Saturday, February 17, 2007

Some Look for Loopholes in Ethics Laws

Below is the text of a newspaper column I prepared on behalf of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education. What prompted me to draft the initial essay was hearing that Republican Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry had led the way in skirting the intent of the campaign finance reforms passed by the legislature. The column appeared in newspapers Statewide, though in truncated form in at least one instance.

Some Look for Loopholes in Ethics Laws
By Wayne Goodwin

RALEIGH - You’ve heard the expression about hiding in plain sight? Elected officials and some lobbyists are already exploiting loopholes to avoid new ethics laws about gifts and the wining and dining of lawmakers. And they are doing it right out in the open.

I recently attended a course in the ethics education required annually for North Carolina attorneys. Part of the course was a review and analysis of the new ethics, lobbying and campaign finance reforms enacted in last year’s state legislative session. As the audience listened to the experts talk about the ban on fund raising from lobbyists, I was stunned that there appeared to be one big loophole that no one was even addressing.

"All that legislators and candidates would need to do is just create a new political action committee not designed to promote a specific candidate or legislator. It could be a generic committee for ‘Good Government’ or one formed within their respective political party for their legislative caucus,” I mused. “Those types of PACs would apparently not be prohibited from seeking contributions from lobbyists except during the legislative session, and could pay for all the meals and gifts from lobbyists prohibited under the law."

Maybe I had a little bit more insight, as a former state legislator myself, but surely if this loophole was as obvious to me then someone else would ask about it or even suggest it. But no one did.

Flash forward several months.

News reports revealed that an organization set up for the election of women officials of a certain political party just sent out fund-raising letters to lobbyists to pay for its annual breakfast meeting on the opening day of the legislative session. As part of their invitation, the committee's leaders (including a female statewide elected official and woman serving as a veteran legislator of that party) included an interpretation by legislative staff attorneys declaring the event was okay under the law. This may have been the first overt attempt to breach the intent of the new ban on lobbyist solicitations by elected officials.

Not to be outdone, within a week or so a PAC designed to help elect members of the other major political party to the state Senate followed suit with its own fund-raising letter to lobbyists.

As stated at the outset, it was just a matter of time before this loophole was blown wide open. Of course, it is difficult to prohibit or limit behavior by political committees that are not candidate committees but are more like political party auxiliaries. I am not an expert in election law, but it would seem the First Amendment and various rulings over the years make it almost impossible to close every potential loophole.

However, consider this: Just because it may be legal for certain political committees to solicit donations from lobbyists, that does not make it the right thing to do. The public wanted these reforms to prevent actual and perceived conflicts of interest, as well as address the cozy relationship between some lobbyists and certain legislators' campaign committees. The intent was to limit or prevent all sorts of abuses that have been observed in recent years. Such abuses, in part, have been increasingly displayed in newspaper coverage across the state for some time.

So what should North Carolina do about this latest development?

How about this modest proposal: While it may be legal to solicit contributions from lobbyists, let's seek a voluntary “cease-fire” regarding lobbyists and them paying for meals and gifts via the parties’ political groups and similar PACs.

Let there be an agreement among all such groups that they will not seek campaign contributions from lobbyists to cheat the intent behind the new reform laws. Let there also be an agreement among lobbyists that they will not contribute to such groups as a sign of their commitment to that same intent behind the law.

And let us encourage our legislators and organizations committed to reforms to pursue better laws that will close or at least narrow further loopholes.

Without such a covenant, we will see the further exploitation of any gaps in the law.

And just as what happens when water breaks through the proverbial dam, if we do not act now then we could face the washing away of some reforms designed to ensure more ethical, cleaner elections.


(The Hon. Wayne Goodwin represented Richmond, Montgomery, Scotland and Stanly counties in the state legislature between 1997 and 2004. He is a member of the board of directors for the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.)

Richmond County Dems Announce 2nd Annual Morrison-Deane-Goodman Dinner

In October 2006 the Richmond County Democratic Party hosted the largest gathering of Democratic activists, candidates and voters since Governor Jim Hunt's 1980 rally in Rockingham.

More than 500 people attended the rip-roaring rally and fundraiser at the Hamlet Lions Club Fairgrounds four months ago.

Joining us were Larry Kissell, our Democratic nominee for Congress; Insurance Commissioner Jim Long; NCDP Chairman Jerry Meek; Chief Justice Sarah Parker; now-Justice Robin Hudson; State Representative Melanie Wade Goodwin; and various statewide, regional and local candidates. We had great food, delightful musical entertainment, and many of door prizes.

(Coincidentally, that same night the local GOP held its rally and - by all accounts - no more than 50 people attended.)

With the success of the Democratic Party rally, as county chairman I could not help but be proud!

This morning the Executive Committee of the Richmond County Democratic Party met and unanimously decided to hold its 2nd annual Morrison-Deane-Goodman Dinner and Rally this year. (For those unfamiliar with the history behind the dinner, I plan on posting such details later.)

Suffice it to say, mark your calendars for Thursday, October 25, 2007.

We particularly ask Statewide and regional candidates to put this as a must-attend event in ink on their schedules. Not only will you have the rare opportunity to meet a multitude of Democratic voters from Richmond and surrounding counties, this may be one of the few times before the May 2008 primary for you to get your message directly and in-person to a solidly Democratic corner of the Eighth Congressional District.

And so you know: Richmond County has asked Larry Kissell to be one of our two primary speakers for the evening. The remainder of the program and the location will be announced by the time of the Eighth District Convention on May 19.

Richmond County is gearing up to do its part to make North Carolina Democratic blue in 2008.

The Jim Black Blot

Jim Black, former Speaker of the House, pled guilty to a felony this week after resigning his Mecklenburg County legislative seat. Without going into all the details – details which Democrats have become all too familiar with during the last two years – we Eighth District Democrats need to consider several matters.

Most of former Speaker Black’s legislative district is within the Eighth Congressional District. Several brother or sister bloggers have identified three or four persons who seek consideration for the now-vacant seat. What persons are interested in throwing their hats into the ring?

Who would you recommend to Mecklenburg Democrats? Why?

Mecklenburg readers in particular, what are your thoughts on who should succeed Jim Black?

In addition to Mecklenburg, are Democrats sensing any political fallout in counties around the Eighth Congressional District? Where might this ordeal, if at all, be a factor in primary or election campaigns?

* * * * *

In my opinion, the overall scandal did not resonate in the 2006 elections because the average voter did not really understand the minutiae and legalisms of some of the campaign finance violations that had been alleged, deliberated and proven.

The equation is different now.

The average voter – heck, even your way below average voter – has no trouble understanding and reacting to what simply was a $29,000 pay-off, complete with secret meetings in bathrooms. What we know now, after the federal plea, is incredibly easy to insert into any campaign’s radio or TV ad or direct-mail piece. And it will happen, believe me. Sadly, some of my former legislative colleagues in close districts will be on the receiving end of such ads crafted by Republican consultants next year. Even though they are good and honest and ethical, hard-working folks, these lawmakers will likely bear a burden for just having been in the legislature at the time this saga unfolded.

As a former legislator and an attorney myself, and with regular interaction with folks in and around Raleigh, we Democrats should heed the following: Prepare ourselves. Why? Because the worst may not be over. The way the plea agreement reads strongly suggests that others continue to be subjects of a federal investigation. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Jim Black pleaded guilty to a felony unrelated – according to all media coverage and insider conversations and informed speculation – to any of the subjects that have previously percolated throughout the ordeal. Those subjects include video poker, the lottery, the Michael Decker party-switch, the House historian position, et al.

Rumors run rampant in Raleigh that one or more long-time, high-level Democratic and Republican officials remain under scrutiny. Some suggest that several lobbyists nervously wonder if they will also find themselves under the microscope and in the courtroom now that Jim Black pleaded guilty and promised cooperation with federal authorities.

In fact, it is not going too far out on a limb to say this: If either the sentencing of former Rep. Decker or former lottery commissioner Geddings is postponed again, and/or if Jim Black’s sentencing is similarly postponed, then that will lend strong credence to the deduction that more indictments are forthcoming. (For those who might not follow me here, the theory is this: If there is more information needed in order to inculpate another person, then potential sources of that information, that is, those persons who already pled guilty and promised cooperation in advance of sentencing, will have their sentencing phases delayed. If the information provided leads to the indictment of another culprit, then such assistance may result in a more lenient sentence.)

As a sidebar, and perhaps this is from overdosing on Law & Order TV shows every week, might there be any persons who have been given immunity as part of their cooperation?

And as for Jim Black personally, this whole chapter contrasts immensely with the rest of his life as I know it.

Though no one of us is perfect, it physically hurts to find out that a heretofore good and honest person has intentionally violated the law and surreptitiously sought ways to gain personally and financially from his official duties.

In fact, many legislators in both parties are stinging right now as a result of what happened in federal court this week. Republicans and Democrats expected a plea related to the known subjects. Based upon their personal relationships with Jim Black, no one ever expected that he had committed any act – unethical or unlawful – that involved personal gain. “A punch to the gut,” is what one legislator and another long-time Democratic blogger each described as feeling.

Regardless, this whole saga has been and continues to be a blot for public servants in the legislature. The vast, overwhelming supermajority of lawmakers is ethical, honest and only in Raleigh to represent both their districts and the State in the best ways they know how. The lapses or sins of a speck of officials over the years truly casts a shadow over all of us involved in public service and, frankly, over politics in general. Given that politics is ultimately the business of the people, it is a sad time.

Out of this horrid nadir I am so thankful that leaders like new House Speaker Joe Hackney are there to pick up the pieces.

When it is all said and done, let us hope that good people will not cast aside an interest in public service as a result of this matter.

If they do, then that is the ultimate penalty we North Carolinians will pay.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Seeking 2008 Victory in Robin's 'Hood

First of all, I’d like to thank the four folks who posted comments within sixteen hours of this blog’s birth.

* * * * *

On to the first topic referenced by these early posters: Who will run for Congress in the 8th District in 2008?

It is a known fact that Larry Kissell has already declared his intentions. Not only has he done so in multiple emails since the final re-count, Larry announced it before 500+ Democrats gathered at the State Executive Committee Meeting at Elon College last month. Party leaders locally and on up to the DNC in D.C. have recognized the same. Larry will run and is running.

In fact, there are reports that Larry’s narrow loss – some of which is blamed on late financial interest by the DCCC and the drenching all-day rain that dampened turnout by enough voters to make a difference – has prompted some to say “give him another chance.” Others have been heard commenting, “Heck, he ran when Hayes seemed invincible and then almost pulled it off; he should be the Party’s standard-bearer again for that reason.”

These are valid reasons.

But, being the Democrats that we are, other loyal Democrats will point to equally valid reasons for someone else to throw her or his hat into the ring.

So who else might run? Will there be anyone else? Should there be anyone else? Will Republican Congressman Robin Hayes run again?

A growing number of us are hearing that State Representative Rick Glazier of Cumberland County and 2002 Democratic nominee Chris Kouri of Mecklenburg County are strongly considering it. Both gentlemen, who are friends of mine like Larry is and perhaps of many of you, are excellent Democrats. They, like Larry and other thinking/breathing Democrats well-versed in the issues and needs of the Eighth, would be hands-down better than the incumbent.

For now, though, the central part of the Eighth is all about Larry running again. He is a known quantity with “recency” and an organization District-wide. Chris and Rick, who hail from opposite ends of the District, also have some base of support in their respective areas.

But if these three are considering a run against Hayes in 2008 because of how close the 4-term incumbent came to losing in 2006, then I’d anticipate other Democrats are considering a bid as well.

And if Robin chooses not to run (more on that below), then all bets are certainly off: We will see a host of Democrats come flowing out of the political spigot as they clamor for that rarity of rarities in Congressional politics - an open seat. We’d probably face a run-off primary due to the balkanization of the vote itself, particularly if the presidential primary remains on the same day here in North Carolina as our other Democratic primaries. (The subject of another discussion another day.)

Is there any likelihood that Robin won’t seek re-election?

Well, speculation is beginning to run rampant about this. In 2005 there was a GOP boomlet in support of Hayes for Governor; the same was duplicated since last November when Libby Dole’s 2008 plans for U.S. Senate came under scrutiny. With no Republican developing any “critical mass” for Governor yet within that party, Hayes has seen his name and potential candidacy re-emerge. And now throw into the mix that Congressman Hayes is in the minority – a backbencher – for the first time in Congress. Not that there may be too much difference where ever he sits since Robin, on information and belief, has no lengthy record of substantive legislation other than an occasional amendment here and there. It is highly doubtful that he could get anything of his own through Congress now except naming a Post Office, a memorial, or neutral resolutions. If a Democrat were in the White House now – instead of 2009 – then I’d say Robin Hayes would not run for re-election in 2008. Right now the only cards he holds are a Republican White House (for the moment), incumbency, and significant personal wealth. (Not a troika to sneeze at but of significantly lesser value than two and certainly four years ago ... and particularly in a District with more registered Democrats than Republicans.)

There has been some speculation that if Robin Hayes did not run and he also did not seek another office, then he might wait until the last minute so he could hand-pick a Republican nominee with name recognition and electoral experience. Some GOP’ers in the western end of the Eighth heard long-time State Senator Fletcher Hartsell’s name crop up under that scenario. Hartsell, like Hayes, hails from Concord. (For those unfamiliar with the North Carolina State Senate, it is noteworthy in this scenario that Hartsell has developed a strong bipartisan following there during two decades.) I have neither seen nor heard any further rumor-mongering about this possibility in at least at least a year.

For now we should and must assume that Robin Hayes will seek re-election.

Regardless, here’s my thesis:

If Rick or Chris or anyone else decides to take the plunge into the 2008 Congressional race by joining Larry, then I ask them all of them to build on the grassroots and “netroots” zeal and excitement we saw in 2006. I ask them to regularly walk the streets in Richmond County and other areas where we have seen manufacturers board up their windows, and talk with the families just barely scraping by. I ask them to look into the crowded courthouse conditions, the devastating cost of Medicaid on our counties’ budgets, and the need for even better schools and better-paying jobs. I ask them to listen to how Eighth District Democrats, Republicans and Unaffiliated voters lament America’s loss of stature and support in the world. I ask them to visit our churches and our synagogues and our community centers to hear the prayers of our senior citizens and our families. Those fervent prayers reflect what this District’s needs are.

That synergy will defeat Robin Hayes – or any other Republican – in 2008.

And take it from me, someone who has been asked about making a Congressional race myself over the last 10 years: Whomever our nominee is, we must win in 2008. Not taking back the Eighth District, in the face of both Democratic gains elsewhere nationally and the depth of our need for a true, working representative of the District, would be a shame. And we’d have no one to blame then but ourselves.

Let’s roll up our sleeves. There’s work to do.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Inaugural Post

OK, I've finally done it!

After spending countless hours - years - reading and posting to other blogs here and yon, I answered my own question: Why don't you start your own? Certainly there are enough opinions and ideas and interests and events worthy of comment, even if I am the only one who ever posts. Or the only one who ever reads it.

I do not see this as a diary, though occasionally it might help me to share what's going on in this part of the southern Sandhills/Piedmont of the Tar Heel State.

So, then, that begs this question: What is this blog about?

Well, first and foremost, a discussion among Democrats and those interested in Democratic Party candidates, issues, campaigns, and the like within North Carolina's Eighth Congressional District. At least through 2011 when the General Assembly must resume its next round of decennial redistricting, the district includes all or some of Anson, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Hoke, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Richmond, Scotland, Stanly, and Union counties.

What else is this blog? I forecast it as another web-based location for folks interested in progressive North Carolina politics, some discussion about history and current events here and nationally, and perhaps even a literary reference now and again.

If this blog has served any usefulness by this time next year, I personally hope to have learned something about myself and anyone else who has invested time in discussing whatever is on our collective or individual minds. We will have had a good conversation and fostered clean, lawful, informative deliberation on whatever comes up. And who knows ... By then we might have done our part in making this corner of Tar Heel Heaven a much better place.

Welcome to Wayne's World and the end of my first entry!