Mike Easley lives near the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the small town of Southport, where he can look out his back window and watch giant cargo ships piled with containers ply their way upriver toward Wilmington.

I stopped by on a sunny morning this summer. Though waterfront restaurants just a mile away were crowded with vacationers, Easley’s riverfront neighborhood was quiet. Cars were parked in his driveway. The trash can was at the curb.

I knocked on the door. 

I’d been trying to get up with Easley for a couple months. The Assembly asked me to catch up with the former North Carolina governor, who, after keeping a generally low profile since leaving office in January 2009, seemed to be reemerging in the public eye. 

He’d been quoted in stories about a new study on the NC Education Lottery, which he’d championed. He’d invited Spectrum News into his garage workshop. There, amid the sawdust and furniture oil, he stood in bib overalls in front of his lathe, talking about the hobby he started at a time when he couldn’t afford store-bought furniture.

But it’s not easy catching up with Easley, who’s always been elusive. He told Spectrum’s Tim Boyum that he would “jump the fence” at the governor’s mansion in order to shake off his security detail and just be alone.

“You know, you get the heebie-jeebies and you got to get away,” he told Boyum.

As a politician, Easley was a paradox. Outgoing yet aloof. Engaging but confounding. A Democrat who often had little time for party functions. A former prosecutor who ran afoul of the law. A gifted storyteller who lost control of his own.

He’s probably the most idiosyncratic governor the state has ever had, right down to his once-secret email account under the name of fictional detective Nick Danger—spelled backward. 

Some say Easley missed his moment. “Somebody said he should have been governor during the pandemic,” says Gary Pearce, a Democratic veteran of North Carolina politics. “He could have stayed in his basement.”

At 71, the silver-haired Easley is at the age when he might have been a senior statesman, or at least a party elder. 

He won two gubernatorial elections easily in years when Republican George W. Bush carried the state by double digits. Before Democrat Roy Cooper’s 2020 reelection, he was the state’s last two-term governor. He’s still the last Democratic governor to enjoy a Democratic-controlled NC General Assembly for his entire term. 

Easley championed a widely praised early childhood education program in addition to the lottery. He was North Carolina’s first governor to issue a veto. He was also the first to crash a stock car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

Later, he became the first convicted of a felony.

His 2010 plea to a single charge of filing a false campaign-finance report came after lengthy state and federal investigations into allegations he’d accepted favors from supporters. The swirl of accusations tarnished his reputation and legacy.

According to the State Board of Elections, his campaign still owes $94,000 in fines.

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Gov. Easley prepares to takes some laps prior to the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge auto race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Saturday, May 19, 2007. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

“He said he was going to accept responsibility, and he still has to do that,” says Bob Hall, a campaign finance watchdog and former executive director of the nonprofit Democracy North Carolina.

I’ve followed Easley for more than three decades. I watched his rise and his fall and then his hesitant reemergence. I’ve gone to Rocky Mount and talked to family friends about him and to a peer circle that included bank presidents and politicians, including current Gov. Roy Cooper, who grew up a few miles down the road. 

We’ve always gotten along, and I expected we’d talk for this article. But finding Mike Easley turned out to be more difficult than I expected.  

***

I first met Easley when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990, and later covered him as attorney general and governor. He’s always been personable, charming, and funny. He could work a crowd as well as anybody.

“When he was on, he was unquestionably the most talented politician I’ve seen in North Carolina this century,” says Republican Party consultant Jim Blaine, a former top legislative aide. “He could run circles around any of the folks that are out there now.”

Easley is a gifted mimic. Rob Christensen, The News & Observer’s former political reporter, once got a phone call after winning an award.

“This is Trooper So-and-so,” Christensen recalls the voice saying. “Would you please hold for Governor [Jim] Hunt?” Then “Hunt” came on. 

Both voices were Easley’s. 

His impressions come with an impish grin that’s been a hallmark. One of seven children, Easley was always the fun-loving free spirit. “He was the one that required more discipline,” his mother, Huldah, once told a reporter. “He was very mischievous, very daring.” 

The son of a tobacco warehouseman, Easley grew up on a 65-acre tobacco farm near Rocky Mount, a town that once boasted the world’s largest market for bright leaf tobacco. 

His family was Irish Catholic in a region where Catholics were as rare as skyscrapers. His political baptism came in 1960 when he helped his father campaign for another Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy.

Easley played high school football and was president of his senior class. A small town, Rocky Mount took pride in nurturing its own. Writer Allan Gurganus has described his hometown as a place “where everybody brought up everybody else.”

“People knew I was Alex Easley’s son,” Easley once told me. “And if I did something wrong, they knew where to drive to tell my mom and dad.”

Easley left home for Belmont Abbey College but, after two years, transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a popular guy. “The party always came to Michael,” his roommate once told The Charlotte Observer. “There was never a shortage of conversation when you were around him.”

At Carolina, Easley wrestled with a long-standing reading disability. He learned better by listening, so his friends at UNC read to him. He worked hard but didn’t let on.

“Easley would sit around the fraternity house and act like he wasn’t studying, then go home and study for hours,” recalls Phi Gamma Delta brother John Merritt, who later became the governor’s co-chief of staff. “He’d like to make people think he wasn’t trying at all. He wants to make it look effortless, but he’s very competitive.”

Easley graduated with honors from UNC-CH and later, N.C. Central’s law school. He took a job as an assistant district attorney in Brunswick County. That brought him to the coast and, eventually, into politics.

In 1982, when he was 32 years old, he was elected district attorney. It was there that he began fighting drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, and building a reputation that would carry him to the governor’s mansion.  

***

As a young reporter for the Brunswick Free Press, Debbie Crane got to watch the new district attorney in court. “He was very much like television DAs,” she recalls. “He was good. He was theatrical. Believable.”

And busy. Easley prosecuted 350 drug traffickers. One put a contract on his life, prompting him to sleep with a loaded shotgun by his bed and keep a pistol in his glove compartment. He also prosecuted nearly three dozen public officials on corruption charges, including sheriffs, police chiefs, a judge, and a state legislator.

In 1988, advisors to state Sen. Tony Rand sought out the young prosecutor to shore up Rand’s own law-and-order credentials in his campaign for lieutenant governor. So Easley cut commercials for his fellow Democrat. Rand lost. But Easley’s star rose.

“Easley was a natural,” says former Democratic consultant Mac McCorkle, who now teaches in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “He was very good. Good looks. Quick wit. Could cut to the chase on issues. His communication skills were excellent.”

In 1990, Easley ran for the U.S. Senate but lost the primary to former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. Two years later, he was elected state attorney general. 

Among other things, he helped negotiate a national tobacco settlement worth $246 billion to states. He convinced lawmakers to use the nearly $3 billion that came to North Carolina to create the Golden LEAF Foundation, which helps farmers and counties once dependent on the crop.

He ran for governor in 2000, defeating Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker in the primary and Republican Richard Vinroot in the general. That same year, Bush won North Carolina by double digits. Easley replicated that win four years later when he and Bush each carried the state by 13 points.

No Democrat since has come close to that.

“I suppose part of what I did was ride George Bush’s coattails both times, which is a different sort of thing, but it—it works,” Easley joked to a class at UNC-CH in 2005.

Easley twice carried rural, eastern counties that Democrats have since struggled to win. He won his first election for governor in a year when the decline of the state's traditional textile and manufacturing economy was accelerating, and after his party had governed the state for eight years. 

“His comparative strength was his support among independents,” McCorkle says. “He didn’t sound like an urban liberal.”

That was underscored in 2003. During a charity fundraiser at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Easley crashed a stock car once driven by Jimmie Johnson. In The N&O, Christensen called it “the latest example of his Bubbahood.”

“Easley is an unlikely good ‘ol boy – a Democratic lawyer married to a law professor,” he wrote. “But scratch the surface and you find a Nash County farm boy.”

For Easley, old-fashioned, back-slapping politics had its limits.

“He could be funny and charming and great in a crowd, but he also was a loner,” Christensen says. “Being in a crowd pulled oxygen from him, essentially. He had to go home and recover because it took so much out of him.”

***

Easley found a comfort zone in the governor’s mansion. “What he really loved was governing,” McCorkle says.

Easley’s top priority: education. He persuaded lawmakers to reduce class sizes and create the state lottery to raise money for schools. His signature accomplishment was “More at Four,” a program designed to give 4-year-olds a jump on school. In 2008, a national educators group gave him its “America’s Greatest Education Governor” award.

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Gov. Easley talks to students at Wintergreen Primary School in Greenville, N.C. during a 2005 visit. (AP Photo/The Daily Reflector, Jason A. Frizzelle)

Easley even persuaded a reluctant General Assembly to raise the sales tax and the top income tax rate to counter the decline in state revenue from the economic setbacks of the late 1990s. 

“I put it to them this way,” he told a New York University audience in 2006. “You don’t have to be in the legislature, and I don’t have to be the governor, but we’ve got a hundred thousand 5-year-olds who have to go to kindergarten next year.”

More at Four was just one of Easley’s legislative successes.

“He was a stronger policy governor than most people remember,” says Ferrel Guillory, a former professor at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism. “He was a stronger, more creative governor [and] more productive than most people think. He really is a thinker about public policy and how to move issues forward.”

But Easley’s laid-back management style, personality quirks, and penchant for secrecy hurt him during his final year as governor.

Investigations by The N&O found major problems in the state's probation and mental health systems. One supporter told the paper that Easley “got to where he was on cruise control with everything [in his] second term.”

Also in 2008, Easley officials fired Crane—the former Brunswick County reporter—from her job as spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services. She had said his administration ordered agencies to permanently delete emails to bypass public records law. An Easley spokesperson denied that and called Crane “dishonest, untruthful, and insubordinate.”

But two years later, in sworn testimony that was part of a public-records lawsuit brought by media organizations, Easley’s former press secretary said the administration had indeed directed agency spokespeople to delete their emails.

“I was fired for doing my job,” Crane says now. “He had every right to fire me. He had no right to slander me. ... I don’t know what drove [Easley] to be so secretive. He’s a brilliant man and had so much promise.”

***

On the sparkling waters of Bogue Sound, just across from Emerald Isle, was a development that promoters called “pure paradise.”

Cannonsgate was on the Intracoastal Waterway a few miles west of Morehead City. The choicest corner of paradise was a lot that fronted the waterway at the entrance to a 75-slip marina. The Carolina Journal, published by the conservative John Locke Foundation, was the first to report the name of its 2005 buyer: Mike Easley.

Critics called it a sweetheart deal. And it was. The N&O later obtained closing documents showing that Easley got a 25 percent break off the $549,000 selling price. The broker, the developer, and the man who helped finance Cannonsgate were all friends and contributors whom the governor had appointed to high-profile state boards.

It was one of several deals involving alleged favors that prosecutors and state officials investigated. They included repairs to the governor’s private home, unreported rides on a supporter’s helicopter, and a lucrative job for his wife, Mary, at North Carolina State University.

Easley was notoriously frugal. Friends like attorney Wade Smith joked that when they ate out, Easley had “alligator arms”—too short to reach into his pocket when the check came.

In 2009, the State Board of Elections held a multiday hearing into allegations that Easley broke campaign-finance rules. Easley’s friend, McQueen Campbell, a pilot, testified that he’d provided more than $100,000 in personal and campaign flights for which he had not been paid. 

Campbell also said he made repairs to Easley’s personal residence in Raleigh. He said that at Easley’s direction, he filed false invoices to be paid from the governor’s campaign, which Easley denied. (Campbell declined to talk to The Assembly.)

The former governor himself testified for five hours. The board fined his campaign $100,000. Easley, who always had a lone-wolf style, found himself largely abandoned by his party. 

A year later, state and federal investigations wrapped up when Easley agreed to an Alford plea on a single felony charge of filing a false campaign report. That meant he didn’t admit guilt but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict him.

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Former Gov. Mike Easley, center, walks past media to a hearing conducted by the state Board of Elections on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 (AP Photo/Shawn Rocco, Pool)

The plea came amid the raft of allegations. William Kennerly, the special state prosecutor handling the case, told reporters at the time that “hotly contested” facts and “vague statutes” were big reasons why he negotiated the plea to a single charge.

“I took it as my mission to look at everything involving Gov. Easley, and I didn’t find any other issue I felt comfortable as a prosecutor going forward with,” Kennerly says now.

Speaking to the judge that day in 2010, Easley said, “I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does. The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred.”

Easley lost his law license, though it was reinstated in 2013. 

The long investigation also snared a top Easley aide. In 2010, Ruffin Poole was indicted on more than 50 charges of corruption, and he pleaded guilty to a single charge of tax evasion. He served nearly a year in federal prison.

Easley wasn’t the only Democrat who’d come under intense legal scrutiny. A parade of elected Democrats—including former House Speaker Jim Black, former Commissioner of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps, and former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance—had all gone to prison on corruption charges.

Voters had had enough. Three weeks before Easley’s 2010 conviction, Republicans swept to power in an election that gave them control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. They ran against what they called Democrats’ “culture of corruption.” It was a legislative defeat from which Democrats still have not recovered. 

Another chapter in Easley’s saga ended in June. That’s when Easley and his wife sold the Cannonsgate lot for $346,500, according to Carteret County deed records. The land that once was a symbol of Easley’s influence and connections now showed how his luck had turned: According to records, the Easleys appear to have lost about $65,000 on the deal.

***

Friends say taking the Alford plea was hard for Easley.

“He’s a fighter,” says Merritt. “He didn’t do anything in his mind. ... He did not like pleading guilty. He kind of went in a shell there for a while. He didn’t talk to anybody. ... I think in the end, he was as much embarrassed as he was hurt. ... He [believed he] had lived his life correctly.”

Guillory said the ordeal “certainly hurt his image and discombobulated him personally.” 

Others say his faith helped. “It may be surprising to a lot of people that he is not bitter,” says Franklin Freeman, a former state Supreme Court justice and Easley aide. “He has a deep spiritual faith. He’s a devout Catholic. I think that’s been very important to him.”

Easley had planned to practice law after leaving office with McGuireWoods, where he would practice with his son, Michael F. Easley, Jr. As a former governor, he would have been a rainmaker. As a felon, he couldn’t even own a gun.

“Some of those doors closed for a while,” says Saul Shorr, a friend and former political advisor. “I talk to him regularly. I think he’s in a good place. Of all the things taken away from him, the thing that bothered him the most was he couldn’t hunt.”

In the summer of 2018, Easley joined four other former governors of both parties at the old Capitol to fight a pair of constitutional amendments they claimed would curtail executive power. Voters rejected both amendments. 

The next year, he and three of the governors filed a brief in a case challenging a 2017 Republican redistricting. In it, they argued against partisan gerrymandering. But Easley has made few other public appearances in the 12 years since he left office. 

***

So I had plenty of questions: How should people remember him as governor? What was his proudest accomplishment? How does he look at his plea agreement and other controversies in retrospect? How could Democrats replicate his success with rural voters and independents?

In a series of texts, he told me in May that he was “slammed and expecting it to go on a good while.” In early June, he said he didn’t expect to get freed up until “around Labor Day.”

I said I’d be on vacation in Southport in mid-July and I could see him then. Later, when I was, I knocked on his door. I waited and knocked again. No answer.

“Governor are you home?” I texted.

“I am on a zoom mediation,” he texted back. “Do not go to my home without an invitation.” 

I’ve thought about what his longtime friend John Merritt told me. “Easley was just a different cat,” Merritt said. “He’s just different than anybody I’ve met. The same things don’t motivate him that motivate other people.”

This summer, Easley taped another interview with Spectrum’s Boyum for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In mid-August, I texted and asked if he’d still be available after Labor Day. On Labor Day, I texted again. “You available?” I asked. 

I have yet to hear back. 

***

Jim Morrill covered politics for The Charlotte Observer for 37 years. Follow him on twitter @jimmorrill.