Rep. Wright Is an Unlikely Folk Hero
Being a folk hero probably won't save Thomas Wright from his fate.
Even so, it became pretty obvious during a legislative misconduct hearing that lawyers for the state representative meant to transform him into just that, if nowhere else back in his Wilmington House district.
A special House committee, after three days of testimony, ultimately recommended that Wright be expelled from the chamber. If the full House agrees, he would become the first legislator given the boot in 128 years.
Losing his legislative seat, though, could be the least of Wright's problems. He also faces corruption-related felony charges, and his criminal trial may start at the end of the month.
Still, Wright's lawyers did all they could during the legislative hearing to turn their client into the victim, another black man from Wilmington wronged by white Democrats from Raleigh.
"I object to my client being treated in a Jim Crow hearing in 2008," Wright lawyer Doug Harris said.
The lawyers raised the specter of the 1898 Wilmington race riots. Ironically, some of the corruption charges leveled at Wright have to do with his efforts to create a museum to remember the race riots. Just one problem: He's alleged to have pocketed charitable donations intended for the project.
This racism scenario also has a few other problems.
-- Two other former legislators embroiled in scandal and now imprisoned, Jim Black and Michael Decker, are white. Yes, Black should have faced some legislative ethics actions long before his imprisonment. Even so, Black avoided the issue by resigning just before his criminal indictment. Decker lost his legislative seat before the scandal really erupted.
-- One of the committee members who voted to expel Wright, Rep. Marvin Lucas, a Cumberland County Democrat, is black. Three of the committee members are Republicans, not Democrats.
-- And what about the scale of his alleged wrongdoing? Investigators say the unreported campaign contributions, an unpaid bank loan and misappropriated charitable donations total around $340,000. Deputy State Elections Director Kim Strach called Wright's campaign reporting the worst case of nondisclosure that she had ever come across.
But again, Wright's strategy during the hearing had more to do with politics than legalities.
He has filed to run for re-election. Perhaps being a victim of "the man" in Raleigh will play well in his district. Maybe voters there can forget for a moment that, for a number of years as a top lieutenant of Black, Wright was "the man."
If he hadn't been, he never would have pulled down the amount of campaign contributions that he's accused of hiding and converting to personal use.
Still, if it does work, a success by Wright in winning an election as the House considers tossing him from the chamber might put House leaders in something of a conundrum.
For courtroom strategy, though, Wright will have to do a lot better. Even folk heroes go to prison.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com.
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