Local Politics

Drunk Town developments: Election complaint or political stunt?

Posted October 5, 2015

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— Raleigh's city council race has become something of a barroom brawl as the man behind the "Drunk Town" ads takes his political opponents to task before North Carolina's State Board of Elections.

In a 35-page complaint filed Monday, Raleigh businessman Dean Debnam says campaign consultants and a nonprofit backed by a downtown pub owners crossed legal lines that bar corporate contributions to political campaigns.

"If you have people who say they want to govern Raleigh, they should know what the rules are even when they are running for office," Debnam said.

However, the state board likely won't be able to investigate the complaint before Tuesday's election results are counted later this month, leading critics to accuse Debnam of using the process merely to smear his political opposition at the last minute.

One of those accused in the complaint, campaign consultant Jeff Tippett, called it "a stunt," and added, "It’s sad when people stoop to this level in politics."

Debnam and his PAC, Wake Citizens for Good Government, paid for the "Drunk Town" ads, which target city council candidates Mary-Ann Baldwin, an incumbent, and Ashton Mae Smith and Matt Tomasulo. Those candidates are generally viewed as supporting ordinances that would allow downtown bars to provide patio seating on city sidewalks.

Baldwin and other candidates have dismissed the print, online and television attacks, saying their rhetoric merely "enflames issues." Others have called them a distraction from more sober discussion of how Raleigh should develop.

Debnam now accuses Keep Raleigh Vibrant, a nonprofit backing Baldwin and other candidates, Targeted Persuasion, Tippett's consulting firm, and those involved with the two groups of illegally coordinating with one another and facilitating corporation contributions to candidates.

North Carolina law put limits on when and how outside nonprofit groups like Keep Raleigh Vibrant can work with candidates, particularly in the time just before an election. And state laws prohibit businesses from donating directly to campaigns.

Debnam's complaint points out that Targeted Persuasion works for city council candidates including Smith, Tomasulo, Bonner Gaylord, J. B. Buxton, Eugene Weeks. The complaint also points to a pattern of social media behavior, mainly posts and reactions on Facebook, to try to establish that Keep Raleigh Vibrant was working closely with Targeted Persuasion. That online interplay, as well as the content of some of Keep Raleigh Vibrant's posts, stepped over the line, Debnam alleges.

Tippett says Debnam's complaint is merely a last-minute ploy to swing an election.

"It will fail just like the rest of Mr. Debnam’s negative political advertising," Tippett said. "It smacks of desperation. The allegations against Targeted Persuasion are completely baseless. The real losers here are the people of Raleigh."

Zack Medford, the owner of Patty O'Beers on Fayetteville Street started the Keep Raleigh Vibrant group and says it has spent $252.09 on its work.

"That whopping amount is what we spent on Facebook that is specific to any candidate whatsoever," Medford said, pointing to an independent spending disclosure report that details the spending. "We've run our own very positive campaign all on our own. Unfortunately, now we have a negative attack ad going out because we have been so effective getting young people mobilized and getting them to the polls."

Polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.


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  • George Herbert Oct 6, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    There have been places to have dinner and a drink in downtown for decades. The big difference is that they did not flow out onto and take over sidewalk space.

  • Teddy Fowler Oct 6, 2015
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    It's completely ridiculous.....

  • Dirk Snedly Oct 6, 2015
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    WakeMugShots dot com

    The arrest photos of all these 20s/30s white girls on DWI charges are pretty funny. They never figured out how to get out of a traffic stop without leaving the car.

  • Dirk Snedly Oct 6, 2015
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    "Thriving" for the courts....all the DWI, Public Intoxication, Simple Affray, Assault, and other alcohol related arrests on Glenwood, Hillborough, and connected streets provide a lot of court costs, fines, and lawyers fees for the members of the Wake County Bar Association. Both bars win.

  • Gail Dragon Oct 6, 2015
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    The drunk town ads are ridiculous. Finally Raleigh has a thriving downtown, I can actually get a meal and a drink after 6 pm.

  • Dirk Snedly Oct 6, 2015
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    Debnam's complaint is a waste of time. Of course this was coordinated and planned. Of course the incumbents on the City Council and this PAC violated the letter and spirit of the law, anyone who thinks otherwise is naive and/or grossly dishonest. We have a filthy, corrupt political system. Debnam's complaint won't matter. These people aren't stupid, nothing will be found in writing, all coordination was done verbally and the perpetrators will, of course, deny it all under oath. When politicians and money intersect the lying begins immediately.

  • Roy Hinkley Oct 6, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    Close but not quite, and the distinction is important.

    Corporations and unions can spend as much as they like supporting (or attacking) a candidate. They cannot give unlimited amounts of money directly to a candidate. The expenditures need to be independent of the candidate's campaign (often using a PAC).

  • Jim Frei Oct 5, 2015
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    I thought SCOTUS decided in Citizens United that corporations can give as much as they want to political candidates.