Mike Easley reacted cautiously when progressives asked him, as the state’s attorney general, to get behind legislation that would crack down on predatory lending in the mortgage industry. Some finance companies were tricking up loans to so-called “subprime” borrowers–low-income folks–and systematically stripping them of the equity they’d built up in their homes. The reformers had a bill and they were hot to trot with it, but Easley wasn’t–at first.

“He was feeling out the political waters,” says Peter Skillern, executive director of the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina. “From a hard-core activist’s standpoint, I was thinking, what are you waiting for? But at the end of the day,” Skillern says, “Easley took a strong stance. And at a key moment in the Senate, when the finance companies complained that they hadn’t been represented in the discussions, he finally put his foot down and told them what they needed to do.”

With Easley’s help, the legislation was enacted last summer and was quickly hailed by progressives as a model for other states to follow. Almost as quickly, Easley began starring in radio and newspaper ads that warned homeowners against the predators’ tricks. The ads offered “Attorney General Mike Easley’s tips for avoiding home-equity scams.” Joining him in some of them: Harvey Gantt, the former Charlotte mayor and two-time U.S. Senate candidate.

Next to Michael Jordan, Gantt’s about as good a sidekick as a guy could have in African-American neighborhoods–especially a guy who’s running for the Democratic nomination for governor. But according to Easley deputy Alan Hirsch, the ads were running in the black press and on black-oriented stations simply because “the black community has been a prime target for predatory lenders.”

So there is a snapshot of Mike Easley. He’s better known than his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, mainly because he’s been featured in so many ads since he was elected attorney general in 1992–consumer-protection ads paid for with public funds. Vigorous and trim, he looks like he’ll fight for your rights. But as the predatory-lending debate showed, he won’t be the first to put up his dukes.

“I find real power,” Easley says, “in being a voice of moderation, and not being a cowboy about things.” He can be bold, he adds, “but only after I’ve given a lot of thought to an issue and I know which way I ought to go.”

Does that sound, well, just awfully stuffy? Sorry, Easley’s not that at all. He’s informal, colloquial, “definitely low-key,” as one Raleigh activist puts it. But he’s also a good storyteller, and very funny at times. Talking about the 200 or so contributors who’ve given his campaign the maximum $4,000, for instance, he says many are “just friends who have money–or, they used to have money.”

Truth is, Easley is an enigmatic figure. “A terrific communicator,” says one friend, “except that he really doesn’t like to do it.” He’d rather be at home in Raleigh with his wife, Mary, who teaches law at N.C. Central University, or piddling in his woodworking shop with 15-year-old son, Michael. A popular vote-getter, Easley’s been known to arrive places through the back door to avoid the crowds. His campaign is long on media, short on grassroots effort. He’s done little in-person campaigning. “Basically, he’s an introvert,” his friend says.

The contradictions don’t stop there. A self-styled progressive who promises to stand with working people, Easley has never spoken to a surprising number of the two dozen statewide progressive leaders interviewed for this story. As for the death penalty, a key issue for the state’s top law-enforcement officer, Easley supports it–and is bitterly criticized by some criminal lawyers for not paying attention to mistakes his staff has made in capital cases. That’s one reason many folks in the legal community say he’s been “disengaged” from his job; others give him passing marks for his performance, but not high ones.

Easley’s heard the criticism. He blames some of it on people thinking he has more power as attorney general than he really does. “It’s not like having your hands on the throttle over there,” he says, nodding in the direction of the governor’s office, “when you can say, this is the policy, this is what’s gonna be done.”

But he insists that he has been active–if sometimes behind the scenes–on a host of issues, from hog pollution to tobacco to campaign-finance reform. He talks to all sides, he says, figures out if he can make a difference, and picks his spots with care. And that, Easley says, is what people want in a governor. “They want to see a steady hand on the tiller. They don’t want to see somebody jumping out and being a hothead.”

It may not be what Democratic movers and shakers want, however. Easley leads in the polls, but 500 party regulars made it clear they prefer Wicker when the two candidates were introduced at the party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day event a week ago. Easley got a polite reception, Wicker loud applause.

Among progressives, the question about Easley is whether he would generate enough forward progress if he’s handed the tiller. Opinion is not split, exactly, so much as confounded. “The frustrating thing,” says Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the Raleigh-based Common Sense Foundation, “is that there are a lot of people who want to vote for the most progressive candidate, and they can’t tell who it is.”

Mike Easley was born 50 years ago on a 63-acre tobacco farm in Rocky Mount. His father owned one of the two big tobacco warehouses in town. The other was owned by Phil Carlton’s dad. Carlton grew up to be the lawyer who represented the tobacco companies in their settlement negotiations with almost all of the state attorneys general. Instead of jumping in against big tobacco, however, Easley positioned himself as a go-between who could talk to both sides. He was credited with playing a key role as mediator, and he brought home a projected $7 billion for tobacco farmers, quota holders and the state.

It was a big time for Easley, who by his own account was a slow starter as a kid and was lucky to get into N.C. Central’s night law school because of low test scores. He hit his stride when he landed a job as an assistant district attorney on the coast–in the district comprising Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties. Easley took to the work, and it came to him: a string of drug cases that brought down a sheriff, a clerk of court, and many of the area’s other political leaders. Easley was groomed by the district attorney to take over and he did after four years, winning election in 1980.

Rosetta Short, now an environmental leader in Brunswick County, moved there three years before Easley arrived. “The politics,” she says, “was just an hallucinogenic trip.” Short was named to the planning board on the assumption that she wouldn’t know enough to get in the way, she says, but became a maverick. Easley was her private sounding board. “We had a good-old-boy system then. Mike did a lot to straighten that up. He didn’t play politics, and I admired that.”

Drugs were pouring into the county through its port towns, and Easley got the state to approve special investigative grand juries that returned 1,000 indictments against several hundred defendants–all of them white, he makes a point of recalling. Previously, the prosecutions had been against street sellers, usually African Americans.

One dealer tried to hire a hit man to take Easley out; that helped him make a USA Today list of America’s top drug-busters. Subsequently, when state Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat, was running for lieutenant governor in 1988, he got Easley to make a TV ad for him. Rand, who lost that race but remains a power in the General Assembly, and Saul Schorr, the Democratic strategist who made the ad, have been among Easley’s key political backers ever since.

Easley came to prominence in state politics two years later when he ran for the U.S. Senate. He’d been part of a group that included Schorr, former state AFL-CIO President Chris Scott and others who tried to talk Bill Friday into entering the race against Republican Jesse Helms. When the former University of North Carolina president declined, the group turned to Easley.

Easley attracted a number of prominent supporters in Eastern North Carolina, none more noteworthy than Lauch Faircloth, who became a Republican two years later and won the U.S. Senate seat he lost to John Edwards in 1998. But in a four-way Democratic race, Easley ended up in a runoff against Gantt, the former Charlotte mayor who was a late entrant. Easley had the good sense to run an upbeat campaign and befriend his opponent, who won. Since then, Gantt’s been another important ally.

In 1992, Easley was elected attorney general, winning the Democratic nomination unopposed and the election with 61 percent of the vote. He was re-elected four years later, again without working up a sweat. Both times, he was the top vote-getter for statewide office.

Easley hasn’t been shy about using his office to plug himself, despite a spate of newspaper stories about it. “Critics: So-called public-service ads are campaign for Easley,” the Winston-Salem Journal headlined last September. The article questioned the Easley-Gantt campaign against predatory lenders and said it cost $180,000, money the attorney general’s consumer protection unit had taken in as “settlements” in fraud cases. The News & Observer soon reported that Easley’s ads over a five-year period, warning consumers against telemarketing scams, fraudulent charities and the like, had cost almost $1 million in state funds and were worth even more, since some TV stations matched the paid ads with free ones as a public service.

Wicker supporters complain about the practice. Republicans are irate. N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative group headed by Faircloth’s ’98 campaign manager, Chuck Fuller, has taken the issue to court, pointing out that Article IX of the state constitution requires that “all fines, penalties and forfeitures” collected by the state be used to support the public schools. “It is unconscionable,” Fuller says, “that the attorney general has taken money that belongs in the schools and used it as a political slush fund.” He says Easley should give it back.

Easley argues that settlements aren’t fines, and that consumer warnings get more attention when he’s in the ads. The case, still pending, won’t be decided until after the May 2 primary.

The public-service ads gave Easley a big head start in the governor’s race. His fundraising didn’t hurt, either: He’d pulled in more than $2.6 million as of Dec. 31, the most recent reporting date, with a contributor list sporting lots of big-business Democrats (oilman Walter Davis, textile king Chuck Hayes) and trial lawyers from other states who are in line for billions of dollars in tobacco-settlement fees.

Name the town, and Easley names the contributor-lawyer with equanimity. “Pascagoula, Miss.?”

“Oh, that’s Dickie Scruggs,” who helped that state press its case against the tobacco companies.

Even as he takes their contributions, Easley calls the trial lawyers’ prospective fees outrageous (the amounts are in arbitration). And he notes with a grin that since North Carolina never filed suit prior to sharing in the settlement, the only fee coming to a lawyer in North Carolina is his public salary.

Some of the biggest contributors on Easley’s list backed Faircloth two years ago, which raises the eyebrows of folks like Chris Fitzsimon. “Easley’s presenting himself as a progressive candidate,” he says, “but a lot of his money is coming from some pretty conservative people.”

Faircloth himself has told the story of how Easley, after deciding not to run for Faircloth’s Senate seat in ’98, stopped by the senator’s farm in Sampson County to confide the news. Easley confirms that–he simply got off I-40 on his way down to Brunswick County, he says–and also the fact that he delivered the news while lying flat on Faircloth’s kitchen floor, the victim of a back flareup that Faircloth’s imitated to great effect. Easley had told Faircloth he might run against him when the two were in Washington during the tobacco talks; Faircloth asked him to “check in” before deciding, he says. “We do have some mutual friends.”

Easley insists, though, that he never promises a contributor anything, and that he’s learned to avoid the people who might ask for favors. Generally, he’s stayed clear of embarrassing disclosures connected to his fundraising. But not always. In 1997, his office issued an advisory opinion favorable to the owners of amusement games, specifically video poker machines. The opinion itself is unremarkable. What’s interesting is that within a month, a friend in the industry from Rocky Mount sent the opinion around to his fellow owners with a request that they contribute to Easley’s campaign fund. Some $18,000 came in, according to the watchdogs at Democracy South, the campaign-reform group. Easley acknowledges now that his friend, Jimmy Thorpe, was wrong to solicit the money like that. But he didn’t return it, he says, since he saw no quid pro quo.

And Easley flatly rejects a WRAL-TV story in 1996, suggesting that he’d been unduly influenced by a $4,000 campaign contribution from oilman Walter Davis. Davis, who owns a beachfront house on Bald Head Island, had sued the state over its coastal policies. He dropped the suit when the Coastal Resources Commission gave the village of Bald Head Island a rare variance to install seawalls. Easley’s campaign has issued a statement saying he had “only a limited involvement in the dispute” and no authority over the CRC, a citizens board named by the governor.

Environmentalists do credit Easley with protecting the state’s ban on seawalls in another lawsuit brought by the owners of the erosion-plagued Shell Island Resort. But there’s a split in the ranks over how to rate his performance on the biggest issue the state has faced in his tenure: hog pollution.

Dan Webb, president of the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry, remembers the day in January 1995 when he caught a Greene County hog farm red-handed, dumping hog wastes into a ditch that runs into the Neuse River. Hog waste are supposed to be kept in cesspools (called “lagoons”) until they’re sprayed, little by little, onto cropland. The problem is, cropland can only absorb so much poop (with all its nitrogen) at a time; meanwhile, the lagoons may be filled to overflowing.

On that day, Webb saw a discharge pipe sticking out of a lagoon with no spray valve attached to slow the flow-rate. The waste was literally pouring onto the ground, running into a ditch, and spilling out over some 35 acres of adjacent swampland. How could he tell? “It was all pure purple,” he says.

Webb took film. He had the ditch tested for pollutants. He got witnesses and took them to Raleigh, hoping to trigger a criminal investigation by Easley’s office. It never happened. There was no proof the dumping was deliberate, he was told.

“I appreciate the things Mr. Easley is saying now,” Webb says. “But he was there a number of years before and took no action.”

Rick Dove, riverkeeper for the Neuse River Foundation, saw the same spill a day or so later, one of many he’s documented in the trench-war against hog polluters that’s been going on since the Alliance was formed in 1992. Dove is only a bit more positive about Easley’s record on hogs, saying it’s gotten better recently. “While I give him some credit,” he says, “when I look at how much needs to be done, and how little has been done–he’s come up a little bit short.”

The Sierra Club, though, endorsed both Easley and Wicker. Each “has some good things and some bad things” in their record, says spokesperson Greg Lytle, but both have come out strongly for cleaning up hog lagoons and for clean-water protection.

It’s difficult to gauge Easley’s performance for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the front-line pollution regulators in state government don’t work for him; they work for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Ordinarily, Easley’s lawyers wait for DENR to bring them enforcement issues rather than initiating cases themselves. They don’t have to, though–and in January, Easley announced he was forming his own enforcement teams to help DENR cope.

Another problem: In 1991, the General Assembly passed a series of laws designed to keep state regulators off the hog industry’s back. They defined factory-style hog operations as farms, handing day-to-day oversight to the friendly Department of Agriculture. They also limited DENR’s jurisdiction–and by extension the attorney general’s–to “willful” violations of the clean-water statutes. Just plain negligence wouldn’t be enough anymore.

Finally, in North Carolina the attorney general’s office can’t seek criminal indictments. Evidence of a crime must be turned over to a local district attorney to prosecute.

Easley says he saw the hog problem coming, mainly because the big Smithfield Farms slaughtering plant–the one that drove expansion of the industry from 2 million hogs in the state to 10 million–was built in Bladen County, right in his prosecutorial district. The year he became attorney general, he created an Environmental Crimes Task Force to advise local district attorneys on how to develop pollution cases using evidence DENR would supply. But DENR was still catering to the industry back then.

“It takes you a while when you come to Raleigh,” Easley says. “You see a problem and you think people are on top of it, and they’re really not.”

Easley insists he spoke out about the lack of environmental enforcement early on. If so, the environmental community is virtually unanimous in saying he didn’t speak very forcefully. “The long and short of it is, Easley’s record is not one that shouts, ‘I’m an environmentalist,’” one activist says. “It’s not bad, but it’s not very aggressive.”

But if Easley was a slow starter on hogs, he picked up speed after the infamous Oceanview Farms spill in June 1995, which dumped 25 million gallons of hog waste into the New River in Onslow County. Easley didn’t wait for DENR on that one, either. He went to court on his own, asking for an injunction to shut Oceanview down as a public nuisance; eventually, Oceanview paid a $62,000 fine and stayed in business.

Since then, Easley’s office lists 45 more enforcement actions undertaken with DENR. Only seven of the actions are termed “criminal.” That’s not enough, in Dove’s view. “It’s only been the most egregious cases,” he says. “I’d like to have seen him do a lot more.”

Last winter, Easley made headlines with his refusal to defend DENR against a suit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. With hog lagoons overflowing everywhere, the state’s environmental regulators had proposed to let the factory-farms spray even though their fields were under water and couldn’t absorb anything. Easley said the plan violated the law because the waste would pour into nearby creeks and rivers. The upshot was a court order against spraying; the farms were told to send their hogs elsewhere if they couldn’t keep lagoons from spilling any other way.

Derb Carter, senior attorney at SELC, says Easley’s withdrawal was a major victory. Unfortunately, he says, evidence is coming in that some farms have started spraying again in violation of the order.

In his run for governor, Easley has promised to get rid of hog lagoons within five years. But he also says that clean-water enforcement must go beyond the hog industry to include all sources of pollution, including municipal sewers and industrial plants.

A key question for environmentalists is whether he’ll make the hog industry’s big slaughterhouse owners (or “integrators”), like Smithfield Farms, pay to replace the factory-farm lagoons with better disposal systems, and whether he’ll take them to court for violations by the farms that raise their pigs. Easley answers only that “the cost will have to be shared by the integrators, the operators (farms) and the consumer, which in the end probably means the consumer.”

In 1997, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina came to the General Assembly with a bill designed to let it convert from nonprofit to for-profit status. If it did, Blue Cross wanted to give its $1 billion or so in reserves to its shareholders. Health advocates were appalled. They quickly got up a coalition to stop the bill and looked to Easley for help.

“Who owns Blue Cross?” was the question. Easley’s answer: “The public owns Blue Cross.” If it converted, he said, Blue Cross would have to leave the reserves behind as a public trust fund. “He did really well on that,” says Adam Searing, director of the N.C. Health Access Coalition, which fought the bill. Easley threatened to go to court to stop any effort to hijack the reserves, and he told his friend Sen. Tony Rand, who was sponsoring the legislation, that it was a dud.

Characteristically, though, Easley handled the issue obliquely. He didn’t hold a press conference to denounce the bill. As he remembers it, “We told Tony, we’re not going to be able to equivocate on it, we’re going to say it’s public-trust property when we’re asked,” Easley says. Before long, a reporter did ask, and that’s when Easley’s stance became public.

“Generally, he’s done good things, but there are lots of other health issues out there he hasn’t tackled,” Searing says. His biggest disappointment is that Easley didn’t get behind the idea of using money from the tobacco settlement to create a health-care foundation. After all, the whole idea of the negotiations was to reimburse the states for treating illnesses caused by smoking. Easley did take care to see that the cigarette companies put $5 billion aside, including $2 billion for North Carolina, to pay growers and quota holders hurt by the settlement. He also got legislative approval for his plan to put $2.5 billion in a foundation that would help rural communities hurt by tobacco’s decline. But the other $2.5 billion was left hanging.

“[Easley] was a very strong supporter of rural economic development,” Searing says. “He made sure that was written into law. I wish he’d been more supportive of devoting the rest of the money to health care.”

Easley’s answer: “You quickly learn, you can only take on so many battles at one time.” While he was fighting for rural communities in the General Assembly, he recalls, 525 angry tobacco growers who wanted more than the $2 billion were circling his office on their tractors. Easley has since proposed using some of the money to help senior citizens pay for prescription drugs. “That’s an issue people can relate to,” he says.

His restrained approach has kept Easley a step ahead–but no more than that–on some other issues, too. He’s supported a number of gun-control measures, and opposed the concealed-carry law when it passed in 1995. “I’m the only candidate for governor who’s never been endorsed by the NRA,” he laughs. Still, he’s not remembered as a champion on the issue by gun-control advocates.

On the tobacco issue, Easley performed a careful balancing act prior to the settlement talks. He joined the industry’s lawsuit against regulation by the the Federal Drug Administration–but also pushed for stronger state laws against selling cigarettes to minors. As early as 1995, he was saying the unthinkable out loud: He might have to sue the tobacco companies himself to protect North Carolina’s interests. As it turned out, he never did.

Easley claims no achievements at all on utility-rate issues, a major focus of past attorneys general, and has stayed away from hearings on whether the electric utilities should be deregulated. On campaign-finance reform, he created a special commission in 1997, but it accomplished little; he’s against public financing of candidates.

One theory held by people who like Easley is that, while he’s hands-off about running the attorney general’s office, he does hire talented people to work for him and gives them the freedom to bring issues to him. Many of his top lieutenants are women, and he named the first African-American head of the State Bureau of Investigation, Bryan Beatty. “That’s his greatest strength, he identifies good people,” says Deborah Ross, executive director of the N.C. Civil Liberties Union. But there’s a flip side, she adds. “His greatest weakness is, he has no organizational management inclination, and it creates unnecessary waste and policy confusion.”

As an example of policy confusion, critics point to Easley’s handling of the death penalty, starting in 1996 with the Charles Munsey murder trial in Wilkes County.

During the trial, a deputy attorney general turned up evidence that the key witness against Munsey was lying. But he advised the local district attorney that the evidence could be argued away. Instead of arguing it away, the district attorney actually suppressed the evidence, and the defense didn’t learn about it until after Munsey had been sentenced to death–and after another person confessed to the crime.

The evidence that might have exonerated Munsey came to light when a judge ordered prosecutors to open their files to the defense during an appeal. At almost the same time, ironically enough, the attorney general’s office was arguing in court that a new state law calling for “complete disclosure” of prosecutorial files to the defense following conviction in a capital case didn’t actually mean complete disclosure. Easley says he thinks all files should be opened before trial. Nonetheless, his office fought complete disclosure after trial for three years, finally losing in the N.C. Supreme Court in 1999–right around the time a judge ordered that Munsey be given a new trial. Munsey soon died of cancer, however.

When the decision came down, several lawyers put their protests about the attorney general’s staff on the record. “What is the policy over there?” asked Gretchen Engel, of the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “Full speed ahead, regardless of the truth?” Added Richard Rosen, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill: “Even after all the evidence of Mr. Munsey’s innocence has been revealed, the state of North Carolina is seeking to put him to death. That is not, and should not be, the role of the state and the prosecution. They are sworn to uphold justice.”

Easley says when he heard what happened in the Munsey case, he told his chief deputy, Ed Speas, to talk to the head of the capital litigation unit, the deputy’s boss. He never spoke to the deputy himself, preferring to “follow the chain-of-command.”

But Easley says he’s satisfied with the administration of the death penalty in North Carolina. Though he backs the current legislative study of that issue by a commission headed by Sen. Frank Ballance, D-Warren, he sees no reason to attend the meetings or to offer his own testimony.

If one thing is clear about Mike Easley, it’s this: He’s no Jim Hunt. “He doesn’t like to go through the minutiae of an issue,” a colleague says of him, “and he certainly doesn’t like to go 14 hours a day, every day, like Hunt does.”

Easley’s campaign for governor shows it. The centerpiece is his support for a state lottery, which Wicker also supports. The Democrats differ on how to use the money, though: Easley would pay for cutting class sizes in the early grades and supplementing school budgets in low-wealth counties. The lottery, his clean-water plan, and his proposal to pay seniors’ drug costs constitute Easley’s full agenda for North Carolina.

“His heart’s in the right place, and he’s a good consensus-builder,” Easley’s colleague adds. “But for people who are used to Jim Hunt and his new initiative of the week, that’s just not Mike Easley’s style.” EndBlock