N.C. POLITICS SURE ISN'T DULL
02/02/05
Scott Mooneyham
RALEIGH -- It might not go down as a year of monumental public policy change or landmark political events, but 2004 certainly had its share of the politically relevant.

John Edwards' emergence as a serious presidential contender, and then vice presidential nominee, garnered media attention and helped put North Carolina on the map again as a national political player.

But from criminal indictments to disappearing votes, the year also saw its share of strange political happenings.

Edwards, the one-term Democratic senator who had made a fortune as a trial lawyer, began the year as a relative upstart in the presidential contest. Most observers in Washington viewed him as a second-tier candidate, but strong showings in Iowa and South Carolina, along with Howard Dean's fizzled candidacy, turned the North Carolinian into John Kerry's chief challenger for the Democratic nomination.

After Kerry scored decisive primary wins in March, Edwards bowed out. But he was eventually chosen as the Massachusetts senator's running mate in July.

Some pundits said the Kerry camp never took full advantage of Edwards' positives as a campaigner, while others questioned how much the Democratic ticket truly gained from his inclusion. But despite the Democrats' loss, Edwards' natural abilities as a campaigner clearly put him into position to make another bid for the presidency in 2008.

While Edwards hit the campaign trial, another prominent Democrat faced a prison term.

Meg Scott Phipps had resigned her office as commissioner of agriculture a year earlier. After a jury found her guilty of perjury in state court, Phipps pleaded guilty to federal charges of extorting money from carnival vendors. Then in March, a judge sentenced the daughter and granddaughter of North Carolina governors to four years in a federal prison.

Three months later, Congressman Frank Ballance resigned his seat as federal investigators looked into allegations that a charitable foundation he controlled misspent state money. A federal grand jury ultimately indicted Balance, and a plea agreement is still in the works.

Some politicians did leave office of their own accord, while others were forced out in more typical fashion, electoral defeat.

Cass Ballenger of Hickory retired from Congress after nine two-year terms. State Auditor Ralph Campbell was defeated after serving three four-year terms.

Of course, the more important political twists came in the form of public policy shifts, not through personal triumphs or tragedies.

North Carolina handed out record business incentives packages, with $242 million earmarked to lure computer-maker Dell. Before that deal was announced, Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr resigned his seat to head a group that plans to mount legal challenges based on constitutional law, singling out industrial incentives as an early target.

North Carolina legislators also approved the largest borrowing package ever that sidesteps voter approval, agreeing to finance $468 million in new university and other building projects.

In Congress, the decision to provide a buyout of the federal tobacco program was expected to pump billions into the state's economy. The end of the program will make North Carolina leaf more competitive on the global market, but mark the end of traditional auctions and markets.

In the General Assembly, legislators put the brakes on public school calendars eating into summer, requiring that most school systems start the year no earlier than August 25.

And in a first, the state House took the historic step of overriding a gubernatorial veto, trying to push through legislation requiring local government to pay billboard owners when the signs are removed. The Senate didn't go along with the override of Gov. Mike Easley's veto, and a compromise bill was ultimately passed.

The year wound down with one of the strangest elections ever, as voters gave Democrat Easley a double-digit win and another term while choosing Republican Richard Burr over Democrat Erskine Bowles in the race to replace Edwards in the U.S. Senate.

North Carolina voters also lived up to their ticket-splitting ways by electing Republicans to other statewide offices while handing back control of the legislature to Democrats.

But the star of this election was no candidate. It was an electronic voting machine in Carteret County that ate the votes of 4,438 voters.

The fiasco was certain to lead to changes in state election law. It also led to lawsuits and court hearings, particularly in the commissioner of agriculture race where incumbent Britt Cobb appeared to have lost to Republican Steve Troxler by 2,287 votes.

Still to be determined: whether the machine causes a new statewide election.

But perhaps that will be a political happening for another year.