RALEIGH – Gov. Mike Easley has a significant public-relations problem on his hands. I wonder if he and his staff fully comprehend its magnitude.
For years, Democrats and Republicans alike with whom I regularly talk politics have marveled at Easley’s ability to glide gracefully above state scandals and miscues, taking few hits to his reliably middling job-approval ratings and easily winning re-election in 2004. When the governor made unpopular decisions, such as raising taxes or withholding tax revenues from local governments, critics fumed but the general public either assigned blame elsewhere or forgot about them within months. Known to dodge reporters and deflect questions, Easley has kept himself largely out of high-profile controversies, such as the Jim Black imbroglio and the Tall Ships fiasco, in a way that other state governors must surely envy.
But on the notorious Duke lacrosse case, which outside of North Carolina has been essentially the news from North Carolina over the past year, Easley’s luck ran out. Speaking last month at the New York University law school, the governor revealed a lot of information about his tense relationship with Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, and offered candid comments on the prosecution’s handling of the case.
The most-explosive revelation was that prior to the governor nominating him to replace Jim Hardin as Durham DA, Nifong assured Easley that he would not seek election to the post in 2006. Then he did, anyway. “I almost un-appointed him when he decided to run,” Easley said during his NYU talk. “I rate that as probably the poorest appointment that I’ve,” the governor trailed off before adding “I’ve made some good ones.”
Asked about Nifong’s decision early on to hit the national airwaves with grandiose claims about the rape allegations, Easley offered blistering criticism. “That’s how all this mess got started,” Easley said. “He challenged the defense lawyers by talking about the case, calling the kids ‘hooligans.’”
The defense attorneys, in turn, felt compelled to go to the media with what become a series of disclosures disastrous to Nifong’s case. “You can’t comment on that except in the courtroom, and when you do, then the defense lawyers have to stand up for their client,” Easley said. “Then it’s on. All the rules are out the window, then you have chaos, and that’s why those rules are so important and that’s what you got in this case. It’s chaotic. It looks bad for North Carolina. It looks bad for the DA’s office. It looks bad for the criminal justice system in general.”
Well, yes, of course. But this is why the disclosure of Easley’s comments are so damaging. As far as we know, the governor didn’t attempt to rein Nifong in. A former prosecutor himself, Easley seems never to have intervened to encourage the Durham office to do its job properly. When the case took a turn for the outrageous, he didn’t ask for Nifong’s resignation.
What’s worse, when Nifong filed to run for DA last year and drew a strong challenge from Freda Black, Easley didn’t bother to mention that Nifong had lied to him about his political intentions. Democratic primary voters might well have valued that piece of information. By the fall, when Nifong’s malfeasance was clearly evident, Easley made no move to set the record straight. He did nothing.
In the past, the governor has avoided political traps by staying put. In this case, however, inaction was indefensible. And then, rather than explaining all this to North Carolinians through, say, a press interview or statement, Easley journeyed to New York, weighed in way too late on one of the most potent controversies his state has seen in years, and then refused invitations to comment when North Carolina journalists eventually got their hands on a recording.
Not Easley’s finest moment. Not by a long shot. The citizens of Durham and the state as a whole deserve a full explanation – and, frankly, an apology.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.