SCOTT MOONEYHAM: An Eventful Year
Two stories truly dominated politics in North Carolina in 2006. One was actually playing out half a world away, but just as it did throughout the country, the Iraq war cast its shadow on the political landscape in this state.
Try as they may, Republican candidates from congressmen to county commissioners couldn't hide from the war's effects.
The other story was distinctly North Carolina's -- the fall of one of the state's most powerful politicians, House Speaker Jim Black.
The year began with hearings into Black's campaign finances by the State Board of Elections. The most startling revelation: Former state Rep. Michael Decker of Forsyth County, whose party switch led to the power-sharing agreement that kept Black in power in 2003, had improperly cashed campaign checks funneled to him by Black and his network of donors.
The hearings included a parade of those donors, including Black's fellow optometrists and video poker operators.
When the hearings concluded, the board determined that Black had violated campaign finance laws and referred its findings to state prosecutors.
Those alleged misdemeanor violations, though, weren't as damaging as the Decker-related revelations.
By August, Decker had pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge in federal court and was cooperating with federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging investigation of Black's office.
The guilty plea increased speculation that Black would not be able to retain the powerful speaker's post when the General Assembly convened for the 2007 session in January. Some former Black supporters began to jockey for the job.
Three months later, Decker named Black as a co-conspirator. His statement in federal court followed the conviction of former lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings -- a Black appointee -- on five counts of mail fraud.
With the start of a new legislative session drawing nearer, Black finally gave in to the growing pressure from the public and from within his party. The Mecklenburg County Democrat announced in December that he wouldn't seek another term in the job.
Doing so, he ended a record-tying tenure of eight years as speaker, presiding in the job during a time when it became increasingly powerful and more important as a chief party fundraiser.
Questions remained, though, about whether federal prosecutors' political corruption probe would lead to criminal charges against the grandfatherly, bespectacled man who, a few years before, most North Carolinians never would have suspected was one of the most powerful politicians in the state.
Black's troubles came in a year when his fellow Democrats enjoyed spectacular successes at the ballot box.
The most noteworthy victim was longtime Republican Congressman Charles Taylor, who lost his 11th District seat in western North Carolina to Heath Shuler, a Democrat and former football star.
Taylor, though, wasn't alone.
Democrats took over boards of county commissioners long held by Republicans. They beat Republican sheriffs. Long-shot Larry Kissell, with little help from the national party, nearly took the 8th District seat of Republican Congressman Robin Hayes in the southern Piedmont.
And in the North Carolina General Assembly, Democrats expanded their margins to 68-52 in the House and 31-19 in the Senate.
"It's the war, stupid," said former Democratic campaign consultant Gary Pearce.
His words were echoed by fellow political commentators and analysts.
A repudiation of the party in power in the White House and in Congress, by a nation worried about how to extricate itself from a tragic, troubling war, had reverberated all the way down the ballot.
Bitter Morgan Battle
Before the November general election, North Carolina's primaries led to a bitter local election resulting in the ouster of former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, a Moore County Republican.
Morgan, beaten by local businessman Joe Boylan, had been banging heads with conservative GOP activists since he entered into a power-sharing agreement with Black.
Prior to the May primaries, state party officials decided that they wanted Morgan gone. So, after passing a resolution calling for his political head, they trucked activists down to Moore County to knock on doors on Boylan's behalf.
When the mud settled, Boylan had won a close race.
Morgan wasn't ready to stop battling just yet. He took a complaint to the state Board of Elections alleging that longtime political rival Art Pope, a Raleigh retail merchant and former legislator, had illegally pumped corporate money into the race.
The board dismissed the complaint, but Morgan appealed to the courts, which have yet to take up the case.
Campaign Law Broadened
Pope's use of a so-called 527 organization to produce mailers trying to damage Morgan wasn't the first time such a group formed in North Carolina. Both men had organized similar 527 campaigns, which utilize corporate dollars, in 2004.
But the controversial use of the organizations, which are able to skirt traditional campaign finance laws, broadened in 2006.
The North Carolina Association of Realtors utilized the organizational structure to send out mailings supporting one of their own, Democrat Allen Dameron, in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican state Rep. Bonner Stiller of Brunswick County.
And days before the election, a 527 largely supported with money from the state Democratic Party rolled out a television ad campaign endorsing four state Supreme Court candidates, three of them Democrats.
The Republicans' woeful showing on Election Day coincided with a decision by state GOP Chairman Ferrell Blount to step down. His top staff member at party headquarters, Bill Peaslee, followed suit shortly after.
The moves, and longstanding rifts among North Carolina Republicans, led to speculation that national figures Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr would step in to try to influence permanent replacements more interested in trying to heal intra-party wounds.
Lottery Kicks Off
The year also marked the beginning of the lottery in North Carolina.
On March 30, state lottery officials launched the game by selling scratch-off tickets. Two months later, the state had joined in the multi-state Powerball game.
Although the launch went smoothly, early numbers showed revenues slightly lagging behind projections, creating concerns that -- as the last state on the East Coast to begin playing the game -- it might not meet the $400 million target.
During the 2006 legislative session, lawmakers followed up previous reforms by largely banning gifts, meals and campaign contributions from lobbyists to legislators and legislative candidates. The legislation also created a more powerful state ethics panel and beefed up economic disclosure requirements for legislators and executive branch officials.
Months later, lobbyists were still trying to sort through the new rules to be clear on the dos and don'ts. Critics, meanwhile, questioned whether loopholes would have any real far-reaching effects.
And as the year neared its end, yet another political season loomed, with the willful and the wannabes already eyeing 2008.
Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards was expected to make another bid for the Democratic nomination for president. Republicans showing interest in a run for governor included former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, state Sen. Fred Smith and Salisbury lawyer Bill Graham. The two Democratic heavyweights talking the talk were Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore.
Two years, though, is a long way off. And another year of typical political turmoil may shake or shape those plans.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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