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Editorial: Time to find new speaker

Although House Speaker Jim Black won re-election in his Mecklenburg County district, it was such a squeaker he practically needed a shot of WD-40 to squeeze into the winner’s slot. After a recount, Black was declared the winner by a 30-vote margin, out of 10,650 ballots counted.

That’s the kind of victory margin that earned Former President Johnson the rueful nickname “Landslide Lyndon,” and it’s hardly a resounding mandate for Black’s leadership. Given his political survival by the barest of margins and ongoing state and federal criminal investigations that involve his office, you’d think Black might find it advisable to lie low for a while and devote some time to ethical rehabilitation while continuing to solicit funds for his lawyers’ fees.

But that viewpoint ignores the siren call of political power and the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that can make the N.C. legislature as full of treachery and intrigue as any Shakespearean drama. As incredible as it might seem for a legislative body that recently enacted new measures to more rigorously regulate members’ conduct, not only does Black plan to seek a fifth term as speaker; according to recent published reports, he’s considered the odds-on favorite when the House convenes to elect its next speaker next month.

One can only hope that Democrats who oppose Black for speaker, including Rep. Lorene Coates of Rowan County, are able to restore sanity among their House colleagues who apparently are clueless about how this would be viewed among the body politic at large. How it would be viewed, to put it bluntly, would be like a poke in the eye or a rather rude hand gesture raised in the face of voters who, if national exit polls are at least partly credible, are fed up with elected officials putting their own interests above those of open and honest government. Do Democrats really believe the public is indifferent to having a speaker who might move from the N.C. House to the Big House if he’s indicted and convicted of criminal wrongdoing?

While it’s true that Black hasn’t been charged and may never be, that’s a point that relates more to his standing with the legal system than to his ability to function as one of the most powerful officials in the state. The speaker of the House controls the flow of legislation on the House floor and decides who serves on and chairs important committees. The speaker is the symbolic figurehead of the legislature who not only wields the gavel but should have a firm grip on its highest values. Even if Black is ultimately exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing, the investigations and revelations have cast a cloud that will not easily or quickly recede.

Some other candidates for speaker have recently emerged, including Reps. Dan Blue, a former Speaker; Joe Hackney, House majority leader; and Bill Faison, an outspoken critic of Black. Over the next weeks, Democrats would do well to find an alternative candidate that the majority can support. Black may have salvaged his political career in November, but his ability to lead is severely compromised, and he shouldn’t be re-elected speaker.

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