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The walls are closing in on Beth Wood. Will she resign?
Wood's reputation and widespread support have insulated her so far — but politics could soon intervene
The more time that goes by, the more troubling the allegations against State Auditor Beth Wood become.
Last week, we wrote that Wood had been cited for misdemeanor hit and run after she allegedly managed to get two of her car's wheels completely on top of a vehicle parked on the street in downtown Raleigh. Police say she left the state-owned car, engine running, and disappeared.
The incident happened in December but didn’t come to light until a month later. After news outlets began to report on the incident, Wood put out a statement saying the incident occurred after a holiday party and called the situation a “mistake in judgment.” She committed to continuing her work as auditor.
Now video has emerged on Instagram (warning: foul language) showing someone who appears to be Wood being ushered inside a law office, with a witness saying he heard people yelling, "Get her out of here!"
While there's obviously no proof of this, the evidence certainly points to Wood leaving the scene of the accident to avoid prosecution for a more serious charge — like driving under the influence. While that may be a smart thing to do legally, it's a huge moral lapse.
There’s little chance Wood's career survives this. The only question is whether she resigns quickly, or attempts to ride out the rest of her term.
A reputation of independence and competence
So far, Wood has been insulated from political pressure to resign by virtue of her long-standing reputation of independence and competence. That’s a valuable asset in a position responsible for identifying waste, fraud and abuse across all levels of government in North Carolina.
Wood, a 68-year-old Democrat, was first elected state auditor in 2008 — defeating one-term Republican incumbent Les Merritt — after more than a decade of service in the Office of the State Auditor and the Office of the State Treasurer. Wood became the first woman to hold the post and subsequently won re-election to three more terms.
Wood had a compelling personal story to accompany her professional achievements. The Craven County farm girl initially graduated from community college and worked as a dental hygienist before deciding to earn a four-year degree and enter the financial world. She earned her CPA in 1987.
As state auditor, Wood regularly tangled with politicians on both sides of the aisle in a vigorous quest for good government.
During the McCrory administration, Wood’s office uncovered a broken Medicaid system costing the state millions of dollars, touching off a legislative push to overhaul the system. In 2020, she revealed that Cooper’s Department of Transportation was significantly over budget due to widespread financial mismanagement. At nearly the same time, she found that a Rocky Mount city council member had tens of thousands of dollars of unpaid utility bills wiped from his record — earning Wood charges of racism from the state NAACP. Wood still did not back down.
“She's the best state auditor we've ever had,” former labor commissioner Cherie Berry, a Republican, told WRAL. “It didn't matter if she was auditing a Democrat department head or Republican. Everybody was treated the same.”
All this has earned her the benefit of the doubt. But heading into an election year, things can quickly change.
Politics may help her stay in her job, too
The N.C. Republican Party quickly put out a statement calling for her to resign, but few others have done the same.
State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore (both Republicans) have said they are not currently asking her to resign, while Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein (both Democrats) have largely avoided those questions.
As troubling as the situation is, there isn’t likely to be much pressure to resign — and it’s all about politics.
If Wood were to resign, Gov. Roy Cooper would get to appoint a successor to fill the position until the next election (in 2024). The same thing would happen if the General Assembly were to conduct an impeachment. That process would begin in the state House, with the Senate serving as the court passing final judgment.
Either way, that would put a new state auditor in the position with plenty of time to mount a re-election campaign. All things being equal, nobody wants to run against an incumbent. This is particularly true in a relatively low-information race like that for the office of state auditor.
Republicans eyeing the 2024 race for state auditor would much rather run for an open seat. There’s little incentive for them to call for Wood to resign, giving her replacement a leg up next year.
If you’re a Democrat, you don’t want a new state auditor either — unless you’re the lucky one that Cooper taps. Whoever got the appointment would almost certainly win the Democrat nomination in 2024.
Cooper may want to stay out of it, and I wouldn’t blame him. It’s easier to just let Wood finish her term and avoid playing favorites or risk alienating a key constituency.
What comes next?
I understand why Wood wants to stay in office. Her term as state auditor has been remarkable, and she’s created out a powerful legacy of service to the state. Once you resign in disgrace, however, all of that gets wiped away. If she can make it through the next 18 months, she stands a much better chance of being remembered favorably in the annals of North Carolina history.
Can she do it? Sure. There’s plenty of historical precedent for North Carolina elected officials riding out criminal cases.
Former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Greene was indicted on federal bribery charges in 1983 while in office. He vigorously denied wrongdoing, went to trial and was acquitted. The next year, he ran for governor but lost the Democratic primary. A decade later, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges related to his tobacco business.
Former state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R- Cabarrus) was indicted on federal charges of mail fraud and money laundering while in office for allegedly soliciting campaign donations and then using them to pay personal expenses. He did not resign, but withdrew his name in the next election. He ultimately pleaded guilty.
But Wood’s case is significantly different, in several ways.
On the negative side, Wood is the highest-profile elected official to come under investigation since Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps. Phipps, daughter of former N.C. Gov. Bob Scott, resigned under pressure after several of her campaign aides were indicted on fraud charges related to shady dealings around the State Fair. Phipps ended up going to prison, where she made served her sentence alongside Martha Stewart.
However, it certainly works in Wood’s favor that the charges aren’t related to abuse of her office or campaign. At least not directly.
Under state law, the state auditor is tasked with “impartial, independent” investigations of state and local governments. She has unlimited access to the books, files, facilities and employees of all agencies of the state. She can issue subpoenas and take testimony under oath, and failure to comply with her investigations can lead to prison time.
In her job, Wood must tough questions, demand full transparency and hold our state government accountable. In this case, Wood has avoided tough questions, been woefully untransparent and tried to skirt accountability.
Had Wood stayed by the vehicle, taken whatever charges that came, and been honest, I would defend her ability to remain in office.
But North Carolinians should hold our state auditor to the same standard that she holds the rest of state government. Beth Wood must resign.
Wood has her next court appearance on March 23. My guess is she’ll still be the state auditor at that point. But she shouldn’t be.
5 things of note
Polls show Republicans up in General Assembly, governor races
For N.C. politics junkies, it’s never too early to dig into the polls. This week delivered two new ones. Neither offers sweeping conclusions, but there give us an interesting look at the state of play 22 months ahead of Election Day.
A John Locke Foundation poll indicates that the political headwinds are still in Republicans’ favor. A generic ballot question for the General Assembly put Republicans at 47.2% and Democrats at 42.2%. Historically, Democrats have polled much higher, though they often underperform on Election Day.
North Carolina voters are also deeply dissatisfied with the state of public education and the direction of the country, the poll shows.
Also worth noting: Gov. Roy Cooper is still above-water in a job approval poll question, though it’s a lot closer than I’ve seen lately. The poll shows 44.9% approving of his job performance as governor, with 40.4% disapproving.
However, the John Locke Foundation poll seems to oversample conservatives. So take all those results with a grain of salt.
In the same vein comes a new poll sponsored by the N.C. Values Coalition and the N.C. Faith and Freedom Coalition (conducted by Differentiators Data).
The poll shows Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson with a slight advantage over Attorney General Josh Stein in the 2024 governor’s race, 42.4% to 41.6%.
It also puts Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a huge advantage in a Republican presidential primary, dominating with 47.4% compared with former President Donald Trump’s 35%.
Crosstabs and other methodology notes were not provided.
New York Times calls Mark Robinson “extremism incarnate”
The 2024 governor’s race will likely have a higher national profile than any in North Carolina history. That’s purely by virtue of just how much the left hates Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
In an opinion piece by Frank Bruni last week, the New York Times labeled Robinson “extremism incarnate,” for all the reasons you’d expect. If this is the first hit piece of the 2024 election, it certainly won’t be the last. Buckle up.
Is Roy Cooper angling for a federal cabinet post?
With Gov. Roy Cooper term-limited, will he ride off into the sunset or try to continue his political career? A recent interview he conducted with Spectrum News at the N.C. Transportation Summit in Raleigh may indicate the latter.
Even as the national Democratic Party seems to sour on President Joe Biden, Cooper is still firmly in the Biden camp. He gave the president effusive praise when describing his view of the state of North Carolina’s transportation.
“This is a time of generational change, and we've been waiting for decades for the funding that we need to make investments in transportation. And because of the bipartisan infrastructure plan and the Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Biden, we actually have those funds to make this kind of change,” Cooper said.
"It's really time for us to make smart decisions right now to stay ahead of the curve and use the transportation system to create good-paying jobs,” Cooper continued, citing $109 million put toward electric vehicle charging stations. “That's what we're doing right now."
Is Cooper angling to be the next transportation secretary in a Biden second term? I don’t see Pete Buttigieg lasting past 2024, considering his rampant mismanagement and his ambitions to run for president again. Cooper would be a bit of a stretch for that position, but it wouldn’t be beyond reason to expect Cooper to be on a few short-lists for a top federal post after his governorship.
Two Republican bills contemplate adding computer science to high school graduation requirements
Two new bills sponsored by Wake County Republican Erin Paré contemplate adding computer science classes as a requirement for graduating high school in North Carolina.
House Bill 3 would direct the UNC Board of Governors to study requiring computer science coursework as a prerequisite for incoming undergrads. Then, House Bill 8 would require a computer science class to graduate from a North Carolina high school.
This is wise. Not everyone needs to be a coder, but it’s increasingly valuable for workers in any industry to at least understand how computers work. You need to know what’s possible for a computer to accomplish, and how to communicate effectively with the people who do the programming.
I’ll be watching these bills closely as the long session progresses, and I hope they get a good, hard look.
Legislators seek changes to county tier system
The N.C. Department of Commerce puts every county in our state in a "distress tier" based on its economic well-being. Counties with the highest average unemployment rate, lowest median household income, smallest growth rate, and lowest tax base are put in Tier 1. The wealthiest counties are put in Tier 3.
These tiers are extremely important. Lower-tier counties are eligible for more economic incentives to bring in jobs, and get grants from the state to invest in public infrastructure without needing to put up any of their own money. However, they can also be a pretty blunt instrument. There's a huge difference between, say, Clayton and Bentonville, though both are in Johnston County. And state law requires that 40 counties each be in Tiers 1 and 2, while 20 counties must be in Tier 3.
Now, two Republican legislators that represent Tier 3 counties with plenty of rural areas are planning to push for changes to the county tier system, according to Carolina Journal. Rep. Ben Moss (Moore and Richmond counties) and Sen. Benton Sawrey (Johnston County) both list reforming the system as a top priority for the new long session.
It's pretty clear that changes are needed here. When we have the ability to analyze the state down to the Census tract or ZIP code, there's no need to treat counties as a singular entity for this purpose. I'd favor eliminating county tiers altogether and have the state designate "Opportunity Zones" instead, much like the Trump-era legislation did. However, if we're set on using counties, it at least makes sense to eliminate the 40-40-20 rule.
1 good idea from another state
Pennsylvania removes four-year degree requirement from most state jobs. Via executive order, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (a Democrat) removed the four-year university degree requirement for 92% of state jobs. Instead, job postings emphasize skills and experience, regardless of where they come from. Maryland and Utah have taken similar action under Republican leadership.
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