The February meeting of the Wake Democratic Men’s Club began on Monday with a prayer. Aaron Fussell, gray-haired eminence and former state legislator, asked for divine help in 2006 such that the right people can be elected to do what needs to be done. Nearby to me, someone quipped, “As long as they’re Democrats.”

Will Democrats, if elected, do what needs to be done? And what is that, exactly? More to the point, will the Democrats, as they’re running, build public support for the doing of it? Or just dance and dodge and be devoted, as always, to “the chi’dren?”

Big questions for the start of the ’06 campaign, which began officially this week with candidate filings for the party primaries in May. On the one hand, Democrats are in no doubt that it will be their year–Bush is unpopular, sixth-year presidents always see their party lose seats in Congress, and at the state level, the Republican party is split and stands for nothing in the public mind. On the other hand, however, doing what needs to be done for North Carolina ain’t easy, and it starts with the issue of House Speaker Jim Black. Is the eponymous Web site right that Jim Black must go?

As luck would have it, the featured candidates at Monday’s meeting were four folks who’re running for three House seats currently held by Republicans. Greer Beatty, a career state employee, is running for the District 36 seat of Rep. Nelson Dollar. Ed Ridpath, an IBMer, filed in District 37, Rep. Paul Stam’s seat. Ty Harrell, a Duke fund-raiser and Democratic campaign veteran, and Chris Mintz, a Republican businessman recently turned Dem, will vie in a primary for the right to take on Rep. Russell Capps in District 41.

The good news for Democrats is that the party has candidates in these districts, which two years ago were all victories for the Republicans and uncontested except for Libertarians. The Dems have solid candidates, in fact, who can be expected to maximize whatever the Democratic chances are–and against Capps, anyway, they’re not so bad.

And do they know what needs to be done? We’ll wait to hear more from them as the campaign unfolds, because nothing but platitudes escaped their lips this first time out–if they have any progressive ideas that they really care about, none were mentioned.

But what was really striking was how none of them rose to the occasion of ex-Rep. Bob Hensley’s pointed question: “Given the late unpleasantness,” Hensley asked, “how far are you willing to go to reform the House of Representatives?”

To this clear invitation to tell the world that Speaker Black should resign or be replaced, given the nasty headlines from last week’s State Board of Elections hearings and the many more on tap when the hearings resume next month, all four candidates ducked behind some version of what Mintz said, which was: “We definitely need reform.”

No doubt, said Beatty, that politics and money are connected in ways “that aren’t pleasant.” Harrell and Ridpath promised to take no gifts from lobbyists, and both mentioned public campaign financing as a possible long-term solution. Maybe. Somehow, Black’s name didn’t come up.

Well, let’s have some sympathy for these newbies running in uphill races. Whatever their chances, they won’t be improved if they can’t get six-figure financial support from the state party; and in House races, the state party means Speaker Black. Black worked hard to raise all that campaign cash–too hard, and ethics be damned–which is why he’s in trouble. (For the sordid details, see last week’s Citizen and, of course, the BlackMustGo Web site). So it’s logical to think he won’t be sharing it with any ingrates who demand that he now step down.

Still, the clearest way for Democratic candidates to tell the voters that they’ll be part of the reform solution if they’re elected, and not just fall into the money-politics pit that otherwise awaits them in the legislature, is to call for Black to resign. Isn’t it?

Believe me, the Republicans will be saying it and demanding that their Democratic challengers declare either allegiance to Black or opposition to him. There’s no getting around it–as these challengers doubtless know.

Or is there? The emcee for Monday’s event was Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, a first-term member who’s so clean on these issues that, as the saying goes, he squeaks. Martin already takes nothing from lobbyists. Along with Reps. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, and Deborah Ross, D-Wake, he sponsored the legislation that closed the “goodwill” loophole and will require lobbyists, starting in 2007, to report all the gifts that they shower on legislators. Moreover (and unlike Hackney and Ross), Martin refused to bend to Black on the speaker’s signature ’05 issue, which was passing a state lottery–whatever it took.

Not only was Martin one of a handful of House Democrats to vote no on the lottery (Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, was another, incidentally), he voted no on the state budget bill, too, because it contained the language that made the lottery operational.

So does Martin, himself a candidate for re-election, think Black should resign?

“My focus now is on the best way to reform the system,” Martin said after the meeting. “I’ll be looking for the speaker to lead the effort on that.”

Not that Martin thinks what Black’s been doing is OK. He says the revelations from the State Board of Elections hearings were “troubling” and that what Black did–including taking blank $100 checks from contributors and signing them over to Rep. Michael Decker, one of his followers, who put some of them in his campaign fund and others in his personal account–“was wrong, and if it’s not illegal, it should be.”

But with the legislature’s short session approaching, Martin wants Black to put his still-considerable muscle behind “significant, major reforms” so they’re enacted this year–before the fall elections. They should include, he says, either an outright ban on lobbyists’ gifts (Martin’s preference) or at least one tough enough to ban all but the occasional drink or cup of coffee. The gaping loophole that lets legislators turn campaign funds into personal money needs to be slammed shut. And ethical rules that now apply only to high-ranking state officials working under the governor should be expanded to cover all state employees and legislators, too.

Moreover, all of these changes should take effect this year, not wait until 2007, Martin says.

All of them, and more, are under active consideration by the House Select Committee that Black named–and on which Martin serves–after the speaker got in hot water. Martin expects Black to follow through when the committee makes its recommendations. He’ll be “furious,” he adds, if they’re allowed to die. But getting them through the House will take considerable leadership, to say nothing of convincing the Senate to go along, too.

Once these “internal reforms” are enacted, Martin says, it will “clear the decks” so that when the new General Assembly is elected in November, it can start working on meaningful campaign finance reforms, which he suggests should include “draconian caps” on both contribution amounts and candidate spending. “My goal is, over the next two to four years, to have a completely open, transparent and ethical system in place.”

At no point in our conversation, I should add, did Martin ever say that Black should remain speaker if tough reforms are enacted in the short session, only that he must be reform’s leader while he’s still in charge. “I’m not a Black supporter, either,” he said at one point. But he’s clearly not calling for his resignation–nor has any Democratic legislator, to my knowledge.

Still, a lot of rank-and-file Democrats, as Martin knows, view Black’s demise as inevitable, and think it should come sooner rather than later.

I, for one, think reform’s cause will be dealt a major blow if Democrats manage to hold onto the House in the fall with Black still in charge. The message to the many House Democrats who still like their politics with money will be: “Whew. That was a close one.”

That’s aside from the question of whether they can hold on to the House with Black in charge. Sweeping reforms in the short session can’t hurt, certainly. But Black is the poster boy for an anti-corruption campaign by the Republicans, reforms or not. How does not replacing him help that?

Feel free to ask Martin that question when you see him next. But that won’t be for a few weeks. Because Major Martin, U.S. Army Reserve, reports to Fort Bragg today for work as a lawyer for the troops stationed in Iraq. Told you he was squeaky clean.