North Carolina Governor Mike Easley on risk-taking in politics

January 22, 2007

An avid Nascar fan, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley has crashed into a wall, emerged from the wreck, and gotten back in the driver’s seat –and that was just his first year in the governor’s mansion. He shared the dramatic stories of his bumpy ride in public service as the speaker for the 10th anniversary of the Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture last January.

When Easley was elected North Carolina’s governor in 2000 after serving eight years as its attorney general, a series of negative events were coalescing into what he called “a perfect storm that had hit North Carolina.” Against a backdrop of steady decline in the number of textile jobs in the state since the passage of NAFTA in 1994, a series of floods in 1999 ravaged 40 out of the state’s 100 counties, closing  textile plants and hobbling the state’s predominantly agricultural and manufacturing economy. In order to salve the resulting $2.5 billion economic downturn and tackle an overburdened budget he inherited upon gaining office, Easley issued an economic state of emergency to balance the budget himself.

Easley was in a particularly tough political position because he had campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes. But, Easley said in his lecture, “I wasn’t going to cut education. This is our way out of the woods in North Carolina.” Instead he made the unpopular choice of asking the state congress to increase taxes. “I put it to them this way, ‘You don’t have to be in the legislature and I don’t have to be the governor, but we’ve got a hundred thousand five-year-olds who have to go to kindergarten next year.’”

The risk to his office was real, as political history attests, most notably in the one-term presidency of George H.W. Bush after he reneged on his “Read my lips; no new taxes” campaign promise. But in Easley’s case the painful tax increases turned out to be a healthy long-term remedy. North Carolina has seen test scores increase and the minority achievement gap close in the five years since Easley took office. Through a partnership between North Carolina’s public schools and community colleges, a revolutionary early college program was started that allows high school students to spend five years earning their diplomas as well as an associate’s degree at no cost.

Easley also made amends to his constituents in a characteristically dramatic fashion. He entered a charity auto race where for every lap he drove above 160 miles per hour, he would raise $20,000 for North Carolina’s public schools. While training for the race, he slammed against the inside retaining wall at a speed of 120 miles per hour. The car was totaled. The crowd at Lowe’s Motor Speedway gasped before watching the governor emerge from the wreckage unharmed.

“The only thing bruised is my ego,” Easley said at the time. Within an hour, the governor slid behind the wheel of another car to continue his race.

Overcoming setbacks and tackling challenges with gusto have been hallmarks of Easley’s public service career. As district attorney of rural Columbus County, Easley took on drug traffickers, and cleaned up corruption on the local level. He sent three local sheriffs to jail and indicted over 50 public officials during his tenure. He also created a rape and child abuse program in his district (and later married the prosecutor who had successfully enacted the program elsewhere in the state).

As the state’s attorney general, Easley cracked down on domestic violence, hate crimes and predatory mortgage lending. Nothing, however, was as difficult and politically treacherous as his decision to sue Big Tobacco in 1998.

“I knew this was going to take a terrible toll on the economy of North Carolina,” said Easley, who, with a consent decree from the court, persuaded tobacco companies to allocate half of the settlement funds to establish the Golden Leaf Foundation, which helps transition former tobacco farmers to other means of income.

“You’ll notice that there weren’t any governors who were attorneys general for the longest time,” Easley said. “It’s a tough office to move on from because you make a lot of enemies doing your job.”

Despite his appetite for risk, Easley is convinced that it’s more important to possess determination and integrity in order to successfully combine a career in politics and public service. Leading by example, he’s done what few politicians have been able to do: walk away from a crash unscathed.

By Graham Reed