Speaker’s ethical problems not troubling voters

by Jordan Green

Democratic legislator Jim Black, who serves as the speaker of the NC House of Representatives, has been plagued by accusations of influence peddling and illegal campaign fundraising for the better part of a year.

The growing web of his disreputable entanglements, which included a discredited legislator and former lottery chairman both convicted of fraud, has intrigued both the media and his political opponents. But to their dismay, voters seem to be turning their attention to other issues.

A recent poll conducted by Elon University pegged voter awareness of the Black scandal at around 50 percent; last month, another survey conducted by the conservative John William Pope Civitas Institute revealed awareness levels well above 50 percent.

Forty-nine percent of the Civitas poll respondents said that state democrats should ask Black to resign. More than 70 percent of those aware of the situation expressed low or no confidence in Black, according to the Elon University figures. The Elon poll also revealed that Black’s scandals would influence the votes of about one quarter of their respondents.

Interviews with a handful of Greensboro residents on Oct. 24 confirm some political scientists’ findings that voters are more focused on national issues like the Iraq War and immigration than they are on statehouse scandals.

Liza Dewey, a 21-year-old student walking down Tate Street on Oct. 24, said she had not heard of Jim Black. She said immigration issues, particularly her opposition to a 700-mile border fence, would weigh most heavily in her decision.

A couple teachers also on the street named general dissatisfaction with the Bush administration as their biggest issue. They bemoaned the erosion of civil liberties and shifting priorities.

“I don’t like the changing focus in which monies are being moved away from things that were helping people,” said Pete Delaney, 34.

“Like student loans,” added Paul Silvia, 30.

The sentiment was the same closer to downtown. At governmental plaza campaign workers handed out cards near the entrance to the Old County Courthouse, an early voting site.

Across the street from the polling site and last-minute campaigners, Scott Floyd, an 18-year-old registered Republican was eager to talk about the upcoming election, which will be his first. He was not familiar with Black.

“Is it bad?” he asked about the legislator’s scandals.

Although some of those interviewed recognized Black’s name, only one out of 10 expressed familiarity with the accusations against him.

“If I was able to vote against Jim Black it would make a difference in the way I vote,” said Brian Walker, 29.

Voters in Guilford County cannot vote for or against the House speaker, who is running for reelection in his Mecklenburg County district. Some local Republicans have tried to link the Black scandals to Guilford County Democrats who took campaign contributions from the legislator.

One explanation for low voter interest in Jim Black’s conduct might be the sheer complexity of the issue, said Thomas Stith, vice-president of the Civitas Institute.

“The sad problem is that there are so many scandals,” Stith said. “There are improprieties around the lottery, fundraising from video gambling and bribing other legislators to switch parties. But I do think that people are aware of general scandalous conduct.”

In their study, Civitas pollsters asked respondents about their awareness of the congressional scandal surrounding the conduct of Rep. Mark Foley from Florida. The influence of Black’s behavior on voters just edged Foley’s, with 38 percent indicating that the underaged page scandal would impact their vote compared to 43 percent who said the same about Black’s fundraising improprieties.

Several of those questioned admitted they were not that well informed about the issues but would look into candidate’s positions closer to the election. Others had a general feeling that the country was heading the wrong way under the current administration.

“To me the most important issue is the effectiveness of government,” said Scott Stephens. “It’s the fact that the government doesn’t represent the people.”

Respondents in the Civitas poll favored the Democrats as the party more likely to clean up government, despite high awareness of the House speaker’s problems.

Stith said that monthly Civitas polls have shown a growing awareness of Black’s scandals during the past year, but that more could be done to educate voters.

“While it has been reported on heavily in the media,” Stith said, “it really hasn’t been capitalized on or utilized within election campaigns.”

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