There are two words that strike fear in a politician’s heart: Grand Jury.
Especially when they appear in a newspaper headline like this: ‘Top Black Aide Appears before Grand Jury’ (News and Observer, March 15). Which is what happened last Wednesday in Raleigh.
Why were two of Democratic Speaker Jim Black’s aides testifying before a Grand Jury?
Four years ago, Republicans won a 61 to 59 majority in the State House. Then Republican Representative Mike Decker switched parties. With Decker’s help Jim Black was elected Co-Speaker of the House.
Decker lost his seat in the next election. It appears Black’s error was to arrange a “soft landing” for him after his defeat. According to the newspapers, Black created, or got the Department of Cultural Resources to create, a $45,000 a year state job for Decker. Then Black funded the job with money from a ‘reserve’ fund he controlled. ‘Reserve’ fund is another word for ‘pork barrel’ money. Or, more unkindly, it’s also been called a ‘slush fund.’ Whatever term you use Black provided the money, Decker got the job and that’s what Black’s two aides were testifying about.
This is the latest in a chain of scandals and Black’s future has become the subject of debate – ‘buzz’ – in Raleigh. What everybody wants to know: Will he survive?
I’m certainly not Jim Black’s closest friend. But I have met him and like him and, in a way, I think it is ironic that he is being pilloried for doing exactly what Democrat politicians have done for years – reward friends, supporters, contributors with state jobs, etc. (State Treasurer Richard Moore raising money from people he hires to manage state pension funds is another example.)
I suspect, in part, Black may be wondering: Why did this happen to me and not Marc Basnight, or Tony Rand, or Mike Easley or Richard Moore?
Black is blaming the Republicans (and the media) for his dilemma. He says Republicans are continuing “to sling mud and make up lies about me and other Democrats.” But you can’t blame the Republicans (or the press) when they have the facts right. Speaker Black’s real problem is what the press has dubbed ‘pay to play’ – the way Democrats have raised money and used government for their political purposes for years. More succinctly, his problem is allowing himself to become part of the system.
Jim Black is the master of ‘inside’ politics. He knows how to get things done ‘inside’ the legislature. But the world of politics doesn’t start and end in the legislature. There’s a whole big world out there of voters and they read newspapers and watch TV. And Black never seems to have understood that ‘pay to play’ – rewarding political supporters like Mr. Decker with state jobs – doesn’t sit too well with voters at all.
Democrat legislators didn’t blink an eye when Black rewarded Decker with a job – they probably even have thought it was clever. But voters tend to take the use of their tax money more seriously than legislative ‘insiders.’ And they frown on it when tax money goes to provide grants or appropriations or whatever to people who raise – or give – money to Black or any other politician.
‘Pay to play’ has been going on a long time but it didn’t become front page news until two very aggressive reporters for The News and Observer – Dan Kane and Andrew Curliss – started digging.
The result has been a steady drumbeat of front-page stories – none of them the kind of publicity an elected official wants. That, combined with an aggressive federal prosecutor and, now, an aggressive State Board of Elections has taken a toll on Black’s political credibility.
Will he survive? So far his House Democratic colleagues don’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with ‘pay to play.’ They have stuck by him. But several recent polls show Black’s credibility plummeting. And the bad news for Democrats is the Republicans, at last, seem to be waking up to that fact.
Up until this week the Republicans have been oddly silent on these scandals. They had not held even one press conference holding Marc Basnight, Mike Easley or Tony Rand responsible for their particular versions of ‘pay to play.’
But last Wednesday, after Black’s aides testified at the Grand Jury, State Republican Chairman Ferrell Blount did have a press conference. And the message he sent was loud and clear: ‘We think making Jim Black the issue in this election is the way for us to win in November.’
Frankly, defeating Black, personally, in his House seat will be difficult. The way the House and Senate handle redistricting, it’s easier to fly to the moon than beat an incumbent legislator who gets to draw his own District. But there are enough ‘swing’ seats that Republicans could retake control of the House.
But even if Black wins – and survives – I think one thing is certain. He cannot continue to do business as usual in the State House. This is not a scandal where he can keep his head down and in six months go back to doing what he’s always done. What is not going to survive – at least in the State House – is ‘pay to play.’