David Lewis offers a cautionary tale for those entering politics. Lewis is ending his career in disgrace after rising to the top of the GOP House leadership. He’s pleading guilty to transferring $65,000 from his campaign to a bank account for a business he established called NC GOP, Inc. He resigned from the legislature just a day after the sentencing of the defendants in the Greg Lindberg corruption case. Lewis had borrowed $500,000 from Lindberg co-defendant John Gray, who was sentenced to two and half years in prison for attempting to bribe the insurance commissioner. Lewis will likely join Gray and Lindberg in prison.
Clearly, Lewis thought through his plan before carrying it out. Lewis and other Republicans are calling it a “mistake,” but the move was clearly intentional and not a mistake. He abused his power and used a political system reliant on money from contributions from PACs and individuals to benefit himself. The audacity of Lewis’ plan reflects the arrogance we saw when Lewis told us the reason he gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage in Congressional districts in our evenly divided state was because he couldn’t figure out how to draw map that gave the GOP 11 seats.
Lewis didn’t always have that power. When he was elected to office in 2002, he was a 31 year old businessman who espoused traditional conservative values. I don’t believe he ran for office for personal gain, though some people do. He served his first four terms in the minority before Republicans took power in the House in 2010. He moved up in the GOP leadership and ended up the powerful Rules Chair.
By all accounts, Lewis was well-liked by his colleagues. I often had Democrats tell me that they could work with him. His twitter feed often had playful non-political banter with legislators from the other side of the aisle. One person who served as a lobbyist for somewhat progressive causes said Lewis took time to listen to him and offer guidance on how the process works in the General Assembly, even though he didn’t necessarily support the cause.
Despite his jovial demeanor, Lewis also showed an arrogance that comes from having too much unchecked power. He became one of Raleigh’s most narrow-minded partisans, scoring political points at the expense of the political adversaries. He showed no shame in trying to rig the political system and even crowed about his ability to disenfranchise Democrat through gerrymandering. He led the effort to mislead voters with poorly written constitutional amendments and defended voter suppression laws.
When Lewis got into financial trouble with his farm, he turned to fellow politicos to help bail him out. While they helped him with loans, they couldn’t make his farm profitable in the wake of the tariffs and shortage of low-paying jobs once filled by immigrants. And yet, while his livelihood was at risk, he sat on a mound of cash collected because of his powerful position in the GOP leadership.
I don’t know exactly how his mind works, but I suspect he rationalized that he had done the hard work of raising that money and that it wouldn’t really be noticed when it was gone. He was widely known as a Republican powerbroker so deposits into an account called “NC GOP” would look legal in finance reports and make sense to bankers opening an account. He may have even told himself that at some point, he’d pay it back, so it was all good.
Lewis is the result of too much power, too much access to money, and too little pay for legislators. Lewis, like a lot politicians, thought he was smarter than the system. He probably believed that he should be entitled to some of the money he raised, in part, because he spent so much working on legislative business. Finally, Lewis was only paid a pittance for his time as a legislator. Had he been paid as the full-time legislator that he actually is, he might not have needed the money from his campaign account.
Young legislators, especially those in minority today, should look hard at Lewis and his career. They should not only remember his story as they gain seniority and power, they should also look for ways to reduce the temptations that Lewis could not resist. One way would be to pay legislators a salary worthy of the time they spend in Raleigh. We are the ninth largest state in the nation. While less government might make a good slogan, governing a state of 10 million and growing is full-time job.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >