Easley was raised a Roman Catholic in otherwise overwhelmingly Protestant Nash County, North Carolina. His father, Alexander Easley, owned one of the two big tobacco warehouses in the area. Easley earned a degree with honors in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1972. While at UNC he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity. He then attended the North Carolina Central University School of Law, earning his J.D. degree, with honors, in 1976.
Easley is married to Mary Easley (née Pipines), who worked in the Provost's Office at North Carolina State University until June 8, 2009, when her contract was terminated by the North Carolina State Board of Trustees. She is a former law professor at North Carolina Central University and also worked for ten years as a prosecutor. The two have one son, Michael Easley, Jr.
Easley was elected District Attorney, one of the youngest ever in the state, in 1982.
A Democrat, Easley ran unsuccessfully in that party's 1990 primary for the U.S. Senate; he lost to former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, who himself lost to incumbent Jesse Helms. Easley was elected North Carolina Attorney General in 1992. He won reelection in 1996. In the 1996 election for attorney general, Easley garnered 59.07% of the vote, compared with opponent Robert H. Edmonds, Jr.'s 40.93% of votes. This represented a margin of victory of 446,169 votes.
In 2000, Easley ran to succeed the term-limited Hunt as Governor of North Carolina. He defeated incumbent Lieutenant Governor Dennis A. Wicker in the Democratic primary, and then successfully challenged Republican Richard Vinroot, former mayor of Charlotte, in the general election. Easley was reelected in 2004, running against New Hanover County state senator Patrick J. Ballantine.
In the closing weeks of the 2000 gubernatorial race, actor Andy Griffith filmed an ad endorsing Easley, which some observers believe led to Easley's victory, called the "Mayberry Miracle".
Education reform was a centerpiece of Easley's tenure as governor, to such an extent that in 2008, Easley received the inaugural "America's Greatest Education Governor" award from the National Education Association. The award was created to showcase "public officials who have demonstrated exemplary achievements and accomplishments in advancing public education". Easley was commended by the NEA for his focus on improving teacher working conditions and for affording teachers a "seat at the table" in discussions surrounding the implementation of education reforms in the state.
One of Easley's major programs was More at Four, an innovative academic pre-kindergarten for at-risk children. More at Four has received extensive praise from groups such as the National Education Association.
Another signature program of Easley's was the award-winning "Learn and Earn" initiative, which enabled North Carolina high school students to earn college credit by taking online courses at no cost to them or to their families. The "Learn and Earn" program received the Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Presenting the award, Harvard noted that in "2006-2007, rates of grade promotion and graduation for Learn and Earn participants were higher than the statewide average, with nearly half the Learn and Earn high schools seeing 100 percent promotion rates". Harvard also observed that these numbers have not "been skewed by "creaming" that is counting of only high scoring children. The program purposely targets kids at risk, those for whom English is a second language[,] and those who would be first-generation college students." Easley also initiated a program to enable North Carolina students to attain a debt-free undergraduate education by receiving EARN Grants of up to $8,000 over two years. In 2007 Easley wrote and published a children's book, Look Out, College, Here I Come! the proceeds of which fund a North Carolina education charity.
His tenure faced budget shortfalls, tough economic times, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. Easley received mixed reviews on his handling of fiscal problems in the state. His supporters claimed many of the budget shortfall situations were created before he even took office, during the Hunt administration, while his detractors criticized his support of raising sales taxes multiple times to cover the cost of new state programs.
During his administration, Easley confronted the state legislature on numerous occasions. Easley is the first North Carolina governor to use the power of veto, which voters gave the governor's office in 1996. First, in November 2002, Easley vetoed legislation related to unqualified appointments to various boards and commissions. In June 2003, he vetoed a bill that stripped the State Board of Education of its authority to set teacher standards. In August 2003, he vetoed HB 917 which raised fees charged by finance companies. In July 2004, he vetoed HB 429 which would have required local governments to make cash payments to billboard owners of up to five times the annual revenue generated by the billboard upon its removal. In March 2005, he vetoed SB 130 which would have conveyed state property. In September 2005, he vetoed HB 706 which would have affected teacher standards. In August 2007 he vetoed HB 1761, a controversial financial incentives bill which would have awarded up to 40 million dollars to companies within the state. Easley has used his veto power a total of nine times as of 2008. His ninth veto was the first to be overridden by the legislature in North Carolina history.
Easley ran for a second term as governor in 2004. He easily defeated Rickey Kipfer, his only opponent in the Democratic primary, and faced Republican former state senator Patrick Ballantine and Libertarian Barbara Howe in November 2004. Though the state voted for Republicans George W. Bush for president and Richard Burr as United States Senator, Easley won his second term as governor and Democrats reestablished control over both chambers of the state legislature (the House had been split equally between the two major parties since 2003).
He also supported a controversial statewide lottery, which was ultimately approved on August 31, 2005, after Lieutenant Governor Bev Perdue cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. He has stated that proceeds from the lottery will be used for much-needed educational programs.
Easley presided over 27 executions, including the 1,000th after the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States in 1976. He, however, granted commutation to two death row inmates. The North Carolina governor has the sole right to commute death sentences imposed by a state court.
Governor Easley declined to run against Elizabeth Dole for her Senate seat in 2008. He was considered to be a possible candidate for U.S. Senate to run against Senator Richard Burr in 2010, but he had strongly denied interest in the race. The Raleigh News & Observer speculated in October 2006 that Easley was going to act like a presidential contender in order to position himself for the vice presidential nomination or a cabinet post.
In 2008 in a case that drew international attention, a North Carolina state trooper was filmed hanging and kicking a police dog he was training. After the trooper's superiors recommended minor punishment, Easley's office recommended that the trooper be fired. The case is ongoing, with the state's canine units currently suspended.
As governor, Easley was a member of the National Governors Association, the Southern Governors' Association, and the Democratic Governors Association. However, he was known for being "reclusive" while in office.
He was succeeded as governor by his Lieutenant Governor, Beverly Perdue, who defeated Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory in a close race. After leaving office, Easley went to work part-time promoting early college high schools and similar programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Easley is somewhat more conservative than the Democratic leadership on some issues. For example, he supports some restrictions on abortions, advocates welfare reform, is against gun control, and is receptive to free trade issues. However, he is closer to the Democratic base on other issues. He supports the enactment of the Equal Rights Amendment, upholding Social Security, increasing public healthcare funding for the poor and children, and providing services to illegal immigrants.
During the 2004 Democratic primaries, he supported North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
In the 2008 campaigns, Easley initially endorsed the presidential candidacy of Senator Hillary Clinton on April 28, 2008. After Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, Easley endorsed him against Republican nominee John McCain.
Easley was faced with controversies in 2006 stemming from campaign and overseas travel. Easley's wife, Mary Easley took two trips out of the country, one to France and one to Russia and Estonia, for cultural exchanges. Republican critics called the trips overly lavish in a time of economic downturn for the state. However, the director of the North Carolina Museum of Art defended Mary Easley's trips as having helped the museum receive loaned art items from The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Mrs. Easley's efforts also resulted in the North Carolina Museum of Art's obtaining a collection of Auguste Rodin's work valued at $35 million, and in the construction of a new Greek Art wing for the museum.
State auditor Les Merritt released a report on October 31, 2008, that found that 40% of the overseas charges were "unreasonable or unallowable". Mary Easley hired state Senator Tony Rand as her lawyer in dealing with the state auditor. Merritt's audit, however, has been criticized as being "partisan and lack[ing in] credibility".
More controversy surfaced months after Easley left office in January 2009. According to Raleigh's News & Observer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ordered the North Carolina Highway Patrol to produce all records involving private air travel for Easley and his family. The newspaper reported that Easley may have violated federal campaign laws. The FBI issued a subpoena to the patrol on May 15, 2009, as part of a grand jury investigation seeking information about the private travels of Easley and his family and about the hiring and promotion of his wife Mary Easley. It also requested documents involving payments made for such travel. The subpoena also sought information on communications with the Easleys about those private flights, public inquiries of the flights, and the patrol's policies on the retention of records related to the Easleys' flights.
In June 2009, the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper confirmed that Easley was under investigation by both the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections opened hearings into Easley's conduct on October 26, 2009.
Following a two-year federal and state investigation into campaign finance irregularities, Easley entered an Alford plea to a single violation of state campaign finance law, accepting responsibility for his campaign's failure to report that he took a $1,600 helicopter ride with a supporter in October 2006. While Easley did not admit guilt, the News & Observer reported, he "acknowledged there was sufficient evidence to convict him of a crime." He is the first North Carolina governor to plead to a felony by entering an Alford plea to a single state campaign finance violation in a deal that halted a lengthy state and federal investigation. He neither served prison time nor probation, but paid a $1,000 "community penalty." On January 4, 2013, the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for Wake County granted Easley a full and unconditional Certificate of Relief. Federal officials ended their investigation because of the plea. Following the conviction, Easley's law license was suspended but formally restored on appeal in January 2013.
Easley is a fan of NASCAR. He was involved in a crash at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Concord, North Carolina, in 2003. He was behind the wheel of Jimmie Johnson's #48 Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo, when it hit a retaining wall going 120 mph. He was not seriously hurt, since he was wearing a head-and-neck restraint at the time.
Easley is also an avid amateur woodworker, and appeared on an episode of The Woodwright's Shop where he made a walnut table.