrats than Republicans), it’s enough to test one’s commitment to the cause. Indeed, if one paid any attention to some of the over-the-top crowing and conclusion-drawing coming from various far right blogs and websites, one might think that the fall of Easley, (along with the absurd pratfalls of John Edwards and Jim Black) are emblematic of some kind of catastrophic ideological meltdown.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. To the contrary, Easley’s embarrassment and potential disgrace (as well as Black’s and Edwards’) are, even in the short run, good things for North Carolina and the progressive cause.  

Here are five reasons why this is so:

#1 – Our improved (and improving) ethical standards – The standards to which Easley appears to have fallen prey are, in many ways, modern phenomena that reflect the higher expectations of modern North Carolinians.

Think about it for a minute: Free travel and fishing trips? A nice state job and a “loaner” car for one’s spouse? There was a time in the not-too-distant past in North Carolina in which such favors from political cronies would have scarcely raised an eyebrow.

This is not to justify Easley’s apparent acceptance of such goodies in any way. At a minimum, he has engaged repeatedly in remarkably boneheaded behavior.

Having said this, it was a only three years ago that North Carolina amended its law to prevent lobbyists from bestowing all sorts of gifts on public officials in the guise of “good will lobbying.” And it was only a few years before that in which officials talked openly of flying to big college basketball games in the private jets of influential corporate benefactors and legislators publicly justified their participation in a legislative committee by explaining their private life involvement in the very industry the committee oversaw.  

Yes, the news about Easley stinks, but that’s at least in part the result of our new and improved collective sense of smell. Progressives played a big role in upgrading state standards and should feel pride and satisfaction when they’re enforced.

#2 – Honesty is good for the progressive agenda – Aside from the obvious reasons, there is another beneficial and extremely practical reason for all of us to support and enjoy the enforcement of a more open and honest government: the success of the progressive agenda depends on it.

As Chris Fitzsimon has noted on numerous occasions on this website, those groups, individuals and corporations who are able to buy influence with public officials are almost never doing so for the good of average North Carolinians – much less children, the poor, or persons with mental illness or disabilities. Instead, they’re almost always doing so to line their own (and their clients’) pockets. 

When North Carolina adopted something akin to a “no cup of coffee” rule three years ago for lobbyists and public officials, it took an important stride toward leveling the playing field between for-profits and nonprofits. This, in turn, should (and is) having an important beneficial impact on overall state public policy.

#3 – Scandal is good for passing even tougher laws – Lest there be any doubt, it’s worth remembering that the omnibus ethics and lobbying reforms of recent years are ultimately attributable to one man: Jim Black.

While it took the hard work and dedication of many good legislators along with the advocates at the Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, Democracy NC, Common Cause, and many other organizations to make these changes a reality, it was Black’s disgraceful behavior that forced lawmakers to accept the end (or at least the curbing) of their culture of freebies.

And so, with any luck, it will be Easley’s fall that will spur the next round of housecleaning and reform. At this moment, there are efforts pending in the General Assembly that would take the next logical steps to lessen the influence of big money in state politics. Let’s hope the apparent self-destruction of Mike Easley is just what is needed to help seal their final passage.

#4 – The man and his beliefs – While Mike Easley did some good and progressive things on occasion as governor, no one could rightfully characterize him as a “progressive.” Rather, he was a pragmatic centrist who moved right and slightly left – depending on the issue and the polls.

To claim that his questionable behavior that has now come to light was or is in any way a reflection on the progressive cause (as in “all big government liberals are in it for themselves”) is, in a word, preposterous. To the contrary, it is the culture and economy of greed and self-aggrandizement that progressives seek to combat. When people like Easley (or Black and Edwards) exhibit those kinds of selfish behaviors, it is the progressive cause that they most obviously betray.

 #5 – Another opportunity to be consistent – Last but not least among the positives is the opportunity that the Easley scandal provides for progressives to show their true colors. Unlike some of North Carolina’s conservative think tanks, which maintain a hand-in-glove relationship with the Republican Party, progressive nonprofits in North Carolina take their non-partisan status and arm’s length relationship with politicians and political parties seriously.

As such, the Easley episode provides yet another opportunity for progressive advocates to do what they do best: to speak truth to power and to fight for social, economic and political justice – whatever the consequences for the various political parties and politicians affected. 

Let’s keep pushing.           

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.