Republican Victories Headed State News
By Scott Mooneyham
Capitol Press Association
It's hard to imagine that 2010 will be remembered, at least in North Carolina political circles, as anything other than the year of the Republicans.
For the first time in more than a century, Republicans won majorities in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly. The electoral victories - booting from office longtime Democratic incumbents from sprawling mountain districts and those from farming communities in the East - came amid continued financial woes for the state and as a former North Carolina governor became the first ever to plead guilty to a felony for acts while in office.
The year was one of historic political happenings, even if some wouldn't be remembered so fondly by those involved.
Democrats in North Carolina and elsewhere began the year with the political landscape tilted against them. Barack Obama's popularity had eroded. Polls showed Gov. Beverly Perdue doing even worse.
A stagnant economy put Democrats on the defensive. In Washington and in Raleigh, they were in charge. The blame for an economy that couldn't shake off high levels of joblessness fell on them.
In North Carolina, Republicans put together a state-level money-raising and candidate-recruiting organization that finally rivaled that of the Democrats. Tom Fetzer, a smooth former Raleigh mayor and political consultant, became the GOP's attack dog. As chairman of the state Republican Party, he didn't disappoint, relentlessly pounding on Perdue and the Democrats.
By the end of summer, the still-soft economy forced Democrats to acknowledge that they had problems. Political insiders expected that the state Senate - where a number of longtime Democratic incumbents were retiring - would be up for grabs. By Labor Day, it became apparent that the Democrats' grip on the House was in jeopardy too.
Republican activist and businessman Art Pope led an independent expenditure campaign that went after vulnerable legislative Democrats with mailers and TV ads attacking their voting records. On Election Day, the results were stunning. Republicans in the House completely reversed their 16-seat disadvantage, winning a 68-52 majority. In the Senate, Republicans went from holding just 20 seats to a 31-19 majority.
The GOP's win meant that the reign of Marc Basnight, one of the most powerful political figures in the history of the state, was over. For 18 years, Basnight had been state Senate leader, directing state resources to the East and to the public university system that he had come to champion despite never earning a college degree.
The Republican tide, though, promised the emergence of new leaders. A small-town lawyer from Rockingham County, Phil Berger, had pushed his way through earlier internal strife among Senate Republicans and led their election effort. By Election Night, he stood poised to take over Basnight's position.
In the House, a two-term retired IBM executive from the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius, Thom Tillis, was chosen by fellow House Republicans as their guy to become the next House speaker, to replace Democrat Joe Hackney.
Republicans' election success may have been helped along by Democrats' legal problems.
The federal investigation into the activities of former Gov. Mike Easley ramped up in January, when former Easley administration lawyer Ruffin Poole was indicted on 51 criminal charges related to public corruption and tax evasion. By spring, after federal prosecutors added a few more charges, Poole began cooperating. He pleaded guilty to a single charge of tax evasion.
Just after the election, it was Easley's turn. In a plea deal, he essentially pleaded no contest to a single campaign finance-related felony in exchange for no prison time and a $1,000 fine.
To some North Carolinians, it appeared the former governor had gotten off light. His lawyer, Joe Cheshire, argued otherwise. He said Easley had been hounded for actions never before viewed as criminal, and the weakness of the case was seen in the result.
Perdue, meanwhile, had her own legal problems. After she fessed up to a few dozen unreported airplane flights, the state Board of Elections eventually fined her campaign $30,000. The civil fine didn't prevent state and federal prosecutors from announcing their own investigations of the Perdue campaign.
Perdue also saw little letup in the financial problems that had been plaguing state government since she took office. "For two years, we've been fixing the bleed," she said.
The governor and legislature were able to stem some budget cutting with federal stimulus dollars. And tax collections, after dropping off in 2009, slowly began recovering in the second part of 2010.
Still, the federal aid was set to end in the next budget year, and $1 billion in taxes was set to expire. Legislative Republicans and Perdue pledged that they would allow them to do just that, leaving a $3.5 billion budget gap to close. Perdue promised substantial government streamlining as a result.
SBI Under the Spotlight
Published reports also put the State Bureau of Investigation's crime lab on the spot, calling into question years of testimony by lab analysts in dozens of cases. Lab analysts had allegedly hidden test results favorable to defendants and embellished results favorable to prosecutors.
An audit requested by Attorney General Roy Cooper found that analysts didn't always include all blood test information handed to courts. The report also recommended that local prosecutors re-examine 190 cases where the lab's results were called into question.
The SBI's head, Robin Pendergraft, and the state lab director stepped down as a result of the findings. But the effects of the lab's shattered credibility were still being felt in the courts at year's end.
Another top state official, Ken Lay, secretary of the Department of Revenue, saw his tenure end because of controversy within his agency. Lay stepped down after acknowledging that the agency had stopped refunding some inadvertent tax overpayments because of a policy change.
Lay cited a 2007 law in making the change. Although lawyers for Perdue and Cooper had signed off on the change, Perdue said she was outraged and ordered that the department reverse course. Within a few weeks, Lay was gone.
Perdue also replaced yet another Highway Patrol commander as trooper bad behavior continued to draw public attention. And she continued to spar with aluminum-maker Alcoa, three years after it ended operations here, over control of dams on the Yadkin River. The company appeared no closer to gaining federal re-licensing of the dams after the stop withdrew a critical environmental permit.
In the General Assembly, legislators passed another round of ethics reform, a series of bills providing tax breaks designed to lure new companies to the state and began requiring DNA testing of suspects arrested for some crimes. State lawmakers also took another stab at closing down video poker operations after court rulings undermined earlier efforts.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story