The trial of former U.S. Senator John Edwards has been getting plenty of attention across North Carolina in recent weeks, mostly for the wrong reasons.
Edwards became involved in an affair with Reille Hunter while he was running for president and his wife was dying with cancer. When Hunter became pregnant with his child, they staged an elaborate cover-up to pretend an Edwards staff member was the child’s father. The entire situation is shameful, a web of infidelity, dishonesty and conspiracy. Even so, those headlines belong primarily in the tabloids.
The reason news media should be paying attention is because Edwards attempted to deceive not only his wife, but also the American people. (The jury gets to say whether that includes criminal misconduct.) Further, his behavior follows a too-familiar pattern among North Carolina politicians in recent years – they believe they are above the law.
Readers who haven’t been paying close attention might be surprised by this being described as a familiar pattern. That’s because most in the news media did a shoddy job of reporting on the previous scandals. Few of them had the sex-appeal of the Edwards scandal, but several of them had far more serious legal significance, even if the convicted parties managed to evade the punishment they deserved.
The top of this list belongs to former Speaker of the North Carolina House Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, who was comfortable with taking bribes in a truck stop men’s room, among many other curious ideas about conducting government business. While Black did serve several years in federal prison, his intolerable abuse of power and arrogant refusal to step down in the face of mounting evidence remain shocking. Equally disturbing is the failure of the major newspapers and TV stations in North Carolina to either investigate Black early on or do enough to publicize his crimes. And the nature of Black’s crimes make it clear that he had many enablers on both sides of the aisle in Raleigh, most of him have never been called to account.
A close second to Black is the head of the executive branch during his tenure, former Gov. Mike Easley, who was convicted of a felony for campaign improprieties, but managed to wriggle out of serving term or even losing his right to conduct law.
To be certain, Republicans have also had their criminals in high places. Former GOP state party chief Sam Currin also went to prison. This joker had the nerve to bill himself as the moral champion of religious conservatives in the party, all the while lacking any moral compass of his own.
A full listing of these criminal state leaders from former Congressman Frank Ballance to former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps could go on for some length.
The point is that most North Carolinians have no idea that their leaders have proven so worthless. The news media has not done their job in this state. But the state’s courts have been even more despicable in their failure to hold elected leaders to account. Instead it has taken federal courts to step in and bring those fleecing the people of North Carolina to justice.
As we go to the polls this fall to choose another batch of elected leaders, North Carolina voters should ask tough questions about, not just policy or party alignment of those for whom they vote, but also about character and competence. If you can’t pass those tests, you don’t belong in office.