Rising to the defense of Mary Easley

She's led a campaign to stop teens from drinking and worked to put North Carolina on the arts map. She's read to schoolchildren and honored teachers. She's trained lawyers and police officers.

Mary Easley, 58, has been North Carolina's first lady for nearly eight years. For most of that time, when she sought the spotlight, it was for causes important to her.

But as Gov. Mike Easley's second and final term winds down, Mary Easley has been dragged into the public eye over first-class trips to Europe at state expense and an 88 percent pay increase for her job at N.C. State University.

Friends and colleagues say the news stories and criticism paint a picture that bears little resemblance to the talented, smart and warm person they know.

“I have never seen an aloof Mary Easley, nor have I seen, like I said, an ostentatious or false Mary Easley,” said Doug Parsons, a lawyer who has known Easley since 1972, when they were both law students at Wake Forest University.

The travel expenses and the NCSU job have rankled many state workers, said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which represents 55,000 employees and retirees.

“I think it's a classic case of the haves versus the have-nots,” Cope said. “I think our state employees and I think regular taxpayers see it for what it is.”

Riding out the storm

Easley declined to be interviewed for this story. In an interview with WRAL television this month, Easley said she has tried to ignore the negative attention.

“You can't control people's reactions or how they're going to write a story or how they're going to present a story,” she said. “You really have to concentrate on what you're trying to do that's positive.”

Mary Pipines moved to North Carolina from New Jersey in the late 1960s to attend Wake Forest University. After earning a law degree there, she was hired as a prosecutor in Pender County. Through her work she met her future husband, who was a prosecutor in a neighboring judicial district.

But Mary Pipines was attracting attention in her own right. She was probably the only female prosecutor east of Raleigh.

“She was kind of an oddity around the state,” said John Carriker, who was a fellow prosecutor who eventually became district attorney. Carriker remembers that at district attorneys conferences, other prosecutors would ask, “How's that girl doing?”

Carriker and others said she was a good prosecutor who handled everything from traffic tickets to murder cases, and defense lawyers and defendants learned to take her seriously.

The Easleys married in 1980. Twenty years later, Mike Easley, who had been a district attorney and North Carolina's attorney general, was elected governor. Since then, Mary Easley has done the first lady's duties – ceremonies, occasional ribbon-cuttings and, rarely, public events at the Executive Mansion – and her naturally warm and gregarious personality has been an asset.

“When there's a ceremonial role, a first lady should do that, with good humor and enthusiasm and make that enthusiasm contagious,” Mary Easley said in 2003. “I think it has important symbolic value. It may be the only exposure some people have to the governor or the governor's family or someone representing the state.”

She also still teaches law, and historians and political scientists say they think she was the first governor's wife in state history to continue working.

At N.C. Central University, Easley taught trial practice and appellate advocacy while supervising law students who represented criminal defendants through the university's clinic. After she became the first lady, about the only thing that changed at school was the constant presence of a security guard, said Pamela Stanback Glean, director of clinical programs at NCCU's law school.

“She doesn't demand a whole lot. She never had a prima donna attitude about it,” Glean said. “If you didn't see the troopers, you wouldn't know she was the governor's wife.”

Glean said Easley was a “hands-on” teacher. “Mary would go out of her way to not only explain her grading, but to help students improve.”

Boosting MADD, art

First ladies traditionally champion a few pet issues. Mary Easley chose underage drinking, education and the arts. Of the 260 events the governor's press office announced for Mary Easley since 2001, at least 128 focused on those issues.

“Her position helps open up doors,” said Craig Lloyd, state executive director of MADD. “I can't point at a stronger partner that we've had to keep our youth safe and our roadways safe than Mrs. Easley and her husband.”

From the start of her husband's first term, Easley has volunteered her time at the N.C. Museum of Art. She's worked the phones, helped with events and tours and lent her stature to efforts to recruit world-class exhibits.

“I would dare say that she's been the most important volunteer we've had in terms of taking the museum from what I think is a pretty good regional art museum to one of the best museums in the world,” said Joyce Fitzpatrick, a member of the museum board of trustees.

Art and culture were the reasons behind two European trips that Mary Easley took. In 2007, she went to France as part of a cultural exchange that followed a blockbuster Monet exhibit at the museum in Raleigh.

Then in May, Easley was part of a delegation to Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia. Travel arrangements and expenses were extravagant by the standards applied to most state employees.

Nine people went on the trips, and transportation, hotels, meals and other items cost a total of $109,000. After the details became public, Mary Easley became a target of editorial writers, bloggers, radio hosts and others who questioned the value of the trip and some of the expenses, such as tickets to the ballet in Russia.

All the focus on the cost of the trips misses the point, Gov. Easley and other state officials have said. The state saw an economic benefit of more than $20 million from the Monet exhibit and the trip to Russia could produce a similar result. Officials said having the first lady of North Carolina along for such a trip helps impress foreign arts officials.

Big raise at NCSU

The day after the news broke about her European trips, another news story revealed that Easley received a $90,300 raise at N.C. State, where she began working in 2005.

She was hired as an executive-in-residence with the rank of senior lecturer. Her job included directing a speakers program and teaching three courses a year. She was given new duties this year, including running a leadership training program for police and emergency rescue workers and coordinating law education initiatives.

University officials and Mary Easley emphasized that she had accepted a new job with more responsibilities and that her qualifications justified her new $170,000 salary. The UNC Board of Governors must still vote on the increase.

Cope, of the state employees association, said, “This was preferential treatment because she's the governor's wife.”

Gov. Easley said that people were making an issue of it because she is a woman.

In an interview with WRAL, Mary Easley said she didn't grasp the criticism.

“What people have to understand is that I bring something unique to N.C. State,” she said. “All of my experience as a lawyer in private practice, as a prosecutor, as a person that has worked with and advised law enforcement for over 30 years on legal issues puts me in a unique position to be able to bring everything to bear in a way that is a unique skill set that not many people have.

“I have pretty much kept a low profile because I certainly didn't want any conflict with my husband's endeavors, but I have got plenty of energy left and I want to use all that energy to do good.”