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The man who would be speaker 

The biggest election of the '06 cycle actually happens in '07. But if history serves as a guide, the election of speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives will be all but sewed up (or at least assumed to be) by the time the dust settles on the November elections.

Anybody who says they know who the next speaker will be before that date is pulling your leg. Until we know the Ds and Rs and who won and lost the 20 or so House races deemed competitive, picking a winner will be a mere guessing game.

We do know the names that are being bandied about, though.

Topping the headlines and the speculation for now is Rep. Jim Crawford, a 12-term representative from Oxford and one of the chief budget writers for this year. Crawford has said flat out that if Jim Black steps down, he'll run hard for speaker. He also is part of a growing central Piedmont club that seems intent on replacing Black. In fact, if you draw a 25-mile radius around the small northern Orange County community of Rougemont, within it are every one of the handful of Democrats who have expressed an interest in the gavel. In addition to Crawford, Durham's Mickey Michaux is a few miles to the east and Chapel Hill's Joe Hackney and Efland's Bill Faison are a short drive south and west, respectively.

As for Black himself, it's hard to see how the latest revelation--that he was cutting checks to Michael Decker's lawyers--can be good news for anyone betting he stays the speaker. On top of that, Black's fundraising prowess--the cause of his downfall as well as a top asset for keeping the troops loyal--has been utterly undermined. His dough is kryptonite and he can't hand it out. It's just as well--he'll need it for legal fees.

Spoiler alert

Drive through just about any other state and you'll see billboards telling you things like how many kids start smoking in that state each year or how many thousands die from tobacco-related diseases. But drive through North Carolina and there's hardly anything that would let you know that 11,900 Tar Heels die from their smoking addiction each year, or that every North Carolina household is paying an additional $556 a year in taxes to cover smoking-related government expenditures.

As a result of a recent ruling, though, even this tobacco heartland state is likely to see a bit more public information about the effects of the golden leaf. Coming clean is one of the key remedies recommended by U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler in the RICO (aka the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) trial of major tobacco companies.

Now I hate to ruin a good read, but somehow I doubt many folks are going to make it through all 1,742 pages of Kessler's blockbuster opinion. The judge's exhaustive look at the industry's practices offers a pretty detailed study of the business practices of what was this state's cornerstone industry for four centuries. It is a litany of what we've been hearing piecemeal for years about marketing to kids when they say they're not, about the bogus claims of "light" smokes and, of course, about the suppression of research into health effects and the importance placed on keeping the nicotine levels high enough to maintain addiction. So here's the surprise twist: Tobacco execs knew their product was killing people all along and worked their asses off to hide that. Stunning, I know.

If you're looking for more info on tobacco's toll in each state, check out www.tobaccofreekids.org.

A little mix to the mix

In 1992, on the eve of the South Carolina primary, I happened to be in a ballroom in Columbia listening to Bill Clinton make his case for a new president from the New South. The crowd was black and white, old school Dem and new school activists--a microcosm of the kind of coalition that ultimately landed Clinton the presidency--and he had 'em rockin' in a fiery Baptist preacher kind of way.

Though there would be a few more fights ahead, South Carolina sealed the nomination for Clinton, who had put his marbles on staying alive through New Hampshire and Iowa and making his sale in the South. The lessons from that strategy have taken a while to sink in, but now, with 2008 clearly on their minds, Democrats have decided to push the primary dates for South Carolina and Nevada closer to Iowa and New Hampshire.

The move is intended to infuse the schedule with contests that have larger numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters.

The result for us here is likely to be a lot more visits from hopefuls early on, especially in the Charlotte and Wilmington TV markets, which cover a good bit of the Palmetto State. With North Carolina's solid fundraising record for both parties, look for lots of stopovers here during campaign trips south of us.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

  • The biggest election of the '06 cycle actually happens in '07.

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