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Sunday, November 28, 2010

North Carolina's Former Governor Mike Easley, From Favored Son To Felon.

Long, odd arc of Mike Easley as mystifying as the man himself

RALEIGH -- When Mike Easley was sworn into office as governor for his second term in January 2005, the world seemed to lie at his feet. He was the Southeast's only two-term Democratic governor; political operatives whispered about a future bid for president.

Five years later, Easley is a felon. His transgression seemed like a simple booking error: failing to properly file campaign finance reports. But the two-year criminal investigation revealed a classic political scandal: popular politician undone by gifts and favors. In his case, a discounted vacation lot, loaned cars and campaign contributions used for home repairs.

The exposure and legal fight have shattered Easley's once solid reputation, decimated his finances and could have him fighting for his law license.

It's a far fall. And, for many, nearly inexplicable.

Though Easley held leadership roles in the state for nearly two decades, he is perhaps the least understood politician in North Carolina's history.

Easley and some of his backers say the explanation is simple: He has been mugged by both sides of the political spectrum, from a Republican U.S. Attorney's Office and from The News & Observer, a paper with historically Democratic leanings.

"He happened to be governor in the 'gotcha age,'" said Joseph Cheshire V, Easley's attorney. "We live in this age of 'no matter what you do, someone is going to find fault with it.'"

"Mike is a nice, personable guy who does his own thing, in his own time in a way he wants to do it," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, who has known Easley and worked with him since the 1980s. "That's what people don't understand about him, and people aren't keen on things they can't understand."

With all the promise 2005 brought, some say Easley felt trapped as governor. It was a snug fit: an introvert in the state's biggest fishbowl and a politician who disliked politics.

Some look for answers in that second term, when his quirks were accentuated - an outsider who never really fit, a loner who tended to distrust people, and a tightfistedness that went beyond frugality.

Outsider to insider

Easley had always been a bit of an outsider, a Catholic altar boy in Rocky Mount, a largely Protestant Eastern North Carolina town. A lifelong learning disability made it difficult for him to read; he struggled in school.

Early in his career he embraced his outsider status as a district attorney in southeastern North Carolina. Easley went after political corruption, helping prosecute 34 public officials in his three-county district, including former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green.

Despite this, Easley thrived politically. He projected a friendly next-door neighbor image, the funny guy who could impersonate just about every big politician in the state.

He would soon be invited to play politics on a statewide level, when political scouts saw how he captivated voters during commercial spots for Tony Rand, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1988.

Easley would eventually be elected attorney general twice and governor twice, claiming nearly two decades in the state's highest offices.

Despite his political triumphs, Easley wasn't the Democratic Party's guy.

The unspoken back-scratching required of party loyalists made Easley bristle. He sometimes refused to return the calls of major fundraisers.

"Easley was a puzzle to many people in Raleigh, especially the political and journalistic community," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "He was not given to press conferences and speeches. ... His personal habits and his way of doing things were not what we were accustomed to."

Easley craved privacy. Friends say he is fiercely independent and slow to take counsel. In his final years in office, he was nearly invisible to the media. When reporters pressed, he seemed to retreat more.

"He has his own way of going about things. He was not as open as some politicians. He never craved the limelight," said Berkley Skinner, a lifelong friend from Rocky Mount.

Easley's own rules

Easley had an unorthodox style of governing.

His Cabinet secretaries had extraordinary discretion to run their own agencies.

"I think he got to where he was on cruise control with everything second term," said Nick Garrett, a former fundraiser from Wilmington who befriended Easley and performed house repairs that came under scrutiny at the State Board of Elections. "He had all his comrades in good positions working for him and watching over things."

Easley's hands-off style provoked criticism by those who say he largely ignored major problems within the mental health system and probation system in those years.

Easley also kept his own hours, often staying awake much of the night. It was not unusual for him to take off in the middle of the day to play golf, especially in his later years in the governor's mansion.

Though Easley made tremendous strides in education and the economy while governor, most citizens best remember his antics. At a fundraiser in Concord, he drove a NASCAR car as a stunt, and he crashed it. He would later repeat the episode in downtown Raleigh as he raced in the streets around the Executive Mansion.

When Easley faced his biggest of decisions, he often did it alone. Few political advisers had access to Easley. And when they spoke, Easley often seemed uninterested.

Even those considered to be on Easley's side of the political fence were kept at arms' length.

He was not close to his predecessor, former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt. Easley had a stormy relationship with such powerful Democratic legislative leaders as Senate leader Marc Basnight and House Speaker Joe Hackney. Easley was not even on speaking terms with his own state party chairman.

And so, when Easley fell, he was alone.

Easley's circle believes Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue threw Easley under the bus by releasing travel records that sparked much of the investigations. And U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan also did Easley no favors when she said she would not pressure the Obama administration to replace Republican U.S. Attorney George Holding until his investigation of Easley was finished.

"Mike kept a very close circle," said Garrett, the former fundraiser. "He kept to himself and made light of politics. He wasn't really interested in what others thought of it either."

Tight with money

As dominant in Easley as his wit was his intense frugality, rooted in childhood.

His grandfather had owned of a chain of tobacco warehouses, but the family fortune sharply declined when Easley was a child.

"Money was not plentiful [in the Easley home]," said Skinner, the childhood friend. "He worked all his life. That was because of necessity."

In college, Easley was teased for his unwillingness to spend money. Fraternity brothers, such as Jim Hughes, tell stories of Easley going on a trip with $5 in his pocket and returning with $10. Even Cheshire, his lawyer, laughs when he remembers Easley inviting him to lunch in the 1980s, then disappearing when the check arrived.

For most North Carolinians, the governor's $139,000 salary is handsome compensation. But in the business world in which governors operate, middle-level executives earn that amount or more.

"He could have made a fortune out there practicing criminal law," said Michaux, the legislator. "He made no fortune serving the people. And the temptation to have it is always there. It surrounds politicians."

Governors often cash in after they leave office, joining lucrative law practices and corporate boards.

"He would have had money beyond his ability to spend it if he had had the patience to wait a few years," said Hughes, who has written about Easley's tenure in state government.

Instead, Easley made decisions in his second term that would draw scrutiny from investigators and reporters.

"He's so smart and so capable," said Les Merritt, former state auditor and a Republican. "You really have to look at it and wonder if he thought he was doing anything wrong ... in my mind, though, he brought it on himself."

The fall

Last week, there was no gloating about Easley's fall.

Even those who have criticized Easley in the last few years say that his fate is tragic.

"He was such a great man brought to earth by such small failings," said Hughes.

"It seems extremely minor what he did," Basnight said. "Mike Easley never gained anything from his public service. I give thanks to Mike, not condemnation."

His friends wish the controversy would blow over so Easley might move along.

"As it would be for anyone, he was hurt very much by what was said about him in the media and by what people said behind his back," said Skinner. "It took a toll on him."

Easley never dreamed of political pursuits beyond his years in the governor's mansion, friends say. He always meant to return to a life he found most comfortable: well beyond the eyes of the public.

Even those simple desires are now in jeopardy.

He always hoped to practice law with his only child. Michael Easley, his son, passed the bar exam this year and took a job with McGuire Woods, the same firm Easley had to quit last year.

"They wanted to be a team," Cheshire, his lawyer, said. "Right now, that, like many things, are on hold."

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