"Did you hear? Our benevolent imperial imam Barack Hussein Obama is coming to North Carolina. Hey Governess Perdue, what are you going to be doing Wednesday? Hanging out with your buddy Barack? That should provide a real lift to your re-election campaign! I'll bet Pat McCrory is just green with envy." — James Madison, from "PBO's coming to a town near you," September 2011
Historically speaking, James Madison was the country's fourth president and the principal architect of our nation's Constitution. Based on most accounts, he was erudite, a lifelong politician, a slaveholder and a proponent of strong state governments. He's also been dead for 177 years.
But at leecountync.wordpress.com—a blog little known outside of rural Lee County—Madison is quite alive. He's also a well-spoken tea partier with a gift for a quip. He believes President Obama is a Marxist and an imam, or a Muslim cleric. And he thinks the governor's title is gender-dependent. It's not.
Madison is just one of many Founding Fathers—including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine—speaking from the grave at the website. What do they have to say? Listen.
"He's no president, he's more a religious leader," Madison wrote of President Obama in September 2011. "Aren't we expected to fall in line and worship at his temple of sacred spending? Didn't we hear his Adhan calling us to kneel and pay homage to his new plans for increasing taxes on all of us who make a decent living? Like every good imam, he has made it clear it's his way or the highway."
This blog is the worst-kept secret in Lee County, where many credible sources say its founder and frequent author is Jim Womack, chairman of the state's Mining and Energy Commission, an appointed board tasked with preparing the state's regulations for hydraulic fracturing by 2014.
A tea party firebrand, Womack also serves as a Lee County commissioner from Sanford. In the state's Republican Party, he is a rising star whose face—for the moment—is largely unknown in North Carolina.
Lee County political observers whisper that Womack may be readying a campaign to challenge Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers in 2014. If so, Womack would follow his brother, a GOP congressman in Arkansas' 3rd District, into Washington, D.C.
His website, which calls itself "Lee County's Top Political Blog," is an on-again, off-again haven for like-minded right-wingers to publish manifestos on local, state and national politics. Multiple authors, writing mostly anonymously as Founding Fathers, fire off diatribes that savage their political enemies.
Anonymity is highly prized on the site. On its welcoming page, Madison writes that the blog's objective is to "focus on the message, not the messenger or the messenger's agenda."
Among their ruminations, the messengers take potshots at Obama and former Gov. Bev Perdue. They cast the county's public school superintendent as a crook. And they mock a local political blogger for, among other things, his weight, his mental illness and his disability checks. The blog and its somewhat mysterious authors are rarely spoken of in public, even though Womack's Twitter account links directly to the site.
To critics of the blog and of Womack, the blog is inflammatory, inappropriate and unethical.
To Womack backers, it's an expression of free speech. It's also a patriotic, albeit dramatic, homage to the nation's Founding Fathers.
Sources say Womack has written behind the name of Madison, but Womack, a sharp-tongued West Point graduate and former Pentagon intelligence adviser, is uncharacteristically coy on the subject.
In a brief—and angry—interview with INDY Week Monday afternoon, Womack refused to confirm or deny that he is Madison or that he writes on the site under pseudonyms. Yet he defended the practice by arguing that Founding Fathers—the historical kind—sometimes would write under other names.
"This is a free country," Womack said. "People are entitled to assert their own opinions whether they use their own name or a surname. To be honest with you, I don't care whether some folks like it or others don't. It doesn't bother me. It is a form of expression. We have freedom of expression in this country."
Womack softened his refusal when confronted with a September 2011 comment on the blog in which he—writing under his own name—acknowledged he will "occasionally construct a post" for the blog. Womack's online admission came after one commenter urged him to reveal his identity.
However, Womack says no one can be sure of his online handle because a name on the site can be shared by multiple authors. He also asserted multiple times that his involvement with the blog is not newsworthy, before abruptly hanging up.
"I don't think the T72 death trap is my kind of vehicle. Now, the Israeli Merkhava is the Rolls Royce of tanks and would suit my fancy just fine." — Jim Womack, October 2011
In tone and vitriol, at least one of Womack's email correspondences matches James Madison's blog posts.
In a seething October 2011 email following a particularly tense county discussion of economic incentives—a major issue for Womack—the county commissioner talked of firing numerous department heads, including Lee County Manager John Crumpton. Womack also labeled the county's attorney a "liberal incompetent" and, bizarrely, talked of military retribution.
"I told Crumpton earlier this week he should recognize I am a Cavalry officer with a 20-year career on tanks," Womack wrote on his private email account. "I learned to destroy things in three ways: (at long range) with my 120mm main gun; (at close range) with my 7.62 and .50 cal. machineguns, and (most violently) with the tank tracks from these 60-ton beasts. Right now, I am looking for something to run over."
Womack later apologized after the email became public following a records request by a local blogger, but he blamed county officials for releasing a document he insisted was not public record. (Under state law, it was.)
To some, the email was merely an embarrassing moment for Womack, a deeply conservative, religious man. His promises of major reforms resonate with people in recession-weary Lee County—an ailing industrial region bordering Chatham County where unemployment hovers around 12 percent.
But it also was the first glimpse at Womack's online double life, which includes multiple handles on various websites. On the site of the local paper, the Sanford Herald, Womack operated several anonymous usernames, a fact confirmed by former Herald editor Billy Liggett. Under these pseudonyms, Womack tossed barbs at his political opponents and reporters. (Disclosure: INDY Week staff writer Billy Ball is a former Herald reporter.)
Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, calls Womack's behavior "questionable."
"In an age where people have gone from skeptical to cynical of government officials, we don't need more examples of people in public office who are engaging in what I think could be called questionable behavior," she says. "And the Internet is a very convenient way for people to hide."
Nadler, a former city councilwoman and mayor in Santa Clara, Calif., has more than 25 years of experience in public office. For the last decade, she's been a researcher on government ethics at the Markkula Center.
Nadler says public officials such as Womack have a "higher responsibility" to maintain honesty and transparency, lest constituents feel they have been misled by people they have elected.
Furthermore, Nadler says, any misdeeds by Womack reflect poorly on the man who appointed him to the Mining and Energy Commission—N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County.
"When you as a member of the public see a public official, you hope that what you see is what you get," Nadler says. "In this case, it appears there is a whole other side of this person the public might not know."
Unethical it may be, Nadler says, but illegal? Probably not, according to Susan Lundberg, an attorney at the N.C. State Ethics Commission.
Lundberg says many of the state's ethics rules pertain to conflicts of interest. If an elected or appointed official such as Womack benefits financially from their actions, a case may be made. When it comes to activities such as an anonymous blog, state ethics commissioners' hands are tied.
"It's quite limited," Lundberg says. "It's not what you necessarily think of overall as things that seem to be unethical."
Fleming Bell II, a government professor at the UNC School of Government, is an expert on state ethics guidelines. Bell says that Womack's comments, while "obnoxious" to some, are Womack's right to make.
"A 'Manchurian Candidate' in the White House couldn't do a more effective job of destroying all in this country that is noble or worthy. [...] I urge all freedom-loving citizens to do their part in removing this menace from the White House. He is destroying our nation and our way of life." — James Madison, from "A Call to Action," January 2012
Nevertheless, critics say Womack's tight-lipped online war directly contrasts with his public persona where, as a campaigner, he casts himself as an outspoken, transparent conservative. When it comes to politics, his technique is, thus far, effective.
At an election forum in 2010, Womack dismantled the Democratic opponent who challenged him to produce the budget savings he so publicly promised. "Give me a knife," Womack boasted to raucous cheers. "I'll cut it out." And when he crushed his challenger in fall 2010, it came as little surprise to many.
In typically moderate Lee County, which includes more registered Democrats than Republicans, Womack has led something of an outsized GOP renaissance in recent years, first winning election to the Board of Commissioners in 2010 and then, two years later, throwing his support behind likeminded conservative candidates intent on giving the county a facelift.
As election filing began in 2012, Womack—waving a jumbo-sized American flag—led a parade of Republican candidates through downtown Sanford to the county board of elections office.
Such antics—and the speculation about the Founding Fathers blog—have earned him many enemies, including a political action committee that railed against Womack-backed candidates in last year's local elections, dubbing those candidates the "Womack militia."
Nonetheless, Womack is achieving his political goals. Last month, he helped disband the county's environmental review committee, which had once offered a tepid and reluctant analysis of fracking risks. Now, Lee officials say Womack is pursuing reworked infrastructure in Lee County that will allow for the greater water consumption that fracking demands.
Throughout Womack's public victories, the blog has prospered. Madison acts as a de facto moderator, penning the blog's first post in June 2010 and offering yearly reviews of the site's traffic.
Meanwhile, some Lee County officials have quietly seethed about its content.
"It shows me that the person won't stand by what he says," says Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive. "It's basically gutless. It's hard for me to take anybody seriously who would resort to this type of communication."
One of the blog's most frequent targets has been the Lee County Board of Education, with posts assailing its members and Superintendent Jeff Moss as little more than money-bilking cronies.
Current school board Vice Chairman John Bonardi clashed with the Founding Fathers blog in April 2011, when a post accused Bonardi and other board members of wasting taxpayer dollars on a training trip to San Francisco. One problem: Bonardi never made the trip, and at least one other school board member paid his own way.
Bonardi said he phoned Womack to demand a correction after the post. By the day's end, Madison was offering a mea culpa on the blog. Bonardi is still steamed.
"I think it's cowardly," he says of the blog. "And I would expect more of a West Point graduate and a member of our military."
Former board Chairman Shawn Williams says he spoke many times with Womack regarding the site. Williams says Womack conceded his involvement but would never reveal his blog identity.
"It's totally unethical and a disgrace," Williams says. "That's my biggest problem with the blog. It's a way for him to spew his feelings, his attacks against another public official, and not be held accountable."
Former Lee school board member Bill Tatum, who ran an unsuccessful state House bid last year as a Democrat, has also been a blog target.
"It's disgusting," Tatum says. "From some points, I'm as conservative as Jim Womack, but I just can't abide his type of politics."
Perhaps the site's most vitriolic posts were reserved for Keith Clark, a dissenting Republican blogger in Lee County who publicly backed Womack opponents. In multiple posts, blog writers called Clark a "psychopathic liar" and a "pitiful and desperate person."
Authors offered thinly veiled jabs at Clark's weight, dubbing him "KFC" and posting altered photographs of a shirtless Clark munching on fried chicken. The "F" stands for "fat" or "freak," according to one commenter. To another, it means "fabrication."
One post includes a photo of a snoozing Clark at a local Chamber of Commerce function, with the text describing Clark as "the most hated man in Lee County." But in the most scathing post, a writer posing as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Jay accuses Clark of faking mental illness in order to collect disability checks.
Clark calls such attacks libelous. However, Clark has often used his own blog to level similarly inflammatory attacks against Womack and his allies, often promising to deliver proof of alleged malfeasance. Many Clark opponents say his site, which has been dormant since November, is equally guilty of lowering political discourse. However, as Clark points out, his online communications are signed.
"I believe that anonymous blogging is part of what has brought the decline in civility in the political spectrum," Clark says. "And it's feeding a dangerous feeling in which people do not want to be engaged in politics."
Sanford Mayor Pro Tem Sam Gaskins, a Democrat, says the online posts are also hypocritical for conservatives like Womack.
"They talk about transparency but they hide more than anyone else," Gaskins says. "How can you talk about transparency when you won't even speak under your own name?"
Former Lee County Commissioner Richard Hayes, another Democrat frequently under fire from the blog's authors, calls the site's tactics "in the poorest taste," adding that the site's most incendiary posts—including the Muslim jabs at President Obama—are "extremely offensive."
"It shows a lack of stability, which is very concerning," Hayes says. "He sounds like a loose cannon, and I think it's totally inappropriate for someone to hold public office and have this dark side to their personality and yet come across as a crusader on a white horse."
Womack initially denied the Muslim cleric reference in James Madison's post, but when asked if he had referred to the president as an "imam," Womack said that, if he did, it was made in a "passing or joking" manner.
Lee GOP Chairman Charles Staley did not return multiple calls from the INDY, but county Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Kirk Smith, a Republican, says there's nothing wrong with the blog or Womack.
"He's a very intelligent individual who absolutely gets down to the bottom of the facts," Smith says. "He amazes me every day."
Smith added that the historical Founding Fathers used pseudonyms to avoid apprehension by British authorities. Conservatives face a similar threat in modern times from the "politically correct," he says.
"We live in a politically correct world where some people just don't like the truth," says Smith. "And it's a long-standing tradition of Americans who can use an anonymous title. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it."
For the moment though, it appears Womack, despite his many adversaries, remains in political good standing among the far right. Womack hung up before he could be asked about his role as chairman of the state's fracking board.
Berger did not return calls for comment before deadline Tuesday.
Womack maintained Monday that he has done nothing wrong.
"Last time we checked, it's the United States of America," he said. "And we have freedom of speech."
That may be true, Nadler points out, but that doesn't make it right.
"There's something I always tell public officials when I hold ethics seminars," she says. "Just because something is legal doesn't mean it's ethical. Yes, you should obey the law, but the law is the floor, not the ceiling."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Double agent."