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Challenger: Lt. governor candidate 'outsourced' campaign to union

Posted May 2, 2012 2:07 p.m. EDT
Updated May 2, 2012 2:53 p.m. EDT

Linda Coleman

— A campaign consultant for a competing Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor accused Linda Coleman this week of "outsourcing" her primary campaign to the state's largest employee union.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina and its affiliates have spent at least $144,411 backing Coleman, four times what the candidate herself has been able to spend on her campaign.

Coleman, a former state representative and current director of state personnel, faces freshman Sen. Eric Mansfield, a doctor and minister, in the May 8 primary.

Mansfield lashed out this week, suggesting in emails and blog posts to fellow democrats that Coleman would be beholden to "special interests" if elected.

"I don’t know what SEANC will want for their money, but I know this is the same organization that supports Republican Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger and his friends, the ones who brought you Amendment One," Mansfield wrote, referring to the proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage in North Carolina.

Coleman and her campaign said she is proud to embrace SEANC's backing.

"It sounds like sour grapes to me," Coleman said. "As soon as we start talking about his record and the polls show I'm ahead, SEANC all of a sudden becomes and issue."

SEANC and the campaign are not allowed to coordinate their activities, which means that Coleman can't control the group's message or have input into their ads.

"We work really hard to make sure there's a firewall between our campaign and what SEANC is doing," said Brad Crone, a consultant for Coleman. Still, many of the themes Coleman uses in her own campaign material are raised in the SEANC television ads on her behalf.

Thomas Mills, a consultant for Mansfield, said SEANC's involvement is all the more galling because Coleman has used a direct mail flier to suggest Mansfield's voting record showed he wasn't a true Democrat.

SEANC has given to Berger and actively campaigned in 2010 against Rep. Hugh Holliman, who was then the Democratic majority leader in the House.

"When interest groups are more important than individuals, when candidates no longer matter, we're all in trouble," Mills said.

Toni Davis, a spokeswoman for SEANC, dismissed Mills' and Mansfield's criticisms, saying they were merely complaining because Mansfield trails Coleman in the polls.

"I just think it's sad," she said.

Davis pointed to Coleman's legislative record, including her work as a freshman pushing for a state employee pay raise, as a reason for SEANC's support.

"She has fought for the hard working people in North Carolina," Davis said. "Now it's our chance to fight for her."

Coleman said she does not always agree with SEANC - she and the organization differ over a proposed three-quarter cent sales tax increase - but share "core values." 

Mills argued that Mansfield wouldn't be trailing were it not for SEANC's involvement.

"If they were not there, their candidate would lose," Mills said. "She has put together no campaign whatsoever. Without them, she would not be a factor."

Mansfield's campaign reported raising $231,134 in the first quarter of this year, including $70,000 Mansfield loaned his campaign.

SEANC's involvement leveled the playing field and is unusual, said long-time campaign consultant Gary Pearce, who has mainly worked with Democrats.

"It's a legitimate issue for Mansfield's campaign to raise because she would owe a lot to the state employees association," Pearce said.

Noting Mansfield has gotten thousands of dollars in campaign donations from doctors, Pearce said the question could easily be asked of him what he might owe his fellow physicians. Coleman's flier does note that Mansfield voted for medical malpractice reform, which limits lawsuits against doctors.

"I don't know if you're going to find another campaign in North Carolina where an interest group was so dominant in the race," Pearce said.

Crone said Coleman has relied on SEANC in large part due to the nature of this year's campaign. Gov. Bev Perdue announced in January that she would not run for re-election, prompting incumbent Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a Democrat, to jump into the gubernatorial primary.

That gave candidates like Coleman, who would not have run against Dalton, only a few months to raise the money need to pursue a statewide campaign, Crone said.

"We've basically run a 12-week campaign," he said. "There was no ability for Coleman to get out and build a base of small donors."