Lessons learned from [Jim] Black History Month

by Jim Longworth

February 2007 will forever be remembered in North Carolina not for honoring outstanding achievements by black people, but for marking the fall of a corrupt white man whose name is Black.

The demise of former House Speaker Jim Black took far too long to play out, and only escalated when one of his cronies started squealing. Black now faces a $250,000 fine and a possible 10-year prison term. And like mobster Al Capone, who eluded police for numerous murders but was finally nabbed for a lesser crime, Jim Black was snagged for accepting $29,000 in cash gratuities from several chiropractors in search of political favors. Black delivered on the quid pro quo by advancing three bills that would have restricted insurance co-payments. During one of the clandestine payoffs, Black warned his contributor, “This is just between you and me. Don’t you ever tell anyone about this.”

But someone did tell, and now Jim Black is history. Beyond that, I find it amusing that a chiropractor turned out to be Black’s backbreaker.

But the illegal cash gift was just the tip of the iceberg for the Mecklenburg optometrist, turned lawmaker, turned lawbreaker. Black’s cronies corrupted the state lottery bid process, had their hands in the video poker industry and managed to land cushy, non-existent jobs or assignments at taxpayer expense.

And, unbelievably, Black was not charged with any crime connected to the Decker scandal, arguably his worst offense. In that instance, Black had arranged to pay Kernersville delegate Michael Decker to switch parties so that Big Jim could retain his speaker’s post. Decker is one of five Black allies who have since pleaded guilty to various crimes, but he is certainly the most high profile. That’s because the Black & Decker partnership drilled holes in our sacred democratic process in which voters, not politicians, get to decide what political party controls a particular legislative body.

And so, Jim Black has pled guilty to the least offensive of his offenses, and will likely receive royal treatment at a country club-type correctional facility.

For now that’s where the story ends, but the lessons of Jim Black History Month should not be lost to either voters or lawmakers. From here on out, the golden rule should be: “Don’t support corrupt politicians.” Easier said than done.

Every legislator in Raleigh enabled Black’s addiction to power, and I’m not sure such behavior (by offenders and enablers) won’t be repeated in the future.

After all, the Democrats who served during Black’s reign benefited from his favoritism and control of the legislative agenda. Meanwhile Republican lawmakers curried favor with Black lest they be shut out of the process altogether.

And through it all, members of both parties knew how Black operated. Still, no one from either side of the aisle came forward. No one filed a complaint. No one even sent anonymous notes to the media. They all just let our legislative bodies be hijacked by a home-grown terrorist bully. To think that these ostrich-like lawmakers will change their ways and never again let one man control the political process is, perhaps, naïve. We can only hope.

And then there’s Gov. Mike Easley, who also benefited from Black’s antics, particularly the Decker scandal. That debacle allowed Easley to advance his own agenda and preserve his power base.

Meanwhile, voters in Mecklenburg bear some of the responsibility for enabling Jim Black’s bad behavior. They repeatedly re-elected him even after many of his crimes had been well documented and widely reported. Have those voters learned a lesson from Jim Black History Month? I doubt it. People that blind and stupid rarely change their stripes even when their fallen heroes are forced to wear stripes.

In a sense, though, North Carolina lawmakers, the governor and Mecklenburg voters were all more than just enablers. They were co-conspirators in a series of scandals that misappropriated taxpayer dollars and abused the electoral process. As of yet it’s not a crime to be stupid, or to suck up to a powerful politician. If it were, then Jim Black would have lots of company when he finally faces incarceration.

But in this era of plant closings and layoffs, the rest of us need to know that our interests are being fairly and legally represented, and in that regard the aforementioned co-conspirators let us all down.

Of course, it all comes back to Black. He’s the one on trial. He’s the one who will pay the price. I’m just sorry that his crimes couldn’t have been dealt with sooner.

For the past two years I have been calling for Black’s resignation and prosecution, but no one would listen, least of all the speaker, who was determined to hold on to his power at all costs. I find it tragically ironic that an optometrist couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).