RALEIGH — When Mike Easley was sworn into office as governor for his second term in January 2005, the world seemed to lie at his feet. He was the Southeast's only two-term Democratic governor; political operatives whispered about a future bid for president.
Five years later, Easley is a felon. His transgression seemed like a simple booking error: failing to properly file campaign finance reports. But the two-year criminal investigation revealed a classic political scandal: popular politician undone by gifts and favors. In his case, a discounted vacation lot, loaned cars and campaign contributions used for home repairs.
The exposure and legal fight have shattered Easley's once solid reputation, decimated his finances and could have him fighting for his law license.
It's a far fall. And, for many, nearly inexplicable.
Though Easley held leadership roles in the state for nearly two decades, he is perhaps the least understood politician in North Carolina's history. Easley and some of his backers say the explanation is simple: He has been mugged by both sides of the political spectrum, from a Republican U.S. Attorney's Office and from The News & Observer, a paper with historically Democratic leanings.
"He happened to be governor in the 'gotcha age,'" said Joseph Cheshire V, Easley's attorney. "We live in this age of 'no matter what you do, someone is going to find fault with it.'"
"Mike is a nice, personable guy who does his own thing, in his own time in a way he wants to do it," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, who has known Easley and worked with him since the 1980s. "That's what people don't understand about him, and people aren't keen on things they can't understand."
With all the promise 2005 brought, some say Easley felt trapped as governor. It was a snug fit: an introvert in the state's biggest fishbowl and a politician who disliked politics.
Some look for answers in that second term, when his quirks were accentuated - an outsider who never really fit, a loner who tended to distrust people, and a tightfistedness that went beyond frugality.
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