A family legacy and the threat of scandal

Meg Scott Phipps is embroiled in a kickback controversy, showing power of ag positions in South.

The Scott family farm in the rumpled hills of North Carolina is to the Tarheel state what the Kennedy compound is to Massachusetts.

It is the place where generations of one of the most powerful political families in North Carolina has lived or retreated to over the decades - first W. Kerr Scott, a folk hero and family patriarch who served as governor in the early 1950s; then his son, Bob Scott, who was lieutenant governor and later governor.

Now it's Meg Scott Phipps, the state's powerful agricultural commissioner, who comes home to the barns and silos and undulating grasslands on a hilltop 30 miles east of Greensboro. Yet her career, like the farm, is showing signs of tarnish.

Ms. Phipps is embroiled in a scandal over campaign kickbacks that's marring her reputation and threatening her political future - including, it's presumed from bloodlines, a run for governor.

More broadly, as the scandal deepens, it raises questions around a family that is synonymous with bringing North Carolina farmers "out of the mud."

"My dad [former Governor Bob Scott] says this won't affect the Scott name, but I wish I could be so sure," says Kerr Scott, Phipps' brother, who now lives alone on the dairy farm in Alamance County.

The controversy, appropriately for the South, revolves around the State Fair. This month, two chief aides pleaded guilty to extorting money from carnival vendors to pay campaign debts, and Phipps is under federal investigation.

The affair cuts to the core of an agriculture boss's role and stature: elected by voters, she is not beholden to the governor for appointment, and while fellow Democrats stew, many of Phipps's rural constituents couldn't care less about the ongoing FBI investigation, as long as farming improves. The scuffle illustrates, too, a changing reality in Southern politics: As the South becomes less solidly Democratic, candidates face new pressure to spend lavishly on elections - and cater to special-interest groups, as the Phipps campaign is accused of doing with the carnival industry.

Phipps has vowed to fight what supporters call a smear campaign engineered by "good old boys" to undermine the state's first elected female farm boss. Last week, speaking at the fairgrounds in a building named after her grandfather, she vowed to stay in office, despite Gov. Mike Easley's call for her resignation.

Phipps's grandfather, Gov. W. Kerr Scott, was a folk hero who won a surprise victory in 1948 after serving as agriculture commissioner. Then as now, the Scotts billed themselves as a voice for farmers, fighting well-heeled companies to ensure electrification and roads. Most native North Carolinians know the name as well as Louisianans know the Longs.

But it was Phipps's father, Bob Scott, who gave her a crash course in elections, as she tagged along on his unsuccessful 1979 campaign. Her four siblings took no interest in politics, but Phipps once told her brother she wanted to become governor. She got a law degree, ran a failed legislative campaign, and worked as an administrative-law judge before running for election in 1999.

Phipps's friends say that just being a woman with fresh ideas startled an establishment grown complacent under former agriculture commissioner Jim Graham, a 36-year farm boss known as the "Sod Father." Aside from fine-tuning the state's $63 billion farm economy, Mr. Graham was known to bray like a mule at Democratic party functions.

From the start, Phipps cut a different profile. She immediately made changes, including hiring a new Midway operator for the nation's third-largest state fair. Now many see her refusal to resign as another sign of the family's stubborn "independent streak," as her brother calls it.

"She's challenging the established powers," says Ferrell Guillory, a Southern culture expert at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Traditionally, the family is up for a political fight: Bob Scott fended off an IRS investigation in the 1970s. But now, for the first time, Kerr Scott has seen his father mad about scandal - when Governor Easley called for Phipps's resignation. Last week, Bob Scott took to the radio waves to defend his daughter.

While she hasn't been charged, critics say that she's implicated. Her campaign was fined $130,000 by the Elections Board for misappropriating funds.

"She didn't get a fine for being a Girl Scout," says Jerry Agar, a talk-show host at WPTF radio in Raleigh who's dubbed Phipps the "Haw River Huckster."

The drama around the case - unusual for such a bureaucratic post - threatens to constrain Phipps in managing the 1,255-employee agriculture department. Critics say that's reason enough for her to step down, and to do so quickly, before the taint of scandal spreads to other Democrats. The department's primary responsibility is to inspect the food coming onto grocery-store shelves. It also lobbies for farmers, supports agricultural research, and is responsible for running the State Fair.

"She's used some poor judgement," says Rep. Dewey Hill, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "One day the sun's going to come up and shine, and she's going to be in good shape, but meanwhile, this is all going on."

Grown powerful under a system that favored long terms and cozy Democratic politics, the elected farm boss may be susceptible to a sea change in Southern politics: North Carolina is now politically split. Now, the Phipps ordeal is "raising the question of whether we really need so many elected officials," says Mr. Guillory.

But Southern agriculture commissioners say that longevity and stature make the elected commissioner powerful. "I found the best politics to be good work," says elected West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass, the most senior farm boss in the country.

While the Scotts' 2,200 acres have dwindled to a tenth of that size, Phipps hasn't ruled out running for governor - fulfilling not just her family legacy, but her girlhood dream.

"My mama says the Scott name still has magic in it," says Kerr Scott. "I hope she's right."

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