RALEIGH – It’s not a question of if, but of when.

By which I mean, when Rep. Jim Black, Democrat of Mecklenburg, will become just plain Rep. Jim Black, Democrat of Mecklenburg. Not Speaker of the House. Not the leader of a bare-majority caucus, held together with twine and good luck and large amounts of campaign cash. Not the political paladin of the state’s largest metro, sparring with the rest of the political establishment that hails from the East.

I’ve been of the opinion for many months now that Black’s speakership was nearing its end. Folks told me I was sadly mistaken. They said that Black was too good a politician, too skillful a tactician, too clever a dealmaker to be done in by a few missteps. They said that the Democratic Party was too reliant on him to countenance a dethroning, despite the spirited efforts of a few party activists.

It’s not a question of if, but of when.

Lobbyists told me that because Black would leave only on his own timetable, they saw no alternative but to continue to work with and support him. Fellow members assured me that Black’s problems were primarily the creation of political enemies and a scandal-hungry news media, that he’d done nothing illegal or even unethical and had at worst been guilty of poor judgment in his choice of staff and appointees. Some Republicans, resigned and a little embittered, said that Black had too strong a hold on fellow Democrats to be threatened by anything other than a federal investigation. Other Republicans hoped that he’d never leave, at least not until after November. And some pundits said that Black’s ethical problems were themselves a reason for him to stay put, that they would lend him credibility and incentive to promote ethics reforms in state government.

I submit that all these folks miscalculated. Perhaps they were so close to the workings of the General Assembly that they didn’t comprehend how squalid the place looks from the outside. Blank checks stuffed into the speaker’s hand? Payoffs to Republican members to switch sides in a leadership fight, campaign cash that could easily be – and indeed was – converted into personal money? Lobbyists simultaneously running both his political operation and, in some ways, his speaker’s office? Threats to his critics? If these were characteristics of “business as usual,” its bankruptcy lay around the corner.

It’s not a question of if, but of when.

The chorus of individuals and institutions calling for Black to step down as speaker started out as a barbershop quartet. Now it can perform oratorios. Over the weekend, the final crashing notes came from the Raleigh News & Observer and, most importantly, The Charlotte Observer in Black’s backyard. It had previously editorialized that he should stay. While its news pages were filled with exposes, the editorial page had held back. Black and his aides had obviously been playing to the Observer as a key constituent for months. Now, that voter has been lost, too.

To say that Jim Black cannot survive as speaker is not to suggest that he is guilty of, or will be convicted of, any serious or not-so-serious crimes. The standard for criminality is much higher than what is needed to invalidate a claim to political leadership. Knowing just what we know now, there is simply no way for Black to keep juggling all those balls in the air. He’ll be dogged at every step by pesky questions and demands. Investigations will continue. Democrats will begin to jump ship (it’s already happening). The newspapers will keep competing for the next scoop, while editorialists will repeat their calls for resignation.

It’s not a question of if, but of when.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.