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Power For Sale

Lessons from the Reyes textbook

To this day, no one has any idea who Andrew Reyes really is, or was. But what's clear is that once he got started, it took the former county Democratic Party chairman less than three years to buy himself a position of power in Charlotte politics. That's quite a feat when you consider that this city's leaders publicly pride themselves on the lack of corruption in Charlotte, and in particular the supposedly squeaky clean nature of city, county and state politics.The story of the rise and fall of Reyes isn't just about him. It's about our city and how it works. In 1992, Reyes showed up almost out of nowhere with a fake social security number and an even faker accounting degree and rose from struggling temp worker to powerful political donor in under a decade.

The first place I ever saw Reyes' name was on a campaign finance report. Then it popped up on another, and another, until it seemed that Reyes was everywhere. Before he was done, he lined the campaign coffers of almost every moderate politician in both political parties in Charlotte. Not surprisingly, Reyes won the chairmanship of the county Democratic Party in a stunning victory after pledging a five-figure donation to the county Black Political Caucus, a critical cog in the wheel of the party's well-oiled voter turnout machine. Above and beyond the donation to the BPC, Reyes gave the county Democratic Party at least $82,000 while he was Chairman.

But the real story isn't Reyes' downfall, but how he got to where he fell from. You have to wonder who Reyes bought along the way, who else is for sale, and how many others have paid their way to influence, power, and Lord knows what other brands of political and financial favoritism in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Let's face it. Political power is for sale here, and Reyes proved it by buying some with money that by all appearances wasn't even his.

Reyes now sits in jail awaiting trial on a variety of fraud charges, including theft of money from an accounting client who trusted him with it. At least $250,000 of that money appears to have been donated to Democratic organizations and political candidates, none of which, with the exception of Mayor Pat McCrory, have shown any interest in returning it.

"Enron went down and cost us 20,000 jobs and no one is giving any money back," says current county Democratic Party chairman John Cotham, who claims the party will "do the right thing" on this issue. Cotham wouldn't commit to returning any of the money or encouraging elected officials to do the same.

Granted, no one knew the money might be tainted when they took it, but that's not the point. The point is that all this guy had to do was show up and throw money around to earn himself a place of stature in Charlotte, political power and copious coverage and even praise from the Charlotte Observer.

For the average guy, the story of how Reyes wormed his way into Charlotte's political scene is one of those glimpses we so rarely get into how the systems of power and influence that govern our little lives actually work. The news isn't all bad.

There was a time in Charlotte when civic decisions were made around a table at the City Club by wealthy Myers Park men from old Charlotte families. Things have at least changed enough that a short, Hispanic, openly gay man from nowhere can now play if he can pay. That's progress, isn't it?

Of course, we can't forget that Charlotte isn't the only place you can buy yourself a piece of power and influence. Back in August of 2000, Reyes shared lunch with presidential nominee Al Gore hours before Gore made his acceptance speech in Los Angeles, which Reyes watched from a skybox reserved for Joe Andrews, head of the Democratic National Committee. Less than a week before, Reyes had dined with President Bill Clinton.

And all of this Reyes bought for $250,000 plus what will likely amount to no more than a couple hundred thousand dollars in soft money donations made through a small circle of friends and employees. That says volumes because, relatively speaking, it's such a small amount. What could a determined executive interested in government contracts or certain zoning decisions buy in Charlotte for $40,000? How much influence could $80,000 purchase? Could one buy, say, a judgeship appointment for under $100,000? What would it cost to stop or push through legislation at the state or federal level? Can it be done? Has it already happened?

I'm a big believer in the adage that for every snake you see, there are nine more you don't. Reyes was a snake, and before he was done, he slithered through a lot of campaign coffers in this county, some of which may still contain the money it appears that he stole.

There's a lesson here. If he did it, others can too.

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