Strange bird, Mike Easley. I've only met him once—he was attorney general then—when I interviewed him during the 2000 gubernatorial campaign. We were scheduled for an hour. I ran out of questions after two and a half hours, and I left thinking that he was a different person than the man so widely described to me beforehand as aloof to the point of skipping out the back door from the few public events he didn't skip altogether.
In person, however, he was completely relaxed, talkative even, if finally pretty conservative. He said he liked to operate behind the scenes. Way behind, I'd been told. Especially if being out front might cost him points in the polls.
Seven years and two winning election nights later, Gov. Easley remains an enigma in Raleigh. Politicians say they rarely see him. Reporters assigned to the Capitol don't see him either, except in carefully controlled situations, or when there's a hurricane—then, and only then, Easley is all over the airwaves, issuing warnings, directing traffic, the picture of leadership. Otherwise, he's tough to find.
But according to the polls, the voters like him. Or better, strike the word "but" from that last sentence—maybe it's because he's so tough to find.
So anyone expecting Easley's last "State of the State" message Monday night to be about the tough issues facing North Carolina was bound to be disappointed. Oh, issues were mentioned, and Easley was the picture of leadership, smiling and confident, as he dished his lofty aims. But lofty plans didn't follow.
Imagine, for example, if Easley had used this grand occasion to attack the issue of political corruption in Raleigh, so ripe in the wake of the Jim Black scandals, instead of just skipping over it with hot air. "The pay-to-play system must fall!" he could've said. "My 10-point plan for reform begins with public financing of legislative campaigns, the end of gerrymandered districts, and no more 'floaters' in committee meetings or midnight budget amendments....
"And one more thing," he might've added. "Stop calling me 'Your Excellency.' Your governor is a public servant, not some feudal lord who needs tributes from his serfs. I'm not, and neither are you!"
OK, so maybe political reform isn't Easley's issue (it's not), and he thinks it's fine that you can't get elected in North Carolina unless you're rich, have rich friends, or—like Jim Black—take money in return for favors done from the public till.
But what about renewable energy—a huge issue—and alternatives to more nuclear, coal and petroleum-fired power plants? That could've been the centerpiece of a great speech, and it could've begun on a note Easley actually hit: "We can't just keep building more power plants." So what was his plan? Unspecified tax credits and incentives from the utility companies. It was like the fax from Progress Energy never arrived.
Or what about the enormous funding gap where our urban transit and highway programs are supposed to be? Transportation was termed "our biggest need by a factor of 10" Monday by state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Charlotte, when a special state commission (co-chaired by Easley aide Dan Gerlach) met to consider the growing backlog of infrastructure projects in the state.
But Easley never mentioned transportation at all, let alone sprawl, its political co-dependent.
Ditto hog farms. They're still there. Cesspools too.
Ditto the mental health crisis.
Ditto the prison crisis—except we do gotta build more prisons, the governor said.
One reason Easley's not very ambitious is that state revenues are strapped, and the reason for that is a tax system from buggy-whip days. It's regressive, meaning it taxes low-income folks disproportionately, and it's riddled with pro-bidness loopholes, with the result that it doesn't grow along with the economy, where gains are highly concentrated on bidness and the rich.
Tax reform would've been a good subject for Easley too. He did propose cutting income taxes for poor folks—details unspecified—but the truth is, they don't pay much anyway. The real reform would be asking the rich to pay more.
Even in education, Easley's pet subject, it was baby steps, not a bold plan. I love the idea of "Learn and Earn," compressing four years of high school and two of community college into a total of five years with a chance to work and learn, too, at, say, WakeMed.
It's in 75 schools now, Easley said. He wants to "take it statewide," but seemed to be saying that while every student could choose it, only a few would be expected to do so.
Why not real reform? All 4-year-olds go to school and have after-school programs, too. Then we abolish 12th grade. Or, rather, 11th grade becomes 12th grade, and then you go to college if you want, but it's all "Learn and Earn" from that point on. Higher education is free, the way it's supposed to be under the state constitution, but with the proviso that everyone who goes does public service.
It's the sort of thing you used to hear from governors when they weren't just the picture of leadership, but actually tried to lead. That Mike Easley's poll numbers are so high while he's so invisible is only evidence of an insidious problem in our politics: We're so used to our public officials hiding out with the rich, most of us have forgotten what leadership looks like.
It looks like hard work.
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