Local News

Phipps' Indictment May Tarnish Legacy Of Prolific Political Family

Posted July 19, 2003

— When Meg Scott Phipps sought statewide office in 2000, she insisted that her expertise, not genealogy, made her best suited to be North Carolina's agriculture commissioner.

"I say all the time that I'm not running on my birth certificate, I'm running on my resume," Phipps said during the campaign.

Nevertheless, it was the Scott name that helped her grab headlines as the latest generation in North Carolina's most prolific political family. It is a family that has spawned two governors, a U.S. senator and numerous political proteges.

"It's an extraordinary record of service," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The Scotts, once labeled "the smartest country-boy family North Carolina has produced," now face their most difficult challenge: Phipps is accused of perjury and obstruction of justice related to a campaign finance scandal.

"They gave me my first job," Phipps' predecessor, longtime Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham, told The Associated Press. "I hate to see the situation they're in now, but you can't help these things. I think they will redeem themselves."

On July 8, a state grand jury accused Phipps of lying to the State Board of Elections last year about her knowledge of payments that her campaign made to pay off the debt of an opponent in the Democratic primary, who later joined her campaign.

She also allegedly helped her campaign treasurer commit perjury before the board and altered checks used to pay off the former opponent's loan.

She could face prison time if convicted on the five counts against her, although time behind bars is unlikely.

Walking hand-in-hand with her husband, Phipps surrendered to authorities a day after the indictment and is now free, awaiting a possible trial.

She had resigned as commissioner a month earlier after three former staff members were indicted on federal charges.

"It's a nightmare of immense proportions," Wade Smith, one of Phipps' attorneys, said after Phipps left the magistrate's office. "They grieve.

"Meg's mother grieves, and her father also grieves. But they also know this is a journey they're going to have to take."

Like that of all the Scotts, Meg Scott Phipps' political journey began on the family dairy farm in the Alamance County town of Haw River, where Scotts have lived for generations.

Now the family is being forced to sell up to 167 acres to keep up payments on $130,000 in fines handed down last year by the State Board of Elections.

Phipps' great-grandfather, "Farmer Bob" Scott, was involved in the Farmers' Alliance, a political force in North Carolina before World War I. He spent four terms in the state Legislature and ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner.

His son, Kerr Scott -- Phipps' grandfather -- succeeded where his father did not in 1936. He beat the son of the man who had defeated Farmer Bob and becoming the first Scott to win a statewide office.

Kerr Scott gave Graham his first job with the department in 1946, running an Ashe County farm that raised cattle, sheep and burley tobacco.

"He gave me a lot of helpful advice," Graham said. "Kerr Scott loved this state."

In 1948, Kerr Scott ran for governor with a populist message that attracted rural folk as well as soldiers returning home from World War II. He upset the party establishment's candidate in the Democratic primary and replaced the "Shelby Dynasty" that controlled state politics for 20 years with his "Branch-head boys."

"It was the hard-working people that lived at the head of the branch in the woods," Guillory said. "They were ready to take on some of the old, encrusted political traditions of the state."

During his term from 1949 to 1952, Scott pushed a progressive agenda of rural electrifcation, a $200 million rural road-paving bond package and a fight against the state's powerful banking interests. He also appointed the first black member of the state Board of Education.

Kerr Scott's programs made an impact on Democrats across the state. Future four-term Gov. Jim Hunt recalled when the road outside his family farm in Wilson County was paved thanks to Scott.

When Scott won a U.S. Senate seat in 1954, his campaign manager was Terry Sanford, himself a future governor and U.S. senator.

"He was an inspiration," said Sam Hunt, a former Alamance County legislator and state transportation secretary. "He got them out of the mud, so to speak."

Kerr Scott's son, also named Bob, was elected lieutenant governor in 1964 and presided over a state Senate chamber that included his uncle, Ralph Scott, who served in the General Assembly for 30 years.

Four years later, Bob Scott was elected governor, moving Meg and her four brothers and sisters into the Executive Mansion in 1969.

During his four-year term, Bob Scott overhauled state government into the current cabinet system, helped form the UNC Board of Governors and issued the first tobacco tax to help pay for public school kindergarten.

"The changes that came in during (Bob) Scott's term, they were far-reaching but not as eye-catching as what had happened as other governors," said Howard Covington, who researched the Scott family for a biography on Sanford.

Bob Scott remained mindful of the legacy of his father, who believed state government's role was to help rural North Carolina -- what he called "a land of forgotten people."

"The Scott family took an attention to the rural parts of the state that was never made before," said Joe Wheeler, a lifetime resident of Alamance County and its current Democratic Party chairman.

Even in those years, the Scotts suffered political setbacks, often at the hands of the Democratic establishment.

Kerr Scott's hand-picked successor for governor lost the primary in 1952. Later, Gov. Luther Hodges declined to pick Scott's wife, Mary, as a seatholder successor when Scott died in 1958 while senator.

Phipps' mother, Jessie Rae, lost by 9,000 votes in a primary runoff for labor commissioner in 1976. Four years later, Bob Scott ran again for governor, only to be trounced by Jim Hunt in the primary.

Ralph Scott also lost his Senate seat in 1980 to a rising force in North Carolina politics, the GOP.

Jim Hunt chose Bob Scott to lead the community college system in 1983. He remained there for a dozen years. But the family's political power had begun to wane.

Through her youth, Phipps' interest in politics grew, and she spent many days talking to Ralph Scott. Wheeler worked with her on one of Bob Scott's campaigns and felt she showed more interest in politics than any of the other Scott children.

"She and her daddy both share a certain ability to talk to people at all social levels and economic levels and make each of them feel important," Wheeler said. "She was a natural at it, in my opinion."

Phipps failed in her first race, a bid for the state House in 1992.

She was an administrative law judge when she decided to run for the same job her grandfather held for a dozen years. Like Kerr Scott, his granddaughter also wanted to improve farmers' lives.

"They've devoted a lot of time and effort to make it a better state," Sam Hunt said. "That was Meg's intention to carry on."

But campaigns have changed since the days of Kerr and Bob Scott, when victory came about more from shaking hands and pumping the counties' political machinery for votes.

The Phipps campaign wound up borrowing $518,000 -- about half of the funds she raised -- from family members to air television ads in the weeks before the November election. She also allegedly sought and received donations from carnival operators and vendors.

Sam Hunt said the process of electing, rather than appointing, the commissioner is to blame for creating a system in which people running for down-ballot positions must raise a lot of money from the very people they would be sworn to regulate if they won.

That financial web may become Phipps' downfall, he said.

"I think she meant to be a good public servant, but she got involved in the financial mess of the system we're in,"' Hunt said.

Observers of the Scotts don't see them as a political dynasty, playing king-makers even after they leave office. They seem simply to be a family that has had a good run in state politics, Guillory said.

"They never pretended to set up a political machine," he said. "There weren't 'Scott candidates' running all around."

It would be a shame if Phipps' indictment overshadows the importance of the Scotts to North Carolina, he said.

"I certainly hope that all of this doesn't take away or have people forget or diminish the important legacy and contribution that the Scotts made," Guillory said.

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