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The rise and fall of Easley and Edwards

RALEIGH — Perhaps their shared circumstances are simply coincidence.

John Edwards and Mike Easley, once two of North Carolina’s most prominent politicians, came to their positions with minimal help from the state’s political establishment.

Edwards financed his own U.S. Senate campaign in 1998. Easley began his political life as a state prosecutor, struck up a friendship with key Democratic Party figure Tony Rand and then spent much of the rest of his political career trying to ignore the party establishment.

Now the two Democrats share the distinction of being criminally indicted for actions associated with their political careers.

The similarities may end there.

Easley ultimately pleaded guilty last fall to a single felony charge of filing a false campaign finance report. The plea deal came after a wide-ranging investigation looking at campaign contributions and unreported campaign flights, sweetheart land deals, hidden home repairs and environmental permits issued by his administration.

Edwards faces six criminal charges. They all revolve around his botched personal life and the money used to hide his now highly publicized affair during the 2008 presidential campaign. The money came from two prominent political donors but never touched campaign accounts.

Many observers saw Easley as getting off light and benefiting when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that had been a favorite to prosecute political corruption.

Some observers can hardly believe that Edwards has been indicted at all. He and his lawyers must agree; they turned down a plea to three misdemeanors to fight the charges.

Then again, finding a less-sympathetic public figure in America today than Edwards would be a difficult chore. His deceptions — having that affair while his wife was battling cancer, getting a campaign aide to claim responsibility for his love child, repeatedly lying about it all — seem to know no end.

The indictment, though, looks a lot like an attempt to bend and prod the law to cover behavior for which it was never intended. Prosecutors apparently will argue the money that went to Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, amounted to illegal campaign contributions because it came from two donors and because hiding the affair benefited the campaign.

Regardless of Edwards’ fate, I know who I’d rather go sit with and drink a beer.

Whatever his flaws, Easley was and is someone who cared about his family and didn’t walk around sporting an ego the size of Texas.

If the former governor is different from Edwards in that regard, the similarities in their political backgrounds shouldn’t be overlooked in trying to assess what went wrong with two of North Carolina’s most promising political stars of the late 1990s.

Perhaps being a self-made politician is dangerous business.

When you need very few helping hands on the way to the top, maybe it becomes too easy to believe that a lot of the rules don’t apply to you.

Maybe a rapid ride to the top makes much more likely a quick fall to the bottom.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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