Local News

For Some In N.C. Delegation, Easley's Absence Frustrating

Posted July 27, 2004 7:58 a.m. EDT

— His son is here, working the floor at the FleetCenter.

The Secretary of State and Auditor are here, part of North Carolina's delegation to the Democratic National Convention, which started Monday and is to nominate the state's senior U.S. senator as vice president.

But the state's top elected Democrat, Gov. Mike Easley, is nowhere to be seen in Boston -- and that has some in the party unhappy.

"I think he owes the people of North Carolina an explanation of why he's not here," said Helen Chestnut of Raleigh, a Democratic activist whose husband is director of state party affairs. "I was expecting him to be here, and I'm a little concerned that he's not."

Jay Reiff, a spokesman for Easley's re-election campaign, said the governor decided he had too much on his plate to make the trip north.

"Overall, the governor believes he can better serve North Carolina by staying here and working to bring jobs to North Carolina," Reiff said Monday from Raleigh, shortly before the governor planned a visit to the recently opened Victory Junction camp for seriously ill children in Randolph County.

Later in the week, the governor has at least two job creation announcements on his schedule.

Reiff said Easley is still reviewing bills passed by the General Assembly at the end of its session last week.

The governer also is gearing up for his fall re-election campaign against Republican Patrick Ballantine.

"North Carolina's always been competitive, up and down the ballot," Reiff said. "The governor's not taking anything for granted."

Though Easley's absence has been a subject of speculation among delegates, the state party's line is that they are not surprised that Easley is not in Boston.

"Somebody has to mind the store," said first vice chair Jerry Meek of Fayetteville. "I think what he realizes is he's got a tight race this year. He needs to be home campaigning hard."

Bill Peals, executive director of the state Republican Party had a different take.

"We've always kind of thought he's been an MIA governor for four years," Peals said. "I don't know why the Democrats are grumbling now. ... This is one in a long line of things that Gov. Easley has missed that you would think protocol would demand he be there for."

Easley's campaign points out that Easley went to Iowa to rally support for John Edwards when Edwards was running for President and said that Easley will campaign again for Edwards and Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry in the fall.

Easley isn't the only prominent state Democrat not in Boston for the convention. Though his ex-boss, President Clinton, was to address the convention Monday night, former White House chief of staff and Senate nominee Erskine Bowles is spending convention week on a 40-city bus tour of the state.

"This race is going to be so close and every day counts here, and we can't afford not to spend every day we can out on the road," Bowles spokeswoman Susan Laguna said Monday, as Bowles took a breather between the western and eastern sections of the trip.

For Bowles, there's more bang for the buck to be had putting his face in front of voters than in spending time with Democratic activists who already support his campaign. Laguna said every stop in western North Carolina attracted at least 100 potential voters.

"It's clear that people are wanting to see him," she said. "He needs to do that with people."

Complicating matters for Easley has been the fact that he did not attend a rally held in Raleigh earlier this month for Edwards and Kerry.

In that case, Easley said he had planned a beach vacation with his family before Kerry tapped Edwards as his running mate days before the rally.

"The governor has made it very clear that his job as governor and his family come before politics, and he makes no apologies for that," Reiff said.

He also denied that there is any rift between Easley and the presidential ticket, or that the moderate Easley wants to avoid being seen with Kerry or Edwards.

"He campaigned for Senator Edwards for president in Iowa," Reiff said. "He introduced Senator Edwards at the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Raleigh."

Harriet Ray of Lillington, attending the convention as a non-delegate, said Easley has to decide what is best for him as governor and as a candidate for re-election.

"I would just say that the first job of the candidate is to look after his constituency," Ray said. "I think that in many of the races we have in North Carolina now, you have to make the decision on many levels."

Gary Whittier, a Winston-Salem trial lawyer, supports Easley giving his full attention to economic development issues - like a computer plant Dell reportedly is considering placing in Forsyth County.

"If he thinks staying home is helping North Carolina, I'm all for it," Whittier said. "He's a state governor. He's not running for congress or senate or president."

State auditor Ralph Campbell Jr., who is attending the convention, said he has no qualms about being Boston to support the party's ticket-toppers.

"I'm extremely proud to tie myself to this ticket," he said. "I believe it's going to be a help to all those on the (Democratic) ticket."