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Black's Departure From Field Intensifies N.C. Speaker's Race

Posted December 13, 2006

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— The halls of the Legislative Building buzzed Wednesday a day after Jim Black decided he wouldn't run again for House speaker, while maneuvering among his seven potential replacements intensified as they sought to build support.

"It's a wide open race," said Rep. Jim Crawford, D-Granville, as he made courtesy calls Wednesday morning to offices of fellow House Democrats. "I'm letting them all know that I've been fair with everybody. I don't have a personal agenda to push."

Black told The Associated Press late Tuesday night he wouldn't seek a fifth term as the chamber's top official, an effort he said was aimed at returning the party's focus to issues rather that his ethics and legal troubles.

"The General Assembly is not, and should not, be about any one individual, all 170 legislators are here to do a job and represent the people of their district," Black wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to colleagues. "I am hopeful that the media will now focus its attention again on the important work we do in Raleigh and in our districts, instead of just being focused on me."

Dozens of people linked to the Matthews eye doctor have appeared at the federal courthouse over the past year, and many have said they were called to testify before a grand jury. Federal prosecutors have also questioned the credibility of Black's testimony in the trial of Kevin Geddings, his former appointment to the state lottery commission.

Black has consistently denied any criminal wrongdoing and said he is not the target of a federal investigation. He dismissed the suggestion that he pulled out of the race because he was worried about a possible indictment.

"I have no more reason to think today that I'll be indicted than I did a year ago," Black said Tuesday.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh didn't return a phone call seeking comment, but political status hasn't made a difference in past corruption cases the office has prosecuted. State Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance had both resigned from office when they were indicted.

"I do not believe it will have any impact on what the grand jury or what the U.S. Attorney's Office decides," said Dan Boyce, a Raleigh attorney and former assistant federal prosecutor. "What the grand jury focuses on is whether a crime was committed during a period of time. What happens after the fact is usually, but not always, of consequence."

Black's withdrawal from the speaker's race magnified an already busy day at the Legislature, as dozens of incumbents returned for study committee meetings and recently elected members attended orientation. About 25 House Democrats had dinner with Black Tuesday night at a Raleigh restaurant, where he announced his decision.

"It kind of does clear the air a little bit for our caucus to come together," said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, another candidate. "I'd like to see him go out on his own terms. ... I'm certainly glad he could do that."

Holliman and other House members interested in the speaker's job talked with colleagues Wednesday, seeking their support. Several Democrats interviewed Wednesday said that no candidate had a clear majority of the 68 votes in their caucus.

"I do expect to pick up some of these votes that were committed to him," said Rep. Drew Saunders, D-Mecklenburg, who had initially planned to support Black for another term.

Another candidate, Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said Wednesday he wants House Democrats to meet before Christmas and decide on their choice for speaker by early January. Michaux calls caucus meetings as the House Democrat with the most seniority entering the new two-year session. Black, who said he has no plans now to step down from his House seat, wants to help choose his successor.

Other candidates roaming the halls were former Speaker Dan Blue of Wake County, reappointed to the House this fall, and Joe HackneyMajority Leader Joe Hackney of Orange County. Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, also is considering the job.

Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, a close Black lieutenant, quickly threw his support Wednesday to Crawford.

"It's a sad thing but life moves on, leaders change and the business has to go on," Owens said.

Crawford was one of three Democrats who helped GOP Rep. Harold Brubaker stay speaker in 1997, while Blue garnered Republican votes in 1999, when Black won his first term as speaker by one vote. That could hurt their chances when the official speaker's vote is held Jan. 24.

"Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen until the day it happens," Owens said.

It will take 61 votes to get the top job.
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