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Six months, six things: A look at NC campaign fundraising

Posted August 6
Updated August 9

State budget

— Campaign finance disclosures for North Carolina politicians were due to the state early last week, and there are lots of them.

A query of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement's online repository turns up more than $12.5 million that was either donated or changed hands between political campaigns between Jan. 1 and June 30.

On the off chance you have not had time to review these records, we breezed through a few of them for you.

Pre-session rush

State law limits who can donate to state legislators, the governor and other statewide elected officials during the regular legislative session.

So, when are the fundraisers? Often right before that deadline.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue logged $14,150 in donations over the six-month period. All but one is dated Jan. 24, the day before session opened. Most of the money came from industry or other special interest PACs.

Lobbying powerhouse McGuire Woods gave $46,300 through its PAC in the days just before session, including donations to both state parties.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina was the second-most generous donor, based on a query for donations logged on Jan. 24 or Jan 25, the first day of session. SEANC gave at least $26,000 through its PAC.

McGuire Woods said through a spokesman that it scrupulously adheres to campaign finance laws and high ethical standards. The political director for SEANC's PAC said her board met just days before the session to decide who it would support. The legislature's odd scheduling – coming into session briefly on Jan. 11, then going back out and coming back in – also compressed the giving window. All of the group's checks were signed by Jan. 24, Amanda Finelli said.

"Really, it was just a crunch for time," she said.

"I've worked in a lot of different states with a lot of different campaign finance laws," Finelli said. "I don't think there is a perfect campaign finance law."

Speaking of the session ban

State law bans regular session contributions only to and from particular people.

Generally, lobbyists and lobbyist principals – the organization or person who hires the lobbyist – may not give to legislators or other statewide officials. That still leaves a lot of money flowing during session.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's disclosure offers examples. His campaign raised about $357,600 during session, presumably not from lobbyists or lobbyist principals. But just because a donor doesn't fall into those designations doesn't mean he or she doesn't have ties to entities that lobby.

One example: Jim Goodnight is the co-founder and chief executive of SAS Institute, a major software company based in Cary. SAS lists 14 lobbyists in North Carolina Secretary of State registration records. Berger's campaign logged a $5,200 donation from Goodnight on May 9.

"This is a great example which, unfortunately, does show the shortcomings of the law we have," said Bob Phillips, executive director of good-government group Common Cause North Carolina.

Goodnight was not immediately available for comment Friday, according to an SAS spokesperson.

Republicans for Ford!

State Sen. Joel Ford's mayoral bid in Charlotte got a boost from colleagues across the aisle.

State Sens. John Alexander, R-Wake, Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, and Tommy Tucker, R-Union, all donated to the Democrat's campaign. Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, gave $5,000. House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, gave $100, not from his campaign fund, but from his own pocket.

Except for Tucker, none of these men live in or around Charlotte.

Perhaps it's legislative camaraderie. Perhaps they'd like to see Ford, a Mecklenburg Democrat known to cross the aisle on important votes, win a primary against Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who fought the legislature's GOP majority over House Bill 2 the last few years.

Lewis called Ford "the Democrat I prefer to win that primary."

Rabon went further.

"I think he's the best person running for the job," he said.

Of either party?

"Of either party, right now," he replied.

Hotels and meals

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest spent more than $6,000 in campaign cash on meals over the last six months.

Add another $1,045 for refreshments, and that's well over $1,000 a month.

The reason? Forest's Chief of Staff Hal Weatherman said the campaign pays for food at both political and official government meetings around the state.

"We do so because of the small size of our government operating budget for the office of Lt. Governor," Weatherman said via email.

The Lt. Governor's Office will get about $794,000 this year from the state's general fund.

The Forest campaign also spent about $3,300 in campaign cash on hotels over the last six months, most commonly at the North Raleigh-Midtown Hyatt. Forest lives in Raleigh and the hotel charges aren't for him, Weatherman said. The campaign brought consultants to Raleigh, he said, and other hotel charges cover lodging for campaign staff as they travel in state and out.

Gov. Roy Cooper spent nearly $9,000 on lodging during this period, but $5,000 of that was for a single transition chair's lengthy stay at the Marriott City Center downtown.

You gotta spend money to ...

A lot of campaign coverage focuses on money raised, but the money spent to raise that money can be phenomenal.

Consider Cooper's campaign account. He doesn't face re-election until 2020, but of course, he's gearing up to help Democrats win legislative seats next year in an attempt to break the GOP's veto-proof majority.

Over six months, his campaign spent nearly $686,500, including:

  • $10,335 on catering
  • $8,680 on credit card fees to process donations
  • $3,711 on stationery and envelopes
  • $12,602 on postage
  • $22,400 acquiring lists of potential donors
  • $66,102 in payroll taxes
  • $11,066 on telephones and telephone service

Cooper actually raised less than he spent, looking just at his campaign committee. But much of his focus was on raising money for the state Democratic Party, which brought in about $1.7 million over the period.

All too easy

Rep. Grier Martin's campaign offers a snapshot of political reality: He just about can't lose his Wake County district, and he knows it.

Martin heads up candidate recruitment and fundraising for House Democrats coming into the next election cycle, but he essentially ignored his own fundraising, logging three donations for a total of $289.30.

"I'm in a non-competitive district so I don't have to do anything," Martin said. "We need to get more competitive districts."

Martin also told a story he's relied on to push back against gerrymandering, which he, other Democrats, good-government groups and the U.S. Supreme Court have all said North Carolina Republicans engaged in when they drew legislative maps in 2011, which are now being redrawn by court order.

Martin's last competitive race was 2010, the year Republicans took over the General Assembly and redrew maps previously designed by legislative Democrats. Martin said he campaigned and knocked on doors that year, "seven days a week, rain or shine."

"I was out talking to my voters," Martin said. "A one-on-one job application interview. ... Since I've been drawn into a safe district, I've knocked on zero doors."

Last year, 15 of 50 state Senate seats were uncontested in the November general elections. In the House, it was 56 of 120 seats.

That didn't include Martin's seat, which he won with 68 percent of the vote. Another dozen House contests were even more lopsided, won with at least 70 percent of the November vote.

Correction: The donations total given in the second paragraph has been changed to account for an error WRAL identified in the Iredell County Democratic Party's mid-year finance report, which mistakenly inflated a single donation by more than $4 million. You can read about that here.

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