State News

Leaving office, Easley reflects on tenure

Gov. Mike Easley entered North Carolina's Executive Mansion facing a budget crisis. He left trying to manage another.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley entered North Carolina's Executive Mansion facing a budget crisis. He left trying to manage another.

But the former prosecutor from Brunswick County, who didn't care much for traditional campaigning and won four straight elections for statewide office through effective television ads, largely succeeded in preventing his eight years as North Carolina's chief executive from being defined by those fiscal bookends.

Barred by state law from seeking a third consecutive term in 2008, Easley will leave his post Jan. 10, turning over the state's top job to successor and fellow Democrat Beverly Perdue. He departs having spent eight years focused on public education, and recruiting business to a state whose economy was shifting away from its history in tobacco, textiles and furniture.

"You can't use the weak economy as an excuse not to make progress," he said.

In between responding to hurricanes and other disasters, the former attorney general also helped forge a landmark agreement to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants and pushed through the Legislature a mortgage foreclosure prevention program before the financial crisis surfaced this year.

He even got the state lottery he always wanted.

"It's never been boring," Easley said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "The effort has been to ... create opportunity by transitioning the economy, and by doing that with educational opportunity beyond what we've seen before."

But Easley's often reclusive governing style makes him a difficult man to measure. He preferred his home in Southport to the Mansion, shunning most Democratic Party events and holding few of his own, usually to trumpet a company's creation of new jobs. Easley liked to work behind the scenes.

"Easley is a very hard governor to evaluate because he is shier than other public figures," said Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research. "People want a governor who they feel likes being among the people. ... What they want is a very extroverted governor."

He was sued by several news organizations who believed his administration illegally deleted e-mails, and criticized the state's two largest newspapers in his final days in office for running what he called "gotcha" stories about his administration.

There were others in Raleigh who questioned whether Easley had the passion needed to improve the state's struggling mental health and probation systems. They also pointed to tax and transportation reform efforts that failed to gain any traction.

"The hardest thing to understand is why he doesn't speak out and tell us that he's concerned and tells us he's going to fix things," said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the liberal political watchdog group NC Policy Watch. "We see he's a talented politician ... that's what makes it so frustrating."

For his part, Easley is mildly surprised he lasted this long.

Within a month of taking office in 2001, he declared a fiscal emergency, angering local governments and state retirees by intercepting pension fund money and tax reimbursements to balance the budget. He went on statewide television that August to call for a one-cent hike in the sales tax, money he said he needed to avoid deep spending cuts for education.

"I remember telling (first lady Mary Easley) this may be one term for us. But we've got to get this done," said Easley, 58, his once salt-and-pepper hair now completely gray.

Compared to predecessor Jim Hunt, Easley had a strained relationship with the fellow Democrats who controlled the General Assembly - he issued the first veto in modern state history in 2002, and lawmakers issued the first override in state history in 2008.

But Easley consistently persuaded them to set aside money to reduce student class sizes in early grades and create the More at Four program, designed to help prepare at-risk preschoolers for kindergarten.

"He has great courage. He's not frightened by what someone may say," said Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare. "He didn't surrender easily - even if he ever did."

The state's economy rebounded in 2004, generating revenue surpluses for state government and a flurry of new job announcements. It helped Easley cruise to a 13-point re-election victory over Republican Patrick Ballantine that year.

The signature event of Easley's administration came in August 2005, when he signed into law a state lottery that provides a permanent source of money for More at Four and other education programs. North Carolina was the last state on the East Coast to start a state-run lottery.

After a rocky start - an ex-lottery commissioner went to prison for failing to disclose business with a potential contractor and revenues fell one-fourth short of expectations in the first year - the sale of lottery tickets generated $350 million in profit last year.

"Revenues could be a lot higher, but we would have to advertise more and I don't think people want to advertise any more," Easley said.

More at Four now serves 32,000 4-year-olds annually, and his Learn and Earn program allows students to graduate in five years with a high school diploma and two-year college degree. Easley points to research and test scores as proof his initiatives are making a difference.

"He's going to be another in the long line of education governors," said Coble, specifically mentioning Learn and Earn. "I think that will be the more significant of his long-term accomplishments."

The state's overall dropout rate, however, remains stubbornly high - about 30 percent of high school students still don't graduate within five years.

"There's no question that there's more dollars being spent on education," said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. "I don't know if all that money has improved the chance of that average person to get a high school diploma."

Easley said he regrets letting a 2001 mental health reform bill become law. The bill, designed to shift treatment away from state institutions to local communities, failed to improve overall patient care and was hamstrung by a lack of funding.

Coble said Easley failed in taking a leadership role in reforming the state's tax system and figuring out how to fill an estimated $65 billion gap between projected expenses and revenues for the Department of Transportation through 2030.

"I wish we had pushed for more funding for DOT last year," Easley said, but the Legislature "had given me everything I had asked for several years and I felt like that last year I shouldn't beat them too hard."

Easley said he doesn't know yet what he'll do as a private citizen, but it probably won't include another run for public office. Easley rejected overtures from Washington Democrats to challenge U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008, and discussions he might move to Washington to join President-elect Barack Obama's administration were dismissed quickly.

He doesn't expect to simply retire, envisioning some of his time will involve focusing on education - and probably attempting to solve problems.

"I think I function better in chaos than in order," he said. "I love getting up every morning knowing that somebody needs some help and I can figure out a way to do it."