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Black Facing His Greatest Challenge As N.C. Speaker

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RALEIGH, N.C. — House Speaker Jim Black has survived his share of political battles. He won the job by a single vote and later had to split power with a Republican co-speaker. He helped guide the state through a $1.6 billion budget shortfall a few years ago and this year kept his party united through a months-long battle over the budget.

"I never bet against Jim Black," said Rep. Bill Culpepper, D-Chowan, one of his top lieutenants. "If anybody thinks he's down and out, you can forget it."

But two months after what may be his greatest victory -- helping pass a state lottery law through a House that rejected such efforts for decades -- the aftermath has mired the four-term Democratic speaker in what may become the biggest battle of his political career.

"He might not be able to survive this," said Hunter Bacot, the polling director at Elon University. "This isn't Louisiana. This is North Carolina, where they fought diligently to get this lottery passed."

The 70-year-old Black, first elected to the Legislature in 1980, said he plans to win re-election in 2006 and run again for speaker in 2007. He dismisses speculation that he may be on the way out.

"They've said that before, so don't place any bets," Black quipped.

It's in the lottery that Black's troubles surfaced this fall. North Carolina was the last state on the East Coast without a state-run numbers game when lawmakers voted this year to create the lottery. It was a major triumph for Gov. Mike Easley, a fellow Democrat, who had long sought a lottery as a way to boost education funding.

As speaker, Black is empowered to name two members of the new state lottery commission. Among his initial choices was Kevin Geddings, a former chief of staff to South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges who led an effort to pass a lottery referendum in that state.

Black called Geddings' past lottery experience an asset. But in the weeks after his appointment, scrutiny over Geddings' connections to Scientific Games Corp., a leading supplier of scratch-off tickets and lottery software, led him to resign.

Geddings, it turned out, once employed Alan Middleton, now a vice president at Scientific Games. And despite repeatedly saying he had no ongoing financial relationship with the company, Scientific Games filings with the state revealed the company paid Geddings $24,500 for work performed this year, including the preparation of a senator for a forum on the lottery.

Attention also focused on Meredith Norris, Black's former unpaid political director. She was also on the payroll at Scientific Games, and took lawmakers, including Black, for thousands of dollars in meals paid for by the potential lottery vendor.

Neither Geddings nor Norris registered as a lobbyist with the state, and regulators who believe their activities, as well as those of Scientific Games and Middleton, broke the law have asked prosecutors to investigate. The company has pledged to cooperate with the investigation; Geddings and Norris have declined repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury has asked Black's office to supply information about any contact he and his staff may have had with more than two dozen people or groups, many connected to the video poker and lottery industries, as well as several companies Norris worked for this year and Thee DollHouse strip club in Raleigh.

Authorities have not accused the Charlotte-area optometrist of wrongdoing, and his attorney says he's not the target of the federal prosecutors, who have investigated the video poker industry for years. But in a state where the General Assembly has largely remained free of corruption, the problems could sully Black and his leadership.

"There's no way to spin this except to make it a major political hit on the speaker," said John Hood of the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation.

Black said he's never heard of many people mentioned in the subpoenas, calling them part of a "politically motivated fishing expedition" designed to hurt him politically and rupture his fragile coalition in the House, where Democrats hold a 63-57 edge over the GOP.

"My caucus recognizes that there are certain groups that would like to get us fighting with each other, that would like to damage my reputation with the public," Black said.

Easley, a former prosecutor, called the speaker's problems "smoke and all that," devoid of any real allegations. And in interviews, several House Democrats, many of whom have relied on Black's fundraising skills and political strategies to keep their party in power, aren't shy about their plans to stick with him.

"Jim's been a good speaker," said Rep. Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, a co-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. "He's been very patient with folks. He's been very tolerant of folks and that's the sort of things that make you respect somebody.

"Until he's accused of something, we're right there," she said.

Earle and another Democrat do say hindsight shows Black could have been more vigilant in vetting his appointments to the lottery commission, and Black admits he wouldn't have chosen Geddings had he known about his ongoing business relationship with Scientific Games.

Allowing Norris to work for Scientific Games while also serving as his unpaid aide may also have been among Black's "misjudgments," said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, one of the prime co-sponsors of the lottery law.

But for now, a key barometer of Black's support -- his ability to raise money -- appears strong. He raised $240,000 at a downtown Charlotte fundraiser late last month, $90,000 more than projected. And he attended two events for fellow House Democrats this past week, including Earle and lottery opponent Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland.

And Black's political opponents -- House Republicans -- have been largely silent.

"For Jim Black to be in political trouble, there's actually going to have to be criminal charges against him," said House Minority Whip Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell.

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