Advocate asks governor to urge Black to step aside

by Jordan Green

Exactly three weeks before North Carolina voters go to the polls to determine whether to keep the current crop of House representatives in Raleigh, a prominent Democratic consultant who has made himself a thorn in the side of the state’s Democratic establishment called on Gov. Mike Easley to ask Jim Black to step down from his position as House speaker.

In a hand-delivered letter dated Oct. 17, Joe Sinsheimer urged Easley to “call Jim Black and ask him to step down as speaker of the House.

“This will be a difficult but necessary phone call,” the letter reads. “The scandal surrounding Speaker Black is more than a ‘blight’ on our state; it has become a distraction to the progressive pro-education agenda that you have championed over the past six years.”

A Mecklenburg County Democrat, Black is campaigning to hold his seat. Locally, most Democratic members of the Guilford County delegation are fending off attacks from Republican challengers who have tried to make a political liability of their ties to Black. Reps. Maggie Jeffus, Earl Jones and Alma Adams have resisted pressure to call on Black to step down from his leadership. The exception is Rep. Pricey Harrison.

Sinsheimer, a Raleigh venture capitalist who was a consultant for the NC House Democratic Caucus in the 2004 and 2002 elections, and has worked on the campaigns of such prominent Democrats as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, launched the website in November 2005. He said in his letter to Easley that he will take down the website at the end of this month, declaring, “I have had my say and my role in this fight is finished.”

Easley has made no response to Sinsheimer’s call to pressure Black to relinquish his leadership position.

“What I can tell you is that the letter has been received,” Sondra Artis, a spokesman for the governor, said on Oct. 20.

Black’s office likewise offered little reaction.

“Generally we don’t comment on outrageous statements by Joe Sinsheimer,” spokeswoman Julie Robinson said.

Sinsheimer has cited two criminal cases implicating Black as reason for him to step aside. Most recently, former NC Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings was found guilty by a federal jury of five counts of fraud by depriving the public of honest services on Oct. 12.

“We are likely to see both a family and a political tragedy unfold in the coming months,” Sinsheimer wrote to Easley. “Federal prosecutors now believe that Speaker Black played a central role in two series of events that have been labeled criminal conspiracies. The recent revelation in the Kevin Geddings trial that Speaker Black dined with Scientific Games lobbyists Meredith Norris and Alan Middleton hours before picking Geddings for the lottery commission is the latest disturbing chapter in this sordid story.”

The other case involves Michael Decker, a former House representative who entered a plea agreement with the US Attorney’s office for the North Carolina’s Eastern District on Aug. 1. Decker pleaded guilty to one count of “conspiracy to extort funds under color of right, to commit honest services mail fraud, and to launder the proceeds of such criminal activity.”

The criminal complaint against Decker noted that the 2002 general election left the House with 61 Republican members and 59 Democratic members, a result that threatened to upset the Democrats’ hold on power. “Decker solicited and agreed to accept $50,000 and other things of value,” the complaint states, “in return for switching from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party and supporting a particular candidate for speaker of the House.”

In addition to calling for Black’s removal, Sinsheimer is urging an investigation into corruption in state government.

“Conduct a top-to-bottom review of ethics in state government with a goal of eliminating, or at least greatly reducing, the ‘pay-to-play culture’ that permeates Jones Street and other parts of the state government,” Sinsheimer wrote. “Too many North Carolinians still believe that government service is an opportunity to enrich themselves or protect their industry’s economic interests.”

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