“I admire him as a political leader,” Bob Hall, the leader of Democracy South says. “And I had the feeling there, well, I just felt like it is a system that is corrupting good people. … When you are put into that environment, I think it’s chewing up good people.”
Hall was talking about N.C. House Speaker Jim Black, at the recent State Board of Elections inquiry into the links between political contributions from optometrists and the passage of a new law requiring eye exams for students.
While I do not share Hall’s sympathy for Black, I do think Hall is correct in his assessment that the entire political machinery in North Carolina is rotten to the core. Sticking good people into a rotten corrupt system tends to produce corrupt politicians and corrupt legislation.
North Carolina is in the grip of a pandemic of corruption, unrivaled in our state’s history since the times of royal corruption at our state’s birth. As Elisha Douglas remarked in “Rebels and Democrats,” about that earlier period, “for sheer effrontery the corruption in North Carolina in its extensiveness and in its implication of leading political figures equals the activities of more modern political machines.”
It is not corruption simply limited to abuse of election law and political contributions. It is deeply systemic corruption associated with a general lawlessness of those who hold elected and appointed power. N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps used her elected position to extract concessions from fair concessionaires, and her father attempted to excuse her behavior by saying, “That is how we always do it.”
Senators from northeastern North Carolina wanted a ferry channel from the mainland to Corolla, and they simply bought a ferry in a secret transaction and used the ferry to dig the channel without authorization. Four state workers pleaded guilty, the ferry director resigned, and one ferry worker ended up dead, with his hands tied behind his back and a black plastic bag over his head.
U.S. Sen. Frank Ballance needed $2 million in tax dollars to run for Congress and so he simply stole the money from taxpayers in a nonprofit scam. Elected county commissioners in northeastern North Carolina wanted a new gas pipeline and benefitted themselves with public dollars through insider trading on the ownership interests in the pipeline.
N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett continues to maintain a slush fund of $5 million for Black and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight in the wake of a controversy that erupted when the practice was exposed in March 2005.
The president of a fingerprint technology company, which received more than $300,000 from the state Tobacco Trust Fund, despite creating no new permanent jobs, helped the state-funded North Carolina’s Northeast Partnership with another project just as he launched his own business.
There is a fundamental constitutional disconnect between the governed and the governors in North Carolina that has existed from the founding of the state and explains much about the foundations of corruption. The citizens have too little political power and the political class has way too much unaccountable power.
The pattern of corruption in each case has certain elements in common: secrecy, insider trading using public dollars for private gain, disrespect for elemental civil rules of procedure for public discussion and debate in the General Assembly, and manipulating legislation at the last moment before members can see the changes.
The solution to corruption is the extension of citizen democracy. The reforms sought by Thomas Jefferson to the Constitution of 1787 are still valid and for exactly the same reasons. The few, the well-born, and the privileged were not born with boots and spurs equipped to ride the backs of the common citizens, yet the citizens, in North Carolina have precious little constitutional ammunition to fight back against the corruption.
Granting the citizens the rights of recall and referendum would go a long ways to correct the abuses inflicted upon them by a political elite who operate as if there were never to be a day of reckoning. Without the extension of citizen democracy, sticking more good people in the corrupt system will simply lead to more corrupt politicians, a lesson being slowly learned by Black.
Thomas E. Vass is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.