"Why is everyone so scared to say the obvious?" a Raleigh Democrat asks. "Jim Black should resign now." But Joe Sinsheimer isn't just saying it, he's saying it loud, if you will, with his new Web site JimBlackMustGo.com. Less than a week old, it was closing in on 70,000 hits as of Tuesday morning, which indicates, if not a broad conviction that the Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives should be replaced, at least a morbid curiosity about his survival prospects.
Sinsheimer--Duke, class of '83--is an experienced Democratic campaign hand who "retired" from politics after the 2004 elections, he says, to try his hand as a venture capitalist for technology firms in North Carolina. He insists he's got no ax to grind with Black personally. Rather, he acted as a private citizen and progressive Democrat furious about the "culture of corruption" that Black created--or at least tolerated--as he pushed for passage of the new state lottery.
At the heart of Black's problems, Sinsheimer says, is the fact that he allowed a corporate lobbyist, his ex-aide Meredith Norris, to run his staff in the Speaker's office in her "other" role as his unpaid political director.
That was terrible judgment at best, or else it was cynically unethical, he says, because it was so well-known around the General Assembly that Black had entrusted his public office to a woman paid by private clients who were also potential contributors to Black's political committees.
What wasn't so widely known--because she never registered them as a client--was that among Norris' paying customers was Scientific Games, a company that runs lotteries in 120 other states and countries and was pushing hard for North Carolina to get one, too. Dogged reporting by The News & Observer helped produce that revelation and a series of others that should result in Black's dismissal as speaker, Sinsheimer thinks, including the fact that Kevin Geddings, a Charlotte marketing consultant who was one of Black's subsequent appointments to the state Lottery Commission, had also been--you guessed it--on the Scientific Games payroll.
All of this is the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh, which subpoenaed Black's records related to the lottery bill and has started taking testimony from witnesses before a grand jury. JimBlackMust-Go.com includes a handy summary of what's known so far under the title "The Chronology of Sleaze."
Meanwhile, Sinsheimer's arguing to the House Democrats that if they allow Black to stay in office come next year, they'll be handing the Republican party a weapon it desperately needs to fight the '06 legislative elections. That weapon? The corruption issue.
With a year to go to next November, the Republicans look to be in sorry shape--sinking in the polls, weighted down by an unpopular president and Congress, with no scintillating issues at their disposal and no race for governor or U.S. Senate to create a buzz. The only statewide races, in fact, will be for judgeships.
But, if Black is still speaker, Sinsheimer says, Republicans will have a chance to turn their local campaigns into a statewide crusade for clean government. With Black as the focus, they can also drag in the conviction of former Congressman Frank Ballance for misusing state funds as well as the jailing of ex-Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps for campaign graft.
"It'll be the only thing the press has to write about, and the only thing the public will ever hear," Sinsheimer says. "What else is there gonna be?"
What else indeed? JimBlackMustGo.com was featuring a new charge yesterday, this one leveled by former state Republican Chair Jack Hawke, that Scientific Games--through a subsidiary--contributed $275,000 to a Democratic campaign committee controlled by Black. A spokesperson for the Democrats is quoted as denying any wrongdoing.
I called several Democratic legislators in the Triangle to see what they're thinking about JimBlackMustGo. Those who returned the call--and thanks for that, anyway--had nothing to say for the record beyond having nothing to say for the record.
What I was able to gather, though, is that Sinsheimer's right when he says the Democrats want to see if Black is indicted. If he is, they'll insist that he step down. But if he's not, they assume he can tough it out--and they with him--and they view any effort to nudge him aside now as showing fear: It would be a tacit admission, they seem to think, that the Democrats did something wrong when they passed the lottery.
Well, that's the Tom DeLay standard all right. He was indicted, or else he'd still be the U.S. House speaker. But it's not the right standard. The right standard is that, as fuzzy as the line often is between taking campaign contributions and supporting the contributors' interests, there has to be a line of some kind somewhere, and not just the one that says don't get caught.
Jim Black, like Tom DeLay, didn't seem to know that--or else didn't care.
Some Democrats hint darkly that Sinsheimer, who worked in 2002 and 2004 for the N.C. House campaign committee--and thus, indirectly, for Black--must be out to get his ex-boss. He says no, that he barely knew the Speaker. But even if it were true, that doesn't make him wrong.
Heroes and Zeroes
Time for another installment of the good, the bad and--well, there isn't any gray area when it comes to how we view our politicians' stuff:
Heroes: The congressional team of David Price and Brad Miller--fresh off their joint initiative on Iraq--comes through again. The two Democratic reps had the guts to vote no on a Republican resolution (H.Res 547) inviting the federal courts to get involved in the issue of a local school district's questionnaire. (Yes, it was about sex--how did you know?) The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the questionnaire, whatever you thought of it, was a local matter--no federal, or constitutional, issue involved. That's no fun, the House Republicans said, we'd like to see the federal courts undermine public education anyway--nothing wrong with judicial activism as long as it's conservative activism, after all. Price and Miller were among the 91 Democrats who stood their ground. (For more on the constitutional implications of this case, and H.Res. 547, see www.indyweekblogs.com/dent.)
Zero: Wow. Bob Etheridge again? But on H.Res. 547, our third Triangle rep voted yes, again agreeing with the Republicans that the federal courts should be taking up non-federal issues and screwing with local schools. Shades of Terri Schiavo--another vote on federal jurisdiction that Etheridge and the GOP got wrong.
Heroine: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole. She done good this week by getting behind the Triangle Transit Authority's commuter rail project. Face it, there's a Republican administration in Washington, and we have a pair of Republican senators. And if the senior one--Dole--is against the TTA, or on the fence, it's big trouble. But now that she's pro-TTA, we renew our prediction that the rail project will be built with $400 million from the feds.
Contact Bob Geary at firstname.lastname@example.org