NC Speaker Black Ekes Out Re-Election

 There are Teflon-coated politicians, and then there is North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black . Despite an ongoing federal investigation into Black's political activities and the conviction of several of his associates, the embattled Democrat was re-elected to an 11th term by a margin of just 30 votes.
The State Board of Elections certified Black the winner on Tuesday (Nov. 28), discounting ballots from more than 400 people who cast ballots in the race, but should have voted in a different state House contest.
Black, an optometrist, has served four full terms as speaker, a tie for the longest tenure in that position — former House Speaker Liston Ramsey also served eight years from 1981 to 1989, said Black's spokeswoman Julie Robinson.
But with the investigation hanging over him, Black's leadership role is in limbo.
Republicans — still miffed that Black made a power-sharing deal that robbed the GOP of its majority after the 2002 elections — are taking some satisfaction that the longtime power broker may pay a political price for his legal battles.
A powerful incumbent like Black should have won by a much wider margin, and a very close election will weaken his standing in the House, said Linda Daves, acting chairwoman of the North Carolina Republican Party . "(Black) has been dethroned. ... He no longer has the confidence of the people," she said.
Democrats stand by his legislative record. Black has been instrumental in passing Democratic initiatives in the statehouse, said Schorr Johnson, spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party .
"From our perspective, Jim Black's fate was in the hands of the people of the 100th District ... and he won after a year of very bad press," Johnson said, adding that the critical outcome was that Democrats held on to their majority, regardless of who ultimately serves as speaker.
As in most other states, the North Carolina speaker's main role is to make committee assignments and to help set the schedule for floor debate in cooperation with the House Rules Committee chairman. Those responsibilities give the speaker enormous power over which bills will be shepherded through the process or killed in committee.
While powerful committee chairmanships are usually awarded only to loyal party colleagues, Black has strived to build consensus by giving co-chairmanship positions to some Republicans, Robinson said.
But Republicans have bitter memories of a different kind of bipartisan effort led by Black.
In the November 2002 elections, the GOP gained a 61-59 majority in the North Carolina state House and chose a Republican lawmaker to dislodge Black from his position as speaker. But before the 2003 legislative session began, a conservative Republican House member, Rep. Michael Decker, defected to the Democratic Party, leaving the chamber in a tie and the leadership in doubt.
Behind the scenes, Black negotiated a co-speakership with state Rep. Richard Morgan (R), who not only displaced the GOP's previous choice for floor leader, but also stripped some of his Republican colleagues of staff or relegated them to second-class roles in the chamber.
State Republicans took their revenge on Morgan this year, supporting a primary challenger who ousted him in the primary election.
"He sold out the Republican Party ... Whatever Mr. Morgan got, he fully deserved," said John Aneralla, the Mecklenburg County Republican chairman.
Morgan also was subpoenaed this month to provide information in a federal investigation swirling around Black and several of his political allies and staff. That investigation is focused on possible ties between campaign contributions from tobacco and video gambling companies and legislation affecting those groups.
As part of that investigation, Decker, the party-switcher who helped Black maintain his leader's post, recently pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge and admitted that he took $50,000 and a job for his son in exchange for leaving the Republican Party.
But Black survived Election Day with an initial margin of just seven votes out of more than 10,500 ballots cast, as a Democratic wave washed over the nation's statehouses on Nov. 7.
After adding in provisional ballots and a recount, Black's lead was 30 votes. At the same time, election officials discovered that 446 voters in one precinct should have cast ballots for a different state House race. Since most of the improper votes went to Hal Jordan, the Republican challenger, the Board of Elections ruled Black the winner.

Nationally, Democrats gained new majorities in legislative chambers in nine states on Election Day and netted more than 300 seats. They will control both legislative chambers in at least 23 states — more than they have held since 1994. Before the election Democrats had majorities in both chambers in 19 states.

Republicans will control both chambers in 15 state legislatures, down from 20 before the election. Eleven statehouses will be split between the parties, including a dead-even tie in the Oklahoma Senate. Nebraska has the nation's only unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.

In North Carolina, Black's victory only widens the Democratic majority. The party gained five seats in the North Carolina House, giving them a 68-52 majority in a chamber that the GOP had hoped to recapture this year. Democrats also gained two seats to widen their majority to 31-19 in the North Carolina Senate.
Black has not been charged or found guilty of any crime, and his victory shows that voters appreciate the political influence and tax dollars he has gained for the western part of the state, said Michael Evans, the Mecklenburg County Democratic chairman. Traditionally, lawmakers from eastern areas controlled the Legislature, Evans said.
But Black has not emerged unscathed from the inquiries. Several of his colleagues may be vying for the speaker's position when House Democrats caucus to elect leaders before the start of their session in 2007.
State Rep. James W. Crawford (D) , starting his 12th term in January, said he thought there would be a challenge for the speaker's seat but would not confirm reports that he may throw his hat in the ring.
House Majority Leader Joe Hackney (D) also declined to comment on whether he would run for speaker. "It's been a difficult year for all of us, especially the speaker," Hackney said.
Robinson, Black's spokeswoman, said the speaker has not decided whether he would even run for speaker again. "I think the members here know what a good job he has done and how hard he has worked for the caucus," she said.
Daves, the state GOP chairwoman, said she would be "totally amazed" if Black ran for speaker again. "If he did, that he would be in a total state of denial," she said.

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